A Marathon in Futility; The War on Drugs

I’ll start off by saying I don’t personally do any illegal drugs. I say that not to save face but to make it clear that I don’t have a vested interest in legalization. I’ll also clarify that I think there are harmful effects of these substances. Even marijuana has consequences that are often massively downplayed by proponents of legalization. I haven’t done enough in-depth research on the neurological impacts, but I have learned that there may be some link between marijuana and earlier onset of schizophrenia. It does seem like there’s a fair amount of consensus in terms of marijuana having adverse effects on young users. Regardless, prohibition of drugs does not, in my opinion, hinge on the question of harmfulness of these drugs.

The War on Drugs was a well-intentioned program initiated by Richard Nixon in the early 70s. Unfortunately, as stated here, there have been “devastating unintended consequences” such as “mass incarceration… corruption, political destabilization, and violence”. These consequences have largely been the result of an unregulated black market taking control. I’m not normally one to encourage government regulation, especially in the realm of business, but I think taking control of this market is a necessity.

Prohibition of drugs does not eliminate use. Drugs are accessible to anyone. As Peter Christ says here “we do not have one drug-free prison in America”. If the black market is saturated to the point where even prisoners have little problem with supply, the war on drugs has failed. To echo some of Peter Christ’s arguments, law enforcement is not meant to protect people from themselves. Drug addiction needs to be addressed instead on the level of education and healthcare. Harm reduction programs and strategies have been implemented in a variety of areas globally. These strategies haven’t had perfect results, but from what I’ve seen, they’ve generally produced overwhelmingly positive results.

Obviously a practical concern of legalizing drugs is that it might lead to increased use. When we’re discussing something like marijuana, increased use might not be viewed as a great thing, but the problems are minimal. If we’re talking crack cocaine or methamphetamine, the concerns are more evident. I think legalization of more addictive drugs would need to be coupled with a barrage of education and an increase in healthcare access. Some of the funding currently used on the war on drugs could be transferred to education and healthcare to help with the transition. I would say this change needs to be slow and calculated or the risks will be magnified. Legalization does not mean condoning the substances. I think the tobacco market is a great example of one successfully undermined by education. Illegal drugs are already quite taboo, I don’t imagine legalization would change that status too much.

Milton Friedman discusses the role of government in drug policy here. He argues, just as Peter Christ does about law enforcement, that government should not have a role in preventing people from harming themselves. This area is complicated because some people see drug addiction as having the potential to harm others as well. I agree, it has that potential, but I think prohibiting drugs actually has the effect of increasing that potential for harm, rather than decreasing. If addicts are able to purchase drugs from a regulated supplier, they are less likely to run into AND less likely to engage in activities associated with a black market: violence, impurities, disease, imprisonment, corruption etc.

This subject is so multifaceted that I’ve covered only a sliver of it and I’m afraid I’ve already failed at brevity. Thanks for reading, here are a few other discussions I found interesting:
Versus Debate
Stanford Article
TED talk – Ethan Nadelmann
Ex-cop Michael Wood on JRE


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