We Need To Change The War On Drugs

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American drug policy may be on the verge of big changes, but the results won’t be the Stoner Utopia drug activists dream of — and the changes may not do very much for the inner city.I’ve been posting about the inner cities lately and there is one subject that can’t be avoided in dealing with urban problems: the catastrophic human cost both of drugs and of our faltering War on Drugs.  The widespread use of drugs in our inner cities and elsewhere in our society is both a cause and a symptom of social decay.  Drug addicts and heavy, habitual users do not make good students, good workers, good citizens, good neighbours or good parents.  This has nothing to do with illegality: cocaine could be as legal as parsley and it would still ruin lives.

The Drug War, with an impact stretching far beyond the inner cities, is one of America’s worst policies.  It costs billions we don’t have; it promotes the growth of transnational criminal gangs and supports large black markets in money and arms that terrorists as well as drug lords can use; it fills the prisons and it hasn’t stopped either the use of existing illegal drugs or the development of new ones.  Furthermore, a Cato Institute paper estimates that legalizing and taxing drugs would yield more than $80 billion a year in savings and new revenue.  (Something tells me that even the hardiest Tea Partiers might see their way to a hefty excise tax on heroin and cocaine.) 

What we are doing now isn’t working.  My old CFR colleague and Coast Guard official Steve Flynn used to say that if terrorists wanted to smuggle a nuclear warhead into the United States, their best bet would be to hide it in a shipment of cocaine.  Since our interdiction rate is so low, the bomb would have an excellent chance of getting through.

The drug war inevitably leads to corruption in the forces recruited to fight it.  It erodes civil liberties.  It diverts law enforcement resources from other tasks.  In a society which believes that lap dancers in strip bars are exercising their constitutionally protected right of free expression and that virtually any government interference in the termination of unborn life is an obscene and inexcusable violation of the right to privacy, it is hard to find good reasons why government should have the right to tell us what chemicals to put in our bloodstreams.

My personal brush with the war on drugs came when I was 18 years old and foolishly hitch-hiked on the New York State Thruway with a pipe that had marijuana residue on it.  Since I couldn’t get bailed out over the weekend, I spent a very instructive couple of nights in jail. Once suitable amounts of money had been handed round, I was able to plead guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct and go about my business.  Of course, no inhalation ever took place in my preternaturally sober and sensible youth and I have no idea how that pipe got into my backpack, but nothing about that experience made me a fan of the drug war.

Distaste for the drug war didn’t make me a fan of drugs.  In my own case I soon realised that I had to make the choice between indulging in drugs or wrecking my life and wasting any talent I might have; ultimately I came to understand that alcohol was as bad for me as any other drug.  Some of my friends made different choices; a couple went to prison for long stretches; others had their lives wrecked because they took too many drugs or the wrong drugs.

Given the cost of the drug war at home and abroad, its manifest failure to stop the drug flow and the savage fiscal circumstances facing every level of government, it is natural that more and more people are thinking about some way to bring the drug war to an end.  The June 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy calling for fundamental changes in the world’s approach to drugs was an important milestone.  Chaired by the remarkable former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso (see my recent interview with him for The American Interest here), the commission signatories included former US Secretary of State George Shultz,  Kofi Anan, well respected former presidents of Mexico and Colombia and important public intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargos Llosa.

This commission makes some good points and it is one of many voices in a growing chorus calling for basic changes in the world’s strategies for dealing with drugs.  On the whole, I’m inclined to agree that we have to try something new: when an effort is expensive, destructive and not working, it is clearly time for change.  But this is easier said than done: it’s not just that we are at war with drugs.  Drugs are at war with us.

Drug legalization advocates often focus on the relatively easy cases like marijuana.  They tend to skip past the more difficult issues involved.  Legalizing drugs or even modifying the war on drugs into something more sustainable is an extremely complicated thing to do.  Are we going to legalise addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine?  What about the new and unpredictable flow of designer drugs?  What about prescription drugs like Oxycontin?  Does dropping the prohibition of illegal drugs also mean dropping laws against the abuse of prescription drugs?  If so, how do we regulate the practice of medicine and more fundamentally what is the role of the FDA if the government gets out of the business of regulating the supply and distribution of powerful pharmaceuticals?

Some say that we should set up a prescription system for hard drugs.  Registered addicts or others under a doctor’s care could get a prescription.

I think that’s a terrible idea.  This would actually make our current system more like Prohibition than it already is; during Prohibition people could and did get alcohol with a doctor’s prescription.  You could get that prescription filled at a drug store but not a speakeasy.  The speakeasies flourished anyway; people didn’t just want alcohol, they wanted to consume it in a social setting.  The existence of loopholes (sacramental wine, alcohol prescribed by a doctor) served to increase the flow of illegal as well as legal booze.  Far from driving Al Capone and the like out of business, the prescription system boosted their profits.  It was easy for armed and organised thugs to keep legal competitors out of the legal side of the alcohol business, and the existence of legal outlets for alcohol made it harder for law enforcement to crack down on the illegal stuff.

Some of the most widely abused addictive drugs in the US today are available by prescription; that system has stimulated the black market in drugs like Oxycontin rather than closing it down.

The sheer variety of available drugs and the hedonism of our popular culture make it unlikely that we can find a simple, practical and clean solution for America’s drug problem.  We manage alcohol reasonably well in this culture, I suppose. But “passive drinking” is a lot worse than passive smoking.  Tens of thousands die of the results of alcohol abuse every year, and many of alcohol’s victims are innocent, like children and spouses of alcoholics who are neglected and abused, drivers and pedestrians unlucky enough to get in the path of a drunk driver, and so on.  I’ve known brilliant students whose alcoholism got them expelled, promising writers who drowned their talents, couples ripped apart by the effects of excessive drinking and people whose lives were blighted by the consequences of a parent’s addiction to booze.  For some people, alcohol is a light refreshment and social lubricant; for others, it spells ruin and death.  As more drugs become legal and widely available, many more Americans are likely to succumb to addiction and abuse.

Turning more plagues loose in society seems like a bad idea — yet we may have reached the point where some form of negotiated ceasefire in the war on drugs is our least bad choice.

If we go down that road, we are going to have to find ways to discourage drug use more effectively than anything we now do.  We cannot simply open the floodgates; for one thing, if a large legal market exists we will soon see people developing new designer drugs at a rapid pace.  We will then find ourselves in an interesting position: will we say that drugs intended for medical purposes must pass rigorous testing before they can be prescribed, but recreational drugs can just be unleashed on the market?  Is the FDA going to test drugs like ecstasy, crack cocaine and methamphetamine for purity and safety?  Will new drugs be illegal until the FDA approves them, or can any fly-by-night chemist cook up a batch of something in the basement and sell it on the street?

Any change in drug policy is likely to disappoint the Stoner Lobby: the decriminalization of drugs is almost certain to lead to tougher non-criminal sanctions against their use.  Marijuana may well get a pass, but other drugs will not.  If criminal sanctions disappear, drug tests are likely to proliferate.  You won’t be able to work in health care or any of the professions if you test positive for most drugs; likely, you won’t be able to enroll in many colleges, receive government benefits (including financial aid) or teach.

Any new policy on drugs is likely to be a bit like shifting immigration control from the borders to the workplace.  Rather than building high walls along the borders, the Obama administration wants to attack illegal immigration on the demand side: by preventing employers from hiring illegals and punishing them if they fail to get adequate documents for their employees.  Modified drug laws might work that way: while the sale and use of drugs might be legal, employers would have the right and in many cases the obligation to monitor their employees and fire those who fail drug tests.  Otherwise they would be exposed to massive lawsuits for negligence (you let a crack addict manage my portfolio/treat my cancer/teach my kid), or face government sanctions.  Basically, the country would take the position of tolerating drug use, but not accepting it, that you cannot attend a college, hold a good job, work for the government in any capacity or hold public office if you test positive for certain drugs.  I would not be surprised to find politicians pushing to extend the reach of mandatory testing.  If athletes must pass drug tests, perhaps actors should have to pass them as well — and a positive drug test would void an employment contract.

Tests might be reported to college admission offices and to credit and insurance companies: such information is relevant to their business.  Somebody who tests positive for cocaine probably should pay higher car insurance rates than someone who doesn’t, and a recent history of heroin use does not bode well for academic success.

A policy like this would reduce the burden on law enforcement and keep drug users out of jail, but it would make drug use an unattractive and unpopular choice for people whose life chances are otherwise bright.

There are many problems with a demand side system of this kind, but those who think that legalization offers an easy solution to the drug problem have been smoking the substance once found in that mysterious pipe in my backpack.  Buy-side rather than sell-side drug policy would be a cheaper and less destructive but perhaps equally effective way to reduce drug harm.  In the real world, as opposed to Stoner Utopia, this is the most likely shape that drug reform would take and it is probably a good thing.

Any drug regime is going to be a mess and, inevitably, the people who suffer most from legalization will be the same people who suffer the most from our current system: the people who live in the inner cities.  The war on drugs destroys the inner cities; giving up the war is also going to hurt them.  A vulnerable population is going to be exposed to ever more varieties of mind altering substances: lives will be shattered and hopes destroyed.

The new policy would keep a lot of people out of jail, but the increased availability and greater variety of drugs under a legal regime would expose young people in particular to a series of waves of new drug addictions.  Given the bleak landscape that many inner city residents face — unemployment rates near Depression levels, weak or non-existent family ties, the constant presence of affluence that is right in your face but completely out of reach — a modification of the drug laws is likely to lead to increased abuse of powerful and destructive drugs.  The consequence of that drug abuse will be to further reduce peoples’ ability to get out of poverty themselves or to provide stable homes for their children.

One should also note that the collapse of the illegal drug business is going to destroy the one industry in this country which gives low income, uneducated inner city youth significant opportunities.  The transfer of this business and this income stream to legitimate channels (whether private or public) is going to take money and jobs out of the inner city.  By dramatically reducing the incarceration rate of young black men and closing down illegal enterprises (both good things in and of themselves), we will be dramatically exacerbating the problems of unemployment and poverty among a very volatile group of people.  It is not entirely clear to me that the result of these two changes will be a fall in the crime rate and an outbreak of social peace.

Drug law reform is slowly moving forward and with the right safeguards it could be a good thing.  But the underclass and its problems will still be with us, and in some ways the urban situation could be worse under the new policies than it is now.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.

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