The Damage From the War on Drugs

Radley Balko outlines the collateral damage from the War on Drugs in a new article at Culture 11.

Prohibition militarizes police, enriches our enemies, undermines our laws, and condemns our sick to suffering.

There's also the enormous economic cost of prosecution and imprisonment and, as Radley points out: [More...]

Prohibitions create black markets, and black markets spawn crime. Drug prohibition, then, spawns violent crime. There’s a reason we don’t often hear about a Michelob deal gone bad. Because alcohol is legal, there are no turf wars, no sour deals, no smuggling operations to defend.

One in 100 Americans today is behind bars. That number by far and away leads the world, and is at its highest point in American history. About 350,000 of the approximately 3 million Americans behind bars are there for nonviolent drug crimes (trafficking or possession). It would be impossible to approximate, but countless others are undoubtedly in for violent or property crimes that are by-products of drug prohibition. The drug war has turned entire neighborhoods into, well, war zones. If the temptation of the drug trade can be too much for some police officers, you can imagine the allure for a young urban kid wasting away in an awful public school with few other prospects.

A retired federal border agent who worked drug cases argued for legalization in the El Paso Times. He says it's the only way to stop the cartels. It was up for debate this week at the El Paso City Council meeting. The Mayor vetoed it but a vote is scheduled to overide the veto so the debate can take place. For More on cops who support legalization, check out Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

CNBC's Mad Money's senior writer also argues for either legalization or decriminalization.

Tony Newman at Alternet writes "Five Ways We Can Build a Movement to Stop This Idiotic War on Drugs."

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    I agree. (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by AX10 on Thu Jan 15, 2009 at 10:52:05 PM EST
    The "War on Drugs" is a 30 + year failure.
    Also, to the insanityHannity's of the world:
    substance addiction is an ILLNESS NOT A CRIME!

    And it isn't always addiction either! (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by lilybart on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 08:51:30 AM EST
    In the case of marijuana, it is just like alcohol, some people have a problem with it and most don't.

    What would be further stupidity would be to make all people caught with pot to go to rehab instead of jail. Seems like progress, but most people who have marijuana in their homes, do not need treatment.

    Meth and heroin should be treated differently since they are instantly addictive. I believe meth could be mostly stopped by eliminating the ingredient in cold medicines that is used to make meth at home. And I have read that no one would suffer if these basically useless cold medicines were a thing of the past!


    Error (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by squeaky on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:37:51 PM EST
    Math and Heroin are not instantly addictive.

    Yep... (none / 0) (#33)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:53:11 PM EST
    ...math has never been able to get me in its evil clutches, no matter how hard it tries.

    I can't speak to meth, but I know from personal experience that morphine isn't "instantantly" addicitive.  

    Of course, addiction is in large part dependent on the individual and how they process the drug.  Some people are more prone to addiction to others.  

    The tendency to use drugs depends on each individual person. Not all those who have access to drugs become addicts, therefore there may be personality characteristics that influence their use. One such characteristic is the pursuit of new sensations found in people that like looking for risk at all times. Although some studies have already suggested a link between these people and a higher probability of becoming drug addicts, shopaholics or gambling addicts, until now no study has objectively found a direct relationship without the influence of other psychological factors, such as anxiousness.



    Error. It depends on the person (none / 0) (#36)
    by ThatOneVoter on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 05:17:09 PM EST
    doesn't it? Even alcohol is instantly addictive for some people. What is the addiction rate for meth users? That is the relevant stat. I have read that meth is extremely hard to quit, and of course the effects are quite bad as well.

    Ain't a gonna happen (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by downtownted on Thu Jan 15, 2009 at 11:56:42 PM EST
    Dumbest thing anyone has ever seen (the War on Drugs)---and we know all about the consequences of a goofy war like this from prohibition. Not to mention how much the budget gap would be closed by legalizing and taxing. But nobody wants to sell it. Mention it in Washington or State Capitols and you can smell the fear from the politicians. And when we look at Obama's record, you must be smoking some mighty strong stuff to believe the leopard is a gonna change those spots.

    It could happen (none / 0) (#4)
    by Left of center on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 12:58:57 AM EST
    Which drugs? (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by ThatOneVoter on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 12:39:48 AM EST
    I've never understood the argument for blanket legalization of drugs.
    First off, I don't see how you can clearly distinguish between recreational and medicinal drugs. Would all presciption drugs be made freely available as well? Some of them?
    Also, if you legalize drugs, will there be regulation of quality? Not doing so goes against the reason for the FDA's existence.
    Would you legalize some drugs and not other, extremely dangerous recreational drugs?

    What exactly does it mean when one proposes to "legalize drugs"?

    Interesting point. (none / 0) (#6)
    by JamesTX on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 06:14:16 AM EST
    First off, I don't see how you can clearly distinguish between recreational and medicinal drugs.

    You can't. It is a social construction with fuzzy boundaries. When we create categories based on cultural values rather than empirical facts, we can't expect nature to carve the world at the corresponding joints!

    It is not a question of whether having drugs widely available always has good results. It is a question of whether the cost of prohibition is greater than the dangers of decriminalization. A good case can be made for decriminalization, and the evidence just keeps getting stronger.


    How can you decriminalize (none / 0) (#15)
    by ThatOneVoter on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 01:53:20 PM EST
    and not make the FDA useless? I don't see it.
    That is, you may decriminalize on a case by case basis. Perhaps that's what is meant. I for one do not agree with decriminalizing meth or PCP.
    Heroin and marijuana, yes. Cocaine, I don't know.

    I surely have the (none / 0) (#24)
    by JamesTX on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 10:45:58 PM EST
    same concerns, but my thinking is based on comparing costs. Prohibition is much more damaging than the alternative. The human suffering from Draconian punishments, actual monetary costs of enforcement, and the empowerment of organized criminals has devastating and incalculable costs. The costs have to be many times what a simple laissez faire approach would cost. I don't know if drugs would have to be made legal, but they don't have to be hunted with the vengeance of a "war". There are many products and materials in our country which are technically illegal. They may not meet regulatory requirements, are not properly labeled or taxed, etc. But we don't spend significant portions of our GDP attempting to locate and eliminate them and we don't destroy people's lives over them.

    The Drug War has resulted in a really strange sort of fanatical obsession that has been going on for so long it looks normal. The truth is, it is insane.


    As I said, I agree with (none / 0) (#26)
    by ThatOneVoter on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:46:21 AM EST
    decriminalizing marijuana use, and possibly heroin. I think an intelligent approach would be to experiment with the laws on a case by case basis. Remember, the Netherlands just banned hallucinogenic mushrooms, because they are too dangerous.

    Can be dangerous.... (none / 0) (#28)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 09:33:41 AM EST
    or mushrooms can be a most uplifting worthwhile experience.  A religous experience.  Or simply a laugh your arse off and have a ball experience.

    I've used them many times, and will gain.  I'll be the first to say the experience is not for everyone, and can be dangerous if proper care is not taken...but it certainly is not dangerous for everyone.


    They were banned because of (none / 0) (#31)
    by ThatOneVoter on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:26:53 PM EST
    deaths. I dont' mean "bad trip" dangerous.

    Death, singular. (5.00 / 1) (#34)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:58:52 PM EST
    And there are questions of prior psychiatric problems in past with that one death.  

    The prohibition will simply push the distribution underground--and/or increase the use of dried mushrooms or LSD.  



    Uh Oh (5.00 / 1) (#35)
    by squeaky on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 01:13:38 PM EST
    Better make aspirin illegal, and make MJ legal if death is the criteria. There are 7600 deaths from aspirin annually and 0 deaths by MJ.


    Over the past 34 years, there has been only one report in the medical literature of a death associated with use of these mushrooms. In this case, an 18-year-old experienced a disturbed heart rhythm. Although adverse effects like this can happen, it is far more likely that a person will vomit and experience mild cardiovascular system stimulation after ingesting these mushrooms


    Maybe the ban was a bit overreactive? no?


    That is what I (none / 0) (#38)
    by JamesTX on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 04:54:39 PM EST
    mean by insane! The facts just "bounce off" when deep political frames control thinking about issues. There are much greater dangers than drugs lurking everywhere with no legal restrictions whatsoever.

    Some updates are in order (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by SeeEmDee on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 07:38:09 AM EST
    Alcohol Prohibition was ended in large part because the government needed the tax revenue that alcohol sales represented. Just think what we could have done with all the money p----d away in the DrugWar (by some estimates, a trillion since 1969) by re-legalizing presently illicit drugs. Could have had universal health care, and energy independence, too.

    So, what will it be, America? Is it worth 40 billion a year to chase down 'pot-heads' when Joe Sixpack desperately needs the money for unemployment insurance, right effin' now? Especially when we could experience a net gain in tax revenues from legal cannabis sales?

    Sooner or later, the pols will have to face up to the fact that this country is broke and needs to end the DrugWar out of sheer economic necessity. What happened in El Paso will be repeated everywhere until said pols realize the public at large are way ahead of them on this.

    The damage is extensive.... (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 10:32:04 AM EST
    both seen and unseen...the broken families, the removal of breadwinners from families, the fostering of disrespect for the law, the violation of inalienable rights, turning police and prosecutors into persecutors. Forget about the money, the assault on freedom can't have a price put on it.

    primarily pot (none / 0) (#5)
    by cpinva on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:09:57 AM EST
    What exactly does it mean when one proposes to "legalize drugs"?

    since that's the source of the bulk of the non-violent drug arrests.

    however, it isn't going to happen because there's wayyyyyyyy too much money involved, on both sides of the aisle. politicians and law enforcement have to much at stake to legalize pot, and the cartels certainly have no interest in legalizing it either.

    follow the money!

    The interesting (none / 0) (#7)
    by JamesTX on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 06:20:24 AM EST
    thing about many drug users is their romanticizing of dealers and black market culture. They don't realize the real distributors are not their friends! The real moneymakers in this game just lost the election, and the bulk of drug users' money goes to places that depend on contraband laws for profit. The dealers know where their money comes from! It comes from Congress, not from cheap chemicals.

    I don't know.... (none / 0) (#11)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 08:57:47 AM EST
    if I romanticize my connections, but I sure am grateful they take the risks they do to provide me and the market with what it wants...the low-level people I deal with are not getting rich, they hold down jobs and deal on the side to supplement their income or get their vice on for free.  And the connections I deal with are good guys...bend over backwards types always there with a spot if you're short...treat me better than most local businesses.  Salt of the earth, imo.

    Of course the international smuggling rings and big dogs in the game are often bad news, I have no illusions there.  I'd love nothing more than for the state to put them out of business, or at least out of the drug business. But I didn't make the rules...I'll buy from whoever is selling to live my life as I want.  And try not to get pinched....best a quasi-free recreational user can do.


    funny (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Jlvngstn on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 02:33:23 PM EST
    My wife and I were discussing just last night what would happen if drugs were legalized relative to employment?  I would imagine there would be some packaging, mfg and shipping jobs created but would that be enough to offset the job losses created by legalization?  Would legalization lead to higher theft and burglary by those who did not get a replacement job for selling?  The distribution of drugs in this country is one of the largest enterprises in the country, I wonder what would happen if we broke it?

    It would be an interesting... (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 02:54:38 PM EST
    experiment...One thing I think we'd see a boon in marijuana growing, its our largest cash crop now on the black market, it would explode even further if legalized.  Retailers based on the liquor store model would flourish.

    But with so many jobs tied into prohibition, I think it would be safe to expect a net job loss.  But jobs ain't everything man:)


    Not To Mention (none / 0) (#20)
    by squeaky on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:18:17 PM EST
    Deficit reduction through taxation. California could eliminate their budget problems with the sweep of a pen.

    Legit questions all (none / 0) (#23)
    by SeeEmDee on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:56:21 PM EST
    Yes, there would be some job loss, but by far, the the bulk of those jobs would be amongst the prohibitionists. Reduced need for police, prosecutors, turnkeys, etc....as well as the facilities they serve.

    As to job loss amongst the present dealers, if a licensing and regulatory schema were instituted, there would probably be some who could not meet the legal requirements for being proprietors. Some would fail as legal distributors (most businesses do, their first year). But given the scores of millions of US cannabis users, one would think that such failures would be rare. Especially if Amsterdam-style 'coffeehouses' (and yes, they do sell coffee and soft drinks, but no booze) were instituted. I saw some really nice ones when I was there 13 years ago, and some were frankly crappy, but almost all of them had a continual stream of patrons. No lack of customers.

    But the re-legalization of cannabis would open up vastly more in the way of economic opportunities than sales of the drug would by itself; the total industrial applications of hemp-based industry have yet to be plumbed. New industries - and revitalized old ones such as fabric and fuel production - would be a distinct possibility.

    So, the question is, how long are we going to continue to shoot ourselves in the feet courtesy of ancient racial bigotry and modern self-seeking opportunism on the part of entrenched bureaucracies?

    We don't have the money to spend on such useless fripperies as a DrugWar that only produces prisons and broken lives....and a politically dangerous social subgroup that no longer has any stake in maintaining society, when that society has viciously excluded them from participating in it, courtesy of voter disenfranchisement thanks to felony drug convictions.

    Tens of millions no longer have any reason to participate in society...and have every reason to sit back and watch things go to Hell, because for them, they're already there. How long can we afford to allow that to happen? Re-legalization would be vastly better risk-wise, than allow this trend to continue.


    Heck... (none / 0) (#22)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:40:04 PM EST
    ...just imagine the jobs that could be created if farmers would be able to grow hemp, with its many, many, many practical, non-drug related uses.  

    "cash crop" (none / 0) (#25)
    by diogenes on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 11:29:35 PM EST
    The reason it's a large cash crop is the artificially high black market price.  The marijuana price will crash otherwise.

    I just wonder what happens (none / 0) (#27)
    by Jlvngstn on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 09:29:52 AM EST
    to the poor communities where there will be a major impact on their economies so to speak.  The illegal drug trade keeps lots of communities supported whether we like it or not.  Having them sold by Walgreens means a job reduction of significant proportions.  My guess is theft and burglary would shoot through the roof and the right would claim it is the junkies stealing to get high and in reality it will be those who lost their illegal jobs rebuilding their criminal enterprises through theft.  Unless of course, the jobs for mfg and packaging and distribution are in those communities as well, which of course would be the right thing to do....

    I see your point... (none / 0) (#29)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 09:48:14 AM EST
    but I think morality kicks in too, just because someone is willing to break the law to sell drugs does not mean they are willing to steal.  I mean I'd sell drugs if there was no better employment around, I wouldn't take to stealing because of my moral compass....unless I was literally starving of course.

    I really don't see every drug dealer in America turning to theft J.  A slight uptick at most, imo. The majority will find other black market employment, or legit employment.


    not every drug dealer but.. (none / 0) (#30)
    by Jlvngstn on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 10:33:55 AM EST
    Not every drug dealer.  Take chicago for instance.  the gangs have control over the market and what happens to their income?  What happened to the mob after prohibition ended?  They were diversified into gambling and extortion so they had to step up those business lines to keep their income from disappearing.  As for my guys who I on occasion see, they have other jobs so it is just lost income for them.  But for the gangs in chicago they have a numbers racket but it is small potatoes compared to their income from drugs.

    I am all for legalization, don't get me wrong but it would put the gangs in a position to diversify and I wonder what they will do to replace the income....


    I got you J... (none / 0) (#37)
    by kdog on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 06:48:34 AM EST
    everything has a ying and yang, positive and negative.  It is foolish not to acknowledge the downsides of legalization...there will be some.  We just both agree that there is more upside, that is all.

    The best case scenario is that violent drug dealing gangs will fade away, worst case they become even more violent while turning to home invasions or the like.  Interesting question indeed...and something to be considered.


    I second Kdog's observation (none / 0) (#14)
    by SeeEmDee on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 01:15:31 PM EST
    The low-level people I've known have been indistinguishable from any of my neighbors. The vast majority are only doing it because they can't make ends meet; too many are trapped in the $7 an hour cage and are struggling. (One woman I knew had a son with a severe learning disability and needed special schooling for him. Really sad.) If they could make a legit living in a legal, regulated market, a lot would jump at the chance. But the violence-prone 'rude boys', as a Jamaican friend used to call them, would immediately ditch the trade, as it wouldn't be lucrative enough for them anymore.

    Stop the Civil War on Drugs vs. Woodstock Nation (none / 0) (#8)
    by Antinomian on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 07:26:09 AM EST
    Debaters debate the two wars as if the civil war on drugs against Woodstock Nation did not yet run amok. Continuing the vendetta against all present at the peaceful public assembly of Woodstock Nation in August 1969, and their legions, cannot be good for the United States. We lead the world in percentile behind bars. If we are all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance our credibility.

    The negative numbers that will have to be used to bottom-line our legacy to the next generation can be less ginormous. The witch-hunt doctor's Rx is for every bust to numerate a bigger tax-load over a smaller denominator of payers. Spend more on prisons than on schools. My second witch's opinion is herbal remedy. More consumer discretionary funds will flow to the rest of the economy when they are no longer depleted by an unnatural seller's market in psychoactive substances.

    The mantra is eradicate, do not tax, the country's number-one cash crop. Native flowers become wampum, dear as gold. Gifted with margin to frustrate interdiction, peddlers' bags do not carry coals to Newcastle. The founders' purpose to authorize federal meddling in interstate commerce was not to divert tax revenue to outlaws.

    In 1933, America decided against substance prohibition in the case of the substance alcohol. Drug prohibitionists knew not to try to prohibit drugs by amendment. You don't need any stinking amendment when you have a swat team.
    The scheduled substances have never had their day in court. Nixon promised to supply supporting evidence later. Later, the Commission evidence wasn't supporting. No matter, civil war against Woodstock Nation had its charter. No amendments can assure due-process under an arbitrary law that never had any due-process itself. Marijuana has no medical use, period. Open and shut cases clog the kangaroo courts. Juries exclude peers. Lives are flushed down expensive tubes.

    The Controlled Substances Act is anti-science. Redundantly, there is no accepted use, nor will there ever be, when all use is not accepted. For example, LSD was hailed as a breakthrough for shining light on, and into, the subconscious, until the CSA halted research. America's drug policy should seek light from the Beckley Foundation.

    The books have ample law on them, sans CSA. The usual caveats, against injury to others, or their estates, remain in effect. Stronger medicines require a doctor's prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance.  People should be held responsible for damage caused by their screw-ups. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either.

    The annual dollar cost of the war on drugs at federal, state and local levels totals what, only 50 or 100B USD? If anybody is counting, please share. There is no lower-hanging, riper, or higher-yielding budgetary fruit than to kick the addiction to the third war, cold turkey. Repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970

    for once I agree (none / 0) (#13)
    by diogenes on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 12:33:11 PM EST
    Make all drugs legal as long as people who choose to commit crimes while on drugs get prison time.  
    And don't make them "prescription" drugs, which just makes another black market like oxycontin.  I don't want to have to spend hours dealing with people trying to con me for adderall, medical marijuana, etc.  If you want drugs to be legal, then sell them over the counter like tobacco and alcohol.

    Yes... (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 02:56:47 PM EST
    intoxication cannot and should not be used as an excuse for violence or property crime...same treatment under the law as a sober criminal, not harsher and not more lenient.

    If "they" went after all the banks (none / 0) (#17)
    by jondee on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 02:47:17 PM EST
    that laundered drug money ie Noriega's banker, instead of just Noriega and the people of Panama City, decriminalization probobly would've happened a long time ago.

    Pursue decriminalization (none / 0) (#21)
    by Realleft on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:38:06 PM EST
    Stop lumping it in with legalization. It hurts the cause when articles like the CNBC mad money article confuse the two.  They're not the same thing at all.