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Prohibition Never Works: Ending the War on Drugs

On January 19th, 1919, the United States passed the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, enacting prohibition.  This meant that the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States for beverage purposes was prohibited.  It failed miserably.  On December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing the 18th Amendment (the only amendment to be repealed in its entirety).

Prohibition was the crowning jewel of the temperance movement in the early 20th century which had worked tirelessly to demonize alcohol.  Like most things from the progressive movement, it was a grand social engineering agenda based on good intentions.  Violence and debauchery needed to be purged from society, and alcohol undoubtedly fueled these sins.

The unintended consequences caused by prohibition were disastrous.  Crime rates soared as gangsters made millions of dollars on illegal alcohol sales, the most notable at the time being Al Capone.  The newly created black markets allowed Capone to reap obscene profits and because of this he was able to build one of the largest crime syndicates in the country dedicated to the smuggling and bootlegging of liquor.  Soon corruption was rife as law enforcement officials in charge of enforcing prohibition went on the take, from beat cops all the way up to the office of the United States Attorney General.  The actual harm caused by alcohol abuse was made worse, thanks to the economics of prohibitions.  Black market alcohol was of dubious origin, unregulated by market forces, and tended to be more potent and more dangerous.  Therefore, hospitalizations related to alcohol soared.  To sum it all up, wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller stated in a letter “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

Flash forward to the present day and prohibition is still alive and well, just in another form: the War on Drugs.  Now the federal government has taken prohibition to the next level thanks to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, and this time they’ve disregarded any pretense of following the constitution (despite the failure of prohibition, at least it was passed constitutionally by adding an amendment).  Even states where medicinal marijuana is legal (ie CA), the DEA is not afraid of trampling over the state’s rights (the 10th amendment) and will shut down medical dispensaries and arrest patients.  Nearly 40 years after the CSA passed, we have 400,000 people in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, a domestic police force that often looks and acts like an occupying military force, nearly a trillion dollars spent on enforcement both here and through aggressive interdiction efforts overseas, and urban areas that can resemble war zones. Yet illicit drugs like cocaine and marijuana are as cheap and abundant as they were in 1970.

Throughout the past year, a civil war has been waged in Mexico between giant drug cartels and the government.  If it weren’t for our War of Drugs and the ridiculous black market profits from illegal drugs, none of these Mexican gangs could exist.  If we ended our prohibition on drugs, we’d immediately pull the rug right out under the gangster’s feet by crippling their primary source of revenue.  But for now, the heart of the problem is being ignored by our government, and instead we’re preparing for military intervention in the border cities of Mexico and the US where gang violence is growing.  Instead of the Al Capones, our prohibition has now led to the rise of the cripts and bloods, the Mexican gangs, and even terrorists organizations such as Al-Qaeda which uses illicit cocaine sales to fund most of their activities.

It’s pretty clear that the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, but our government is not willing to realize it.  Instead, the government will continue to throw money at the problem in order to fix it, instead of cutting their losses and scrapping it altogether.  However, most hardlined anti-drug officers won’t admit this and continue to argue for the Drug War as a matter of self preservation.  Just like the prohibition era, the drug war has corrupted many police departments and they’ve resorted to using drug busts as a source of primary revenue.   With unjust asset forfeiture laws, police can reap double the benefit of drugs busts by not only getting paid for the bust, but also gaining profits from the seized cash and property.  It’s a sad day when our law enforcement engages in legalized theft to exist.

The hypocrisy of the War on Drugs should be quite clear to most people who see politicians abusing other legalized drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, and pain killers.  These politicians think it’s perfectly fine for certain drugs of their choice to be legal, but will fight vehemently against others they don’t like.  One can make the argument that alcohol is a much more dangerous substance compared to others such as marijuana, but the politicians will immediately rebuke it using the silly gateway drug argument.  Sadly, they’ll ignore any evidence that decriminalizing drugs actually has worked, such as with Portugal.  According to a report entitled, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies,” while drug use across the European Union has risen steadily since 2000, Portugal, which has the most liberal drug laws of any country, has actually seen its prevalence rates decrease in various age groups since it decriminalized all drugs in 2001.  “I think it’s bizarrely underappreciated what’s been done in Portugal,” said Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, who authored the report.  The problem of drug abuse should be a medical issue instead of a criminal one.  As Greenwald writes in the report, “By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts.  Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drug-related social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission,” the report continues. “Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.”

In a free society, individuals should have the liberty to choose what they can put into their body.  The War on Drugs completely opposes this principle and turns ordinary citizens into criminals for violations of laws without victims.  No matter how tyrannical a government, laws intended to modify human behavior will never work.  If an individual is addicted to hard drugs, that individual will find a way to get high no matter what is legal and what is not.  It is time to end the war on drugs and usher in a new era of tolerance and freedom.  The old styles of thinking are going to end, regardless of what the hypocritical politicians, who fear political suicide for opposing the War on Drugs, think.  Will it take 10 years for it to happen?  Or will it be sooner?  I believe the latter.

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution

http://www.reason.com/news/show/130383.html

http://rawstory.com/news/2008/Portugals_drug_decriminalization_bizarrely_underappreciated_Greenwald_0406.html