Re-evaluating the war on drugs

Nicholas Kristoff examines the lasting legacy of the war on drugs, concluding what everyone with a pair of eyes and ears already knows — the drugs have won.

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that’s because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

Kristoff stops short of trumpeting the legalization horn (and maybe he does but his editors won’t let him).

One of the things that bugs me about the debate on drug use is the thinly-veiled notion that “legalization” would usher in an age of rampant drug use and lawlessness.

At this very moment if I wanted to score some heroin, coke, meth, or any varient of hallucinogens I could. Easily. But I don’t for the simple reason that I have no desire to flush my life away. Making those drugs legally available doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to run out and start doing drugs. Yes, usage rates would probably climb — but I suspect only incrementally.

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