Drug War

Declare Defeat and Go Home

The War on Drugs has failed. Let's try something else.


"The war on drugs has failed," declared the editors of National Review in 1996, back when the nation's foremost conservative periodical promoted ideas more intellectually rigorous than cheerleading for the Republican Party. "It is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction. . . .It is wasting our resources, and . . . it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We [here at NR] all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far."

In the decade and a half since then, the federal government has shelled out more than $100 billion—vastly more, by some estimates—fighting the scourge of illegal drugs. How's that workin' out? Not too good! Last Thursday the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international panel that included such sober souls as former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, said the U.S.-led war on drugs "has failed."

It has not simply failed. It has failed miserably. Increasing federal expenditures have risen hand-in-hand with increasing drug use. From 2002 to 2009, national drug-control funding rose from $10.8 billion a year to $15 billion—a 39 percent increase. Yet as The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman noted last October, roughly 22 million Americans used illegal drugs in 2009. That represents a 9 percent increase over the year before and the highest rate since 2002.

People recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are fond of defining insanity as trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that standard, American policy toward mind-altering substances looks awfully familiar. The nation tried Prohibition once, with alcohol. Result: abject failure, rampant organized crime, and little lasting effect on consumption or addiction. In fact, Prohibition actually encouraged the use of harder spirits, since bootleggers could smuggle more alcohol in a car full of liquor than a car full of beer.

Alcohol prohibition lasted only a few years. The war on drugs has lasted for decades, and for the most part has consisted of only one solution, over and over: criminalization and imprisonment. Nearly 2 million people are arrested each year for drug offenses and a half-million are currently serving time on drug charges. Yet when stiffer sentences fail to produce the desired results, drug prohibitionists insist the penalties just aren't harsh enough. They resemble the carpenter who complained that he had cut a board three times and it was still too short.

Trying to solve the problem of addiction through incarceration is like trying to get rid of a cockroach infestation by turning on the lights. The temporary solution doesn't address the underlying problem, which requires treatment. Sometimes locking a user up doesn't even interrupt his using. Do a Google search on smuggling drugs into prison for an education on that front. If prohibition can't keep narcotics out of prison cells, it won't keep them out of playgrounds and office parks.

Decriminalization and treatment—the approach suggested by the international panel—differs from outright legalization, which is often portrayed as heartless indifference to the ravages that addiction can inflict. It is not that, or at least not only that. The moral case for legalization stems from a reverence for individual autonomy—the notion that each of us owns his own body, and none of us has the right to tell another what to do with it. Family and friends might plead with someone to change his ways, but the government has no moral authority to make him.

Conservatives, who generally abhor government paternalism and consider freedom an unalloyed good, do not look nimble when they clumsily pirouette from denouncing ObamaCare and the food police to embracing life sentences for pot smokers.

Taken to its logical extreme, the autonomy argument can support not only legalizing drugs but also legalizing prostitution, selling your organs, and abolishing the minimum wage. On the other hand, taken to its logical extreme the moral assumption embedded in drug prohibition also leads to unpopular conclusions. If the government can stop you from using meth because it harms your health and reduces your usefulness to the community, then by the same token it can stop you from other unhealthful behavior for the same reason. Already, Arizona is proposing a $50 surcharge on Medicaid recipients who smoke or weigh too much. Maricopa County is charging smokers $450 more for health insurance—and taking a swab to test for nicotine. How long before the common-good rationale justifies mandatory exercise for everyone?

We don't have to chase every one of those philosophical digressions down a rabbit hole to recognize the obvious: America is spending tens of billions of dollars a year putting drug users and sellers in prison, without putting much of a dent in drug consumption. The drug war has failed, and its advocates' best thinking got us here. Isn't it time they tried something else?

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

NEXT: Taxation = Theft, Animated (by Slovaks)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’ll give John this, he once said the Democrats should not get credit for being nominally better on several social issues like drugs if they are not producing results, in the same way that the GOP should not get credit for being rhetorically better on economic issues if whenever they are in power they run up spending.

    Consider that in the 08 Presidential nomination and the current one that it is the GOP alone that has candidates calling for an end to the WOD, not any Democrat.

    Liberaltarians need to call for a tea party within the Democratic party to push the Dems to match some of their more libertarian rhetoric just as conservatives have done to the GOP.

    1. Liberals are way more diligent at casting out thought-impurity. That is why you don’t see dissenters in their ranks. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just that the Democrat machine has some seriously aggressive antibodies to keep such movements out.

      1. Duh!

        Tolerance means being intolerant of any dissent.
        Inclusiveness means excluding anyone who disagrees.
        Equality means those who disagree are inferior.

        Celebrate tolerance, inclusiveness and equality!

      2. I don’t think you are correct. Democrats are quite famous for not being able to command the same level of unanimity from their elected officials.

        1. Bullshit. The Dems are good at having a big bunch of pols who claim to be blue dogs or conservative democrats who then vote for massive socialist schemes every chance they get.

          Case in point is my Senators, Jim Webb and Mark Warner. Webb was the vaunted conservative Democrat. He voted for Obamacare. Mark Warner touts his business record and brags about his centrist cred. He also voted for Obamacare.

          The people who vote Democrat do encompass a wide range of people. Toby Keith and a million idiot college students voting for the same guy is a pretty impressive feat of diversity. Democratic politicians come in two varieties: full bore socialist, and stealth socialist.

        2. bull. The repubs had Arnold, a well known pro-choice repub speak at their convention.

          The dems would never have a pro-life dem as one of their key speakers. Ideologically, they are more lockstep.

      3. Have to agree with minge. while there might have been “Liberal Republicans” in some number as late as 1980, now they are confined to New England (the senators from Maine are the two I can think of).

        OTOH, there are plenty of Blue Dog Democrats that are plenty conservative, even if they vote for TEAM BLUE more often than they should.

        1. The only party that matters is the oligarchies party. Red and blue pols are both welcome as long as they pledge support to the Central Bank, military industrial complex, paying interest on the US debt above all other line items, democracy must be praised…constitutional republic must be called racist. The rest of the crap is jsut stuff to keep the Gammas and Betas arguing amongst themselves.

        2. OTOH, there are plenty of Blue Dog Democrats that are plenty conservative, even if they vote for TEAM BLUE more often than they should.

          I would be more impressed with the Blue Dogs if their “dissenting” votes weren’t carefully counted ahead of time to make sure they just fall short of making a difference.

          1. Exactly. If Warner was the centrist Dem he claimed to be, he would have voted against the healthcare bill and that would have stopped it in its tracks.

            When it comes down to brass tacks, when it really counts, the Blue Dogs vote with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

            Meanwhile the liberal Republicans regularly screw over the rest of their party by crossing aisles. Remember history phoning one of the Maine sisters telling her to vote for Obamacare?

            All the Democrats are socialists, and I’d say upwards of 50% of the Republicans are.

    2. This is a pysop. If there is a shoe bomber on a plane tonight then has TSA failed?

      Of course not…it means the TSA has properly pre-conditioned the public for the rollout of police state 6.1.

      The drug war has been a huge success at expanding the federal government, raising taxes, expanding the prison complex and destroying the rights of its subjects. You really think Jay Rockefeller, W and Obama care about anything else? Well that is the psyop. The only reason we are seeing this report now is to try and convince the public that our government actually has as it’s goal to better the lives of it’s tax slaves…of course that is not the goal of government leaders.

      1. True, that. And it’s also conditioned so many people to be horrified if you indicate you think marijuana should be legalized, or at least decriminalized. So many people just believe that pot is this horrible “gateway” drug, etc.

        Of course the ability to think critically never has been a strong suit among the majority of the population.

    3. Party line democrats like socialism. Part of being a good socialist in addition to wanting to take from some and give it to others is to behave like a “well-socialized” person. This means ignoring any troublesome thoughts that you may have in your head and jsut go along with what one of the groups of experts tells you to do. Many republicans are use to believing in a wacked out religion that glorifies the drinking of human blood. So they are a little more used to ignoring experts and just stubornly doing something else. that is why there is now a troublesome group of republicans that is ignoring David Brooks and really pissing him off.

      Many of these people aren’t sure why, but they know it feels good to piss off some of the “elite” republicans that are THE EXACT SAME as the democrats.

  2. Consider this latest travesty:

    Holder Promises To Clarify Medical Pot Position


    While they dither people are having their lives ruined via arrest, prosecution and jailing.

    1. And you think the Dems or Repubs will ever change? To do so would mean they would recognize and respect the sovereignty of the citizens. Never going to happen.

      1. I think they won’t change as long as the majority of the nation opposes legalization. It is a democracy and these people prize winning elections above all.

        1. They won’t change so long as the majority of their base constituency opposes legalization. And by ‘base constituency’, I mean the people who can reliably deliver votes.

          1. And by democracy, you mean Republic. In a democracy, the sovereign rights of the individual are never safe. Wait, you’re right. We’ve changed from a Republic to a Democracy, and all rights are up for grabs.

          2. Stoners are apt to miss the primary vote.

        2. We are not a democracy,we have a constitution and a separation of powers to hold the will of the majority in check.You know this.

          1. Nope the republic died. Sorry. It did. Our country is fucked now. carry on.

          2. Gabe’s right. When’s the last time the Constitution meant anything? Kelo v. New London? Campaign finance laws? Obamacare? Major parts of the Patriot act?

        3. The majority didn’t want a bailout of the big banks…didn’t matter to them then. Odd how the majority opinion line is used when it supports stomping on indivual rights, but not when it presents any sort of obstacle to carbon taxes or handing over a trillion dollars to foreign banks.

          1. That was the point of the constitution.The founders we’re wary of majority rule.What’s the saying?It’s 2 wolves and a lamb voting on dinner

            1. Founding fathers? That was back when everyone was racist. Are you a racist Michael Pack?

              I hope you aren’t and that you realize that our country has shifted to the greatest of all forms of government. No democracy has ever been in a war, with anoth democracy. Peace can only come about through democracy. All of the great success of civiliation are owed to the real founding fathers(Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt) having invented the modern regulatory democracy.

              Since 1913 we have had a modern scientificallly managed currency and a more streamlined less chaotic corporate structure. All the modern inventions of the last 100 years are owed to these innovations. If you want an old racist form of governemnt witha boom and bust economy that believes that horse and buggies are better than diesel engines then please go to Somalia and see how that works out for you.

              1. Wow, your examples of peaceful presidents are Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt? Wow. I’m busy so I don’t have time to refute the nonsense, but thankfully you eliminated all credibility with that comment so I don’t have to waste the time.

                1. Just a common troll, ignore him.

                  1. Common trolls only give 1 exp, so worthless to kill.

                2. Oh, this was a serious comment?

              2. Sorry if I’m being a bit dense, but this comment was sarcasm, right?

        4. I think they won’t change as long as the majority of the nation opposes legalization. It is a democracy and these people prize winning elections above all.

          It is NOT a democracy! How many times do I have to explain this? The United States is a CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC! Just because a bunch dumbfucks keep calling it a democracy ad nauseam, does not make it so.

          1. Mensan, they’re calling it a democracy because none of the constitutional restrictions on government are respected anymore. It’s behaving as a democracy – trampling any individual rights that are seen as the slightest bit inconvenient – and so it’s being called as such.

    2. Dear Marijuana and Drug Law Reformers:

      Allow me to clarify. My man Barack wanted your vote in 2008, so he said what you wanted to hear. You served your purpose by voting for him. You served your purpose. Now go away and leave me alone.

      1. Enjoy getting your anal in prison bithezz!

  3. So, who do we surrender to? Cheech and Chong?

    1. “”So, who do we surrender to? “”

      Dave, but Dave’s not here.

      1. Awesomely perfect.

  4. One hope is the cost. I keep reading on this blog about the impending financial apocalypse. I think that, more than anything else is what is going to change people’s hearts.

    1. This may be the only hope. Prohibition was ended for financial reasons; maybe drug prohibition will be as well.

  5. So long as they think decriminalization equals approval they’ll never agree to quit the war.

    1. The rhetoric has got to be taken out of the argument. No politician will ‘declare defeat’. They can positively promote “decriminalization” (as opposed to “legalization” – it’s all in the spin) and use prohibition as a historical example.

      1. excellent point!

      2. Fuck decriminalization, yo. I suppose it is better than nothing, but it fails to address the most harmful and fucked up aspects of the WOD. At this point “decriminalization” and “legalization” have very different meanings in political discourse.

        1. classic example of why (capital) L libertarians lose so often, this best is the enemy of the good mentality.

          incrementalism may not be “pure”, but it’s pragmatic. if you want progress, you go for decrim

  6. Last Thursday the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international panel that included such sober souls as former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, said the U.S.-led war on drugs “has failed.”

    How much do you want to bet that the lesson that Drug Warriors draw from that is “We must redouble our efforts”?

    1. Some fuckin’ Frenchies ain’t gonna tell us how we gon’ enforce the righteous LAW.

    2. note also: FORMER fed chairman. it’s always the EX govt. employees that come out in favor, or at least it USUALLY is.

      1. So are you a member of LEAP?

  7. How long before the common-good rationale justifies mandatory exercise for everyone?

    Once Obamacare accomplishes its unstated goal of eliminating private health insurance, and the government becomes the sole payer of medical expenses, conditions will most certainly be put upon payment.

    Those conditions will likely include government approved diet and exercise.

  8. Let’s not forget the 100’s of thousands killed in Mexico and South America due to the W.O.D.During prohibition we never exported our laws across the border.If we had,Canada,Ireland and many other’s would have been targets.In Mexico they are using the Military to enforce domstic law.I’m covinced drug warriors here would love to do the same.

    1. If brown people die it doesn’t really count…whats the matter you don’t suport our troops?!

    2. I’ve read articles by socons that cite Mao as a positive example of how to “win” the drug war. Mass executions, that’s the ticket.

      1. “Mass executions, that’s the ticket.”

        Also a great cost cutting tool for Obamacare.

  9. The WOD has failed for whom?

    Governments seemed delighted by the status quo. Enforcements agencies seemed delighted by the status quo, not to mention all those folks in charge of keeping other folks all locked up.

    And the bad guys – happy as pigs in mud.

    1. +1 Oso was the first person to enter the correct answer.

  10. Didn’t the onion call this one back when McCaffrey was drug czar?

  11. I would say that if you really want to put the drug cartels out of business, put them in direct competition with Wal-Mart, RJ Reynolds, and 7-11. They won’t last a year.

    1. and if there is ANYTHING that would make pot, etc. less desirable for aging hipsters, it would be its availability at walmart…

      1. You forget,it’s as easy as growing a garden,or flowers.I’m sure many would grow their own,there would be those who buy from others ,but,over all,there would be very little profit.The drug cartel’s worst nightmare.

        1. Surely that wouldn’t be safe, the next e-coli breakout would probably be in the pot and then we could ramp up the USDA swat teams(supplemented by Monsanto’s Blackwater division), to search and destroy all the people trying to poison our children with e-coli pot.

          1. E. coli would only be an issue if you ate the marijuana. And I mean raw. Baking temperatures, and fire from smoking it would kill any E. coli bacteria on the plant.

        2. i don’t forget. i’ve been in more than a few grows. but lots of stuff is easy to grow/make, but in our convenience culture- people love to buy it premade.

          heck, people buy precut vegetables for stir fry at the store

          because cutting your own vegetables is really hard y0

        3. Tomatoes, green peppers, onions, etc. These can all easily be grown. But how often have you done it?

  12. Drugs should be considered by the law like they are in medicine. The concept of Therapeutic Index would go a long way to improving the outcome of our drug policy.

    Therapeutic Index is the ratio of the drug’s desired effect dose vs the lowest dose that causes the undesired side effect. Drugs like cancer drugs often have VERY low TI’s, but other drugs such as Ibuprofen have high TI’s. Drugs with low TI’s are tightly regulated to the point where only certain MD’s, RN’s, and PharmD’s with specialized training get to use them, or they are only used in specialized units in a hospital. Drugs with sufficiently high TI’s and thus wide safety margins are less tightly regulated and may even be sold as OTC meds.

    If we aimed our drug laws at those drugs with substantial risk (low TI’s) and legalized and regulated drugs with high TI’s, we would be better off.

    Make marijuana legal like booze, but even the possession of dangerous drugs like heroin or Crystal Meth severely illegal, and you would see the “gateway effect” of marijuana and alcohol go down as people would be able to enjoy their occasional buzz and call it good at that, rather than risk Singapore-style punishment for drugs that are harder.

    1. I guess that would be better than nothing. But locking people up for drug possession or sales still violates fundamental rights and is completely immoral.

      1. No more so than locking up a guy who wants to drive 100 miles an hour down a road built for 30 miles an hour traffic.

        If you recognize that some drugs can be used poorly, but are most often not, then you can set up a structure that allows people to use drugs as they wish (assuming they are legal drugs), while preventing the use of drugs which are dangerous.

        Along with a permissive attitude towards pot and booze, we set up punishments for public intoxication ranging from simple fines for being an obnoxious stoner to real hard time for Driving while impaired or other potentially dangerous to others behaviors.

        1. Your analogy is severely flawed. A person who ingests drugs in private, for instance, is not a danger to anyone but himself. A reckless driver, on the other hand, poses a great danger to public safety, i.e. to individuals other than himself. The two actions are not the same at all. One individual risks only himself; another violates the rights to life, liberty, etc. of others. The first action cannot be justifiably regulated for the common good, because there is, ipso facto, no common good at stake. That alone disintegrates many of the arguments used to regulate the drug trade.

          Ingesting drugs before operating a vehicle does place the public in danger, however, and so the “common good” test is met and regulation is justified, just as it is with alcohol.

        2. locking up a guy who wants to drive

          Dumbass. That guy doesn’t get locked up for that. He’ll get fined and maybe lose his license (state permit to use public roads).

          while preventing the use of drugs which are dangerous.

          Well there goes alcohol. See where your stupid, immature morality gets you?

  13. Yes the government loves you, they just aren’t paying attention to the proper index. If you create a better index then the government will be good for all!

    Utilitarians are cute.

  14. How about you guys stop messing with our funding for black ops? You want me to kill leaders who don’t farm out enough contracts to Bechtel? How can I do that without drug money?

  15. Libertarians who want to make a futile gesture expressing their drug war pacifism can sign this petition:


    It has 620,000+ signatures and could use a few more.

    1. Avaaz has an endorsement by Al Gore on their webpage. I think I’ll pass…

  16. Along with the war on drugs we have lost the war on poverty and the war on terror too. Let’s declare victory and go home.

    We spend many, many $$$ on terror, poverty and drugs and end up with more. Stop the insanity.

    1. There is no war on terror. There is a made-up specter which is conveniently brought out to justify stepping on your rights.

  17. The War on Drugs failed Billions of dollars ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and check out my pro-cannabis art at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…..-2011.html

    1. i fully support legalization, but lying for the cause is still … lying.

      mj is NOT harmless. frankly, i am not aware of ANY drug that is harmless. all drugs have risks and rewards… etc.

      mj happens to be remarkably safe, has no toxicity (ld50 value) etc. it should be legal

      it is NOT harmless.

      lying for a good cause is still lying

      1. Also marijuana has been shown to be a carcinogen. It’s more carcinogenic than tobacco, but since it is usually used in much lower volume, the overall risk is lower. The big problem is for people who regularly smoke both tobacco and marijuana. IIRC they have about 40% increase in the rate of lung cancer.

        I don’t think that justifies prohibition in any way, but marijuana is definitely not harmless.

        1. Citation needed…

          1. Google is your friend:

            Tashkin DP. Smoked marijuana as a cause of lung injury. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis 63(2):92?100, 2005.

            Hashibe M, Morgenstern H, Cui Y, et al. Marijuana use and the risk of lung and upper aerodigestive tract cancers: Results of a population-based case-control study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 15(10):1829?1834, 2006.

            Polen MR, Sidney S, Tekawa IS, Sadler M, Friedman GD. Health care use by frequent marijuana smokers who do not smoke tobacco. West J Med 158(6):596?601, 1993.

            Gruber AJ, Pope HG, Hudson JI, Yurgelun-Todd D. Attributes of long-term heavy cannabis users: A case control study. Psychological Med 33(8):1415?1422, 2003.

    2. Sorry to rain on your parade…

      Law enforcement has a huge incentive
      in keeping drugs illegal, as it produces prosecution activity, asset forfeiture, and countless other revenue-generation activity that provides them with job security…

      Likewise, drug dealers reap millions in
      (tax-free) dollars that they otherwise wouldn’t achieve in “normal” free enterprise…

      Neither has an incentive to see drugs legalized…

      1. It’s job creation and job sustainment for prosecutors too.

  18. Ha. The ad I’m getting on the right of this article is for a drug addiction rehab clinic.

  19. Interesting discussion. You should post your viewpoints about this on http://www.whitehousevoice.com!

  20. I’m more than willing to “try something else.” The problem is that the only “something else” that anyone seems willing to try is complete legalization.

    How about trying a full-bore program of treatment and support for addicts somewhere, like, say, California?

    1. And you have a problem with repealing drug laws?

  21. The so-called “war on drugs” is only a failure if you take it at face value. The fact that it has survived for decades despite obviously failing at its nominal goals is evidence that it actually serves other purposes.

    Consider for a moment the fact that there has been a downward secular trend across more than a century in organic crimes like theft, murder, rape, and assault. Education, prosperity, and the social safety net have largely succeeded in reducing the most basic reason for having a government that is empowered to use force and incarceration to protect the non-criminal citizenry. Falling crime rates are a risk for people who prosper from the existence of large police and prison sectors of government, and for those who find it politically convenient for there to be a colorable “criminal class” that can be equated with the poor or with ethnic minorities. The “war on drugs” creates a persistent source of crime, not just by prohibiting drugs but by putting a segment of trade outside of legal protection so that its contracts can’t be enforced except by private (i.e. criminal) force. The “war on drugs” props up a prison-industrial complex and a paramilitary police subculture. It does that very well. It has been successful in sustaining that goal for decades.

    Shorter: much as the real motivation for going to war in Iraq was to have a war in Iraq, the real motivation for the war on drugs is to have a war on drugs.

  22. Falling crime rates are a risk for people who prosper from the existence of large police and prison sectors of government, and for those who find it politically convenient for there to be a colorable “criminal class” that can be equated with the poor or with ethnic minorities.

  23. Falling crime rates are a risk for people who prosper from the existence of large police and prison sectors of government, and for those who find it politically convenient for there to be a colorable “criminal class” that can be equated with the poor or with ethnic minorities.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.