The Price of Prohibition

Forty years after Nixon declared war on drugs, it's time to give peace a chance.


Forty years ago this Friday, President Richard Nixon announced that "public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse." Declaring that "the problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency," he asked Congress for money to "wage a new, all-out offensive," a crusade he would later call a "global war on the drug menace."

The war on drugs ended in May 2009, when President Obama's newly appointed drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said he planned to stop calling it that. Or so Kerlikowske claims. "We certainly ended the drug war now almost two years ago," he told Seattle's PBS station last March, "in the first interview that I did." If you watch the exchange on YouTube, you can see he said this with a straight face.

In reality, of course, Richard Nixon did not start the war on drugs, and Barack Obama, who in 2004 called it "an utter failure," did not end it. The war on drugs will continue as long as the government insists on getting between people and the intoxicants they want. And while it is heartening to hear a growing chorus of prominent critics decry the enormous collateral damage caused by this policy, few seem prepared to give peace a chance by renouncing the use of force to impose arbitrary pharmacological preferences.

"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," a recent report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy concludes. "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won." Each year that we fail to face this reality, the report says, "billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective programs," "millions of citizens are sent to prison unnecessarily," and "hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable overdoses and diseases."

This strong criticism of the status quo was endorsed by the three former Latin American presidents who organized the commission—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—and 16 other notable names, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

The alternatives suggested by the commission are less impressive. The report calls for easing up on drug users and low-level participants in the drug trade while cracking down on "violent criminal organizations." But it is prohibition that enriches and empowers such organizations while encouraging them to be violent—a point the commission acknowledges. As a new report from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition notes regarding the escalating violence that has left some 40,000 people dead since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began an anti-drug crackdown in 2006, "this is a cycle that cannot and will not end until prohibition itself ends."

It is also prohibition that breeds official corruption, makes drug use more dangerous than it would otherwise be, and undermines civil liberties—all problems the commission highlights. Furthermore, a policy of decriminalizing possession while maintaining the bans on production and sale is morally incoherent: If drug use itself is not worthy of punishment, why should people go to prison merely for helping others commit this noncrime?

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Shultz and Volcker liken the war on drugs to alcohol prohibition, approvingly quote Milton Friedman's argument that "illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords" and "leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials," and then recoil in horror from the logical conclusion, saying "we do not support the simple legalization of all drugs." If illegality is the problem, legality is the solution.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.