The Fantasy of Stopping the 'Heroin Epidemic' by Stopping the Heroin

Bill Bennett wants to "bring back the war on drugs."


Heritage Foundation

This week two former drug czars faulted the Obama administration for not "interrupting the abundant supply of cheap, potent heroin." In my latest Forbes column, I explore the misconceptions underlying that criticism:

Two former drug czars, William J. Bennett and John P. Walters, want to "bring back the war on drugs," as the headline of their recent op-ed piece in The Boston Globe puts it. If you follow drug policy (and even if you don't), you may be puzzled by that recommendation, since neither the federal government nor the states have stopped using violence to suppress the production, distribution, and consumption of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. Even marijuana, although legalized by four states, is still a pretext for appalling invasions of privacy, draconian prison sentences, and the occasional senseless death.

Perhaps Bennett and Walters were fooled by their successor Gil Kerlikowske, who in 2011 announced that the Obama administration had "ended the war on drugs" two years earlier. Kerlikowske has since moved on to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), where his duties include waging the war he said was over. CBP brags that it seizes "10,327 pounds of drugs" on a typical day.

Evidently Bennett and Walters would like to see a bigger haul. They complain that President Obama, faced with "a heroin crisis," has not had the guts to "do what we did" with cocaine in the 1980s and '90s—i.e., "attack the supply." Bennett and Walters' reasoning is impeccable: If there were no heroin, no one would be using it. "The heroin epidemic is inflicted upon us by criminal acts that produce an abundant supply of inexpensive drugs," they write. "Stopping these criminal acts will stop the epidemic."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But while it is easy enough to "attack the supply," it is quite a bit harder to have a noticeable impact on it. You might surmise as much from the fact that the government has been attacking the supply of heroin since 1914, but the drug has never been cheaper or more plentiful.

Read the whole thing.