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Rethinking the U.S. War On Drugs

Is legalization the best alternative to Washington’s current drug policy?

November 30, 2003

Is legalization the best alternative to Washington's current drug policy?

Although there have been a few prominent critics in the United States, their voices usually have been drowned out by calls for the expenditure of more funds and the adoption of ever harsher measures to overcome the scourge of drugs.

Latin American critics have been even rarer and quieter. Few wanted to incur Washington's wrath by criticizing the drug war. And the fate of the handful of individuals who dared to do so did not encourage emulation.

Within the United States itself, the sole achievement has been a decline in recreational use of illegal drugs by casual, occasional users.

Even assuming that this decline is the result of the prohibitionist strategy — and not the effect of educational campaigns about the health consequences of drug abuse — the benefit has been achieved at enormous cost.

We have filled our prisons with drug offenders — and diverted criminal justice resources and personnel away from serious crimes to wage the drug war.

Washington's supply-side campaign was meant to stem the flow of drugs into the United States. But — the evidence is glaringly clear — that campaign has not worked, is not working and, given economic realities, will not work.

That is not to suggest that the influence of the drug trade is a benign one — or that Latin American countries would not be better off if the trafficking organizations were less powerful.

What worries me much more, though, is the exaggerated importance which the drug trade has acquired over the course of the campaign. It is an economic distortion caused by foolish policies adopted in Washington and the drug-source countries themselves.

Immediate steps can and should be taken to eliminate that distortion. Latin American governments, for their part, should move more aggressively to deregulate their economies — and spur economic growth. Thereby, they would create new opportunities for those people who are now involved in the lower echelons of the drug trade.

The United States also can take steps to reinforce the benefits of reforms. Latin American representatives have long complained that U.S. import quotas on sugar, textiles and an array of other products have retarded the development of their economies.

Although those officials often ignore the fact that many of the problems with their economies are self- inflicted, their complaints have some validity.

U.S. import restrictions needlessly injure Latin American business enterprises as well as U.S. consumers. And a hemispheric free trade zone — as is currently being negotiated — would be an important step toward eliminating such inequities.

Yet, even if the governments of drug-source countries enact the most comprehensive and worthwhile economic reforms and even if Washington adopts unusually enlightened trade policies, one thing is for certain: Drug commerce will continue to play a disproportionate role in many Latin American countries — unless the United States ends its futile experiment in drug prohibition.

Without that action, drug trafficking still will carry a risk premium that drives up the price and the profit margin. Traffickers will still be able to pay farmers more than they can make from alternative crops or alternative occupations.

Because ruthless individuals who do not fear the law tend to dominate black markets, the drug trade — in both its international and domestic incarnations — will remain largely the domain of violence-prone criminal organizations.

Without legalization in the United States, the threat that such organizations pose to the governments and societies of source countries will abate only marginally even if other reforms are enacted.

Drug legalization would mean to treat currently illicit drugs the same way as alcohol and tobacco are now treated. Such a shift would provide important benefits to the United States: It would eliminate a significant portion of the crime and violence that now plagues the streets of major U.S. cities.

It would also halt the downright clogging of the court system with charges against non-violent drug offenders — as well as the clogging of our prisons with such inmates. In addition, abandoning the drug war would stop the alarming erosion of civil liberties.

Although the fact is largely forgotten, now-illicit drugs were once legal in America. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were virtually no restrictions on opiates, cocaine, or marijuana.

Even the first "anti-drug measure" approved by the U.S. Congress was quite modest and reasonable. In 1906, the Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act. It required that labels on medicine list any narcotic content — as some American consumers had unwittingly become dependent on patent medicines containing opiates or cocaine.

Marijuana remained legal even longer. Not until the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 did that drug join the rank of banned substances.

Granted, America was not free of drug-related problems under a regime of legalization. For example, in the early years of the 20th century there were an estimated 300,000 opiate addicts — often individuals who had become dependent on patent medicines.

That was still a relatively small portion of the population — and America was certainly not plagued with the same violence, corruption and economic distortions. Legalization may not be a panacea — but it certainly beats the alternative.

Ending the war on drugs also would aid the effort against a real threat to America's security and well-being — the threat posed by international terrorism. Terminating the prohibitionist strategy would deprive terrorist organizations of an important source of revenue. (The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, for example, derived a substantial portion of its income from narcotics trafficking.)

Equally important, ending our latest fling with prohibition would free up thousands of personnel and billions of dollars for waging the war against terrorism.

Imagine if all the well-trained personnel working for the DEA (to say nothing of the talent being wasted in state and local anti-drug units) could be reassigned to antiterrorism missions.

The long-term benefits to Latin American societies from abandoning a prohibitionist strategy also would be substantial, although the short-term economic effects of a price decline might be adverse.

No longer would Latin American nations suffer the massive distortions to their economies, the political corruption and the escalating violence that accompany the lucrative black market in drugs.

No longer would the governments of those countries have to dissemble in a futile attempt to satisfy the conflicting demands of the United States and their own citizens.

No longer would Washington engage in the demeaning spectacle of alternately bribing and threatening its neighbors to get them to do the impossible.

Adapted from "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America" by Ted Galen Carpenter. Copyright © 2003 by Ted Galen Carpenter. Used by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.