Ruining Good Lives, Helps Nothing
THE CONSEQUENTIALIST ARGUMENT
Some people say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. They are right. The government has been recklessly ramping up the war on drugs for the past thirty five years.11 Every year we get tougher laws and tougher sentences. Approximately 1.6 million people are needlessly arrested every year for non-violent drug offenses. Many more non-violent drug users are simply charged without arrest. Some of them are students who lose their student loans and can no longer afford college. Others are people who hold professional licenses and can no longer work in their professions. Lives are being needlessly ruined.
The growth of the prison industry has mushroomed. We now have private companies in the prison business.12 This is no surprise when you consider that the United States claims 4.6% of the world’s population but 22.5% of the world’s prison population. The DEA has grown from 2,775 employees in 1972 to almost 11,000 employees with 86 foreign offices in 62 countries in 2005. We have well over two million people in prison. Since 1980, America’s general population has increased 20%, while America’s prison population has increased at twenty times that rate or an astonishing 400%. America imprisons more people as a percentage of our population than any other country in the world.13 This is a sad state of affairs for any country; especially one which refers to itself as the land of the free.
Despite the explosive expansion of government to fight the war on drugs, drug use is more prevalent today than it was before the war on drugs started. Additionally, drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get than they were in the early years of the drug war.14 Throwing more money at the issue has not resulted in fewer people using drugs. Even the federal government admits drug use has increased recently from 6% in 1993 to over 8% in 2003.15 Despite the frantically increasing efforts to curb the flow of drugs, high school students report drugs are still easy to obtain. Almost 90% of twelfth graders report marijuana is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get. Over 47% of twelfth graders say cocaine is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get and more than 32% say heroin is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get.16 I have had clients tell me they became addicted to drugs when they were in prison. Even in a prison setting, drugs are prevalent.
Not only are drugs readily available, some of them have become more dangerous as a result of the drug war. Looking specifically at meth, the drug war has resulted inexacerbating the dangers associated with amphetamine use. While attempting to put the hysteria currently surrounding meth use in perspective, a columnist named Jack Shafer who writes for Slate aptly stated the following:
In the mid-1960s, just before the government declared war on amphetamines, the average user swallowed his pills, which were of medicinal purity and potency. Snorting and smoking stimulants was almost unheard of, and very few users injected intravenously. Today, 40 years later, snorting, smoking, and injecting ethamphetamines of unpredictable potency and dubious purity has become the norm—with all the dreadful health consequences. If the current scene illustrates how the government is winning the war on drugs, I'd hate to see what losing looks like. See, www.slate.com/id/2123838 August 3, 2005.
The United States now spends over fifty billion dollars every year to combat the war on drugs.17 The war on drugs has been a colossal and unparalleled failure.18 Despite my countless conversations with judges, prosecutors, police officers, DEA agents and drug dealers, it is extraordinarily rare for me to find anyone who thinks the drug war is working or will ever work under any circumstances. Indeed, despite my countless invitations, I have yet to find anyone willing to debate me publicly on the drug war. Imagine a fifty billion dollar annual program nobody seems willing to defend.
I understand why nobody wants to debate me on this issue. I believe the people who work in the justice system, and truly understand the problems associated with the drug war, know they would be debating the wrong side of the issue. I recently argued the case for meth legalization before a group of judges and prosecutors. I was disappointed during question time when, despite my provoking and challenging them, there was only one half-hearted attempt to engage me on the issues. The case for legalization is overwhelming.
I have had occasion to talk privately and confidentially with many drug dealers for well over a decade. I estimate I have represented hundreds of drug dealers. Although some have simply been users who sell to support their habit, others have been major players in big drug organizations. I have found many of them to be bright people who are well aware that an end to the drug war would immediately put an end to their businesses. They realize that they could not compete with large corporations in a legal market. Their ability to make money by manufacturing, distributing and selling drugs exists solely because of the drug war. They very much want the war on drugs to continue and even expand.
Many drug dealers understand that each large drug bust brings increased profits for them. Although a drug seizure is bad news for the particular drug dealer involved, it is wonderful news for all the other drug dealers in the market. When you see government agents celebrating a large drug seizure, imagine all the other drug dealers celebrating
along with them.
The economics of drug sales are no different than any other product sold in the market. Every big drug seizure causes a temporary decrease in the supply of that drug in the relevant market. However, the drug seizure doesn’t affect the demand for the drugs.
Drug users still want drugs despite some drug dealer being arrested.19 When the demand remains constant and the supply is decreased, prices go up. Imagine being a drug dealer with a big supply of drugs on hand when prices suddenly go up. It would be accurate to say that drug dealers gain the most, through increased profits, when government agents make a seizure. Increased profits also serve to entice people to embark on new careers as drug dealers. Drug dealers love the drug war and do not want it to end. If you support the drug war, you are on the side of, and act as an unpaid lobbyist for the plight of the drug dealer.
Some of the drug dealers I have met are actually very nice, non-violent people. I have represented drug dealers who do not use drugs at all. They were simply unable or unwilling to refuse an illegal opportunity to make a lot of money. However, some of the drug dealers I have met are not nice people. They sell their drugs with the help of violent street gangs. Some of these gang members intentionally market drugs to kids. Because gang members generally can not utilize the court system to settle disputes over drug sales, nor can they insure their merchandise against losses, violence and guns are necessarily involved.
Simply causing meth to be manufactured illegally is by itself a huge problem. As a result of illegal meth labs, toxic chemicals used to produce methamphetamine are often discarded in rivers, fields, and forests. The environmental damage which occurs results in ever expanding cleanup costs. The massive growth in costs to cleanup such environmental messes is also illustrative of the failure of current policy. The DEA’s annual cost for cleanup of clandestine meth laboratories in the United States has increased steadily from 2 million in 1995 to 23.8 million a mere seven years later in 2002.20 A huge collection of well documented facts about the failure of the current drug policy can be found at http://www.drugwarfacts.org/.
I have heard the saying that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I suspect some criminal defense lawyer in the 1920’s incurred wrath from the establishment for writing an article advocating the legalization of alcohol. I would bet the nice attorney was attacked by small thinkers who repeatedly pointed out the harmful attributes of alcohol.21
In case you are unaware, the government decided in 1919 to amend the United States Constitution to grant power to congress to prohibit the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol.22 Their drug war played out just like ours; a complete and total disaster. However, it was the best thing that ever happened to organized crime. The manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol were conducted entirely in illegal and violent markets. Criminals prospered and criminal organizations grew. A major crime wave began in the 1920s and continually increased until the end of prohibition in 1933 when it immediately started to reverse.23 Prohibition did nothing to curb the desire of people to use alcohol. Indeed, both the per capita consumption of alcohol as well as the rate of alcoholism increased during prohibition.24 25 Illegal clandestine stills manufactured alcohol of inconsistent and unpredictable quality. Law enforcement was overwhelmed chasing after people involved in alcohol related crimes. Does any of this seem familiar to you?
In 1933, they figured it out and repealed the eighteenth amendment.26 To be fair, we still have people with substantial alcohol abuse problems. It is a real problem. We have no shortage of alcohol related crimes. However, violent criminal street gangs do not make money from the sale of alcohol. Although few people “home brew” alcoholic beverages, people do not brew alcoholic beverages in clandestine labs. Nobody is offered large cash rewards to transport alcohol. The Budweiser guy doesn’t fight the Miller guy if they both happen to arrive at the store at the same time to deliver their drug. Alcohol companies settle disputes peacefully in court. Alcoholics can seek help without the fear of criminal prosecutions. More resources can be devoted to apprehending real thugs because our justice system is not overloaded with cases of people manufacturing, distributing or selling alcohol. Isn’t this obviously a better deal?