The Drug-War Failure
A metaphorical war has imposed some very real costs.


Conrad Black


It is indicative of the failure of the current election to deal with real issues, apart from unease about deficits and curiosity about the endless military effort in the Near East, that, once again, almost nothing is asked or uttered about the proverbial War on Drugs, even as the virtual civil war it has caused in Mexico is amply publicized. Almost everyone agrees that hard drugs are a criminal problem, even if there is disagreement about how to fight them and dissatisfaction with the progress to date in doing so. But marijuana, cannabis, is an astonishing story of the hideously expensive and protracted failure of official policy.


There was an increase of 600 percent in the federal drug-control budget, from $1.5 billion to $18 billion, between 1981 and 2002, and it is almost certainly now over $25 billion, and yet cannabis as an industry is an almost perfect illustration of the unstoppable force of supply-side economics. Between 1990 and 2007, there was a 420 percent increase in cannabis seizures by drug-control authorities, to about 140,000 tons; a 150 percent increase in annual cannabis-related arrests, to about 900,000 people; a 145 percent increase in average potency of seized cannabis (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol content); and a 58 percent decline, inflation-adjusted, in the retail price of cannabis throughout the United States.


The laws governing cannabis growth, sale, and use, though under review in California, where it is the state’s largest cash crop, have not been proposed for serious amendment, although 42 percent of Americans acknowledge that they have used cannabis at one time or another. Despite the drug war’s official costs of over $2.5 trillion over about 40 years, comprehensive research by the authoritative International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), a Canadian organization, but with wide international expertise and collaboration, reveals that cannabis is almost universally accessible to twelfth-graders in all parts of the U.S., and that cannabis use by American twelfth-graders has increased from 27 percent to 32 percent between 1990 and 2008; and, furthermore, that among all Americans between the ages of 19 and 28, use increased in the same period from 26 percent to 29 percent. The argument has been made that growth of cannabis use would have been greater without the drug-war assault on it. But it is hard to credit that official discouragement is very closely related to drug use at all, since 900,000 annual arrests, about half leading to custodial sentences, and with very heavy sentences, of up to 40 years for large-scale production and sale, have failed to discourage cannabis use and traffic.


Extensive U.S. federal-government research indicates that the $1.4 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has been completely ineffective and may even have incited increased drug use by needlessly publicizing it. Given the abundant evidence of the ineffectuality of efforts to restrict and reduce cannabis use, it is astonishing that there has been so little public discussion in the U.S. of alternative policy courses. The Netherlands, which has effectively legalized cannabis use, has roughly half the incidence of per capita use as the U.S. And the U.S. has approximately four times the per capita level of cocaine use of a broad selection of countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Spain, Israel, Lebanon, South Africa, China, Japan, Mexico, and Colombia. Differing regimes of cannabis decriminalization have been instituted by Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Portugal, which latter country, even nine years after decriminalization, has among the lowest cannabis-use levels in the European Union. There is a great range of policy options available, and observable in other countries, including restricting places of use, registering and rationing, increasing emphasis on treatment methods, and separating medical (use) from criminal (distribution outside official channels) aspects.