Politics & Policy

The Drug-War Failure

A metaphorical war has imposed some very real costs.


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.


#ad#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.



The argument that marijuana is “the gateway drug” that leads to more dangerous drugs and must therefore be evaluated for its consequences as well as its direct effects may have some validity. But the ICSDP judges that from 76 to 83 percent of the world’s 155 million to 250 million annual drug users use cannabis, which may make it a gateway, but also makes it by far the greatest enforcement problem, even though two-thirds to four-fifths of cannabis users do not use it as a gateway into hard drugs. A United Kingdom medical and scientific panel, using a nine-category measurement of social and physical harm, rates cannabis less damaging and dangerous to society than alcohol or tobacco. Those who start on cannabis early and continue intensive use over long periods can suffer a range of psychological problems and motor impairment, become vulnerable to respiratory ailments, and become accident-prone, especially if driving motor vehicles or other sophisticated machinery. But this does not make up as great a risk of societal damage, or as high a challenge to individual health, as legal but controlled substances.


#ad#There are also profound social and foreign-policy questions involved. It is fundamentally inconceivable that if the U.S. were absolutely determined to reduce drug use substantially, it could not do a much more thorough job of suppressing use within, and of preventing the entry of foreign-originated drugs into, the U.S. The greatest military power in the world, with, by most measurements, greater military strength than all other countries in the world combined, could seal its own borders to drugs (as to illegal immigration), without disturbing legitimate commerce and tourism. And the public-policy decision has been informally concerted to leave middle-class, prosperous American secondary-school and university youth alone with at least their soft drugs, while trolling relentlessly through poor African-American areas rounding up dealers and users, and imprisoning them en masse.


For blacks, the chances of being arrested and charged and convicted for cannabis offenses are 300 percent greater than for whites. Sending nearly half a million cannabis offenders to prison each year inflicts a $40,000 annual charge per prisoner, not counting the processing costs of the mass-convict-production U.S. law-enforcement system. Domestic consumption of cannabis is an approximately $140 billion industry in the U.S., which, despite large domestic production, requires large imports, especially from Mexico, Canada, and Colombia. In Mexico, 20,000 metric tons of cannabis are shipped annually to the U.S., and the U.S. is in the position of telling foreign nations to cease production, while it will not impose the same solution on itself nor even make an all-out effort to discourage imports. The result is a virtual civil war in Mexico, where 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the last four years, five times the number of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last nine years. The beneficiaries of official American policy are the drug cartels, who make billions on it annually, and maintain private paramilitary forces including armored vehicles, submersible drug-transport ships, and a range of aircraft.


There is room for legitimate argument about what course the U.S. should follow in drug-control policy, but there is no possible dispute that the present course has been such an unmitigated failure that it has aggravated the societal problem, strained relations with friendly foreign countries and destabilized some, and, as Milton Friedman said in 1991, constituted a protectionist bonanza for the most virulent and sociopathic elements of organized crime. In comparison, Prohibition, which handed the liquor business to Al Capone and his analogues, was a howling success, and it was repealed after 14 years. Surely, we can do better than this. But as with most other urgent issues, we are completing a pyrotechnic midterm-election campaign with scarcely a peep being raised on a subject that affects almost half the population of the United States.

– Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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