US “War on Drugs” indefinite and ineffective

For decades, the U.S. government has been waging a “War on Drugs,” a campaign to shut down the international narcotics trade. The latest major bust happened on Oct. 2, when the FBI shut down “Silk Road,” an online marketplace used primarily to sell drugs.

The government has been waging this campaign since 1971, when President Nixon coined the term “War on Drugs” as part of his efforts to create a national drug policy.

Today, combined state and federal spending on drug policy is an estimated $51 billion a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Despite the massive costs of the federal government’s national drug policy, the drug trade shows no signs of slowing down, and may even be growing.

America has had a long and turbulent history with drug use. Prior to Nixon’s policy, the most famous example of a nationwide ban on recreational drugs was Prohibition, the national ban on alcohol proscribed by the Eighteenth Amendment.

Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 and is widely considered a failure by historians.

Despite law enforcement’s attempt to wipe out alcohol use, Americans continued to drink, and criminal organizations such as the Mafia grew wealthy and powerful from the sale of alcohol. Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment, notable as the only amendment designed to repeal an earlier amendment.

The effects (and failures) of Prohibition are strikingly similar to those of the War on Drugs. Numerous cartels have sprung up in Mexico and other countries south of the U.S., earning massive revenue from the sale of illegal narcotics, much as the crime syndicates of the Prohibition era became wealthy from alcohol. In 1989 Forbes named Pablo Escobar, one of the most famous drug kingpins, the seventh-richest man in the world.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security estimates that today, Mexican drug cartels generate between $19 and $29 billion annually. Mexico is one of the main suppliers of cocaine, marijuana and meth to the U.S., according to the state department.

At home, drug policy has resulted in staggering costs and little practical effect.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a 2012 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) said that 48 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related offense. These prison sentences are not cheap. In New York City alone, the annual cost of housing an individual prisoner exceeds $160,000 annually.

Aside from the monetary cost to taxpayers, the human cost of the War on Drugs is steep. According to the BJS, the average sentence for drug offense was increased to 87 months in 2006. A felony drug possession charge has serious consequences for people even after their prison sentence is up, such as the loss of the right to vote.

The effects of U.S. drug policy do not just affect Americans. In Mexico, cartel-related violence is high. CNN reports that more than 60,000 people in Mexico have been killed as part of drug-related violence between 2006 and 2012.

Despite the cost in money and lives generated by the War on Drugs, there seems to have been little effect on the international drug trade. A report published in the British Medical Journal in April 2013 found that in the U.S. from 1990 to 2007, “the average inflation-adjusted and purity-adjusted prices of heroin, cocaine and cannabis decreased by 81 percent, 80 percent and 86 percent, respectively.” At the same time, “average purity increased by 60 percent, 11 percent and 161 percent, respectively.” A decrease in price indicates increased availability of a product, and this happened despite increased efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to clamp down on the drug trade.

The report found that seizures of marijuana by the DEA increased by 495 percent between 1990 and 2010. Drugs are still finding their way to buyers in the U.S.

The effect of our current prohibition on recreational drugs has been heavy both for American taxpayers as well as those living in countries such as Mexico with heavy drug violence.

The War on Drugs also represents a significant missed business opportunity.

“If current illegal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, the annual tax revenue of that drug legalization would be more than $40 billion,” board member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Richard Branson wrote in an article for Politico.

The unending activity of the drug trade indicates that illegal narcotics are a product people want. Prohibition didn’t stop Americans from drinking, and the War on Drugs hasn’t stopped Americans from buying drugs.

The War on Drugs, while noble in its intent, stands in opposition to human nature. If people want a product badly enough, they will do what they need to get it.

Rather than attempt to fight the forces for supply and demand, the rational decision would be to treat drugs the same way we do alcohol and tobacco: legalize them and tax them. This would generate massive revenue for the government, and reduce the money taxpayers are spending on prison sentences for prisoners convicted of drug-related offenses. Perhaps best of all, it would end a long and bloody conflict that, right now, has no end in sight.