The drug trade is scary: Overdoses, gang killings, broken homes. And hard drugs do not encapsulate the problem. Despite its relative innocuousness, marijuana fuels Mexico’s inconceivably brutal cartel war. Former ICE Special Agent Jamie Haase says it accounts for 98% of border seizures and an estimated 60% of drug cartel profits. Generations of Americans have been brainwashed to equate drugs with evil, danger, and violence. But a dispassionate examination of facts demonstrates that drug prohibition has failed just as spectacularly as alcohol prohibition did nearly a century ago. The policy fails to prohibit drug use in practice while perpetuating violence and deprivation.
I once supported prohibition. But college introduced me to friends who frequently smoked the weed with roots in hell. Once I learned about their experiences, I felt betrayed by the media and public education system. To me, marijuana sounded like a tremendous waste of time, but far from dangerous. Although roughly half of American adults have tried it — and support decriminalization — a great deal of ignorance persists, even more so regarding other illegal drugs. Eventually, I concluded that no matter how dangerous a drug is, banning it is the wrong policy.
The ignorance is enabled by fear, stemming from reasonable concerns. Drugs can be highly addictive and toxic, putting users and those around them at risk. They are decried as vice, blamed for violent and self-destructive behavior. The drug trade is equated with criminality, from dealers to gang enforcers to addicts desperate for a fix.
Prohibition proposes to reduce these harms by making drugs less available and attractive. But according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 22.6 million people 12 and older used illegal drugs in 2010, or 8.9 percent of the population (versus 8 percent in 2008). The survey included “prescription-type psychotherapeutics used nonmedically,” that account for 7 million users. Marijuana accounted for 17.4 million users (or 6.9 percent). The other categories total 10.6 million, for a grand total of 28 million, which indicates some people used multiple drugs.
At any rate, 22.6 million used some illicit substance, despite the risk of incarceration. The same year, drug offenders accounted for 52.1 percent and about 17.4 percent of federal and state prisoners respectively according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This included trafficking and possession convictions; violent offenders were categorized separately. With over 1.5 million prisoners, the land of the free has the world’s highest documented incarceration rate (though North Korea might beat us out). Would locking up another 10 million users solve the problem?
Incarceration means social dislocation. Isolated from their families, non-violent drug offenders face grim prospects for employment after prison.
Drug laws and law enforcement tend to be racially discriminatory. Crack, heavily associated with violent, poor urban centers, carries substantially higher mandatory minimum sentences than its sister drug cocaine, despite being nearly the same substance. According to an ACLU report, black Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for using marijuana, despite using at a slightly lower rate. That is the national average — in Iowa, they are eight and a half times more likely to be arrested.
Investigative journalist Radley Balko’s recent book Rise of the Warrior Cop largely blames the drug war for “the militarization of America’s police forces.” Balko documents increasing reliance on federally-funded SWAT teams and wanton disregard for civil liberties. The law enforcement and criminal justice systems are confronted by powerful organized criminal interests. Just as alcohol prohibition created Al Capone, drug prohibition made cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera a billionaire. If drugs were legal, businesses, not gangs, would sell them.
The drug trade is no more inherently criminal than brewing alcohol. In a legal market, disputes over property or contracts can be settled peacefully, in court. Without such redress, buyers and sellers of drugs resort to violence, just as bootleggers did. Police resources are diverted from addressing burglaries, rapes, and non-drug murders. In 1999, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that drug prohibition had increased homicides 25-75 percent.
The toxicity and addictiveness of illegal drugs is significantly overstated. To be clear, they hold serious risks, but as journalist John Stossel likes to note, far more people try crack-cocaine each year than become addicted. Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart has likewise found that meth and Adderall have similar, mild effects in a clinical setting. In his words, “they are the same drug.” Hart’s research and reviews of literature conclude that crack, meth, bath salts, etc. do not produce violent behavior or impart superhuman strength. Drugs have powerful effects on the human mind and body, but those effects are at best misunderstood, at worst misrepresented.
Addressing drug use medically is more constructive than incarceration. A 2009 Cato Institute study by journalist Glenn Greenwald examined Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy, which focuses on harm minimization. It found little increase in drug use and a decrease among adolescents. There are also fewer drug-related HIV cases and fatal overdoses. A reduction in the stigma of drugs has made data collection more reliable, complicating the picture, but decriminalization’s broad social benefits remain. Illegal drugs themselves show medical promise. Marijuana gives nauseous, underweight chemotherapy patients the munchies. And MDMA can mitigate PTSD. But under prohibition, users in medical need are subjected to incarceration and worse. Black market drugs are more likely to be tainted. Without assurance of their content, users face elevated risk of overdose or poisoning.
In theory, drug prohibition is about helping people. In practice, it pushes certain people beyond help. At worst, it dehumanizes them. Even if drugs are immoral, going to war with them has only promoted violence, not virtue. Drugs will always carry risks for their users, if no one else. But millions use anyway. And hundreds of millions do not. Most informed adults would choose not to use drugs, just as roughly half choose not to drink alcohol. Prohibition of that drug lasted twelve years. More than four decades into a war on certain others, we have become our own worst enemies.
Luca Gattoni-Celli is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @TheGattoniCelli.