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“Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists,” wrote H.L. Mencken in 1925. “There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more…The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

Substitute “40 years” for five and “drug use” for drunkenness and Mencken’s 90-year-old words are a near perfect take on today’s war on drugs.

Taking a cue from Mencken, here are seven reasons to end the war on drugs that the last four decades have made all too clear.


The drug war is…

1. Expensive. I’m always amazed that fiscal conservatives aren’t the loudest advocates of ending the drug war, because it has been one pricey failure. Government has spent more than $1.5 trillion since 1970 trying to prevent people from doing drugs—at this point, we’re dropping as much as $51 billion each year (split among all federal, state, and local government). That’s no small chunk of change, but it might be a little less ridiculous if it weren’t so…

2. Ineffective. The war on drugs does many things (more on that below), but the one thing it doesn’t do is stop people from using drugs. After more than four decades of prohibition, the U.S. has the highest rate of illegal drug use worldwide. In fact, even as drug war spending ballooned, addiction rates have stayed steady at about 1.3 percent. By historical and international standards, the drug war simply doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the drug war isn’t only ineffective, it’s also…

3. Counter-productive. Beyond failing to make people stop using drugs, America’s drug laws actually make abuse more likely. In Portugal—a wealthy, Western country with a culture and government close enough to our own to make this comparison fair—decriminalizing drugs resulted in abuse rates dropping by half. The Netherlands, which likewise has far more lenient drug laws than the U.S., has significantly lower rates of drug abuse than America because people are more likely to seek help for their addictions if they don’t risk jail in the process. But jailing addicts is just one way the drug war is…

4. Inhumane. While just over half of Americans now support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, eight out of ten support legalizing medical marijuana. That’s good news, because it can be cruel to deny medical marijuana to people who are sick or dying when it is the only thing which will ease their pain. Yet, forcing people to die painfully rather than letting them eat a special brownie isn’t the only way the drug war is…

5. Anti-family. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko covered a story recently in which the state of Kansas arrested a little boy’s mom after he argued in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in a school presentation. Caught with cannabis oil she’d used to alleviate her Crohn’s disease, now this single mother must fight to retain custody of her son. This is just one of many cases of the drug war breaking up families over nonviolent “crimes”—and the traumatizing consequences these children experience are just one more way the drug war is…

6. Dangerous. For our neighbors in Mexico, the drug war has produced tens of thousands of brutal murders, with some victims beheaded, dismembered or assaulted with ice picks. Here in the U.S., scarce prison space and police efforts are often devoted to non-violent drug violations while real criminals walk free. Meanwhile, just as alcohol prohibition caused violent crime to increase by criminalizing a high-demand industry, so the drug war increases violent crime rates. But even if none of these practical reasons to end the drug war existed, this state control over what we put in our own bodies would still be…

7. Inappropriate. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, “a wise and frugal Government [shall] restrain men from injuring one another [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”

The drug war embodies the opposite of this philosophy: It is the epitome of a busybody state determined to regulate our most basic choices. There are many good reasons not to do drugs, but it’s a decision that shouldn’t involve Washington.

By almost any measure, the drug war has been an abysmal failure. The war on drugs is a war on us.

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