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The Failure of the Legal War against Drugs

We have already indicated several times that the legal war against drugs has cost billions of dollars over the years without any noticeable impact on the actual use of illegal drugs. In addition to this fundamental problem, the war against drugs has had other negative consequences that recall those that occurred after the United States banned alcohol manufacture and use almost a century ago. These consequences include:

  • the formation of elaborate illegal organizations for the supply of illicit drugs;
  • many users turning to other criminal activities to support their habit;
  • police corruption, as police may take bribes to ignore drug trafficking or even sell illegal drugs that have been confiscated; and
  • because drug use is a victimless crime, the lack of complainant makes enforcement difficult, resulting in the use by police of entrapment and illegal search and seizure tactics.

In addition to these problems, the potential exists for conflict and recrimination in the control of the flow of illegal drugs. The principal drug-consuming nations are affluent and industrialized; the principal drug-producing countries are poor and basically agricultural (Paoli et al., 2009). Cocaine and heroin traffic in the western hemisphere is a particularly serious example of how this conflict of interests plays out. Consuming and producing countries vehemently accuse and blame each other and, depending on which side they are on, advocate either demand-side or supply-side solutions—controlling the demand of users in the United States for cocaine, as opposed to controlling the supply from South America. The concerns of the United States are fairly unambiguous. Cocaine imports have greatly increased during the past few decades, distribution patterns became more sophisticated, and cocaine and crack continue to be popular drugs. The position of producing nations is also clear-cut. These nations’ elites think that antidrug campaigns impose significant burdens and create formidable challenges, including the fostering of violence between powerful drug traffickers and law enforcement personnel (Paoli et al., 2009).

In short, there is little prospect of effective control of drugs through the criminal law in the United States, or any other nation (Scherrer, 2010). Some even argue that the War on Drugs has corrupted the institutions of the nation and that no law enforcement agency has escaped the effects of the profit that drives the drug trade and the racial bias that drives its criminalization (Marez, 2004). The various punitive approaches—attacking drug production abroad, interdiction (seizing drugs in transit), and domestic law enforcement (arresting and incarcerating sellers and buyers)—have failed (Smith, 2016).

There are two controversial alternatives, however. The first is a consideration of drug addiction and drug use more as a medical than a legal problem with an emphasis on comprehensive treatment, as is done, to some extent, in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries (Drug Policy Alliance, 2010).

The second is the legalization or decriminalization of drugs. As the influential Economist (2001) has argued, drugs are dangerous, but so is the illegality that surrounds them. Because an illegal drug is illegal, it cannot be regulated. Governments cannot insist on minimum quality standards for cocaine or warn asthma sufferers to avoid Ecstasy or demand that illegal drug distributors take responsibility for how their products are sold. With alcohol and tobacco, such restrictions are possible; with illegal drugs, these restrictions are not possible. If these drugs were legal, their sale would be controlled, taxed, and supervised; educational campaigns would proclaim their dangers. Through legalization, drugs would poison fewer customers, kill fewer dealers and bystanders, bribe fewer enforcement people, and raise more public revenue. Initially, there may be more users and more addicts.

The recommendation of the Economist (2001:16) was simply “to set it free.” This article contended that governments allow their citizens to engage in a variety of self-destructive things: to go bungee-jumping, to ride motorcycles and jet skis, to carry loaded guns, to drink alcohol, to play with explosives (fireworks), to have unsafe sex, to overeat, and to smoke cigarettes. Some of these activities are far more dangerous or harmful than taking drugs. The article concluded that trade in drugs may be immoral or irresponsible, but it should no longer be illegal. The same theme highlighted Jacob Sullum’s (2003) book, Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, which outlined the injustice of punishing people for their politically incorrect choice of intoxicants and argued that government agencies, antidrug activists, and a naive national media have exaggerated the public’s fear of the harmful effects of recreational drugs.

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