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April 6, 2009

A Losing Battle: The War on Drugs


Here is a number to keep in mind as you read about drug-fueled violence in Mexico. It is 1.3 percent, which represents Americans who report being addicted to illegal narcotics. Here is another number: 80. That’s the number of years over which the percentage of Americans addicted to illegal narcotics has gone unchanged.


At least, that’s according to an organization of law enforcement officers who say that the nation’s War on Drugs, given to us by Richard Nixon, has failed.


A couple of weeks ago, while addressing questions online, President Barack Obama laughed off a question about whether it was time to legalize drugs. He gave an even more substantive answer in further militarizing the border between the United States and Mexico.


His administration had come to office showing promise that it might in some ways reverse course on the issue. First, he said that he would end federal raids on licensed marijuana facilities in states that have legalized it as a drug, and then he appointed as his drug czar a cop from Seattle whose statements seemed to indicate that he favored giving marijuana arrests a very low priority. This didn’t just represent a repudiation of Bush-era policies, mind you. Marijuana arrests rose dramatically first during the Clinton years.


Obama’s unfortunate decision to further militarize the Mexican-American border suggests that if these become policy, it will only represent a small backtrack on a 40-year approach that hasn’t made a dent in the number of Americans addicted to drugs. In fact, as the Boomers age and are replaced as the youngest cohort, the numbers of the War on Drugs tell a very different story – a policy that has failed and is out-of-touch. Since Nixon first declared the War on Drugs, a larger percentage of Americans have used illegal narcotics, and the drugs they’re using are both more potent and easier to get.


In announcing his decision, the administration cited that part of the problem rested with demand, spurred in the United States. The question that didn’t come up at the time is why American demand is fueling violence in Mexico after four decades of draconian laws aimed at quashing it. That means the question wasn’t asked – what to do about demand.


The answer is that there is probably nothing to do about demand. Four decades of prohibition has not affected demand. In fact, prohibition of drugs has helped increase demand, leading to what is essentially an unregulated market by which every apartment, dorm room and bar stool has become a potential sales point.


This, in turn, explains why the chief danger to the marijuana trade today isn’t police interdiction but from within the drug market. The most recent studies have found that the fastest growing segment of teen substance abuse comes not from more potent illegal marijuana marketed in political discourse as a gateway, but from otherwise legal prescription drugs, often stolen from a teen’s own home medicine chest. It ratifies the results of studies that have found that for teens, it is easier to get illegal marijuana than it is to get legal, heavily regulated cigarettes and liquor.


What does this tell us about how to solve substance abuse? A study by liberal lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald, written with assistance from The Cato Institute, suggests that perhaps Portugal’s model is one of follow. Greenwald wrote that after the country decriminalized all drugs earlier this decade, marked improvement can be demonstrated in every relevant metric – from drug abuse to drug-related crime.


No doubt the increased military presence at the Mexican border will prompt a short-term success in the War on Drugs. The question is how long the country – already facing long-term deficits and a need to rebuild several sectors of its economy – can afford to persist. Once the headlines subside, if history is our guide there will still be one number circulating around – the percentage of Americans addicted to illegal narcotics.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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