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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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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