America’s war on drugs is misguided

After almost 40 years, the United States government’s “War on Drugs” has reached a turning point – or so the media would have you believe. Lately, American news outlets have been hawking a story about Mexican drug cartels invading the United States. The threat, they tell us, is so big the Obama Administration is considering using the military to stop it. This latest stage in the drug war isn’t really what it seems.

Rather than being a solution to the drug problem, the violence of the drug war is the result of a policy of prohibition. During alcohol prohibition, gangs headed by the likes of Al Capone thrived by creating a black market in liquor. Prohibition could not kill the demand for alcohol, so organized crime provided the supply. Since it was forced underground, the purity of alcohol was not guaranteed and gangland violence was the only way to get ahead of the competition.

Most Americans now realize the folly of alcohol prohibition. They know it led to violent crime, and it’s better to treat alcohol abuse as a medical problem. They should also realize the same logic applies to currently illegal substances. The use of mind-altering chemicals is as old as human civilization, and no amount of laws will prevent someone from using drugs if they want to use them.

Considering this, it makes more sense to legalize drugs and regulate their production and use. As Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The drug war is bad policy for other reasons, too. It actually puts dangerous and benign drugs in the same category. According to the United States government, marijuana is just as dangerous and medically useless as heroin. Nevertheless, there hasn’t been a single death caused by marijuana use alone, while alcohol and tobacco use cause about 520,000 fatalities every year. We have a policy based more on conservative ideology than sound science.

The drug war is connected to two of the worst social problems: racism and economic injustice. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, even though they don’t use drugs at a higher rate. As Dan Berger of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Law Reform Project has noted, “While rates of drug use are virtually identical across racial lines, African Americans are arrested and incarcerated at a rate far outpacing the rest of the population … In 2006 two-thirds of those arrested for a drug violation were white and a third African American, despite African Americans comprising only 12.8 percent of the population and a comparable percentage of drug users.”

Drug charges have the single most arrests of any federal crime. The prison-industrial complex has access to hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders as a labor reserve. Along with helping drug lords get rich, the war on drugs is an economic boon for corporate America. It has helped build a whole industry around locking people up.

It’s time to face the facts: Billions of your tax dollars are being used to fund an ineffective, illogical and morally questionable drug war. We can do better than this.