Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Based on this metric, the drug war is clearly insane, as this Foreign Policy article notes:
As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portionof the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine — that’s about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense — that’s more than ten times the figure in 1980.
As a result, the United States is spending about $40 billion per year on the war on drugs — with three quarters of that expenditure on apprehending and punishing dealers and users. All of those police out there slapping cuffs on folks found with a baggie of Purple Kush aren’t watching for drunk drivers or burglars. And drug enforcement is more closely linked with violent crime than drug use. Meanwhile, the cost of lost productivity from jailed citizens is around $39 billion per year. Such sums are considerably higher than the costs of ill-health associated with drug use, suggesting in strict economic terms at least that it isn’t drugs — but drug control policy — that is the problem. Add in the social effects of mass incarceration (from rape to split families to unemployment to poverty) and the uncertain benefits of the war on drugs become dwarfed by the known costs.
Harsh enforcement hasn’t failed as a policy only in the United States, of course. Across countries, analysis by World Bank economists Philip Keefer, Norman Loayaza, and Rodrigo Soares suggests that drug prosecution rates or the number of police in a country has no effect on drug prices.
Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs — programs that include needle exchange programs and medication — see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.
Obviously, no policy is perfect. But decriminalization or even outright legalization appears to be the lesser of two evils, but a considerable margin.
Meanwhile, popular attitudes towards drug policy in the United States are finally shifting. For the first time since Gallup started asking the question, the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legal. And the country already has what might be called a more nuanced approach to other addictive drugs. The U.S. government is happy to conclude trade agreements that actuallyencourage smoking around the world, for example. And the United States is willing to bear the domestic health costs of tobacco and alcohol use that kill 30 times as many people a year as do illegal drugs. Yes, policies towards cocaine or heroin should be far more constraining than those towards cigarettes or beer, but the rationale for such a completely different approach to one set of substances than the other is threadbare.
Nobody should underestimate the appalling toll of drug addiction — it ends many lives and ruins many more. Of the 250 million drug users worldwide, the United Nations estimates around 25 million are dependent. The question is, does the current approach towards drug policy work to reduce that toll? And what are the spillover effects of America and Europe’s hard line on drugs to other countries? The evidence suggests the policy has failed and that the spillover effects are considerable.
Indeed, given the horrific costs we’ve suffered for the past 40 years, to no avail, isn’t it about time we change things up a bit? We literally can’t afford not to – and I say that as someone who’s never really touched alcohol or tobacco, let alone drugs (nothing personal, I just don’t care for any of the stuff).