One of the more exciting and reported-upon developments of the day of the 2012 Presidential election were the success of ballot initiatives legalising the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. These initiatives seemed to set the stage for a showdown between Federal and state authorities over the legality of marijuana, as possession of marijuana remains a Federal crime. Happily for Coloradan and Washingtonian marijuana users and nascent marijuana-related businesses, the Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the Federal government would not challenge the new laws, and would instead focus on organised crime and preventing underage use. This is a big transition for America as a whole as it means that other states can freely legalise marijuana without worrying about getting into a fight with the Federal government. Furthermore, it is the crumbling away of a central element of the apparatus of the War on Drugs — an initiative that has resulted in an eightfold increase in the prison population since 1980. Arrest for marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States — resulting in over 750,000 arrests per year — and over 12% of the both state and Federal prison populations is in jail for offences related to marijuana possession.
Economically, the War on Drugs is a rather concerning thing. Most obviously very large amounts of resources — time, energy and money — are devoted to its pursuit. And that has opportunity costs. Every dollar spent locking up nonviolent marijuana users or killing innocent people with SWAT teams is a dollar that is not spent training doctors, or educating children, or investing in clean energy technologies, or developing cures for diseases or anything else that people have a need or want for. According to the Open Society Foundation, the costs of a drug control system mount to over $100 billion dollars per year. That is quite a large allocation of resources. And for what?
Well, drug criminalisation and since the start of the War on Drugs stronger drug enforcement hasn't stopped the use of drugs. People were using drugs before the war on drugs, and they're still using them now. There has been a modest drop in illegal drug use — from 14.1% in 1979, to 8.7% in 2011 — but this may not even be down to the War on Drugs, as there are very many other factors determining drug use beyond legality or illegality including culture, drug supply, drug discovery, etc that influence whether an individual or group of people across society will choose to use drugs. And in terms of social harm, the illegal drugs may not even be the most harmful ones. And according to Professor David Nutt of the Lancet, the most harmful drug is an entirely legal one — alcohol:
Prohibition of alcohol, of course, was tried in the United States and was a disastrous failure. It didn't stop alcohol use, but it did empower a whole new criminal class. Protection rackets, organised crime and gangland murders were more common during Prohibition than when alcohol could be bought legally.
More importantly, the evidence suggests that rehabilitation is superior to punishment in terms of cost effectiveness, and in terms of preventing drug users from using drugs — drugs, of course, are rife in prisons. Prison can be highly harmful to drug users due to it exacerbating or causing mental health problems and spreading sexually or needle transmitted diseases. And those who are unlucky, and are criminally prosecuted for drug use face the danger of a downward spiral, as ex-convicts find it much harder than the general population to find work. Other issues include problems of splitting up families — huge numbers of children, especially from ethnic minorities who are more likely to go to prison have grown up fatherless since the beginning of the War on Drugs — as well as the empowerment of criminal gangs and cartels whose entire business model and high profit margins are based around drugs being controlled. The United States itself is not getting the worst of it — the war between the drug cartels for territory and smuggling passages in Northern Mexico has devastated the region politically and economically and resulted in thousands of gory and gruesome deaths. Violence, protection rackets and organised crime are also active in other Latin American countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Once again, prohibitionism is failing.
What I think the War on Drugs is really about is not so much deterring or preventing drug use, but about making a statement that drug use is unacceptable in society. In a country where the last three Presidents are confessed illegal drug users — who if they had been caught could have faced years in prison — the hypocrisy stinks to high heaven. Of course, drugs can have a disastrous impact on the lives of individuals and the wider community. Drug users can often become workless thieves, stealing for drugs and neglecting their families. Certain drugs consumed in higher quantities can cause brain damage, and illnesses. But evidence suggests that rehabilitation is much more effective than punishment in preventing such effects. The War on Drugs stinks of the Nixon era in which it was born — moral panic, moral hypocrisy. The legalisation of marijuana in a number of states first as a medicine, and now for recreational purposes is breaking down the failed prohibitionism and moral hypocrisy.
In the long run, we are perhaps headed toward a more flexible model where most drug use is legal but controlled and regulated. Drug users can receive a controlled and uncontaminated product, so they can be surer of quality and safety — instead of having to worry about the contaminants used by criminal gangs today. With drugs being sold by regulated businesses instead of by street criminals, the selling of drugs to children and to problem users can be more easily monitored and prevented. And those who develop a drug problem can more easily receive rehabilitation — paid for through taxes on the drugs being sold.
Further into the future, the advent of 3-D printing and molecular manufacturing means that the spread of drugs — including experimental recipes — will be completely unstoppable. Every home with an advanced 3-D printer will be able to print drugs, both traditional recipes and experimental ones. In such a context — although I am sure that authorities will try to prevent the distribution of drug recipes over the internet, as they are doing now with gun components — the only thing that can really prevent drug abuse are old-fashioned personal responsibility, parental responsibility, rehabilitation in case of addiction, and medical treatment in case of overdose.
In the even longer run, drugs may become obsolete as desire modification becomes a reality. Now that would make Richard Nixon's head spin.