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Thoughts on the Drug War

Last month, the Associated Press (AP) dropped the bombshell that the “War on Drugs” has cost the United States one trillion dollars.  That’s right: a trillion dollars.  It’s been being fought for four decades and now is verging on the most expensive and longest running war in U.S. history.  And there’s a growing sense that it hasn’t worked.

Recently, the failure of the policy has been voiced by numerous folks in government, academia, the media and even by Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.  Kerlikowske flat-out admitted to the Associated Press that, “in the grand scheme, [the war on drugs] has not been successful” and that after 40 years “the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

If you haven’t solved a problem despite 40 years of trying, maybe it’s time to switch things up.  The AP article makes the case that America’s massive allocation of resources to solve the drug problem has done nothing in the face of increased drug trafficking and escalated drug-induced conflicts in Colombia and Mexico.  In fact, the money the U.S. continues to burn is only fanning the flames.  The AP tracked where the money has been spent in the past 40 years and found that the exponentially increasing budgets have only made the drug problem worse.  For example, we’ve spent $450 billion to lock people up in federal prisons.  Last year, 50 percent of all federal prisoners were serving sentences for drug offenses.  As Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron notes, “[C]urrent policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use, but it’s costing the public a fortune.”

But not everyone agrees.  Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino has spent his entire career immersed in the war on drugs, beginning as an undercover officer buying street-level narcotics in Austin, Texas, in the early 1970s.  At this point, Trevino told the AP, “[W]e are in it too deep to quit.”

But is that a rational basis to perpetuate a strategy that appears to have failed?  Without doubt, drug addiction is a serious public health problem, and drug trafficking is now dominated by dangerous and violent groups.  We need to take those problems seriously.  But getting back to the Roulette table analogy, if your strategy to solve all your family’s financial woes is to always bet on red, and the strategy failed, would you then borrow money against your house in order to keep playing the same game?

Didn’t Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s teach us that simply criminalizing a recreational drug doesn’t stop the supply, and it makes things worse by introducing an organized criminal element?  Maybe it’s time for America to step away from the Roulette table, leave the casino, and find a different way to solve our drug problems.  We can do better.

~ Rick Collins


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