Columns / Discourse / October 13, 2010

Voice of Reason: Our failed war

Though America may be falling behind in international rankings in a number of categories, we remain the unquestioned top dog in one area: recreational drug usage. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently found that the United States leads the world in usage of both cocaine and marijuana, with cocaine usage rates a stunning four times higher than that of our nearest competitor, New Zealand. No other drugs were included in the survey, but there is no reason to believe we’re doing that much better with anything else.

We have lost the war on drugs. It is time for us, as a nation, to admit it. The Chicago Tribune recently found that in 1981 we spent $1.5 billion on anti-drug efforts. These days we now spent some $17 billion, and drug usage rates are rising rather than falling. Yet our politicians and most of our voters seem perfectly willing to stick their heads in the sand and keep throwing money into this black hole to make themselves feel like they’re doing something. It does seem logical after all, if something is bad, to have the government ban it. Such logic is stupefyingly simplistic. The logic we should be following is if a policy fails after decades while comparative countries go the opposite direction with great success, you stop increasing funding and get rid of the policy. I have yet to see the mainstream politician who is willing to admit this fact.

There is one politician of note who has argued for the legalization of drugs in the United States. What is interesting is that he is not an American. He is the ex-president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. Therein lies the dark side of America’s drug wars: the casualties are mostly Mexican. Driven by the sky-high profits available in the illicit American market, the cartels are willing to kill anything that stands in their way to control the routes to the United States. Those profits could be legally going to Americans, who could reinvest in our country instead of in drug lords who invest mostly in firearms. Last year Mexico lost more citizens to the drug cartels then America has lost in seven years to Iraqi insurgents. It is downright selfish for us to allow so many to die just so we can tell ourselves we are doing something to keep our kids off of drugs.

What would doing something different look like? It would involve fully legalizing all recreational drugs and submitting them to the same sort of taxes and regulations that we currently use on cigarettes and alcohol. Jeffry Miron of Harvard found that we would save $48.7 billion combined at the state and federal levels in an era of gaping budget deficits at both. We could stop spending money jailing non-violent offenders, funding programs like D.A.R.E. that have no statistical effect, and stop combating cartels in Mexico and Marxist insurgents in Columbia that are funded by American drug users. Politicians love talking about cutting waste from the budget, yet so few are willing to cut one of the grossest boondoggles that exist today.

But surely I’m heartless, talking about saving money at the cost of making drugs readily available to America’s youth. That would be a valid objection if it were true, but it is not. The Netherlands has made extensive progress in decriminalizing drugs, and has cocaine usage rates of 1.9 percent versus 16 percent in the United States. The rates for marijuana are 19.8 percent and 42.4 percent, respectively (these numbers are from the same WHO survey as above). It seems that removing the allure of the forbidden makes drug usage much less appealing. If that isn’t enough, remember also that users would be buying drugs from Food and Drug Administration-regulated pharmaceutical companies instead of dealers on the street, thereby decreasing the risk of dealers slipping in whatever they feel could boost their profit margins.

The status quo means thousands more dead, gaping budget deficits and the public health of this country continuing to deteriorate. Legalization is the only way forward.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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