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July 31, 2009

"Why it’s time to end the war on drugs"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary by Matthew Engel from the Financial Times.  Here is a snippet:

For decades many academics and professionals have regarded the current blanket prohibition on recreational drugs (though not alcohol or tobacco) as absurd, counter-productive and destructive. But there has never been any political imperative for change, and a thousand reasons to do nothing.

But 2009 has seen a change: among the academics and professionals who study this issue, from Carlisle Racecourse to the think-tanks of ­Washington, there is growing sense that reform is possible and increasingly urgent.  The argument is not that drug use is A Good Thing.  It is that the collateral damage caused by the so-called war on drugs has now reached catastrophic proportions. And even some politicians have started to think this might be worth discussing. The biggest single reason (as with so much else this year) is the Obama Effect.  In one way, this may be short-lived since the president’s reputation will eventually be tarnished by ­reality.  But the chief barrier to reform has been that the international agreements barring the drugs trade have been enforced primarily by threats of retaliation from the White House.

Obama is the third successive president believed to have used illegal drugs: Bill Clinton famously did not inhale; in a conversation that was secretly taped when he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush didn’t deny that he had smoked marijuana or used cocaine; Obama has admitted using both dope and “a little blow”.  Unlike the other two, he is also on record as favouring decriminalisation of cannabis and more generally addressing the problem.  The president having other preoccupations, there is no sign of him proposing the Do What The Hell You Like Bill to Congress any time soon.  There is every sign that the blanket ban on other people’s initiatives has been partially lifted.

Obama has also come to power amid a growing sense of alarm about the US prison population. Nearly four million Americans are either physically in jail (including almost 5 per cent of all black males) or under some form of state or federal jurisdiction.  About 20 per cent of these are listed as having committed drug offences.  But this must be a gross underestimate of reality.  I recently asked a British judge what percentage of the defendants in his court were there for drugs-related crimes: not just direct breaches of the drug laws, but also crimes committed by those whose behaviour was affected by drug use or who were trying to obtain money to buy them.  He thought for a moment then said: “Sixty per cent. And most of the rest involve alcohol.”  We may assume that, in the more drug-pervasive ­American culture, the figure would be higher than this.

July 31, 2009 at 01:46 PM | Permalink


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Some of the factors that are associated with a high probability of incarceration are
1) gender
2) date of birth
3) race/ethnicity
4) developmental disability
5) mental illness
These factors are immutable with the possible exception of some types of mental illness.
In addition there are life style choices
6) criminal behavior
7) alcohol/drug abuse
and there are other factors that depend on individual circumstances such as
8) residential status
9) employment status
10) educational attainment
11) accumulated debt/wealth

A major obstacle to ending the "War on Drugs" is that alcohol/drug abuse is a lifestyle choice. If has been a hard long slog to get the criminal justice system to realize that they need the expertise of medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment communities. We have people locked up that are not a threat to themselves or anyone else because they refuse to change their lifestyle.

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 31, 2009 3:52:28 PM

Developmental disability and mental illness may be immutable (at least to a large extent) once they have set in, but in many cases they also may be preventable prospectively.

Environmental factors, such as the presence of lead and other neurotoxins in residential environments, account for many such defects. Indeed there are some scholars who seem to think that the majority of the crime decline of the last two decades is causually related to the corresponding decline in the presence of lead paint in housing stock.

I also think it is somewhat inaccurate to place "accumulated debt/wealth" in the category that depends on individual circumstances, at least without also including the socioeconomic circumstances into which one is born and raised in the immutable category. Everyone has the opportunity to escape poverty, but being born into it certainly increases the chances of eventual incarceration.

Posted by: Observer | Jul 31, 2009 7:23:06 PM

It is time to end the war on all adult pleasures. Leave alone those that do not hurt themselves nor others. These are the majority of people. Of those who smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years, 1 in 7 will get lung cancer. If a genetics test can be developed to find the 1 in 7, the other 6 should be able to sue the government for wrongful taxation and to countersue plaintiffs suing tobacco companies for fraudulently raising their prices by their false litigation claims.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 31, 2009 7:30:09 PM


You point about the developmental disabilities and environmental factors is well taken and that reminded me that early childhood neglect and abuse can also result in developmental disabilities.

The list of socioeconomic factors that are associated with a high probability of incarceration is very long and I listed the ones that I thought were most important in influencing the decision to detain after arrest. I think including the socioeconomic circumstances at birth in the immutable category is an interesting suggestion that I will need to think about.

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 31, 2009 7:49:54 PM

Treat drugs like alcohol. Legalize Tax and Regulate.

Posted by: beth | Jul 31, 2009 8:57:00 PM

Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation didn’t yet run amok. One need not travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under banner of the war on drugs. If we are all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance credibility.

The witch-hunt doctor’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. In the eyes of God (Gen.1:12), its all good. The administration claims it wants to reduce demand for cartel product, but extraditing Canadian seed vendor Marc Emery increases that demand. He enables American farmers to steal cartel customers with better product at lower price.

The constitutionality of the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) is derived from an interstate commerce clause. This clause is invoked to authorize funding outlaws, endangering homeland security, avoiding tax revenue, and throwing good money after bad. Official policy is to eradicate, not tax, the number-one cash crop in the land. America rejected prohibition, but its back. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

Nixon promised the Schafer Commission would support the criminalization of his enemies, but it didn’t. No matter, the witch-hunt was on. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA halted all research. Marijuana has no medical use, period.

The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. A specific church membership should not be prerequisite for Americans to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion with his or her maker, precludes the free exercise of religious liberty.

Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Puritans came here to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

Common-law must hold that adults own their bodies. Socrates said to know your self. Statutes should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate self-exploration for seekers. Americans’ right to the pursuit of happiness is supposed to be inalienable.

Simple majorities in each house could put repeal of the CSA on the president’s desk. The books have ample law on them without the CSA. The usual caveats remain in effect. You are liable for damages when you screw up. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based drugs policy.

Posted by: Bill Harris | Jul 31, 2009 9:26:59 PM

So that you do not duplicate the slaughter stemming from cigarettes and alcohol, one should license the buyer.

As problems mount with the adult pleasure, points get added. After a number, the buyer loses the license.

That leaves responsible consumers of the adult pleasure alone, and prevents the harm from addiction and out of control use.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 31, 2009 10:29:08 PM

This author is dreaming (or perhaps tripping) if he thinks Obama is even going to approach this issue. Tinkering with the crack guidelines is all well and good, but that is incredibly far from dismantling the war on drugs.

Too many government busybodies depend on the WoD for their livelihoods for it to just go away. Whether they believe drugs are actually dangerous or not is almost irrelevant.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 1, 2009 1:00:41 AM

It is a problem that so many depend on criminalization for their livelihood.

Posted by: beth | Aug 1, 2009 1:24:17 AM

SH: You mean rent seeking is part of the motivation for the war on drugs?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 1, 2009 1:33:06 AM

You cannot just open the gates and duplicate the costs of alcohol and tobacco for many other substances. The cost in 2005 was $half trillion. The data are from a Harvard Law grad cult criminal, but seem plausible anyway.


There has to be a method to leave people alone who cause no harm to self or others, and to restrict those who cause harm.

Because this is ghoulish human experimentation, a typical county, most likely in Ohio, should be selected. Only residents of the county get exempted from prohibition, monitor for 5 years, see what the benefits and costs of decriminalization are, one adult pleasure at a time.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 1, 2009 12:19:32 PM

Bill Harris asks "How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity?"

When politicians discovered that mostly only puritan zealots vote in primaries.

Posted by: John K | Aug 3, 2009 9:35:22 AM

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