Failing with the Best of Intentions pt3: War on Drugs

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“We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag.” — Ronald Reagan.

There has never been a president more associated with the drug war as Ronald Reagan. Reagan didn’t start the drug war, that was more or less Nixon, but he dramatically escalated domestic and military policies aimed at drug use. Mostly these policies criminalized drug use with increasingly harsh penalties and jail times. Reagan reinstated mandatory minimums, instituted arbitrarily harsh penalties regardless of whatever real danger a drug might or might not posess, and dramatically increased federal law enforcement prosecution and drug interdiction. This had the somewhat intended effect of increasing the number of incarcerations. I think what people did not anticipate is that would give the US one of the highest inmate populations in the world.

Reagan was the supply side economics guy.  He wanted to make drugs too expensive, difficult, or risky to acquire by targeting the supply chain from grower to end user.  If you reduce the supply of drugs you reduce the rate of drug use and addiction right?  Silly Reagan.  While Supply Side theories may have a limited place in economic theory, they are are completely useless in the face of addition.  You will never EVER win the war on drugs using supply side tactics.   No matter how many drug dealers you capture or kill, or how many tonnes of cocaine, heroine, or other drugs you seize all you will ever accomplish is driving up the price of the drugs.  As profits increase for the dealers and growers who remain, they become better armed, better organized, and acquire better territory.  It gets to the point where the high profits and constant demand are destabilizing regions around the globe which call for more military action.  It is a self-defeating paradigm.  You must make the drug economy unprofitable, not by increasing risk to suppliers, but by decreasing demand.

“Drug users should be taken out and shot”  — Daryl Gates   (LA Chief police noted for forming DARE and aggressive paramilitary tactics)

The War on Drugs quickly became a war on drug users.  Nancy Reagan’s spectacularly inane appeal to “Just Say No” resounded across the country.  Over hyped stories in the media about crack whores and crack babies stigmatized the lower classes and minority groups and provided the justification for a literal army of Federal, State, and Local law enforcement to launch a tragic war on a desperate population.  30 years later nothing has changed.  Today, we spend billions of dollars every year on criminal justice and military operations and give passing lip service to treatment and medical care.  We insist on treating drug users as enemy combatants instead of victims of their own addictions.  We don’t put people in prisons; we put them in  POW camps.  And we’re really really good at it.  We have nearly 2.5 million people locked up in prisons all in an attempt at punishing the victim.  It does nothing in the short term or the long term to affect drug use population wide.  It is a 100% useless policy.  At Best.  More likely it’s a counter-productive policy that erodes whatever support systems a drug user would need to break the cycle and better him or herself.

The 21st century is all about demand side economics.  A fact we continue to ignore in all manner of places but most especially in the drug war.  It doesn’t matter that treatment is many times more effective than incarceration.  It doesn’t matter that it’s vastly cheaper.  It doesn’t matter that it fosters numerous pro-social behaviors.  What matters is we have the bad guy in jail.  We will beat and punish him for years before we ever let him go.  When we finally do, what will he have learned?  Nothing except that we are the enemy.  If you must go to the Bible for your advice then go this passage, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you”.  By any standard of measurement you’d like to use, financial, gross tonnage, statistical, civil freedoms, we’re surely losing the war on drugs, but if it’s any consolation we’re winning the war on users.


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