September 14, 2009

Prohibition as woo

Michael Bloomberg, former candidate for Mayor of New York, enjoyed it; Andrew Cuomo did not; Bill Clinton didn’t inhale; and George W. Bush has been clean since 1974. The list of American politicians who have experimented with illegal drugs is as long as your arm, yet we can’t seem to move past a failed prohibition policy.

The cost to the civilized world for prohibition of recreational drugs has been heavy. In human terms alone there are thousands of deaths, many thousands of injuries and illnesses, untold societal displacement and enslavement of innocents. The border drug war in Mexico alone is estimated to have cost somewhere near 15,000 lives, with the first quarter of 2009 averaging nearly 400 deaths monthly.

In a piece published on this blog last year, I compared the recognized failure of America’s Noble Experiment with the modern folly of global drug prohibition. Both endeavors began with great hope and promise, and both proved ineffective. That our politicians have not yet found the courage to admit the failure does not alter the fact.

The cost

Prohibition of drugs, just like the 1920’s prohibition of alcohol, elevates the cost of a substance to a point where users often turn to criminal enterprise as a means of paying for the habit. Prohibition drives drug manufacturers underground to produce their products in unsanitary conditions, exposing the casual user to grave health risks. The illegal status of a desired substance creates an underground market akin to the rumrunners of the 1920’s, and just like then, organized crime has taken over the business. The cartels compete for markets and innocents die.

The argument is that legalization will promote drug use. While this is possible, we must ask ourselves if that risk outweighs the collateral damage currently caused by the war on drugs and the resulting narco-capitalistic underground market.

Perhaps it once could have been argued that the benefits of prohibition outweighed the human damage, but no longer. The war on drugs is causing the deaths of far more casual users and otherwise uninvolved innocents than the drugs themselves ever did.

The obstacles to a reasonable solution remain the same today as in the 1920’s; religion and politics. But there is an additional blockade to progress in this modern era.


The production, transportation and distribution of contraband drugs is highly organized, and there are likely more overtly legitimate citizens who, directly or indirectly, have a stake in maintaining the illegal status of drugs than is obvious. Profits in this market are all but obscene. The drug trade is a capitalist’s wet dream.

The world’s richest societies do not feel direct effect from the underground business. It is in the poorer, more easily corruptible states where the war on drugs reaps its toll in human carnage. Whole countries have converted to narco-capitalism, forcing the residents into slave-like conditions. They labor under cruel conditions just to protect their lives and provide for families.

Although the third world feels the effect more directly, more advanced societies have seen violence as well. Drug gangs have reduced many of our city streets to battlegrounds, and some of our schools are not safe for our children. Then there are the overdoses, illness from contaminated drugs, and spread of disease.

There is also the not-so-indirect link to global terrorism. Terrorist networks have a documented role in the production and distribution of highly profitable contraband, as the bin-Laden / Afghanistan / Taliban connection proved so well on September 11, 2001.


With a solution so simple, we have to wonder just why the politicians in Washington cannot wrap their minds around it. Legalization and regulation of recreational drugs would provide benefit on many fronts.

  • It would severely curtail the funding of world terrorist organizations

  • Money and efforts currently spent on interdiction could be redirected to more effective education efforts, and the manpower redirected to confront terrorist and immigration issues

  • Healthcare dollars spent to confront disease and the effects of impure drugs could be redirected to addiction treatment

  • Regulation would help ensure the drugs were pure and safe

  • Taxation would enhance revenues

Outcry falling on deaf ears

We’ve heard some Americans call for policy change, and in other parts of the world there are politicians arriving at these same conclusions. In a Guardian article published last week, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso writes, “It is time to admit the obvious. The ‘war on drugs’ has failed.”

Mexico recently decriminalized simple possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including marijuana and heroin. That country passed a similar bill in 2006 but the Fox administration declined to sign it, reportedly because of strong opposition by U.S. President George W. Bush.

While these and many other examples of reasonable thought give us cause for hope, the only real chance for change in world policy rests right here the United States. As the leader of the free world, affluent nations are unlikely to make any substantial move until we do, and it is unlikely we will find a politician with cajones enough to buck law enforcement, the religious right and the big money boys anytime soon.

Until that happens, we are stuck with failed policy.



Anonymous said...

Well written. We should legalize the illegal and tax the crap out of it. That could fund the $900 billion needed for health care reform or just drag us out of our deficit. Of course, you are correct...the religious right will never allow it. They wouldn't be able to justify their *empty* liquor cabinets AND the presence of zig zags in their homes.

Mule Breath said...


Anonymous said...

". . .it is unlikely we will find a politician with cajones enough to buck law enforcement, the religious right and the big money boys anytime soon."

Highly unlikely.
Good post!
Could drug de-criminalization be attached to a future budget bill and sorta-kinda slipped by the nazi bastards? I sure can't see any other way . . .

Mule Breath said...

Certainly it could be attached as an amendment to some unrelated bill; much legislation gets by that way. However, there isn't enough support and no politician would risk incurring the wrath of the law enforcement lobby or the religious right. That would be a one way ticket to being an ex-legislator.

Getting the conversation started at higher levels is a first step, and we’ve seen some small beginnings recently. The time will come that the American people will see the light, but it won't be soon.