As I have engaged in conversations with the good people of my district, I have come across some that have a concern about my position on the war on drugs. Specifically, I state that drug laws should be repealed, and that people incarcerated only for violations of those laws should be released immediately.
I will start by saying that I understand the concern. Addiction and abuse of drugs is a horrible ordeal for both the individual and those who care for him or her. In no way do I pretend otherwise – in fact, compassion for this suffering greatly informs my position.
As a Criminal Justice major at Texas State University, I held a much different view than the one I hold now. At the time, I believed not only that incentives guided human behavior, but that a government could structure those incentives to shepherd individuals to better decisions. In short, I believed that the reason the war on drugs was failing was because the criminal justice system was not waging it harshly enough. This was, in fact, to be the theme of my senior thesis.
Over the course of researching for my paper, however, I began to see a different side to the drug war. Not only did I find the costs and horrible unintended consequences of the policy abhorrent, but I began to grasp the intrinsic errors made in its founding premise. My current position is not something that I read off a bumper sticker and decided to run with; it is the result of many hours of research, conversations, and reflection upon the issue.
My position is supported by two arguments. One is moral while the other is purely pragmatic. I will start with the latter.
Pragmatism Part 1: A Failure on Its Own Metrics
When evaluating the effectiveness of any policy initiative, we must look at whether it has achieved the intended goals as well as the cost of the latent consequences.
The drug war has stated goals: to decrease availability of illicit drugs, to decrease the number of people who are abusing drugs, and to deny criminal organizations the ability to traffic and profit from illicit drugs.
On all fronts, it has been an abysmal failure.
Illicit drugs are now readily available from a broad swath of sources. From the stereotypical street dealer to the Internet, there is a supply waiting for the growing demand.
The number of people who are using illicit drugs continues to grow despite the government spending ever-increasing piles of money on cracking down. The government doubled its expenditures to fight drugs between 2009 and 2017, but the numbers of people using illicit drugs, overdoses, and arrests for drugs, continued to climb.
Drug cartels have now assembled virtual empires that often rival the governments in other areas of the world. Their wealth and power are fueled by their de facto oligopoly on a market that, whether we like it or not, continues to grow. In a free market, their market share would evaporate as businesses centered on meeting customer demand overtook their dangerous and inferior products.
By no measure does the war on drugs have any ground on which to say it has been a success.
Pragmatism Part 2: Black Markets
In exchange for direct expenditures amounting to over $2.5 trillion since President Nixon proclaimed that drug abuse was public enemy number one fifty years ago, what have the American people directly gotten from the war on drugs?
A black market in which the potency and danger of drugs have drastically increased over time. This occurred in the Prohibition days of the 1920s, where the alcohol consumed by patrons of speak-easies went from beer to whiskey to dangerous moonshine. This happens largely because of an economics principle known as the Alchian-Allen effect. Decriminalizing drugs would incentivize retailers to standardize quality and safety to meet consumer demand.
In addition, the potency and danger of drugs from purchase to purchase have become unpredictable. Consumers of illicit drugs today have truly little assurance that what they bought last week is the same as what they are buying this week. An amount that “hit the spot” for them a month ago could lead to an overdose today. The standardization of production in a decriminalized market allows consumers to know what they are buying.
The black market also leaves consumers without legal recourse for dangerous products. One can sue a dispensary or retailer, and those dispensaries and retailers therefore have an incentivize to sell safe, quality products. A street dealer or anonymous seller on the Internet does not have such incentives.
Violence is also a function of a black market. A criminal can often more easily gain and maintain market share through violence rather than meeting customer demands in terms of safety and quality. In addition, the criminal must provide his own security, knowing that if a rival were to steal his supplies, he could not well call the police to report the theft. In the violence that follows, innocent people often get caught in the crossfire.
Pragmatism Part 3: Social and Economic Costs
We have already discussed the exorbitant costs of the war on drugs in terms of the direct expenditures. It is worth examining, however, the other, “softer” costs borne by our society because of this policy.
In the “land of the free,” we have the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. The amount of productivity lost while these otherwise peaceful, law-abiding people languish in prison is stupendous.
Too many families have been torn asunder when police and the courts put a father, mother, son, or daughter in a cage with rapists and murderers because they had possession of a plant. This policy exacerbates the tragic cycle of fatherless homes, impacting minority groups especially.
The war also victimizes those people we are told it is designed to protect and help. The criminal justice system treats those affected by addiction as criminals first. Addiction is a medical issue best treated by doctors, but even someone who thinks addiction is some kind of moral failing or weakness will have a tough time making the argument that caging the person will make them better.
Morality: The Important Part
My positions start with foundational principles and logically extend from there. One of my foundational principles is self-ownership. Because you own yourself, nobody, not even a huge group of people with a consensus, has the moral authority to dictate what you can or cannot put into your body.
Certainly, this leaves the door open for people to make terrible decisions for themselves, and we should strive to educate, persuade, and convince others against grave mistakes in multiple areas of life. Ultimately, the decision is theirs to make, and we have no moral authority to punish a person who is not hurting anyone other than themselves.
This precludes the idea that the government, which derives its power from the consent of the people, could have the authority to make similar prohibitions. The people collectively do not have that power over the individual in the first place, so there is no way for them to grant it to the state.
The notion that the government has the moral right to outlaw drugs is a pure logical fabrication, backed only by its legal monopoly on force.