A huge waste of money – the War on Drugs

I have been a critic of the drug war for a long time. I like to say it’s what got me off the couch. I mean that quite literally. In a short span of time I watched two documentaries on PBS, one about the drug war (named “Snitch”, from the Frontline series) and another about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (by Ken Burns). So I see these two women who fought for 60+ years for suffrage and it didn’t happen until after they had died. Then there’s this great societal wrong in our time – the drug war. And there I was, sitting on the couch watching it.

I got up. I joined some groups. I created repeal.net, a website critical of the drug war and advocating the repeal of drug prohibition. Eventually I decided that the various groups I had joined were not accomplishing enough (a bit like the problems the suffrage movement had), and I had to do more, so I started getting active in politics. Then I decided to run for office and talk about this issue.

I’m not some phony who vaguely says he supports drug policy reform without having any substance behind it. Our DA ran on this issue and continues to prosecute drug offenders even more aggressively than the last guy. On Unlawful Possession of Marijuana cases, his office is particularly bad, trying to impose illegal conditions on routine dismissals.

I genuinely support reform. Prohibition doesn’t work. The incarceration of drug offenders is wrong, even unconstitutional (I wrote an article on substantive due process and the drug war – warning – the article is pretty boring, even for lawyers).

The incumbent in my race now says the war in Iraq is a colossal failure and the biggest blunder in the history of warfare. Aside from his utter ignorance of history (at least he could watch The Princess Bride), one has to wonder what he thinks of the War on Drugs. Isn’t it a colossal failure? How about the biggest blunder in the history of pseudo-wars (War on Poverty, War on Terror, …)?

But let’s get to wasting money. The War on Drugs costs about $100 billion a year. This includes money wasted spraying RoundUp on peasants in Colombia and Afghanistan, border efforts that manage to catch about 1% of the drugs coming into the country, and a heck of a lot spent on police, prosecutors and prisons. So there’s about 500,000 non-violent drug offenders behind bars in the US. Check my math, but at $40K/year that’s about $20 billion right there. Add in the other stuff and you get to $100B pretty quick.

Is it working? When I was in high school (graduated in ’84), the only drugs I saw were alcohol and marijuana. I had the sense that there were other drugs around, but never saw them and the use was limited to a few people. Most of us just drank a lot and some of us smoked marijuana occasionally.

Now, drugs are commonplace in high schools and not at all rare in many middle schools. As I like to put it, any kid in any school can get any drug they want. I used to add “if they try hard enough,” but then some teens told me I was wrong. The two quotes I remember are: “all you have to do is ask” and “the drugs come to you”.

Another way I like to put it is to ask a high school kid what would be easier for them to get in 30 minutes without leaving school grounds — a marijuana cigarette or a six-pack of beer. They always answer marijuana.

In 2004, the incumbent attacked me for my views on the drug war. Of course he avoided stating his own position on the issue. No surprise there. That’s smart politics.

I often get asked what my answer is to the drug problem. Do I want to legalize drugs?

In 1933, alcohol prohibition was repealed. The repeal did not include any solution to the alcohol problem. And just about everyone agrees that repeal was the right decision in 1933. So why do I have to have a solution to the drug problem now? Repeal of drug prohibition is the right answer now, just like repeal was the right answer in 1933. What we’ve learned in the past 30 years is that the current policy is worse than not having a policy.

I’m not suggesting that heroin be provided as part of the school lunch program, or put on supermarket shelves. There are many ways to deal with the drug problem. I have my personal view, but I don’t think my way is the only way. As long as we end the stupidity of the current policy, I’ll support anything reasonable in its place (including no policy at all).

My personal take is that marijuana should be treated generally like we now treat cigarettes and alcohol, since it is less harmful than those drugs. Most of the other currently illegal drugs should be available by prescription — doctors should be able to prescribe heroin for heroin addicts, for example. This is done in England, Switzerland, and Holland. Heroin addicts there commit far less crime, have fewer social problems, and are more likely to maintain a steady job.

I don’t like using the word legalization because it has been demonized for decades. If legalization means a really horrible policy that will encourage children to take heroin and cocaine, then of course I don’t support legalization. If legalization means doing the same thing we did with alcohol in 1933 (bringing about a huge reduction in violent crime and many other benefits), then yes, I do support that.

Anyway, we’ve been wasting $100 billion a year for a while now on this stupid pseudo-war. Let’s stop wasting that money.

ps: After writing this I was looking at something else and noticed a report from Citizens Against Government Waste called Wasted in the War on Drugs. They don’t go far enough, but they make some good points and show some of the waste.

7 comments to A huge waste of money – the War on Drugs

  • Great post, Warren. This is the biggest issue in America that is NOT being talked about…and as to the waste in dollars, imagine the cost to urban business owners caused by the Drug War: when the felon exists prison he doesn’t have credit. Most drug felons are minorities and most live in the urban community. (Ironic since whites make up the overwhelming majority of drug users–well over 70%.) Credit is used to buy big ticket items and thus the businesses, particularly in urban areas, suffers by not having a population that can buy their goods on credit. Urban businesses suffer because their community is where the Drug War is fought…making the streets dangerous and forboding. The urban business owner’s overhead is higher because insurance and security costs are higher.
    Legalize and regulate all drugs–control their manufacture and distribution is the only way.
    Keep going, Warren!

  • Warren, Check out http://www.leap.cc (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).

  • Responding to Dan, above, I’m LEAP’s lawyer.

  • Anonymous

    Cite your facts, this is not credited information therefore it is not valid.

  • Thanks to Anonymous for demonstrating the persuasive argument in favor of the drug war.

  • You know I can’t stand it when people come up on here and leave their little rude remarks~! You know what if your reading this and you don’t like what we have to say or what we are doing is wrong… How about you just go off and shoot yourself! I’m so sick of it, I take it VERY VERY personal when someone that I don’t know, that doesn’t know me tries to say weed is baaad, and that our children our going to become DRUG ADDICTS and the world is going to fall a part in front of our very EYES. Theres nothing we can do about it! OH GOD NO! Fist off, it’s usually religious nut jobs that think like that! Fact is, if you have a child and you are doing your very best. Taking care of that child, loving that child, and showing whats right and whats wrong in this world. If you are so against this how about you just worry about raising that child of yours to not smoke weed! That child is going to make their mind up, especially when you see the devastation that alcohol does to everyone in their everyday life! It’s the biggest hyprocacy of this era! We spend so much money, and so much resourses on this stupid crap it’s unbelievable! The laws just keep getting easier and easier on possession!!! How about we just do it already, and legalize it PLEASE!!! One more thing, I always bring this fact up that we are spending so much time on crimes that really in the sceme of all the things aren’t all that bad… While people like this guy that I’m about to show you a link too… This guy murdered a lovely couple not far from where I live here in Washington State! It was a horrible murder that could of been prevented MANY MANY TIMES! I’m going to tell you how… First off this guy was already just getting out of the slammer on the EAST COAST! Before he was released he assualted two prison guards which were suppose to hold him in prison longer… Some how, someway this ass clown got out of prison.. Found some lady off the internet that lives over here.. He ends over there.. This happens……


    This story bothered me for a long time, and still bothers me from time to time… I remember thinking about how it all went down and it was just a horrible picture in my head of how it went down… They told you on the news how it happened so it wasn’t hard to picture it… I feel like things like these happen because we are all so conserned about DRUGS, what about murders, rapist, thieves?!! Those are the people that we really don’t have room for and can’t let them get out early all the time so they can do it again!!! COME ON!!! WAKE UP! Even people that are against legalization can’t arrgue that fact!! The fact that we are missing alot of criminals because we are to worried about who has a bag of weed in there pocket when a cop pulls a young adult over!! Drug charges will effect a college student for life!! Thats WRONG! Think about what college kids that do those things in their dorms!! They become productive citzens USUALLY… What about the druggies that don’t? Well, what if they we’re alcoholics, and usually that comes with the terrortory! So this idea that a joint is a gateway drug that’s a joke… If you want to say that you must say that about cigarettes and alcohol together.. Alcohol effects your body alot more then a joint EVER WILL! Alcohol will always be a killer, and marijuana will never kill anyone!!

  • Nathan

    The money hurts, definitely. The incarcerations are unconscionable.

    But it seems to me that the largest casualty from the War on Drugs has been our respect for the rule of law.