A ceasefire in the war on drugs

posted at 5:01 pm on January 6, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

It’s a conversation which seem to keep coming up year after year. Has the “war on drugs” been a complete bust? (If you’ll pardon the pun.) After more than forty years it seems like an increasing chorus of voices are calling for a new approach to a problem where we just don’t seem to be making much progress. But now the Wall Street Journal is getting in on the act, asking, “Have we lost the war on drugs?”

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing—and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best…

The decriminalization of both drug use and the drug market won’t be attained easily, as there is powerful opposition to each of them. The disastrous effects of the American war on drugs are becoming more apparent, however, not only in the U.S. but beyond its borders. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon has suggested “market solutions” as one alternative to the problem. Perhaps the combined efforts of leaders in different countries can succeed in making a big enough push toward finally ending this long, enormously destructive policy experiment.

It’s a rather clinical, emotionless analysis if you read the entire thing, but perhaps that’s the best approach if we’re to have a serious discussion about it. The entire concept of drug legalization – or, at a minimum, decriminalization – seems to be a study in mixed emotions for conservatives. And that may explain, at least in part, why there doesn’t seem to be much movement in either direction on this. On the one hand, the normal libertarian, “keep the government out of my business” tendencies of many Republicans seem like they should find the concept of decriminalization appealing. Further, the idea of the individual accepting personal responsibility for the consequences of their choices rather than having the nanny state dictate their actions certainly sounds like a natural fit for conservatives. And finally, the cost to federal and state budgets for fighting this war – well described in the WSJ editorial – looks like an appetizing potential target for cost cutters.

But there are obviously factors which make this a difficult proposal to sell on the starboard side of the aisle, and perhaps the first – and biggest – is purely ideological. For too many conservatives, it seems as if one of the chief arguments against decriminalization is that it’s something that liberals want, and thus it must, by definition, be a bad idea. Further, there’s that whole “pot smoking hippie” thing. The idea of doing anything to make them happier will drive away Republicans in droves, unfortunately.

And are the arguments I laid out above all that salable among 21st century conservatives? Not all Republicans are small “L” libertarian by nature, particularly those who self identify as social or national defense conservatives. And when it comes to personal responsibility, the counter-argument can quickly be made that those who choose to engage in drug abuse never really face those consequences because societal safety nets not only catch them when they fall, but spread the cost of their rescue out among the rest of us. As to the cost savings, well… that one would be pretty hard to argue with, at least in terms of the raw bills for enforcement and incarceration.

Still, it seems to me that this war has been a losing proposition for some time now and has long since passed the point of being unaffordable. If the regular readers of the Wall Street Journal begin absorbing and considering this message, maybe we can find a way to start climbing out of this hole we’ve dug for ourselves. But in the end, I agree with the basic premise… the war on drugs has been a bust.


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