U.S. STUCK IN THE QUAGMIRE
Every year, more than 400,000 Americans die as the result of tobacco
use. Alcohol abuse results in the deaths of another 110,640 Americans,
including 16,653 alcohol-related traffic deaths. Alcohol is a major
factor in more than half of all homicides and rapes, 62 percent of
assaults, and 30 percent of suicides. Illegal drug use causes another
According to the Cato Institute, based on deaths per 100,000 users,
"tobacco kills 650, alcohol 150, heroin 80, and cocaine 4."
If an observer from another planet - say, Mars - were to analyze these
statistics, he might be surprised to learn that out of tobacco,
alcohol and other drugs, only the others are criminalized in the
Our observer from Mars also might be startled to learn about the price
Americans are prepared to pay to protect these 3,562 privileged
Americans from taking drugs and possibly jeopardizing their health:
The expenditure of more than $80 billion annually to arrest and
incarcerate hundreds of thousands of citizens, using large chunks of
America's scarce jail capacity and necessitating the early release of
murderers, rapists and child molesters. A Cook County, Illinois,
prosecutor has described the devastating effect of the war on drugs:
Whereas he once had a relatively light case load and could take to
trial those charged with the most vicious and violent crimes, after
the drug war began, he was so overloaded with drug cases that he had
no choice but to award "giveaway" plea bargains to even the most
violent of criminals;
The imposition of thousands of raids, searches and wiretaps on
The forfeiture of billions of dollars of potential tax revenues to
The commission of more than one-fifth of all property crime in the
United States, amounting to billions of dollars annually, by addicts
seeking money for drugs made artificially expensive by
The corruption and undermining of our political system, particularly
at the local level.
If our Martian were acquainted with ancient history, he might be
tempted to observe that whoever these 3,562 drug-using Americans are,
they launched more ships and mobilized more of society's resources
than the legendary Helen of Troy.
Our observer would surely assume that the incarceration of hundreds of
thousands of citizens and the expenditure of such a huge portion of
the national treasure must surely have achieved tangible results. But
he would have to be informed that while such efforts have indeed
reduced drug imports by 5 percent, this modest "success" has
perversely done nothing more than raise the price of drugs, increase
the profit margin to drug dealers, and thereby send a signal to the
drug producers to produce more drugs - with the result that the number
of drug users has risen dramatically since the war on drugs was launched.
The word "quagmire" must surely have been invented to describe a war
in which every "victory" constitutes a stinging defeat.
Our Martian might not be surprised by this consequence if he were also
apprised of our experience during Prohibition (1919-1933). Like the
modern-day drug prohibitionists, the alcohol prohibitionists focused
solely on the undeniable deleterious effects of alcohol, rather than
conducting a rational cost-benefit analysis of prohibition. In 1929,
the Wickersham Prohibition Commission revealed not only that "crime
had increased by 50 percent as a result of Prohibition" but that
consumption of alcohol had perversely doubled during the Prohibition
years. Even more discouraging was the revelation that the number of
alcohol deaths skyrocketed by more than 400 percent during
Nevertheless, those accustomed to Prohibition in 1930 could not
imagine its repeal. Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas confidently
asserted: "There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment
[prohibiting alcohol] as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the
planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."
Although almost half of all Americans have used illegal drugs, those
same Americans continue to favor drug prohibition - just as Americans
in the 1920s overwhelmingly favored alcohol prohibition. But
collective memories are often short, and many Americans today assume
that drugs were originally criminalized in the United States as a
means of protecting the health and safety of its citizens.
In the early 20th century, labor leader Samuel Gompers set forth his
reasons to Congress why opium should be criminalized: "Opium gives the
Chinese immigrant workers an unfair advantage in the labor market."
Racists in Congress supported drug criminalization in order to
suppress the "Jew peddlers," while the State Department's "opium
commissioner," Hamilton Wright, urged criminalization of cocaine on
grounds that it turned African-Americans into rapists of white women.
On such specious and racist foundations were drugs criminalized. (It
is perhaps not an irony that today, at a time when African-Americans
struggle for economic opportunities, they make up 90 percent of those
actually prosecuted and incarcerated for minor drug offenses. The
devastating impact on the families, social fabric, and economic
opportunities for African-Americans is virtually impossible to measure.)
Indeed, drugs were considered only a "minor medical problem" prior to
criminalization in 1914. In the 1920s, Congressman Richard Hobson was
one of the first to realize the specious justifications for
criminalization and its terrible consequences: "Ten years ago [before
criminalization] the narcotic drug addiction problem was a minor
medical problem. Today, it is a major national problem, constituting
the chief factor menacing public health today."
Just as alcohol deaths skyrocketed during Prohibition, drug deaths
increased after criminalization, since illegal drugs are not subject
to orderly regulation for purity and safety. But the largest number of
deaths is due to drug criminalization itself. More than 1,600 murders
occur every year by drug dealers who take advantage of the profit
opportunities afforded by drug criminalization.
But what would happen if drugs were decriminalized? Prior to 1914,
drugs were legal in the United States but constituted a very minor
problem in society. Hundreds of over-the-counter products (such as
Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup and many popular soft drinks, including
Coca-Cola) contained drugs which have since been criminalized. But, as
researcher Ethan Nadelman has noted, "Free access did not lead to
widespread use. No drug houses blighted neighborhoods, no drug gangs
had street-corner shootouts, and 'drug-related' crime did not exist."
Doctors even prescribed opium as a treatment for a disease considered
substantially more harmful than drug addiction: alcoholism. That
scenario changed drastically after criminalization.
Why did drug use increase so dramatically after criminalization? As
conservative economist Milton Friedman's comprehensive drug study has
revealed, the very fact that a drug is illegal makes it attractive as
a "forbidden fruit." This explains why marijuana use by high school
students is considerably higher in the United States than in Holland,
where such drugs are available in coffeehouses.
If the untold deaths and crushing taxation required to conduct the
drug war were not sufficient reasons to rethink drug criminalization,
the fact that it supports and fosters organized crime should at least
give pause. As the Block study concludes, "Better to ruin [organized
crime's] profit balloon than by acting in a way which only supports
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 left organized crime in danger of
extinction. The continued prohibition of drugs saved its hide, and it
has thrived ever since.
One can only imagine how the billions spent on incarcerating people
for minor drug offenses might be used to rehabilitate, educate and
treat drug victims.
Prior to 1922, 16 states criminalized the use of cigarettes, but it
didn't work. Tobacco use skyrocketed, the states lost tax revenues,
and organized crime had a field day. Contrast this aborted attempt at
criminalization of tobacco use with the education and rehabilitation
campaign begun by the surgeon general in 1965: Between 1965 and 1987,
tobacco consumption by adult males declined by 36 percent. If harm
were the sole justification for prohibition, cigarettes - which are
the cause of 400,000 deaths a year - should be at the top of the list.
By ignoring the lessons of cigarette and alcohol prohibition, we are
repeating the mistakes of the past and becoming mired in the real
quagmire of our time.
Note: Robert Hardaway is a professor of law at the University of
Denver College of Law and the author of 'No Price Too High:
Victimless Crimes and the Ninth Amendment' (Praeger Publishers, 2003).
Author: Robert Hardaway
Copyright: 2004 The Denver Post Corp
Pubdate: Sun, 14 Mar 2004