Let’s start peace talks in the war on drugs

by Rob Tiller

America’s war on drugs has been a catastrophe.  The immediate human cost of criminalizing recreational drug use is staggering, with millions of lives wasted in prisons that are schools for real crime.  The economic costs are also huge.  The war creates a separate off-the-books, criminal economy that is enormously profitable, and the forces of organized crime in turn corrupt the forces of order.

We waste billions of dollars a year on fighting drugs, and we”ve been doing this for decades.  It’s now clear there will be no victory in this war.  We have caused untold misery, and accomplished close to nothing.

This waste and hopelessness of the war on drugs is usually invisible to those not in prison or inner cities, but it’s coming into sharper focus.  Afghanistan is a failed narco state, and Mexico is on the brink of becoming one.  Drug lords have armaments and forces that are more powerful than the police, and are sufficient to battle the federal army.  Mexico had  6,000 drug related killings in 2008, and beheadings and shootings are almost routine.  Corruption of the police is rampant.  The possibility that our southern neighbor will become ungovernable is now real.  This is serious.

Last week The Economist, a reasonably conservative publication, put this issue front and center in its cover story, “How to stop the drug wars.”   http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13237193

The British weekly put the issue simply:  “legalisation is the least bad solution.”  The benefits of legalization are many:  ending the drug gulags, reducing the scope of organized crime, reducing corruption, and saving billions of dollars of public resources.  If we taxed and regulated the recreational drug business, we would have sufficient funds for new programs of education and treatment and resources left for other valuable social programs.

There will be problems, including risks of more addiction.  But we already accept those risks with regulated alcohol and tobacco (a much more dangerous substance than most illegal drugs).  We manage them with public education and medical treatment for addicts.  We ban sales to minors and raise prices to limit consumption.  Europeans have experimented with these approaches, and have shown that they work.

We need to put this issue on the public agenda.  Our drug war is more than a tragedy — it’s a time bomb, and it’s ticking.