Editorial: Let's Get Real Already About Ending Drug Prohibition
David Borden, Executive Director
The annual FBI Uniform Crime Report came out last week, and the news it brought about drug arrests in 2006 was no surprise. Unsurprisingly, drug arrests again hit a record level -- 1,889,810 this time, 829,625 for marijuana, more than eight out of ten drug arrests for just possession. Almost nine out of ten marijuana arrests were for possession alone.
This all transpired in a year when violent crime was on the increase, 1.9% over 2005 and the second year in a row after a decade's decline. One should not exaggerate a relatively small number like 1.9%. But at a minimum an opportunity may have been lost to reduce violent crime.
Why do we continue to plough such vast resources into drug enforcement that could otherwise be used to protect us from attacks -- attacks of whatever kind?
Despite a small uptick in the street price of cocaine recently -- due only to short-term operational challenges facing the industry -- all of this drug enforcement has been a massive failure. On Wednesday I attended a lunch talk at a DC-based foreign policy think tank given by Arnold Trebach, founder of our modern drug policy reform movement (he started the Drug Policy Foundation) and a professor emeritus of American University. In order to make the point about the futility of drug war, Arnold called a friend of his who is knowledgeable about the heroin scene prior to coming downtown for the talk. He wanted to know where one would go now in order to acquire heroin. After all, it's been awhile since he researched his 1982 work, The Heroin Solution.
Things have indeed changed since then, but despite perhaps millions of drug arrests over the years (10 million? 15? 20?), heroin has not become less available. In fact, it's easier to obtain it than ever before, at least if one knows the right people. According to Arnold, his friend told him that now you wouldn't go out to buy it, you'd just call the delivery service, and if you have any references to vouch for you, they would get it to you in about 20 minutes.
20 minutes. We could have finished our lunches, listened to half of Arnold's talk, then ordered some heroin, received it before the end of the talk and consumed it with dessert. (Of course for a variety of reasons, not limited to our need to get work done the rest of the day, we didn't do that and instead just took Arnold's friend's word that we could have.)
The diversion of resources away from more important -- and more feasible -- tasks is only one of many reasons to go with legalization. The money being spent on the illicit drug trade -- estimates globally are in the hundreds of billions of dollars -- is fueling violence, both global and local. I don't know whether the increase in drug arrests in the US played a role in the increase in violence last year, but it's clearly possible. Far more importantly, a chunk of the violence that we have suffered with throughout the years is directly or indirectly related to the drug trade.
And the money is warping society. How many young people have been lured into lives of criminality through the promise that the drug trade appears to offer? Most of them don't end up making great money doing so. But it's there, there's a prospect for advancement, and depending on your outlook it's glamorous and it lets you be part of something larger than yourself. Money from the drug trade is also helping to support those who want to carry out terrorist attacks, and in some places is fueling civil wars. All of this is happening because drugs are illegal, not because of any intrinsic properties of the drugs.
But would the sky fall if drugs were legal? Would so many more people use and get addicted to drugs that the harm would be greater from that than from the criminality created now by prohibition? Arnold told the audience that he believes we can devise a system for controlling a licit drug trade; that it would not be unduly difficult to do so (we do this already for the currently legal drugs, after all), and "we would survive." We could still help people with drug problems, we can regulate the drugs any number of different ways, we can face that challenge.
I in fact think the overall public health harm from drugs would decrease, not increase, even if more people experimented with them. After all, most people don't destroy themselves with drugs today, legal or illegal, despite their widespread availability, simply because they don't want to destroy themselves. For those who do get addicted to drugs like heroin, but who don't earn a fairly generous personal income, the artificially high prices that prohibition brings about for the drugs is a big part of making the habit so disruptive to their lives. I believe that on the public health side as well as on the criminal justice side, legalization will overall be a winning move, despite the harms that some drugs can have.
It can be hard to advance this discussion in circles of power. Arnold commented that at least eight people in US officialdom told him they would be glad to meet with him, they appreciated what he was doing, but they preferred not to meet him in their offices. They wanted to meet at one restaurant or another, where they hopefully would not been seen with him and thereby get in political hot water. That was a long time ago, but it is still the situation in many ways today.
And yet we do advance -- this organization and newsletter are here, for example, and the movement is growing in diversity and experience and size. Now it's time for the leaders to get real -- drug legalization is viable and it's the right thing to do. So stop demonizing it and start talking about it. Because sometimes leadership means actually leading.
(Signed copies of Arnold's two re-released books -- "The Heroin Solution" and "The Great Drug War" -- as well as his new work, "Fatal Distraction: The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror," can be obtained as membership premiums by donating to DRCNet.)