100 years of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result each time

Reason and The Economist commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “war on drugs” (specifically, the founding of the International Opium Commission). Brian Doherty:

…The international drug war ought to be of enormous meta-interest to students of policy, political science, and philosophy because it reveals better than almost any other issue the essentially unreasonable nature of our rulers—and our populace. There are few other huge policy matters in which the reason for pursuing a goal is more obviously ludicrous, archaic, and disconnected from any reasonable conception of a larger public good (and yet never questioned), and where the effort is more obviously utterly futile and wasted.
And yet the vast majority of documents studying, chronicling, and counting what’s countable about the drug war, even supposedly ameliorist ones that suggest a switch from, say, military means to medical ones in fighting the drug scourge, refuse to question the root of the absurdity. It is generally assumed (without even an attempt at proof) that stopping people from using the drugs they choose to use is as unquestioned a good as increasing human wealth or preserving human life.
In this era of stunning government debt, of the alleged need for domestic stimulus, and with frequent lip-service dedication paid to spending cuts, the U.S. is still planning to spend $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2009 on international drug war efforts (and those figures from the State Department don’t seem to include the full costs of the multi-year $1.4 billion “Merida Initiative” for drug war waging in Mexico). Those efforts include violent interdiction, corrupting the courts and police departments of our allies, and destroying small farmers’ livelihoods (while also throwing in some development aid to allegedly help them). Our 1986 “Anti-Drug Abuse Act” makes everything from trade to aid policy dependent on how well we think our allies are helping us destroy themselves in the name of our drug war. The U.N.’s dispirited drug warrior Costa even talks of how, “We must have the courage to look at the dramatic, unintended consequences of drug control: the emergence of a criminal market of staggering proportions.” But he won’t take that next, short, simple mental step towards abolishing his own job.
One might think that the first place a reasonable politician would look to save a billion or so bucks a year is the category of efforts clearly marked “utterly ridiculous and proven completely futile”—such as the international drug war. But that will almost certainly not happen. If anything should make one hopeless about the future of sensible governance, it’s the ongoing, apparently never-ending international war on drugs.

Damian P.

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8 thoughts on “100 years of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result each time

  1. Always happy to talk about this issue, but I do approach it from the other side. Here’s a few points:
    1) We currently don’t know the unintended consequences of drug liberalization. Are they worse than the unintended consequences of prohibition? Are we willing to take that risk?
    2) I disagree with the notion that crime will evaporate if we legalize all drugs. I believe that the reduction in crime would be much smaller than legalization advocates predict. Other avenues of illicit revenue will boom in the place of drugs, including extortion, kidnapping, fraud, and larceny.
    3) If illicit drug use follows the usage patterns of alcohol and tobacco, the billions spent on drug control will likely be dwarfed by the tens of billions needed to house, feed, clothe, and keep alive the millions of unemployable addicts we would have on our hands.
    4) Extorting taxes from those who willingly produce wealth to pay for the medical care of those who are willingly killing themselves is tyranny in my books. It’s bad enough that we already have to pay for lung cancer and pickled liver treatments for nicotine and alcohol addicts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than willing to pay taxes to fund detox and rehab, but don’t use my money to further other people’s stupidity.
    Cheers,
    Scary

  2. Scary
    I think you are assuming that the drug war is successful in reducing drug use.
    I don’t see any evidence, at least with the so called soft drugs, that this is so.
    It seems to me that we are currently paying for both drug control and the social costs of drug abuse while ceding all possible revenues to organized crime.
    I think we should at least take a look at legalizing pot, hash and mushrooms. Control them as we do with alcohol. Use of these substances is not a guarantee of addiction and they shouldn’t be left as the low hanging fruit for organized crime to pick.
    By the way, the state has collected billions of dollars in taxes from smokers and drinkers that should more than cover the cost of our stupidity.

  3. One aspect not usually mentioned by legalization advocates is the difficulty society would have in ensuring that legal drug users are not endangering non-drug using citizens. We have a simple, non-invasive test for drunkenness, but no similar tests exist for the other common recreational drugs that I am aware of. As legalization will almost certainly increase the use of drugs, how do we ensure that our roads and workplaces do not become less safe?

  4. Thanks for the response, Doug.
    With respect to the “Low hanging fruit”, I don’t think that legalizing pot, hash, and shrooms will reduce crime; the harder drugs will become more commonplace. Organized crime will know that their money comes from crack addicts instead of teenage potheads, and so will seek to increase the number of the former.
    As for taxation covering health care costs, I crunched some numbers provided by Statistics Canada. Currently, the average alcohol user costs $700 a year in health care and lost productivity; a bit of a stretch to think that the average alcohol user pays that much in alcohol taxes per year. The average smoker costs about $4500 a year. You would have to smoke three packs a day to make up that amount with taxes (based on $4 taxes per pack). The cost of illicit drugs (excluding marijuana) is in the range of $14,000 to $22,000 per user per year. That’s going to take some pretty hefty taxation to pay for it.

  5. Hi Scary
    Cigarettes in Ontario are about $9.00 a pack
    One can by “smokes” for $1.50.
    I’d guess that the tax on a pack is $6.00 or so but I can’t find the data.
    My main point that the drug wars don’t reduce the availability of soft drugs is based on anecdotal evidence as well. I am quite sure that I can buy whatever I want, whenever I want, in spite of the best efforts of the law to prevent me from doing so.
    Do you have any evidence to show the our current drug prohibitions actually reduce consumption?
    Albertan
    Do you have any evidence that legalization will increase the use of drugs?

  6. “a bit of a stretch to think that the average alcohol user pays that much in alcohol taxes per year.”
    At say $5 tax per bottle of average priced wine that would be 140 bottles per year or about 2.7 per week. Not much of a stretch and that doesn’t include other forms of alcohol (liquor is taxed at a higher rate than wine or beer). As for smoking, one should factor in the cost savings from smokers who never live to collect a full pension comparable to a non-smoker.

  7. Thanks Peter
    It doesn’t surprise me that once alcohol was made legally available in bars and restaurants that the consumption increased.
    I wasn’t advocating for a free for all where one could pop down to the local tavern for a spliff and a side of mushrooms.
    I would just prefer that the government regulate production and distribution rather than the gangsters.
    Educate consumers about the dangers and side effects at the point of sale. “Toke Responsibly” and all that.

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