President Obama recently conceded that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. That might be an understatement. According to research published in the medical journal The Lancet, alcohol is a more dangerous drug than crack and heroin when the combined harms to the user and to others are assessed. While the methodology behind the rankings can be credibly challenged—surely, heroin is more addictive and prone to overdose—it nonetheless highlights the arbitrary societal exemption granted to alcohol over other mind-altering substances.
Of course, we don't just let alcohol flow freely. It is regulated and taxed--although not nearly enough to cover the costs of the domestic abuse, public nuisance, and negative health effects it generates. If regulating alcohol isn't working to reduce the negative effects it has on society, then maybe the answer is to outlaw it?
Prohibition does (not) work
On January 19, 1920 the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into effect banning the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol (although not its possession or consumption). Like Nixon's later "War on Drugs", prohibition was a drastic measure to save a misguided society from its favorite vice. Was it successful in its pious mission to save the family and redeem the community? The famed writer and journalist H.L. Mencken had this to say:
"Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is no less crime, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater."
Instead of reducing (or eliminating) alcohol consumption, prohibition created several perverse market distortions. Restaurants and theatres went out of business without the profitable sale of booze. Criminal enterprises assumed control of alcohol production and distribution from legitimate enterprises—which in turn lost 1000s of jobs. Illicit alcohol sales corrupted politicians and policemen and made criminals out of millions of Americans—in fact, so many Americans were on trial that the "plea bargain" became a common legal mechanism for the first time (with its corresponding and unjust pressure on defendants to accept guilt).
Americans became experts in producing alcohol at home or under cover of darkness with only the moon's light to guide their way (thus the aptly named, bootlegger-favorite "moonshine"). Like everything else, the entrepreneurial rise of home brewing came at a cost—1000s of Americans died each year during prohibition from tainted liquor. And buying tainted booze on the blackmarket meant that excise taxes on alcohol were forgone from public coffers, at great cost. For example, prior to prohibition, New York state had generated 75% of its revenue from alcohol taxes and had to make up the difference by raising income taxes.
Failing to achieve even a modicum of temperance, the failed experiment of prohibition ended after 13 years with the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Clearly, outlawing a narcotic in high demand would only drive its consumption underground with negative side-effects for all. Lesson learned?
Pick your poison
In a paper published this year entitled Breaking Bad: Are Meth Labs Justified in Dry Counties, researchers looked at the lingering effects of alcohol prohibition on methamphetamine consumption. For those that don't know about "meth" from the popular television series Breaking Bad, it is a fast-growing (consumption tripled in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007) synthetic stimulant with a laundry list of public health consequences. For more, you can checkout methproject.org for interactive diagrams like this one:
Clearly, meth is bad for your health, but this was not what interested the researchers. What interested the researchers was whether its usage (and production) varied with the stringency of local alcohol laws—specifically, they hypothesized that raising the cost of alcohol consumption would lead consumers to choose cheaper narcotic substitutes (i.e. meth). The authors looked at counties in Kentucky between 2004 and 2010, controlling for observable county variations and using instrumental variables to control for unobservable ones, to determine if dry counties (where alcohol sales are illegal) contained more meth labs than wet counties (where alcohol sales are not illegal).
The researchers found that relative to wet counties, dry counties have two additional meth lab seizures per year (a reliably recorded DEA measure of local consumption, assuming drug enforcement is not more stringent in dry counties). This is evidence for a substitution effect between alcohol and other illicit drugs; meaning if you make one harder to obtain, consumers will simply opt for the other (in this case worse?) drug. Others have found similar substitution effects. For example, one study of counties in Texas found that legalizing alcohol sales reduced drug-related mortality by 14%.
There is also little observational evidence that national drug prohibition reduces overall consumption. The U.S. is the world leader in illicit drug consumption despite its strict laws: over their lifetime, 16% of Americans will use cocaine and 42% will smoke marijuana. Compare this to Holland, which has some of the most lenient drug laws in the world, and where only 1.9% will use cocaine and only 20% will smoke marijuana.
Wars are bad and should be short
Like the "War on Terror", the "War on Drugs" has become an American cottage industry whose mission is driven by its very existence—not by any achievable ends. Started in 1971 as Nixon's response to the cultural upheavals of the Vietnam era, the massive expansion of federal drug enforcement agencies and adoption of harsh, mandatory criminal penalties have failed to achieve any meaningful reduction in drug use—only alterations in which drugs are used and where they come from.
As of 2011, $1 trillion had been spent to eradicate drug use. While unsuccessful in reducing drug use, the expenditures have been incredibly successful at jailing Americans—especially minority ones, who are 2.8-5.5% more likely to be arrested. In 1980, 40,000 people were in federal prison for drug crimes, by 2012, 500,000 people were imprisoned. Ignoring the uncomfortable fact that jail time tends to increase future drug use, studies show that the U.S. has spent more than $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug users since 1971 ($450 billion has been spent on drug imprisonment overall). If that weren't enough, all of this spending has clogged the judicial system and done nothing for treatment or prevention (25% of drug offenders don't face charges because prosecutors are too busy).
The money train doesn't end there. $33 billion has been spent to market sobriety to children ("Just say no") just to keep reported teen drug usage at the same level as 1970, but with a steady rise in overdoses. More than $6 billion has been spent to end coca cultivation in Columbia only to see production increase, distribution move to Mexico (and destabilize it), and thousands die as a result. 10% of the Mexican economy is now built on drug money that is overwhelmingly coming from the pockets of American consumers—with little regard for the billions the U.S. government has spent to police the border.
Despite a steady flow of (for the most part) well-adjusted Presidents and Presidential hopefuls that have used illegal drugs, the war goes on—facts be damned. Why? According to President Bush's Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, John P. Walters:
"To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous. It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."
Realizing your life's mission, your career, has been for nothing (as the statistics indicate) and was misguided from the outset is surely difficult and it is understandable to want to fight to prove it otherwise. You may feel even more strongly if admitting this would cost your job or your profitable business. It shouldn't matter. A small group of stakeholders should not counter the overwhelming public consensus (82% according to Rasmussen) that believe the war on drugs has been a failure. It is about time we change the conversation to decriminalization, regulation, and treatment as a fiscal solution, a public health solution, and a drug use solution
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