Saturday, January 22, 2005


By Joel Miller

WND, $24.95, 256 pages


By Jeffrey A. Miron

The Independent Institution, $15.95, 107 pages


For decades the U.S. government has attempted to suppress the use of illicit substances. Alcohol and tobacco once were on the prohibited list but now are legal. Cocaine and marijuana, which once were legal, are now banned. Two recent books persuasively argue that this campaign has been not just ineffective, but counterproductive. In the words of book editor Joel Miller, “Prohibition is supposed to make America better. In reality it makes it manifestly worse — just like a drug trip gone bad.”

The costs of substance abuse are obvious: Some people “ruin their lives with drugs,” notes Jeffrey Miron, an economics professor at Boston University. “The right question for policy analysis, however, is not whether drugs are sometimes misused but whether policy reduces that misuse, and at what cost.”

The answer of both authors is that the price paid by all of us is too high.

The drug war has little impact on demand. Looking back at alcohol Prohibition, Mr. Miron concludes that cirrhosis deaths fell by 10 to 20 percent, “far smaller than suggested by many advocates of prohibition.” Mr. Miron also points to the experience of dozen American states that decriminalized marijuana and foreign countries with less restrictive policies. Of the latter, he observes: “there is no evidence these countries have higher drug use rates; indeed the U.S. rate frequently exceeds that in most other countries.”

As for supply, law enforcement stops just 10 percent of the illicit supply. Indeed, prohibition turns smugglers into entrepreneurs. Writes Mr. Miller: “When dealers sound more like business-school graduates than hustlers and brand their products like desktop PCs and designer-name chef’s knives — all despite the best efforts of police — perhaps people should begin questioning whether those efforts actually serve any use.”

If drug prohibition was merely ineffective, it wouldn’t matter as much. But the policy imposes a high price on American society. Prohibition generates crime. Those who use drugs do so illegally. They often steal to fund habits made more expensive by prohibition. More important, notes Mr. Miller, “Because the illegality of the drug trade removes legal protection from its participants, the business is subject to brutality.” Traffickers settle their disputes with guns rather than lawsuits. In contrast, drugs themselves are not crimogenic.

Explains Mr. Miller: “An overwhelming percentage of drug users never thump old ladies, loot convenience stores, beat their children, or shoot police officers.”

Equally disturbing is the problem of corruption. There always have been bad cops, but ongoing, profitable criminal enterprises post the greatest temptation. Judges and politicians are equally susceptible to the lure of drug money. Writes Mr. Miller, “no other factor inflates corruption as much or as perniciously as drug prohibition.”

Of particular concern today is the impact of the drug war on terrorism. Notes Mr. Miller, “Thanks to inflated prices caused by global narcotics prohibition, whoring after state sponsors is no longer needed.” Instead, the Taliban can raise millions from opium production throughout the Afghan countryside.

Another casualty of the drug war is privacy. As Mr. Miller points out, the fact that drug abuse is a victimless (or, more accurately, self-victim) crime means that there is no complaining witness. It is hard to collect evidence against drug users without using searches, wiretaps, and snitches. Even so, winning convictions in drug cases isn’t easy. Thus, the government has increasingly relied on property seizures, which demand a lower standard of proof, to punish presumed wrongdoers. Yet Mr. Miller finds that the toll among the innocent is very high.

Particularly frightening is the increase in what Mr. Miller calls “drug-only offenders,” people who were not violent but were jailed, often for significant periods of time due to new mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Imprisonment encourages them to shift into a life of more violent crime, creating far more social harm than the drug use that otherwise would occur.

There is little good news in the drug war. The government has militarized law enforcement and turned homes and entire neighborhoods into war zones. Locking up ever more people hasn’t stopped the flow of drugs, which are available inside supposedly secure penitentiaries.

Proposals for decriminalization or legalization seem radical. But the only hope may be to treat drugs as a moral, spiritual, and health problem rather than a legal one. Mr. Miller notes the importance of “social controls” in limiting destructive behavior, which ultimate are more powerful than ill-enforced laws. America’s tradition of liberty should put the burden of proof on supporters of the drug war. After all, concludes Mr. Miron, “the goals of prohibition are questionable, the methods are unsound, and the results are deadly.”

Mr. Miller and Mr. Miron have presented a powerful case against the drug war. Drug prohibition is making Americans neither safer nor better off.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.”

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