The War on Drugs — America’s campaign against the drug trade — has been a failure. Yet, American politicians refuse to see this unfortunate truth. In this post, I’m going to argue that the U.S., and much of the developed world, for that matter, should decriminalize recreational drug usage, as the best solution to the problems drugs present.
Image: By Diego Fernández (autor original) / vendida con “copyright compartido” a la Agencia de Fotografía AP México (autor secundario) – self-made / publicada en La Jornada México (fuente de consulta secundaria) AP otorga permiso de difusión en dicha publicación, Public Domain.
I believe that drugs should be decriminalized because the status quo has substantial harms, classified as follows: the black market in drugs, the disproportionate effect on marginalized groups, and the violation of the right to choose.
When drugs are illegal, the drug trade occurs within the black market. That’s how people get drugs anyway. But the black market is substantially more dangerous, for multiple reasons, the most important one being crime. Ending the War on Drugs would allow for U.S. legal drug business to compete against the black market, and win (due to things like lower costs [70-80% cost drop is predicted] and, quite simply, legality) — legal businesses tend to compete illegal ones out of business.
However, continuing the War on Drugs would fuel the black market, and the illegal drug trade would create huge problems in terms of crime and violence. The direct harm of the War on Drugs, then, exacerbates with military violence. There are five problems created by the black market in drug trade: gang violence in the U.S. and Mexico, funding insurgent groups and terrorist networks, the direct casualties of military action, access to children, and greater health risks from drugs.
Gang Violence. The black market causes substantial violence within the United States, and in its borders. American drug demand fuels most of Mexico’s cartels, creating much of the violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. It also fuels American cartels — cartels that fight with competitors, and engage in armed robbery and similar black market activities (i.e. gang violence). The Global Commission on Drug Policy explains:
The global war on drugs has failed . . . prohibition has failed in tackling global consumption of drugs, and has instead led to the creation of black markets and criminal networks that resort to violence and corruption in order to carry out their business. This drug-related violence now threatens the institutional stability of entire nations.
Terrorism. Black market trading in drugs funds insurgent groups and terrorist networks. Mark Kleiman, et al. explain,
“Drug revenues support insurgents, other armed non-state actors, and corrupt officials, while counternarcotic efforts create hostility to state power. None of this would be true if the drugs and crops in question were made legal.”
A crucial example of this is the Taliban — the opium trade is the main source of revenue for the Taliban. Drug legalization would help fight such major criminal networks.
Military Action. In some respects, the War on Drugs is literally a “war” — major portion of it involves military action. The reason for this is simple: the government needs to fight the sort of dangerous gangs and criminal networks that trade in drugs. 1,100 people are murdered within the U.S. every year due to the War on Drugs. American involvement in the drug wars of Mexico and Colombia have even larger impacts, in the form of fighting cartels — with staggering death tolls in those respective theaters, alongside millions displaced.
Children. In the status quo, in various countries — including the United States — ghettoized or homeless children are often a target to sell street drugs to; they become the victims of drug abuse. Even “young children” are often addicted in many parts of Kenya. This is unique to the black market because illegal drug sellers frequently market their drugs toward children, and get them addicted to drugs for their profit. The problem is substantially reduced when drugs are legal, because under a legal system, drug sale is going to be regulated and isn’t going to go to children.
Health. Black market drugs are frequently adulterated with toxic substances — a cost-saving measure. Multiple drug addicts and users, therefore, face substantially more negative effects when black market drugs are used. This adulteration also causes further harms such as heavy metal poisoning. However, in a legal setting, organizations like the FDA can ensure that drugs are regulated, tested for poisoning and purity, and given warning labels, allowing for information that drugs are unhealthy (that some people — like children — actually don’t possess). Furthermore, under illegality, there’s no means to issue clean needles, to prevent diseases like HIV/AIDS from spreading due to illegal drug use.
In conclusion, the black market in drugs causes multiple fatalities due to criminal networks, provides access to children, and poses a major health risk.
The War on Drugs has a disproportionate effect on socially marginalized groups: African-Americans, Hispanics, the working class, and the socio-economically disadvantaged have all been disproportionately affected by the Drug War. I argue that this offers sufficient reason to end the War on Drugs. There are a couple of ways in which the War on Drugs perpetuates racism and classism; I’m going to look at two key things. First, I’m going to look at how the criminal justice aspect of the Drug War harms minorities. Second, I’ll talk about why black market drugs disproportionately affect communities of minorities.
The first issue is criminal justice. Although African-Americans in the U.S. aren’t more likely to use drugs, they’re more likely to get incarcerated for drug offenses. A 2009 report from Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion: the War on Drugs is a classic example of structural racism against African-American communities. When African-Americans are sentenced for drug-related offenses, they’re more likely to have longer, harsher sentences too — according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, drug sentences for African-Americans were 13% longer than drug sentences for whites between 2007 and 2009.
Why are there such substantial racial disparities caused by the Drug War? The most important reason is that white people tend to have greater political influence than minorities. This means police officers are more likely to enforce drug laws in neighborhoods without substantial numbers of rich elites, who disproportionately tend to be white people. An analysis by Project Know found that drug laws were disproportionately enforced in black-majority communities. Since police officers get funding through drug arrests, they target the places where it’s easy to make arrests: neighborhoods with poor economic conditions (i.e. those where drug users are more likely to abuse drugs openly). In other words, white drug dealers are (1) too rich and powerful for police officers to bother arresting, and (2) tend to sell drugs indoors, which means police officers get easier drug arrests by arresting black people.
Furthermore, the for-profit prison industry continues to perpetuate the flawed notion that imprisonment is a solution to things like poverty, which explains the class-based targeting of individuals for drug offenses. Since African-American individuals are likely to be poor, they’re targeted in a similar manner. This is combined with the fact that people in power have an incentive to perpetuate fear of drugs. Political critic Noam Chomsky explains:
[T]he fear of drugs and the fear of crime is very much stimulated by state and business propaganda. The National Justice Commission repeatedly points out that crime in the United States, while sort of high, is not off the spectrum for industrialized societies. On the other hand, fear of crime is far beyond other societies, and mostly stimulated by various propaganda. The Drug War is an effort to stimulate fear of dangerous people from who we have to protect ourselves. It is also, a direct form of control of what are called “dangerous classes,” those superfluous people who don’t really have a function contributing to profit-making and wealth. They have to be somehow taken care of.
The Drug War functions alongside means to disenfranchise black people — photo ID laws, gerrymandering, zoning laws, and so on — to ensure that the upper classes dominate the electorate. This isn’t some conspiracy theory: it is fact, and most research agrees. [Note: It’s more nuanced and complicated than this, but this is essentially the base of it.] What’s the harm? The mass-incarceration of these youth leads to a stripping of economic productivity — further reducing the quality of life of socioeconomically disadvantaged minorities. Ending the War on Drugs is ending the subjugation of minorities through criminal justice.
The second issue is that minority communities are disproportionately targeted by the black market in drugs, and the lack of rehabilitation worsens the problem. The black market creates drug-dominated neighborhoods, focusing on poor African-American and Hispanic communities, leading to a deterioration in the quality of life in such neighborhoods. When drugs are legalized, there’s no “targeting” of neighborhoods by the legal market — ensuring that people aren’t essentially coerced into doing drugs.
The right to liberty is a fundamental right — and it is the right that grounds all other fundamental rights (i.e. the right to life, property, equality, and so on). There are only two conditions when the government can infringe on the freedom of an individual: either (1) if the action would result in harm to any non-consensual other, or would overall be detrimental to society, or (2) if the person who makes the choice is unable to make such a choice entirely. The latter is something that very rarely occurs, and I’m not going to explore that in too much detail — mostly, it’s in the case of adolescents and kids who don’t have a sufficiently developed brain to make the choice to, for instance, drive, or consume alcohol. This idea is encapsulated in John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized society, against [their] will, is to prevent harm to others.
Why is the right to liberty, when these conditions are not met, a fundamental right? First, the right to liberty gives the government political legitimacy. Before the State existed, in the “state of nature” or the “natural condition of humankind,” individuals were entirely free from any form of restraint by the government. We consent to give up some of this liberty in exchange for preventing harm to ourselves, which we didn’t consent to. We want our conditions to be better. Therefore, the only legitimate purpose of the State is to prevent harm to people who didn’t consent to the “harm.” This is enriched by the right to liberty, and forms a limiting principle that the government cannot cross.
Second, the harm principle allows individuals to subjectively weigh costs and benefits. The government typically legislates in order to maximize the interests of the people — but when there’s no interpersonal calculation of interests, and only intrapersonal ones, those interests are subjective. Thus, only the individuals themselves can weigh those interests.
Why is this relevant to the War on Drugs? Quite simply, drug use is a self-regarding act. There’s no substantial third party harm — any of it is outweighed by the harm from continuing drug prohibition. While the choice to use drugs might sometimes be illegitimate (especially with overly addictive drugs which you want to quit using but can’t), most often, it is a perfectly legitimate choice, that the government shouldn’t infringe on — at least for individuals above the age of 22 or so, when they can make decisions for themselves. To be sure, drug use is a bad thing, but it’s going to continue anyway — so the government shouldn’t go beyond its legitimate limits to constrain things simply because they’re “bad.” Ending the War on Drugs protects the right to choice.
I’ve shown you that the War on Drugs fuels a dangerous black market, disproportionately harms marginalized groups, and violates the right to choice. What are the implications of these three truths? The answer: we must end the War on Drugs, immediately. But that’s not as straightforward as that sounds. What do I support in the process of ending the War on Drugs?
First, I think that drug use — of any recreational drug — shouldn’t be treated as criminal activity. In the case of addiction, it should be treated as an activity that should be prevented by rehabilitation. We ought to have free drug rehabilitation programs and no prison sentences for any nonviolent drug offenders, to integrate them back into society.
Second, I think the use of most soft drugs and certain hard drugs — specifically, those that the black market feeds on — should be legal. I don’t advocate the legalization of every single drug — just certain drugs to ensure that this dangerous illegal activity doesn’t continue. These drugs are obviously going to be regulated in terms of purity, the age of consumption, etc. and we’re going to ensure that people of certain communities aren’t targeted.
The War on Drugs has been an abject and total failure — causing thousands of deaths every year, violating the freedom to choose, and disproportionately harming socially marginalized groups. It’s time to end this repression of the people, by ending the War on Drugs.