Remember the War on Drugs?

Published March 9, 2009

In times of economic and political unrest, reforms that stood little chance of passage sometimes get a second look.

One idea that deserves careful consideration is ending the war on drugs. Even a prosperous nation cannot afford the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year in law enforcement outlays and losses to drug-related crime in our fruitless quest to ban recreational drugs. It’s an especially foolish waste of resources in times of economic distress and high national security anxiety.

On February 11, the former presidents of Brazil, Columbia, and Mexico and a dozen other prominent individuals issued a statement condemning the war on drugs in no uncertain terms and calling for “a new paradigm,” starting with the decriminalization of marijuana. This is something President Barack Obama and the new leadership in Congress should get behind. The political risk of appearing to be “soft on drugs” will never go away entirely, but it’s difficult to imagine the Democrats suffering any fall-out on this issue in 2010 if they were to act on it now.

According to the former presidents’ statement, “Over the past decades we have witnessed (1) a rise in organized crime caused both by the international narcotics trade and by the growing control exercised by criminal groups over domestic markets and territories; (2) a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence affecting the whole of society and, in particular, the poor and the young; (3) the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime, as well as the proliferation of the linkages between them, as reflected in the infiltration of democratic institutions by organized crime; and (4) the corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, the political system and, especially, the police forces in charge of enforcing law and order.”

The former presidents may have been talking about what is taking place in their own countries, but anyone paying attention will notice those same disturbing trends have taken place in the U.S. The solution, again quoting from the statement, is “treating drug users as a matter of public health, reducing drug consumption through information, education and prevention, and focusing repression on organized crime.”

Back in 1933, during another hard time economically for the U.S., the nation gave up trying to ban the consumption of alcohol. Very few people today believe that was a mistake. Maybe history will repeat itself.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute.