We’re Losing the Drug War Because Prohibition Never Works
We’re Losing the Drug War Because Prohibition Never Works
There is clearly no point in beating a dead horse, whether you are a
politician or a columnist, but sometimes you have to do it just the
same, if only for the record. So, for the record, here’s another
attempt to argue that a majority of the American people and their
elected representatives can be and are wrong about the way they have
chosen to wage the war against drugs. Prohibition can’t
work, won’t work and has never worked, but it can and does have
monumentally costly effects on the criminal justice system and on the
integrity of government at every level.
Experience should be the best teacher, and my experience with prohibition is a
little more recent than most Americans for whom the noble
experiment ended with repeal in 1933. In my home state of
Mississippi, it lasted for an additional 33 years, and for all those
years it was a truism that the drinkers had their liquor, the
preachers had their prohibition and the sheriffs made the money. Al
Capone would have been proud of the latitude that bootleggers were
able to buy with their payoffs of constables, deputies, police chiefs
and sheriffs across the state.
But as a first-rate series in the New York Times made clear early last
year, Mississippi’s prohibition-era corruption (and Chicago’s before
that) was penny ante stuff compared with what is happening in the
U.S. today. From Brooklyn police precincts to Miami’s police stations
to rural Georgia courthouses, big drug money is purchasing major
breakdowns in law enforcement. Sheriffs, other policemen and now
judges are being bought up by the gross. But that money, with the net
profits for the drug traffickers estimated at anywhere from $40
billion to $100 billion a year, is also buying up banks, legitimate
businesses and, to the south of us, entire governments. The latter
becomes an increasingly likely outcome in a number of cities and
states in this country as well. Cicero, Ill., during Prohibition is
an instructive case in point.
The money to be made from an illegal product that has about 23 million
current users in this country also explains why its sale is so
attractive on the mean streets of America’s big cities. A street
salesman can gross about $2,500 a day in Washington, which puts him
in the pay category of a local television anchor, and this in a
neighborhood of dead-end job chances.
Since the courts and jails are already swamped beyond capacity by the
arrests that are routinely made (44,000 drug dealers and users over a
two-year period in Washington alone, for instance) and since those
arrests barely skim the top of the pond, arguing that stricter
enforcement is the answer begs a larger question: Who is going to pay
the billions of dollars required to build the prisons, hire the
judges, train the policemen and employ the prosecutors needed for the
load already on hand, let alone the huge one yet to come if we ever
get serious about arresting dealers and users?
Much is made of the cost of drug addiction, and it should be, but the
current breakdown in the criminal justice system is not one of them.
That breakdown is the result of prohibition, not addiction. Drug
addiction, after all, does not come close to the far vaster problems
of alcohol and tobacco addiction (as former Surgeon General Koop
correctly noted, tobacco is at least as addictive as heroin). Hard
drugs are estimated to kill 4,000 people a year directly and several
tens of thousands a year indirectly. Alcohol kills at least 100,000 a
year, addicts millions more and costs the marketplace billions of
dollars. Tobacco kills over 300,000 a year, addicts tens of millions
and fouls the atmosphere as well. But neither alcohol nor tobacco
threaten to subvert our system of law and order, because they are
treated as personal and societal problems rather than as criminal
Indeed, every argument that is made for prohibiting the use of currently
illegal drugs can be made even more convincingly about tobacco and
alcohol. The effects on the unborn? Staggeringly direct. The effects
on adolescents? Alcoholism is the addiction of choice for young
Americans on a ratio of about 100 to one. Lethal effect? Tobacco’s
murderous results are not a matter of debate anywhere outside the
Which leaves the lingering and legitimate fear that legalization might
produce a surge in use. It probably would, although not nearly as
dramatic a one as opponents usually estimate. The fact is that
personal use of marijuana, whatever the local laws may say, has been
virtually decriminalized for some time now, but there has been a
stabilization or slight decline in use, rather than an increase, for
several years. Heroin addiction has held steady at about 500,000
people for some time, though the street price of heroin is far lower
now than it used to be. Use of cocaine in its old form also seems to
have stopped climbing and begun to drop off among young and old
alike, though there is an abundantly available supply.
That leaves crack cocaine, stalker of the inner city and terror of the
suburbs. Instant and addictive in effect, easy to use and relatively
cheap to buy, it is a personality-destroying substance that is a
clear menace to its users. But it is hard to imagine it being any
more accessible under legalization than it is in most cities today
under prohibition, while the financial incentives for promoting its
use would virtually disappear with legalization.
Proponents of legalization should not try to fuzz the issue, nonetheless.
Addiction levels might increase, at least temporarily, if legal
sanctions were removed. That happened after the repeal of
Prohibition, or so at least some studies have suggested. But while
that would be a personal disaster for the addicts and their families,
and would involve larger costs to society as a whole, those costs
would be minuscule compared with the costs of continued prohibition.
The young Capones of today own the inner cities and the wholesalers
behind these young retailers are rapidly buying up the larger system
which is supposed to control them. Prohibition gave us the Mafia and
organized crime on a scale that has been with us ever since. The new
prohibition is writing a new chapter on that old text. Hell-bent on
learning nothing from history, we are witnessing its repetition,
predictably enough, as tragedy.
Appeared in the Wall Street Journal Jul 13, 1989. Reprinted
with permission. Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc.
Posted by: Harrell Graham
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