The War on Drugs

This blog has previously touched on what I called the war on coca leaves. There also now appears to be a war on the psychoactive plant Salvia divinorum, long used by indigenous Mazatec shamans in Mexico, and recently of interest to a wider range of users as a legal hallucinogen.

At least it was legal until now. Despite the fact that the plant appears to have little potential for either abuse or addiction, and tastes awful, an increasing number of states have passed, or are considering passing, legislation to prohibit the use or possession of the plant. Florida state representative Mary Brandenburg, for example, has introduced a bill to make possession of Salvia a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Just another day in the War on Drugs.

Actually, the term War on Drugs is a misnomer. There is no war on penicillin or triamcinolone. Rather, the substances targeted by the War on Drugs have one thing in common: they have psychoactive effects that many people want to experience. These effects may be those, like hallucinations, that the state does not want anyone to experience; or those, like empathy, that the state does not mind people experiencing, but only by means that the state approves. Here are some thoughts about the war.

The War on Drugs is very expensive. So far this year the war has cost $13 billion, with an average annual cost of about $40 billion. That means that the War on Drugs has cost, oh, say, about a trillion dollars — give or take a few hundred billion — in the twenty-nine years since the 1979 crackdown. The War on Drugs has now cost about twice as much as the war in Iraq.

The War on Drugs fosters violence. Prohibiting something that people want inevitably creates a black market in the prohibited item. Black markets, in turn, are inevitably violent, because, being outside the law, legal mechanisms for dispute resolution are unavailable. If you sell me adulterated heroin, I cannot sue you; if you take my money but deliver no cocaine, I cannot complain to the police. While the state monopoly on force is available to enforce ordinary business agreements and prevent fraud and robbery, the only enforcement mechanism available in a black market is what lawyers call, with unconscious irony, self-help.

The War on Drugs fosters corruption. Black markets are inevitably corrupt, because, while they operate outside the constraints of law, they must operate under the surveillance and with the tacit approval of law enforcement. This means that black markets inevitably attempt to corrupt — by bribes, extortion, or intimidation — police, prosecutors, and judges, so that the black market can continue to operate despite prohibition of its product. This corruption then inevitably becomes more widespread. An official corrupted by money or favors from the drug black market becomes susceptible to bribes, intimidation, and extortion regarding other illegal enterprises; and corrupt officials also inevitably involve their peers and subordinates in their corruption.

The War on Drugs creates risks for consumers of drugs. Black markets are anticompetitive and monopolistic, so they inevitably create risks for their consumers, because they operate without constraints on dangerously substandard products. Participants in a black market compete, not on the basis of price or quality or features, which might benefit the consumer, but on the basis of firepower and access to protection, which does not. And consumers who purchase black market products necessarily do so without accurate consumer information, which black markets have no incentive to provide. Thus, in addition to being violent and corrupting, black markets inevitably rip off their consumers, who have no recourse, either legal or competitive, for overpriced or dangerously adulterated products.

The War on Drugs causes crime. Costs necessitated by black market violence and corruption are passed along to the consumer. Monopolistic black market ventures and cartels are not constrained by competition, can create artificial scarcities, and can fix prices. Yet the demand for psychoactive substances remains relatively inelastic, so that higher drug prices in turn correlate, not with less use, but with increased crime to pay the higher prices. These increases in crime tend to be sporadic and unpredictable, and therefore more difficult to control, since the logistics of black markets tend to preclude steady supplies of prohibited products.

The War on Drugs hurts police work. The police have been harmed by the War on Drugs not only by the violence and corruption of the black market, which take the lives and integrity of police officers; but also by distorting the police mission and making police work more difficult. There is, of course, the diversion of resources and attention from other crimes — robbery, rape, murder — to violations of the drug laws. There is also the increasing militarization of the police to deal with the violence inherent in the black market. This militarization is symbolized by the increasing use of SWAT teams to enforce no-knock warrants, with armed police kicking in doors — and, with distressing frequency, the wrong doors — in cases of alleged possession. I know of few police officers who would not, in a minute, trade enforcement of the drug laws for an opportunity to do real police work.

The War on Drugs hurts police-community relations. The War on Drugs plays a significant role in the disintegration of relationships between police and community, as friends and relatives of community members are arrested and incarcerated for minor drug offenses such as simple possession, and the police are increasingly viewed as both corrupt and hostile, and perceived by many community members as just another gang. At the same time, as laws against drugs are widely perceived to be violated with relative impunity, and prohibition visibly fails to reduce the violence and corruption of the black market it creates, there is lessened respect for law in general — a climate of lawlessness symbolized by ubiquitous gang graffiti, residential streets abandoned to drug dealers, the romanticizing and glamorizing of drug violence, and the other "broken windows" of social breakdown. Moreover, to the extent that alcohol and nicotine are legal, and those arrested for drug offenses are overwhelmingly young African American males, there is a widespread perception that the War on Drugs is grounded in generational, class, and, in particular, racial considerations that have nothing to do with addiction or safety.

The War on Drugs overburdens the courts and correctional system. In 2006, there were 1,889,810 arrests for violations of the drug laws, most for simple possession or petty sale, including 829,625 persons arrested for marijuana violations. Courts are swamped with drug cases, at great cost in money and time. To save these costs, plea bargains are common, with consequent overpunishment of minor offenses and underpunishment of more serious ones, and a general erosion of trust in the justice system. And it is clear that the correctional system, including the probation system, is heavily burdened by the need to process and house large numbers of nonviolent offenders — overwhelmingly young African American males — convicted of drug possession or low-level sales. Today, drug criminals comprise over half of federal prisoners, and nearly one-quarter of state criminal offenders. Largely because of the War on Drugs, the US prison population has doubled since 1982 to more than 800,000. Not having to house these nonviolent offenders would sufficiently reduce the number of prison inmates to a point where corrections officers could actually deal, more effectively and safely, with the truly violent offenders who remained.

The War on Drugs erodes civil liberties. The proliferation of SWAT-enforced no-knock warrants in cases of alleged possession is just one aspect of the erosion of civil liberties. Because of the War on Drugs, we are rapidly becoming a surveillance society. According to an article in Time magazine, over 400,000 US government workers, and employees of one-quarter of Fortune 500 companies, are required to undergo drug tests. In 1989, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that such mandatory urinalysis for US Customs Services employees is “an invasion of their privacy and an affront to their dignity." But that was a dissent, which meant the Supreme Court ruled the other way. And, in fact, because of the demands of the War on Drugs, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld wiretapping, searches of travelers and their luggage, search warrants for private residences based on the tip of an anonymous informant, police stops of vehicles on the highways, and surveillance of US mail. Justice Thurgood Marshall — in, of course, another dissent — felt the need to remind the Court that there is "no drug exception to the Constitution." Similarly, Democrat Peter Rodino, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, futilely opposed a provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which allows federal prosecutors to introduce evidence that had been obtained illegally without a warrant, as long as law- enforcement officials seized the material in good faith. "All day long we've been fighting the war on drugs," he said. "Now it seems that the attack is on the Constitution of the United States."

The War on Drugs hinders scientific research and medical practice. The deformation of social priorities caused by the War on Drugs is epitomized by the debate over the benefits and costs of medical marijuana, where unanswered scientific and medical questions are drowned out by issues of drug policy. The legal climate makes physicians reluctant to prescribe narcotics for relief of chronic and intractable pain, even in hospice settings. In addition, there has been a thirty-year hiatus in serious research on the psychotherapeutic use of hallucinogens and hallucinogenic amphetamines, which might have have been tested in research and therapy in disorders as varied as schizophrenia and alcoholism. And there is no doubt that exploration of other questions of potential importance — the influence of psychoactive substances on artistic creativity, for example, or their effect on spirituality — has been obstructed by fear of legal repercussions.

And what are the benefits? Proponents of the War on Drugs maintain that the war is working, at least in the sense that it makes psychoactive substances more difficult to obtain, and that, by thus limiting their use, it helps prevent both undesirable psychoactive effects and addiction. Even if this claim were true, it is hard to see how this purported benefit is worth the costs, both economic and social, of the war. But I think that the claim faces serious empirical challenges.

The War on Drugs has not made drugs harder to obtain. Indeed, between 1981 and 1998, the price of heroin and cocaine actually dropped, while levels of purity rose — the opposite of what would be expected if the War on Drugs had created a scarcity. Most high school students know where to obtain marijuana, and some slightly smaller number know how to obtain such psychoactive substances as LSD and MDMA. According to a 1999 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 90 percent of twelfth graders participating in the survey said that marijuana was "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get, over 47 percent said the same about cocaine, and more than 32 percent said the same about heroin.

The War on Drugs has had little effect on rates of addiction. According to the Drug Policy Forum, in 1914, when drugs like cocaine were available in grocery stores, the addiction rate for all drugs was estimated to be around 1.3 percent of the population. In 1979, when the War on Drugs crackdown began, the addiction rate was still 1.3 percent. In 1998, after nineteen years of war, the addiction rate still stood at 1.3 percent. There is little reason to believe that, if the War on Drugs was halted, the addiction rate would change in any significant way.

The War on Drugs punishes rather than helps addicts. If some psychoactive substances are addictive, in a physical sense, by producing intense cravings for additional use, we have to ask how such addictions are best managed, and at what economic and social cost. If these substances are as addictive as proponents of the War on Drugs maintain, and therefore demand for them completely inelastic, then it is difficult to see how making them more expensive and less safe serves any interest other than punishing the addict. It is even more difficult to see how incarceration for possession or petty sales provides the personal and social help an addict needs to quit. We could offer a lot of educational, counseling, and rehabilitation services with $40 billion a year, and buy a few submarines as well.

The War on Drugs does not distinguish recreational from spiritual uses. It is difficult to generalize among Schedule I psychoactive substances, especially without taking into account the social and cultural setting in which they are used. Does the Schedule I controlled substance dimethyltryptamine have a high potential for abuse? Apparently not, at least based on the experience of Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal churches. Is mescaline addictive? Certainly not, at least based on the experience of the Native American Church. Apart from the attractions, physical and spiritual, of rave culture, in what sense — if any — are hallucinogenic amphetamines such as MDMA addictive? Even the legal but apparently highly addictive nicotine — and even in very high doses, such as are used as a hallucinogen in the Upper Amazon — does not appear to cause addiction when its use is limited to a ceremonial context.


  1. This very well written piece ultimately puzzled me. Whom is it intended for and what does it seek to accomplish?

    What strikes me is that the rationale for the ‘war on drugs,’ which you so convincingly refute, is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more at play there than well-considered, logical public policies. To wit:

    How did the ‘war on drugs’ arise in, by far, the most legally drugged society in the history of this planet? A culture that countenances the massive drugging of its own children to force their submission to regimented ‘education’? A culture where the idea of living healthy and drug-free is perceived as highly eccentric, if not antisocial? A society so steeped in fear that it holds as a worthy aspiration the idea of ‘health insurance’ – the periodic, indefinite and substantial expenditure of money in the hope that, in the best-case scenario, the monetary outlay will remain a complete waste instead of paying for drugs?

    There is a great deal of irrationality right under the surface of the ‘war on drugs.’ It is patterned after war, the old-fashioned kind, a human institution that is still relied upon – actually, more than ever -- to vent off collective malaise. When was a war prevented by an impeccable cost-benefit analysis? We are dealing with the collective roots of psychosis, not just unintelligent policies. When has a madman been healed by a logical demonstration of his madness?

    You rightly point out that the targets of the ‘war on drugs’ are those drugs that facilitate access to other dimensions of being, in other words religion. Is it an accident that such a compulsively suppressive approach emerges at a time when authoritarian, literalist, life-stifling religious groups threaten our very survival and the very conditions of life on this planet? I do not think so. I rather think that dealing with insanity at this most dangerous level is a worthy challenge for the shamanic knowledge that people like you are collecting at its source. But persuasive policy papers do little to address that challenge.

    And how many supporters of the ‘war on drugs’ do you think read blogs with titles like ‘Singing to the Plants’?

  2. Just like to say that I appreciated the piece and the comment. Good reading. OK, it won't change anything on a grand scale, but I don't feel that it is wasted effort. There's quite a few salient points in there that could come in handy during a discussion.