The drug war might be the perfect no-win scenario

For reducing illicit drug use, violence, or property crime, drug prohibition has been as unsuccessful as alcohol prohibition was for initiating Utopia.  But as a method for propagating bureaucracy, it's been wildly successful.

Albert Einstein never said, "Insanity is doing the same thing, expecting a different result."

It was in 1981, long after Einstein's death, that versions of the slogan first appeared in publications of the 12 Step groups Al-Anon and Narcotics Anonymous.

In sports and music, repetition is expected to yield different results.  It's called practice.  Why wouldn't participants work the steps again and again hoping for future success?

There's another saying, so commonly believed to be first of the 12 Steps, it's even used in ads for rehab facilities.  "The First Step is admitting you have a problem."

The actual Step 1 is, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable."  Admitting there's a problem is a proactive approach.  Admitting powerlessness and the inability to manage one's life is defeatist.

We should ask what qualifies as failure and what "same thing" is being repeated.  For decades, drug prohibition has become increasingly militarized.  Ever-increasing resources go to police drug units, multijurisdictional projects, drug courts, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, and rehab facilities.  Medical professionals have been deputized to prevent medications from being diverted for recreation or performance enhancement (e.g., steroids for bodybuilding, Ritalin for studying).  Employers drug-test applicants and employees.

What would prohibition success look like?  Probably not like ever-expanding encampments encircled by trash, human waste, and syringes, visible in many cities.

There are almost 200,000 people incarcerated at a time for drug offenses and defendants in every state diverted to drug courts.  Every sizable community has agencies that connect residents with tax-funded rehab and multiple, free 12 Step meetings every day.

Except for the patent-owners ending Quaalude manufacture, illicit drug availability and demand persist.

Self-reported drug use counts among mitigating factors in criminal sentencing.  Prison "drug education" leads to increased privileges and points toward early release.  For federal inmates, a one-year sentence reduction for completing drug education is the only opportunity for time off.

Drug courts and rehab facilities actively protect clients from prosecution.  Subsequent arrests are not the statistics these anti-drug institutions are looking for.

Work, a reasonable social life, and some drug use sound like an implausible lifestyle to modern ears.  But count alcohol as mind-altering, and we're describing over 80% of Americans.  For decades after the Harrison Act of 1914, many medical professionals criticized the legislation because prosecution and criminal records would ruin the lives of otherwise functional people.  There are actually data from federally funded studies.  In the 1920s, over 800 self-identified addicts voluntarily participated in years of research.  Subjects were examined in minute detail, from organ function to blood chemistry to excrement.  There were a few results slightly out of range, as expected when numerous tests are performed on hundreds of healthy people.  During these studies, before antibiotics, one subject contracted and survived pneumonia.  Almost all the subjects were employed.

Sure, there are criminals who use drugs.  Criminals also eat cheeseburgers, drive cars, and surf the internet.  Criminals camp in public spaces using tents, tarps, and sleeping bags.  If the government offered shorter sentences to defendants, and time off to inmates, for admitting that blue tarps caused their offenses, how quickly would reports surface linking tarp use and criminal acts?

Dedicated funding for drug enforcement, drug courts, and drug treatment does not coincide with a measurable decrease in availability or demand for illicit drugs, nor does spending on police in general.  Increasing police resources does decrease crime that inflicts harm on others.  A study by Princeton University Professor Steven Mello found that federal funding for 7,000 new police officers in 2009 led to substantial, measurable reductions of violent crime, larceny, auto theft, robbery, and murders, with no increase in arrest numbers and no spillover to other communities.  Meanwhile, drugs are so available that inmate drug testing and positive results are routine.

Maybe we have no vision of what a drug war win would look like because there are too many people for whom the best possible situation is prohibition continued indefinitely.  Thousands of bureaucrats have comfortable careers, air-conditioned offices and good retirement packages, and secure positions of power in the DEA, FBI, FDA, OCDETF, SAMSHA, NIMN, ONCDP, NIDA, etc., as well as similar agencies at the state level.

We know the first step: admitting the problem.  Next would be dismantling policies not only that have failed, but for which there appears to be no template for success.

Here are some ideas that could be implemented at the same time as ending drug prohibition: 1. change self-administered intoxication from a mitigating factor to an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing; 2. stop using the word "criminals" as evidence of a link between drug use and crime; 3. divert all federal funding earmarked for drug enforcement to hiring more police; 4. take care of the seriously mentally ill, including long-term residential care, a priority.

Our Founders trusted us with deadly weapons, uncensored ideas, freedom to believe whatever we like and to associate with whom we choose.  Attempts to restrict products with effects on mind, mood, or performance, inserted into the system designed to protect our freedoms, have not only failed to solve the problem they were adopted to address but have created a self-perpetuating system.  The only consistent outcome of these restrictions has been the entrenchment of the thought-stopping cliché that we cannot just allow drug use. 

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