The Economist Calls For Ending Drug War (Again)

The Economist calls for an end to the drug war:

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The article proceeds to discuss the problems caused by the drug war, including increased crime and violence:

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

This is not a radical change in position for The Economist. Actually it is not a change in position at all. They wrote about the problems with prohibition twenty years ago. Events over the past twenty years have shown that they were correct.

While many aspects of Obama’s policies will be an improvement over those of the Bush administration, as Andrew Sullivan points out, Obama still makes the mistake of sticking to a law enforcement approach to the drug problem.

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7 Comments

  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I agree with The Economist now, I agreed with them twenty years ago. So did William F. Buckley Jr. Between twenty and thirty years ago, Barry Goldwater was saying it in the Senate and on Firing Line.

    Clearly, this is not solely a ‘liberal’ issue. I don’t understand the lack of common sense on this point.

  2. 3
    Ed Wilson says:

    The Economist calls for Ending War on Drugs: http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=7341

  3. 4
    David Foster says:

    It has long been obvious that the “war against drugs” did far more harm than good in the U.S.  What is increasingly obvious is that it also does far more harm than good in countries producing these drugs.  As a direct result of this “war” American and European drug users and directly sending billions of dollars to the worst criminal and terrorist elements all over the world.  After a hundred years of failed policies it is time for a change.

  4. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Sadly, the very effects of the Drug War on Mexico, Colombia, Burma, Afghanistan, and other nations are likely to be touted by the Drug Warriors as the very reason the war must go on. Congressman Darrell Issa (R) of California, for instance, is one of the biggest hawks on this issue. The more information he collects about the effects of the Drug War, the more he believes it necessary to kill all the drug dealers. I think that inability to step outside of one’s self-imposed mental box is widespread throughout the center, both center-left and center-right, on this issue. I don’t see meaningful change coming yet.

    I think we should keep working for it, but I’m not ready to be wildly optimistic.

  5. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    On drug policy I separate what I am hoping for and what I expect to see accomplished.

    I agree in not being wildly optimistic about an end to the drug war. I do think we will see some positive changes under Obama which, while not going as far as I would like, are in the right direction.

    The first change has been the promise to end the raids on medical marijuana. I’m also hoping to see a reduction (preferable elimination) of the intimidation felt by doctors for using narcotics in pain management.

    Beyond medical issues, Obama has expressed support in the past for sentencing reform. He also differed from Clinton in backing needle exchange programs which Clinton opposed.

    There is even an outside chance Obama might decriminalize or legalize marijuana. I doubt he would use any political capital on this right now, but there is a shot of him doing this after in office longer, especially if the problems with the economy and Iraq subside and after he deals with health care reform.

    Obama is far from libertarian on drug policy, but I think that he is the best we could have reasonably expected this year. Beyond that it will probably be a long process in ending the drug war.

  6. 7
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I didn’t mean to dismiss the possibility of positive changes, sometimes I feel the reflexive need to ‘talk the market down’ on certain issues, which is probably not a good trait for a ‘radical.’

    I think the change of DEA policy, if successfully enforced throughout the agency, is a major step and a serious reason to be happy. I am all in favor of a change in the way the government treats doctors trying to help their patients as well, and I agree that I think it is something we can realistically hope for from the present administration. I very much would like to see needle exchange brought back, but I think the political toxicity of the issue may not have subsided to the degree where it is really realistically possible.

    Sentencing reform is tricky. I think, in theory, everyone likes ‘treatment instead of prison’ for non-violent drug offenders. I have many of the same qualms I do about forced treatment as I do about prison, however. Chemical treatment programs are frequently far more medically dangerous than drug addiction, while non-chemical rehab doesn’t work if ‘forced.’ Respectable studies show roughly the same success/failure rates for people who quit on their own as for people who join a treatment program, with the numbers tending drastically toward ‘failure.’ So while I applaud keeping people are basically not ‘criminals’ out of prison, I am skeptical about the alternatives to prison being touted.

    I see the change in enforcement standards as a good thing and I would like to see reform of medically related drug issues, on both sides of the medical question (medical marijuana being more completely legitimized, on the one side, and the end of state subsidized methadone programs on the other), but the ‘treatment instead of prison’ issue doesn’t speak to me. Would it be an improvement? Yes. If it foreshadowed meaningful change on the real issue of the failures of the ‘Prohibition’ strategy, that would be great.

    The real issues to me are the pragmatic issue and the libertarian issue. In the case of the latter, I am opposed to the criminalization of personal choices (particularly when the same choices are not criminalized if one’s drug of choice is alcohol, nicotine, or prescription pain pills). Forced rehab doesn’t change that problem, even if preferable to prison. In the former case, anything short of decriminalization (to use a conservative meme) ‘subsidizes failure.’

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