In his latest post, James Roberts once again has an opportunity to defend the four-decade track record of the war on drugs. Once again, he neglects or declines to do so. Instead, he presents yet another installment in his entirely speculative case that ending prohibition would be a policy disaster. Presumably, he means that it would be a disaster in marked contrast to the impressive success of our current policy.
His failure or refusal to defend the performance record of the war on drugs leads to the suspicion that he is unable to present a credible defense. I sympathize with his plight, because he is being challenged to defend an indefensible policy.
The drug war has been a debacle both domestically and internationally. In the United States, it has overwhelmed our prisons (indeed, the entire criminal justice system) caused many urban neighborhoods to become combat zones, and eviscerated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the drug-source countries of South America, it has created a bonanza of corruption and helped bring to power such populist demagogues as Bolivia’s Evo Morales. In Afghanistan, the counter-narcotics mission has alienated tens of thousands of Afghan opium farmers and, even worse, tribal leaders and other important political players — key U.S. allies who rely on the drug trade to fund their power bases. The war on drugs there, in short, has undermined our far more crucial mission to defeat al Qaeda.
And Washington’s war on drugs has plunged our neighbor Mexico into agony. The soaring violence and corruption in that country now poses a threat to the stability and integrity of the Mexican state — and increasingly creates a troubling security problem for the United States as well.
The harsh reality that Mr. Roberts and other drug warriors refuse to face is that prohibition is a godsend to the criminal syndicates that now dominate the drug trade. Invoking the specter of horrible outcomes if legalization were adopted fails on two counts. First, the United States had a legalized regime regarding drugs before the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 (one of the many authoritarian “achievements” of the Progressive Era). While that system was not without its flaws, American society did not descend into the abyss.
Second, and more important, proponents of legalization do not have to create ethereal specters about the tragic consequences of drug prohibition. The horrors of that policy are all too real and indisputable.