The Drug War: Stuck in the Tunnel

Stephen H. Unger
December 2, 2008

It is widely believed, at least among politicians, that war is the best way to get people's attention. No doubt this is what motivated the Nixon Administration to declare war on drugs in 1971. But victory in this war is nowhere in sight. The time is long overdue to reconsider our approach to the illicit drug problem.

What's Happening?

The drug war is being fought on several different fronts involving local, state, and national governments. It is international in that an important aspect is the use of force to try to stop the growing and transporting of opiates and coca leaves in countries all over the world. The principal strategy has been to cut off the supply at the source or in transit, so as to reduce the quantity of drugs available for sale on the streets. In addition, substantial efforts are being made, to apprehend and imprison local drug dealers. Drug users are also routinely rounded up. In fact, most of those "captured" in the war on drugs are people, mostly poor people, arrested for illegal possession of illicit substances. These constitute more than four times the number arrested for sales or manufacture of such items. About 20% of state prisoners and about 55% of federal prisoners are drug offenders. In addition, about 1 out of 6 prisoners committed their crimes to get money for drugs [1].

Casualties also include victims of crimes committed in connection with the illegal drug industry. Taxpayers must pay the huge costs of inflated police departments, judicial systems, and prison systems. They also have to pay the cost of the international operations to reduce the importing of drugs. It is hard to estimate indirect costs such as added burdens on the criminal justice system, the effects of corruption of police officers, increases in insurance rates, injuries and property losses associated with crimes committed to obtain money or drugs, and lost income (and associated taxes) resulting from imprisonment for drug related crimes.

How successful has the war been in reducing the use of illegal drugs in the US? Measures of success might include the number of drug users, the quantity of illicit drugs consumed in the US, the number of drug arrests of smugglers, dealers, and users, and the street prices of various drugs. One could argue that the war is being won and bolster that claim by selecting trends over some time periods for some suitable subset of the measures, or, by making different choices, one could support the argument that the war is being lost. Whatever one might claim about trends, it is clear that, three decades or more into the war, the enemy has not yet been vanquished. Annual costs and arrest rates remain high and show no signs that they are about to plummet. There is no end in sight.


Marijuana [2] is the most widely used illicit drug. Some 20 million people have been arrested for violations of marijuana laws, mainly for possession. There is a great deal of controversy over many assertions about it. Smoking seems to be harmful in a number of ways, principally via its negative impact on mental activities: degrading memory and the ability to concentrate. It is addictive, but less so than cocaine, heroin, alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine. While smoking marijuana has clearly been shown to degrade driving ability significantly, it does not seem to be associated with the kinds of violent episodes common linked to excessive alcohol use. Analyses of marijuana smoke suggest that it may be even more harmful than tobacco smoke, altho the extent of the correlation between marijuana smoking and diseases such as lung cancer has not been clearly established by epidemiological studies. There are legitimate medical uses of marijuana.

An interesting sidelight is that growing hemp, a variation of the marijuana plant, has been outlawed in the US since 1937, when marijuana was made illegal [3]. Hemp is considered a valuable crop in Canada and in Europe. For example, hemp seed is quite nutritious, and hemp fiber is considered very useful. A number of state governments have gone on record in support of legalizing this crop. Hempseed oil, hemp seeds, and hemp fiber are imported legally.

Legal, But Most Harmful

The most obvious example of a recreational drug that is not illegal is alcohol. Of course it was outlawed in the US between 1920 and 1933, but there was widespread agreement that the "war on alcohol" was lost. It too was costly, led to widespread corruption, and failed to reduce usage. While most people are able to use alcohol in moderation, and derive pleasure from it, without harm (there may even be benefits to the cardiovascular system from an occasional drink), there is a substantial minority, in the neighborhood of 7.5%, that is subject to alcoholism, a very serious disease. Also, when intoxicated, some non-alcoholics often become violent, and, of course, many auto accidents result from drinking. A wide variety of serious diseases are brought on or aggravated by drinking. By almost any measure, alcohol is more harmful both to individuals and to society as a whole than are any of the currently outlawed substances.

Since the failure of prohibition, alcohol has been regulated in various ways. It remains a major problem, particularly with respect to excessive drinking by young people, including teenagers. But there is no serious movement to re-instate prohibition.

Most harmful to users is tobacco [4]. Well over 440,000 Americans are estimated to die annually from ailments linked to tobacco. Such deaths include those from cancers, heart disease, and lung disease. The economic toll is roughly 200 billion dollars annually in medical costs and productivity losses. Tobacco is more addictive than any other well known drug except cocaine and heroin. It is legal, but regulated. At least in the US, substantial progress has been made in reducing usage since the veil of silence about its deadly effects was torn away fifty years ago. Since that time, the proportion of adult smokers in the US has been cut in half to about 20%. (Sadly, there are many parts of the world where the trend is in the opposite direction.) This has been accomplished mainly by educational measures and restrictions on advertising, altho high taxes and restrictions on smoking in public places are also factors. It is interesting that the prevalence of smoking decreases with education. Among those who never graduated from high school, 25% smoke, among college graduates the ratio falls to 11%, and among those with graduate degrees only 6% smoke [5]. Criminalizing its use has never seriously been considered.

Both alcohol and tobacco appear to be important gateways to banned substances. Among teenagers, those who smoke or drink are roughly ten times more likely to use illegal drugs than are those who neither drink nor smoke.

Do We Really Need This War?

The legal basis for the drug war is somewhat shaky. Before passing federal legislation pertaining to prohibition of alcohol, it was deemed necessary to amend the constitution. I have not seen an explanation of why a comparable amendment is not necessary to validate laws against drug traffic and possession. There are also disturbing indications that the drug war is targeting black people. How else can we explain the fact that about three quarters of those in prison for drug possession are black, while it is estimated that only about one in seven drug users are black? [6]

Penalties imposed on convicted drug offenders seem unreasonably large. It was reported in 2001 that, while those convicted of violent crimes were sentenced on average to 63 months in prison, the average drug offender received a sentence of 76 months (average for all offenders was about 57 months) [7]. Bear in mind that most of the drug convictions were for possession.

If we stop thinking in terms of warfare and recognize the complexity of the drug problem, it might be possible to address it more sensibly. Obviously desirable properties of a solution are:

  1. Harm to others caused by users of mind-altering substances would be minimized.
  2. Children would not have access to such substances.
  3. People would be educated about the dangers of these substances.
  4. Addicts wishing to be cured would be helped.

Making drugs illegal has several pernicious effects, apart from infringing on individual rights. One is that, since the purity and potency of illegally purchased substances are obviously unregulated, users may be receiving dangerously large dosages, or seriously contaminated material. Many heroin and cocaine deaths result from such effects. To the extent that drug interdiction campaigns are successful, the street prices of the drugs are increased. While this has the intended (and desirable) effect of discouraging usage, it also has two unintended effects. One is that addicts, desperate to obtain sustaining doses, often commit violent crimes to obtain the necessary cash. Another is that the incentives for those involved in the drug trade is increased, leading to heightened efforts to obtain the banned substances and to find new customers.

Legalizing drugs would allow people to choose to use drugs moderately, without endangering others. (The assumption is that, as in the case of alcohol, there would be severe penalties for driving while under the influence, and for disruptive behavior in public.) It would, if drugs were regulated and sold at reasonable prices, virtually eliminate criminal drug organizations and reduce enforcement and incarceration costs. Crime in general would probably be reduced as a major incentive for robbery would be eliminated. Deaths due to overdose and contaminated drugs would be greatly reduced. The downside is that overall usage would probably increase. A crucial question is whether use by children would increase or decrease.

Another beneficial effect would be the resumption of hemp growing in the US. Note that production of alcohol for industrial use is carried out with controls to prevent leakage into the beverage domain. Something like this might be done with hemp.

If drugs are legalized, an important issue would be the prices to be charged. If too low, usage would be too great. If too high, then one problem is that it would deter use only by lower income people (or motivate them to commit crimes to support drug habits, as is the case currently). More important is that it might fail to put drug trafficers out of business as they might be able to profitably undercut the legal price. There is also the risk that tax revenue from drugs might become sufficiently important as to cause governments to encourage drug use so as to maintain that income. This is what happened with gambling, where, for example, the State of NY publishes ads promoting sales of state lottery tickets and the use of its off-track betting facilities.

A gradual reform might be desirable. The first step might be to legalize marijuana, including hemp growing, and to sharply reduce penalties for possession of other drugs. A major increase in education and rehabilitation programs could be financed with a portion of the money saved. Further steps, e.g., legalization of other substances and further reductions in penalties might be taken after observing the results of the first step.

Don't expect too much, especially in the near term. For example, while we could reasonably expect a significant drop in crime rates, this drop might be smaller than expected because many of those currently engaged in drug related crime might simply switch to other criminal activities. Note that, many decades after the end of prohibition, alcohol remains a serious problem.

I personally have always been repelled by the idea of imbibing a substance that might gum up my brain, and never considered even minimal experiments along such lines. But I don't think it is justifiable to prohibit adequately informed adults from using such substances when other people would not be adversely affected.


  1. US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 30, 2007
  2. The National Institute on Drug Abuse , "Marijuana Abuse", Research Report Series, July 22, 2008
  3. NORML, Statement on the Cultivation of Industrial Hemp, Dec 11, 2006
  4. Will Dunham, "US smoking rate is under 20 percent for first time", Reuters, November 13, 2008
  5. SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies, "Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings", Department of Health and Human Services, September 2008
  6. Ben Wallace, "How America Lost the War on Drugs", Rolling Stone, Dec 13, 2007
  7. Christina Gleason, "Financial Cost of the War on Drugs",, May 6, 2008

Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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