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An Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs

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The "War on Drugs" is a civil war. We are locking up our children, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers for the “crime” of altering their consciousness in ways that have not been sanctioned by the government. The fact that many drugs of choice are illegal keeps the price artificially high and leads to criminal behavior on the part of some users, who steal or rob to get their hands on the substantial sums of money needed to finance their habit. The War on Drugs has ended or shattered millions of lives, turned otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, and left our prisons over-crowded.

Perhaps, most importantly, the War on Drugs has clearly been ineffective. Despite massive expenditures of tax dollars and manpower, the War on Drugs has had virtually no impact on drug use in this country. The percentage of Americans using illegal drugs fluctuates a bit from time to time, but has been at epidemic levels for over four decades and counting.

There is no end in sight and the political establishment in Washington is not discussing or even considering ending this massive and inappropriate waste of the taxpayer’s money. It’s time to come up with an exit strategy for the War on Drugs. Here are a couple of ideas for doing so:

For some time now, the efforts of the authorities have been directed primarily at locking up dealers. Users are typically ignored or given a slap on the wrist, if arrested. If we apply the laws of supply and demand to the War on Drugs, we can see that it would be far more effective to reverse that strategy.

The risks involved in dealing drugs are substantial. You not only risk imprisonment, but violence, including the possibility of death, at the hands of rival dealers. Yet the willingness to take these risks is the only barrier to entry for would-be drug dealers. The easy money to be made by dealing drugs lures significant numbers of people into becoming part of the drug trade.

The enormous profits flowing to drug dealers at the top level of a cartel or gang compensates for the risks involved effectively enough that there are plenty of lower level dealers eager and willing to move up to fill the void created when we lock up dealers.

Furthermore, when we lock up dealers, we temporarily reduce the supply of illegal drugs. As a result, there is a spike in the price of drugs, which increases the profits for drug dealers and, therefore the incentive to become a drug dealer. We’ve locked up a lot of drug dealers over the past 40 plus years, the resulting void in the supply side of the drug trade has always been filled very rapidly.

The key to “winning” the War on Drugs is to shift our focus from the supply side to the demand side of the equation. If we began to lock up casual users, particularly if we do so aggressively, we would see a decrease in the demand for drugs.

When you lock up users, you reduce the demand directly. (Assuming they don’t find a way to buy drugs while incarcerated.) More importantly, if enough casual users see enough of their friends and family members locked up for years for simply smoking a joint or popping a pill for which they do not have a prescription, the attraction of recreational drugs will dim. With a lower demand, the price of drugs will drop. There will be a sharp decline in the profits of drug dealers and a substantially reduced incentive to engage in dealing.

Of course, if we really want to win the War on Drugs, we would strictly enforce all of the drug laws on the books and lock up both users and dealers.

“The Wit and Wisdom of Ulysses S. Grant” would be a short book indeed. He does not rank among our most effective presidents or deepest thinkers. However, one quotation from him is well worth considering and applying to the War on Drugs: “The best way to get rid of a bad law is to strictly enforce it.”

What would happen if we strictly enforced the letter of the laws that are on the books right now related to the illegal use of drugs? What if we could lock up every single citizen guilty of using or selling illegal drugs?

First of all, the unemployment rate would plummet. Above and beyond filling the millions of jobs that would come open as those using or selling drugs were locked up, additional jobs constructing thousands of additional prisons and working as guards in those prisons would be available for those of us who would not be locked up.

Of course, we would have to pay a much higher percentage of our income in taxes to pay for the construction of all those new prisons and the costs of incarcerating tens of millions of additional “criminals.”

All things considered, the effects of strict enforcement seem less than appealing. Coupled with the money flowing to those who fight the War on Drugs and the rampant corruption of our legal and judicial system that has occurred as a result of the War on Drugs, it becomes very clear why this “War” rages on and on with no end in sight – why we have not won the War on Drugs, and why, with our present approach, we never will.

If we want to end the War on Drugs, the momentum to do so will have to come from somewhere other than our corrupt and dysfunctional political and judicial system. It will have to come from drug users themselves. Civil disobedience is the key to ending the War on Drugs.

Mohandas K. Gandhi was able to lead India to independence using civil disobedience as his primary weapon. Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders led a successful, if incomplete, revolution with regard to civil rights using civil disobedience.

How would we apply the concept of civil disobedience to the War on Drugs? Users should stop hiding their habit from the authorities, including parents or other family members. Large groups of pot smokers and other casual drug users should show up on the steps of court houses and government buildings and fire up their doobies, joints, blunts and roaches, pop their pills, etc.

Would it be worth it to spend a little time in jail, if it led to the repeal of the laws that prohibit smoking marijuana or consuming prescription pills without a prescription? Those of you who consume illegal drugs will have to decide that for yourselves. But consider this: if civil disobedience proved effective, you could eventually indulge in your habit at a greatly reduced price and without the fear and paranoia that presently affects most users.

Beyond the fact that I, like nearly all of us, have a few friends and family members who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the War on Drugs, I have no vested interest in this issue. I do not alter my consciousness with recreational drugs of any kind. I don’t take advantage of the government-sanctioned methods for getting high by consuming alcohol or nicotine or mood-altering prescription drugs. Adding more choices to the range of options for getting high, will not tempt me at all. I’m not interested in “getting high.” I am quite content to enjoy the blessings of life without chemical assistance.

I wish more of my fellow Americans felt the same way. I don’t encourage or condone drug use, but I would like to see this senseless and ineffective war come to an end. If we consider the full range of drugs, both legal and illegal, consumed by Americans on a regular basis, an amazingly high percentage of Americans are unable or unwilling to face life without medication of some sort.

If we implement a successful exit strategy for the War on Drugs, perhaps we could shift some of the resources we save to figuring out exactly what it is about modern life that leaves so many members of our society feeling the need to use and abuse drugs and to offer expanded treatment options for those who would like to escape from the grip of drug dependency.

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About Winston Apple

Winston Apple is the author of "Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education." He is a former teacher. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Missouri at Kansas City (1990). He is also a singer-songwriter and recording artist.
  • Cannonshop

    Civil disobedience won’t do it-getting the right people to run for office, and then getting them to WIN, will.

    unfortunately, the Drug War is a huge employer-on both sides of the criminal divide, and unlike prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition directed at narcotics is internationally viewed as legitimate (more or less), meaning there’s really no pressure on Pols to change things. (Particularly democrat Pols,who care more about what the International Community thinks, than what their own constituents do.)

  • Very funny stuff. Is this a satire?

    There is not enough room in the jails to lock up every user. Plus, prohibition didn’t work for alchol, which is arguably more potentially dangerous than marijuana, which has medicinal uses.

    I predict that more and more states will legtalize medical marijuana, and eventually the Supreme Court may decriminalize its use.

    It is also worth noting that in Amsterdam, where pot shops abound, the governement taxes the shops though technically they are illegal. The majority of users are tourists.

    Simply because you are a teetotaler, it is unrealistic to think that you can stop people from altering their state of consciousness.

    Legalizing weed and taxing it, as we do liquor, would help the economy substantially as well.

    We are in thrall to the drug industry, which now considers us consumers who can ask their doctor for pills for anything from insomnia to depression to erectile dysfunction. Consider the warnings which the commercials contain, which can include, well, death. Countless lawsuits have been brought against the major drug companies, which make enormous profit.

    Thus, the war on drugs might include a rethinking of our dependence on prescription drugs and the active commercialization for an industry which grosses billions of dollars in profits.

  • malcolm kyle

    Prohibition is a sickening horror and the ocean of incompetence, corruption and human wreckage it has left in its wake is almost endless.

    Prohibition has decimated generations and criminalized millions for a behavior which is entwined in human existence, and for what other purpose than to uphold the defunct and corrupt thinking of a minority of misguided, self-righteous Neo-Puritans and degenerate demagogues who wish nothing but unadulterated destruction on the rest of us.

    Based on the unalterable proviso that drug use is essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behavior which has been with us since the dawn of time, any serious reading on the subject of past attempts at any form of drug prohibition would point most normal thinking people in the direction of sensible regulation.

    By its very nature, prohibition cannot fail but create a vast increase in criminal activity, and rather than preventing society from descending into anarchy, it actually fosters an anarchic business model – the international Drug Trade. Any decisions concerning quality, quantity, distribution and availability are then left in the hands of unregulated, anonymous, ruthless drug dealers, who are interested only in the huge profits involved.

    Many of us have now, finally, wised up to the fact that the best avenue towards realistically dealing with drug use and addiction is through proper regulation which is what we already do with alcohol & tobacco, clearly two of our most dangerous mood altering substances. But for those of you whose ignorant and irrational minds traverse a fantasy plane of existence, you will no doubt remain sorely upset with any type of solution that does not seem to lead to the absurd and unattainable utopia of a drug free society.

    There is an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. If you are not capable of understanding this connection then maybe you’re using something far stronger than the rest of us. Anybody ‘halfway bright’, and who’s not psychologically challenged, should be capable of understanding that it is not simply the demand for drugs that creates the mayhem, it is our refusal to allow legal businesses to meet that demand.

    No amount of money, police powers, weaponry, diminution of rights and liberties, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safer, only an end to prohibition can do that. How much longer are you willing to foolishly risk your own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution?

    If you still support the kool aid mass suicide cult of prohibition, and erroneously believe that you can win a war without logic and practical solutions, then prepare yourself for even more death, corruption, terrorism, sickness, imprisonment, unemployment, foreclosed homes, and the complete loss of the rule of law and the Bill of Rights.

    “A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
    Abraham Lincoln

    The only thing prohibition successfully does is prohibit regulation & taxation while turning even our schools and prisons into black markets for drugs. Regulation would mean the opposite!