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Deconstructing a Defense of Drug Prohibition

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The "war on drugs" was lost the moment it was declared. As we should have learned from the results of that "Noble Experiment" that was conducted between 1920 and 1933, outlawing things that the people, for the most part, usually enjoy without violating the rights of others does not result in orderly and unquestioning compliance, but rather in gangsterism and the corruption and violence of the black markets that naturally form to supply the demand for those outlawed things. Nonetheless, prohibitionists continue to insist that interdiction can eventually work, "if only…"

In a May 29, 2006 commentary for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Daniel K. Duncan and Edward F. Tasch of the St. Louis area chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse made yet another weak and logically flawed case for the continuation of a ridiculously ineffective policy of drug interdiction that creates more problems than it solves while masquerading as a solution to itself.

The title of the editorial in question is, "Legalization is a Terrible Idea," which, ironically enough, is a concept with which I heartily agree.

"Legalizing" currently illegal drugs will only serve to unclog our criminal justice system and eventually reduce our prison populations, but it will do nothing about the vast underground economy that supplies the never-ending demand for certain uncontrolled substances.

If we are to ever have any hope of eliminating the black markets and the gangsterism, corruption, and violence that go with them, we must face the reality of our human nature, abandon the pipe dream of a "Drug Free America," and take control of the market, bringing it out of the shadows and into the light so that we can know who is selling what to whom and for how much. For this purpose, "legalizing" illegal drugs is not enough. We must go several steps farther and regulate unregulated drugs.

Strangely enough, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch opened their editorial with a quotation from H.L. Mencken, "For every problem there is one solution: simple, neat, and wrong," an axiom that is congruent with regard to prohibitionist policies as well as the notion of "legalization."

Defending an untenable position is impossible if one plays by the strict rules of logic. Prohibitionists, knowing that such contests almost invariably serve to reveal the numerous weaknesses of their position, do not often engage in actual debates with tangible opponents, but rather with themselves, acting in both roles so that they may avoid the embarrassment of being faced with the inevitable exposure of the untenability of the boondoggle known as the war on drugs.

When prohibitionists implement this strategy of debating with themselves, they make numerous tactical errors, such as opening with a concession that the very policy they are attempting to defend is a failure:

So, the war on drugs is not working. Agreed. But the question to ask is, "Why?" Is it not working because using drugs is really a fine idea, and we've been unjust and unreasonable in not letting everyone do whatever they want to do? Or is it not working because the way we've gone about waging this war set us up for failure?

Without a doubt, we think it's the latter.

Indeed, having set up a nifty little false dichotomy, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch appear to have hit the nail on the head with that one, thereby sucking us into the illusion that the failure of the war on drugs is a matter of methodology, not the policy itself. I am not fooled — and neither is anybody else who does not take comfort in the 80-plus year-old status quo.

Ostensibly predicting that such proclamations carry no weight without
subsequent proposals of ideas for more effective implementations, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch go on to hypothesize that the trouble with the institution of drug prohibition is that it focuses upon supply instead of demand:

The premise underlying these approaches is the idea that supply drives demand: The more drugs there are, the more people use them. It is a fatally flawed assumption. The truth is just the opposite: Demand drives supply, and until we accept the significance of this fundamental failure of understanding, the strategies we come up with will continue to fail. In other words, the failure of the war on drugs is no justification for legalizing these harmful substances.

The quotation above belies the fact that we already have numerous laws and policies that are intended to address demand, such as drug courts and other "harm reduction" measures.

And nevermind the oversimplification of the complex economic theory known as supply and demand, for it is quite obviously a clumsy propagandistic segue into an emotional appeal to ignorance-supported fears of outlaw drugs — as well as the old implied threat of anarchy behind the notion of "legalization," which is actually a prohibitionist term for a sensible drug policy that involves regulation rather than interdiction (it is for this very reason that drug policy reform activists and advocates should avoid using the "L" word and the "D" word).

Cue The Straw Men!

What would a defense of the drug war be without those thatched bamboozlers? Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch apparently understand their usefulness:

People still steal, so let's legalize stealing. People still speed, so let's remove all the speed limits. People still drink and drive, so let's legalize drinking and driving. Date-rape continues; let's legalize date-rape. The point? Shifting from one flawed premise to another solves nothing.

The classic sophism contained within the above paragraph is almost unworthy of a response, but it must nonetheless be addressed for the sake of folks who might be unfamiliar with the concept of "red herrings."

Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch have submitted a proposition that is not logically relevant to its "conclusion." The vast majority of outlaw drug consumers do not actually violate the rights of others while they are enjoying their favored inebriants. However, thieves, speeders, drunk drivers and date rapists most decidedly do violate the rights of their victims when they steal, speed, drive while intoxicated and rape their dates.

In what could be construed as an homage to the 18th Amendment, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch address the question of why alcohol is legal when it is our nation's most abused drug:

Incredibly, advocates of legalizing drugs often point to alcohol as an example of a successfully legalized drug. This is a terribly weak argument. Do they really not understand that — in terms of lives disrupted, ruined and ended before their time — the legal drug alcohol is by far a bigger problem than any other drug?

Don't Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch understand why the 21st Amendment was ratified after only 13 years of Prohibition? Apparently not.

The Good Stuff
Aside form the fact that drug policy reformers are much better dressed nowadays than we were back in the 1960s and 70s, the toughest obstacle facing today's drug prohibitionists is, by far, our very own American history.

Juxtapositions of the modern drug war with Prohibition (1920-1933) are a drug warriors' worst nightmare because they are the most effective and convincing arguments in the reformers' arsenal. It is these historical comparisons that have rendered any and all possible defenses of the war on drugs baseless, ineffective and vulnerable.

Some say that by legalizing drugs, the gangs that subsist on the revenue from trafficking will cease to be a problem. Nonsense. Kids don't join gangs to sell drugs; they join gangs to belong to something, to gain a sense of identity and to feel protected.

While it is indeed true that kids often join gangs for a sense of identity and belonging that they may not get in their homes, that sense of identity and belonging springs from the central purpose of the gang's business interests, which do include the high risk undertaking of theft (cars, jewelry, electronics and prescription drugs), but are comprised mostly of the low risk enterprise of "dealing," the manufacture, distribution and sale of unregulated drugs.

How about the argument that legalizing drugs would eliminate the black market in drugs and, thus, reduce the number of crimes committed to support the habits of addicts. Really? So once drugs were legalized, all the addicts suddenly would get good-paying jobs to earn the money they need to buy their drugs legally? Ridiculous.

Our policy of drug prohibition and interdiction provides the untaxed and unregulated black market with artificial inflation and price supports that sustain the high market value of certain unpatentable drugs, which would become very inexpensive under a policy of regulation and taxation.

However, while some addicts do commit crimes in order to support their habits, they are usually non-violent offenses such as, shoplifting, panhandling, and prostitution. Meanwhile, the violent crimes are most often committed by the dealers, not their customers.

The violence associated with the drug trade almost always springs from business disputes between drug dealers, their associates, and competitors because, in the realm of the anarchical underground economy, the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of unregulated drugs do not have access to courts of law and must therefore "settle" their business disputes with guns, knives and bombs instead of lawyers, mediators and judges.

Meet the New Solutions, Same as the Old Solutions
Mr. Duncan's and Mr. Tasch's proposed solutions involve three basic strategies: preventing young people from starting to use drugs, making sure that these prevention programs work by requiring "follow-up public education and awareness campaigns of extremely high quality and sophistication," and a combination of a "degree of decriminalization" (the old "D" word rears its semantically ugly head) and "greater access to quality treatment programs."

Rounding out that third "strategy," of course, is the old prohibitionist standby: "and much more stringent enforcement of anti-trafficking laws." This one's been tried numerous times before only to be eschewed in favor of less draconian measures once the classic dynamic of "getting tough on drugs" is rediscovered: increases in drug law enforcement are always followed by increases in corruption and violent crime.

And let's not forget that, in Saudi Arabia, the punishment for drug dealing is beheading — and, yet, they still have addicts.

Drug abuse is a public health problem that will never be fully solved because it is not a condition in and of itself, it is a side effect that has been attributed to a myriad of disorders, conditions, diseases, dysfunctions and syndromes, which are associated with self-destructive behaviors.

People don't abuse drugs (legal, illegal, prescription or over-the-counter) simply because they exist and have addictive properties, but because the drugs mask their pain and make them feel better — until they wear off, at least.

If we are to address drug abuse and addiction as a public health problem rather than as an issue of law enforcement, then we must take our focus away from drugs themselves, regardless of their various legal statuses, for they are not truly relevant to the underlying causes of self-destructive behavior.

Mr. Duncan and Mr. Tasch believe that the public health problem of drug abuse can be solved "by honestly acknowledging what we've learned about what works and what doesn't." While I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, I do not understand why they have not applied this formula to that other "drug problem" that causes more troubles than it solves while pretending to be the one and only solution to itself.

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About Margaret Romao Toigo

  • Indeed, many people, organizations and institutions have a vested interest in continuing the status quo and I submit that this is the reason why the silence in the public square with regard to this issue is so deafening.

    For several years now, prohibitionists have avoided publicly debates with reformers because they know they will get their butts kicked every time, which is why the authors of the editorial in question play at debate with some imaginary “drug legalizers,” instead of real reformers who will readily expose the untenability of the war on drugs.

  • When Coca-Cola contained cocaine instead of caffeine,and sold for 5 cents a bottle, we didn’t have “drug-related crime,” drug lords or even drug dealers as we know them today.

    The Czech Republic is the only country where adult citizens can legally grow, possess and use marijuana. The Czech Republic has almost no heroin, cocaine or meth problem and their crime rate is a tiny fraction of the U. S. crime rate.

    Will we adopt the Czech drug policy? No.

    Too many people, organizations and institutions have a vested interest in continuing the status quo of marijuana prohibition.

  • Paul S

    Nicely put. I think it is always worth pointing out to the supporters of Prohibition that nearly every problem they ascribe to illegal drugs is either directly caused or exacerbated by the fact that those drugs are illegal.

    As for their opinions on alcohol, I will concede to Mssrs. Duncan and Tasch that indeed alcohol kills far more people than any illegal drug. In fact it kills more than all illegal drugs combined.

    And yet, it is still legal. They should consider this, and then ask themselves why we persist in keeping these relatively innocuous drugs illegal, when alcohol is not? They might also meditate on the proposition that the American people consider all of the problems with alcohol abuse to be both manageable and worthwhile, in order to keep it legal.

  • Mr. Muse, if ever there was a measure proposed to outlaw caffeine, civil unrest would ensue immediately, with me leading the charge.

    What causes some drugs to be demonized while others are not has always been beyond my comprehension. I still cannot figure out why marijuana is still illegal and have been perplexed by this conundrum ever since I discovered that the outlaw weed is far less intoxicating than the perfectly legal, hard drug known as alcohol.

    Thank you, Mr. Dratch and Mr. Ellis. I assure you that I am not holding my breath in anticipation of receiving an invitation to discuss drug policy with the current administration.

    Mr. J, I understand exactly what you mean about “too many words.” Indeed, if you cannot say it in one breath, nobody is going to pay attention.

    However, it is not as if I am expecting to encounter any prohibitionists who will wish to challenge me to a debate as they avoid me like the plague.

    Anyway, my article was not directed at prohibitionists, but rather toward my fellow reformers in the hope that they might find a few good arguments therein and possibly offer me a few that I haven’t thought of yet.

  • Ms Voigo, you stated your case elegantly, unfortunately when you use too many words on the self riteous highbrows who dismiss anything that is logic to their drug situation you provide them with too many avenues to which they will digress. It must be kept short and sweet, very simple.
    To these people I would ask simply how was this countries alcohol problem(problem being associated crimes)solved? Is alcohol not a drug?
    The question answers itself!

  • The so-called “war on drugs” was never anything more than a PR spin by a government diverting attention from its own complicity in the international drug trade.
    But you, Ms. Toigo, speak eloquently about the fallacy of the prohibitionists’ strategies. Consequently, I would not expect an invitation from the Administration anytime soon if I were you.

  • Logic. Reason. Discussion of an untenable “fight”. How dare you bring logic into an emotional controversy that brings vituperative pleasure to so many? Some people need to blame someone or some thing for all the ills of their society.

    Imagine: “If we are to address drug abuse and addiction as a public health problem rather than as an issue of law enforcement, then we must take our focus away from drugs themselves, regardless of their various legal statuses, for they are not truly relevant to the underlying causes of self-destructive behavior.” Logic, again.

    It was a fine article and I enjoyed your extensive and insightful blog.

  • Several years ago I had a friend who used to boast
    that he drank at least 25 cups of coffee a day.
    Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack when he was in his mid 40’s.

    Suppose my friend was a very famous athlete who had died when he was in his early 20’s after consuming more than 30 cups of coffee the previous day. Suppose this famous athlete was expected to be the next Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.

    Suppose that this famous athletes who had tragically died before his very promising professional career had begun, had his picture on the front page of most of our nation’s
    newspapers and his story was on the network news for several days.

    Do you think that self-serving politicians would have called for the prohibition of all caffeine containing beverages?

    Would we now be involved in a war on caffeine?