Recently a few of my colleagues have been debating drug legalization, an issue Ron Paul is hitting heavily in what I assume is a not-terrible strategy to appeal to more young voters. I never tire of talking about the War on Drugs – a flawless example of everything wrong, deceptive, and misguided about the Reaganite vision of America – and, unusually, I get a kick out of watching other people talk about it too. It forces people to argue based on either morality ("Drugs are evil!" vs. "It's a personal choice!") or logic ("Drug X should be illegal because has Y and Z consequences.") Of course I am always happy to see people attempting to come to logical conclusions rather than emotional ones, but as my colleagues' debate currently illustrates the attempts at logic usually proceed from fundamentally false assumptions.
People inevitably attempt to make sense of U.S. drug policy based on the assumption that illegal drugs are illegal because of health and/or safety concerns. In other words, cocaine is worse for you than alcohol so beer is legal and cocaine is not. Or meth makes people violent while tobacco does not, hence the latter is legal. It is very easy to poke holes in these arguments – tobacco kills people by the millions and alcohol causes far more violence than, say, marijuana – or to segue into secondary arguments like the "gateway drug" hypothesis in order to keep the conversation moving in circles. It all misses the point entirely. The purpose of the War on Drugs is not to keep people safe or healthy. The purpose of the War on Drugs is to put people in prison, and from that perspective it has been a smashing success.
Note the mysterious spike in 1980
The War on Drugs is, at its core, a blunt form of class warfare.
Around 1980 Americans began to accept in large numbers the idea that wealth should be concentrated entirely in the hands of a small group of people – sure, we tried that in the 19th Century and the results were subpar, but this time there were fancy Austrian economics to reassure us that the rising tide would lift all boats. Abandoning the social safety net, public schools, and the like was a recipe for increased wealth inequality and, as the past 30 years have shown, it worked like a charm. So now our society is less like those we used to consider peers (the U.K., Germany, Canada, etc.) and more like the ones we usually condescend (Brazil, India, and other 2nd World countries with great but poorly distributed wealth).
In a society like this, there is a small elite with phenomenal wealth; let's say it's the top 10%. Below that is a large mass of people living somewhere between affluence and poverty; let's say that's 70%. These people have some economically valuable skills, even if, in the case of unskilled service industry work, that skill is merely the ability to show up to work regularly and follow instructions. Many of the people in this 70% enjoy comfortable lives, but they have income and not wealth. At the bottom end they live paycheck to paycheck; at the top, they make good money but they carry far more debt. In other words, if they lost their job things could fall apart rapidly (stop me if any of this sounds familiar). Then we have the bottom, the remaining 20%. They have no economically valuable skills that the top 10% can exploit. The rest of society sees this group as a burden. Since no one wants to pay to support them or improve their circumstances in any way, you just have to find a way to get rid of them somehow.
In the average African or Latin American country, they send out the cops or, in many cases, paramilitary "cleansing" squads to crack skulls. Since America can't quite get away with that, we have to think of more subtle ways to get them out of our sight. We tried segregation. We tried jamming the poor into vertical filing cabinets. Eventually it dawned on us to simply incarcerate most of them, if not for life then in an endless cycle among the criminal justice system, the underground economy, and poverty. So you ratchet up the drug laws with the full understanding that the huge demand for narcotics (mostly among the upper classes and their children, of course) will funnel tons of people with no other economic opportunities into the trade. So you invest billions in policing, arresting, convicting, and incarcerating them – conservatively estimated at around $40 billion annually.
That's what the War on Drugs is about. The widely debated social and physical effects of drugs may be real but they have nothing to do with drug policy in the U.S. It's just a means of dealing with the people who are remainders when the rest of the population divides up the economic pie.