PROHIBITION

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.

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69 Responses to “PROHIBITION”

  1. fuzzbuzz215@yahoo.com Says:

    I like this post. It really says a lot of things I've been thinking.

  2. Zeb Says:

    The sad irony of this is that we probably don't save much money doing this over what we'd pay for a few decent social safety net programs…

  3. markone Says:

    Very well put. The longer this goes on, the worse it is for everyone. The war on drugs is of course not some moral quest by authority to save us from ourselves, it is a tool of the economic class system. If you come for a rich background and get caught, you are bound to have an easy ride and have the law sympathetic to you. We are all psychologically addicted to something or other. If is was to be decided that burgers were to be a tool of oppression, then the objective of slaving the world might not look so moral to some conservative types.

    Terror and Drugs are but labels of Wars that rely on Fear and Ignorance.

  4. Rosaluz Says:

    The irony is that as states and counties are increasingly strapped for cash, they're looking at early release programs, and eliminating mandatory sentencing. You see now – and will see even more of – strange coalitions of sheriffs, progressive activists, conservative legislators, and DAs coming together to make big changes in sentencing laws. Everyone, even many conservative and law-and-order types, realize that this system is bankrupting us, tearing communities apart and is fundamentally unjust. Of course, there are still plenty of recalcitrant right-wing assholes who have no problem with the status quo, but they're increasingly becoming marginalized.

    Great post, love the textbook Marxian analysis. But the analysis is a bit incomplete without taking into account the role of race, the fact that it's not just the "underclass" that has been quietly disposed of, but predominantly racial minorities.

  5. eau Says:

    You have hit the nail on the head here. And the nail is in the middle of the bullseye.

  6. Middle Seaman Says:

    Agree, but I would add that the plan is wider and more ambitious. Make education as bad as possible by fighting teachers and causing upheaval in schools and replace public education with a private one which most cannot afford even with vouchers. And if that doesn't kill enough of "them," deny them health care.

    The rich need slaves. Lowering workers' pay is progressing nicely towards bare subsistence. That's almost as good as slavery.

    Both parties are complicit. The current president even more so.

  7. Nunya Says:

    @ Middle Seaman – Regarding slavery and our rapid return to it, I can say that slaves could generally count on three meals a day, shelter and a lessening of their labor burden as they became elderly. In the new America, we are better than slaves – you don't have to provide enough of a wage to provide adequate food, clothing or shelter and if you get sick or old, fuck you, I'll grab another young rube off the pile and go about my business.

    As to the war on drugs, ask any cop if he thinks it's working – chances are they will describe it as a useful tool for throwing the undesirables into prison. All but the most naiive now understand that it is a failed experiment just like like the prohibition of alcohol.

    Imagine the tax revenue that could be realized if it were regulated and taxed an the proceeds went to rehabilitation for all and programs to, gasp, actually provide an education to the underclasses.

  8. Ben Says:

    Don't forget the awful racial component! It's right to say the war on drugs and the warehousing of the poor in prison is at root a political economic phenomenon, but the convenient fact that it's centralized on a racial minority is just the extra special cherry on top. It makes it easier to classify the policy's victims as the Other, which makes it go down easier for the general population, and allows it to be conducted more efficiently, as it makes it easier to distinguish who is a part of the targeted population.

    Maybe the saddest part of the whole thing is how everyone who pays attention recognizes what's happening. P.J. O' freakin Rourke has a great chapter in his book Parliament of Whores that captures every ruinous facet of the War on Drugs: the overarching strategy of corralling the poor, the complex mix of helplessness, resentment and racial animus it engenders in its victims, and everything in between. O'Rourke's a great writer but has a pretty average intellect; if he's cognizant of how a piece of the US political economy is structured, it's safe to say the majority of the establishment is too.

  9. Anthony Says:

    Ed have you watched David Simon's The Wire? The argument of the show is pretty much exactly the argument that you make in this post, especially in season 3.

  10. Wareq Says:

    Second on The Wire – David Simon and Ed Burns really unravel the entire thing there.

  11. mclaren Says:

    Admirably concise. If you want a dramatized version of this argument, watch all 5 seasons of the HBO series THE WIRE.

  12. Ben Says:

    Oh in-deed the Wire makes an incisive critique about the drug war. But it's not the one Ed's making.

    Instead of seeing the drug war as a tool used by the elites to wage economic war on the poor, The Wire views the drug war as being conducted because the city insitutions provide career incentives to do so.

    Cops use the drug war to inflate their arrest statistics (by making meaningless street-level drug arrests) and to make splashy raids that result in the seizure of a lot of drugs and a spotlight on the news (this tactic is demeaningly called "dope on the table"). The police force as an insitution incentivizes this behavior by making arrest statistics and media exposure criteria for promotion. It's easier to advance up the ranks by being a cog in the drug war machine rather than doing real police work, so the majority of cops work on making themselves efficient cogs.

    The political institutions reward quantifiable progress and friendly media exposure. Politicians benefit from the inflated crime-fighting statistics and splashy drug raids, so they lean on the police and encourage them to inflate the stats and make the flashy raids. They also act as demagogues to whip up public support of the drug war, since they can show quantifiable evidence of progress (look at the stats! look at the flashy raids on the news!). The irony is that a mayor is given the perfect opportunity to end the drug war but there's no way he can do it; the demagoguery in support of the drug war is so effective that he would get pilloried for ending it, even though he's got overwhelming evidence that it's superior public policy.

    This is a lot different than Ed's argument. There's nothing in The Wire demonstrating a desire by elites to remove an undesireable part of the population, and there aren't any reasons given for how jailing the poor in and of itself benefits elites. The Wire certainly shows that a bloated incarceration rate is an effect of the drug war, and heartbreakingly demonstrates the endless cycle among the criminal justice system, the underground economy, and poverty, and the people conducting the drug war who are portrayed as giving a shit at what it's doing to poor communities are few and far between. But The Wire reads these outcomes as incidental to a policy that's conducted in order to advance careers, and not as end goals of that policy.

    Of course, Ed's argument and The Wire's argument re-enforce each other beautifully. From Ed's argument, we see why the top political and economic elites want to set things up so the poor are incapacitated. They set up the drug war framework at the national level. From The Wire's argument, we see how the specific local enforcement of this framework achieves exactly the objectives desired by the elites.

  13. zebbidie Says:

    You can't fool me- 1980 was when rap got going. QED.

  14. anotherbozo Says:

    I'd like to know when the privatization of prisons began. Must be more than merely coincidental that Joe's Penitentiary began taking the burden off the gummint pretty much when this war started. And I wouldn't be shocked if Joe didn't become a big contributor to right-wing coffers about that time. Or maybe he was part of the wealthy elite already?

    Meanwhile, this just in. Puts a human face on Ed's article. I like the poignant part about the student loan application.

    http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2011/05/fourth_marijuana_conviction_ge.html#incart_hbx

  15. butler Says:

    I think it is worth considering this issue by asking that age old question about political motivation: cui bono? I suspect, as is always the case with radical right policy, that the War On Drugs (always thought this label an amazing double entendre) does come with a profit motive. I don't believe that $40 billion is being spent just to be mean.

    Um, prison privatization?

    The $40 billion pricetag may seem counter-intuitive in terms of how large a part of the economy is embodied in the private prison industry, but spending or stealing enormous amounts of public money to benefit the narrow constituency of whichever tribe of radical right nutjobs manage to get into office, never comes as a surprise.

  16. jeneria Says:

    Which is why states that have medical marijuana are working to make it illegal again.

  17. Grumpygradstudent Says:

    Yes, all absolutely true. I would also add that there is overwhelming evidence that treatment is more effective at helping hard core addicts quit than is putting them in prison.

    The incarceration rate for African American is about 7 times that of whites. The difference in their poverty rates is about 2.5 times.

    I think Ed's point here about the drug war really being "the final solution" to dealing with the underclass (the one that we created and is an inevitable result of our low-tax, anti-redistributive mania) really crystallized for me when I watched the documentary Cryps and Bloods: Made in America. That film makes it clear that law enforcement in L.A. was used basically to keep poor blacks confined to their segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods were poor, jobless, and became increasingly violent as the crack lured gangs into becoming more professionalized and violent. The white power structure was content to let those neighborhoods destroy themselves, as long as they didn't start leaking out into middle-class neighborhoods.

  18. Keith Says:

    I wanted to point out that Ron Paul, possibly the leading anti-drug war politician, also happens to generally subscribe to Austrian economics.

  19. HoosierPoli Says:

    There are definitely some bits of truth in the economic argument, but really we're past that point now. The population has been so effectively indoctrinated that they WANT the War on Drugs to continue…maybe we'll ease up on marijuana since it is so obviously harmless, but where it would do the most good, with drugs that do the most damage, we'll always allow criminals to make a killing and send the users to prison. We WANT to throw heroin addicts in jail, even though it's not like you can't get smack on the inside. We want to PUNISH people who experience ill-gotten pleasure. It's part of that celebrated "Protestant Ethic"; if it's not ascetic and miserable, it's bad.

    Here is the argument that no prohibitionist can refute: "So you think it's preferable to funnel billions of dollars to violent drug gangs rather than hard-working Americans?" There's no way around the inevitable logic of regulation; unfortunately, that has never been enough in a democracy.

  20. HoosierPoli Says:

    jeneria: I'm not saying that you're wrong, but there hasn't been a single state that has liberalized marijuana and then walked it back. Once one single state legalizes, the whole house of cards comes crashing down. I'd prefer it to be california just for sheer economic weight, but really it could be any state. The Feds will have to deal with the fact that marijuana prohibition is only enforcable on a state level, and if the states give it up, the feds will be forced to as well.

  21. John Says:

    While all these things about the inherent class warfare of the War On Drugs framework are true, they don't even need to come into the discussion regarding this.

    No rational human being, applying the intent of the law equally, can consider it logical that marijuana is illegal while alcohol and tobacco are perfectly legal. This extends to all drugs.

    There are no ill effects of any drug, aside from specific effects on the body (I.E. exactly which part of you rots out when you abuse it), that cannot also be attributed to alcohol and tobacco. Physical detriment? Tobacco causes several different flavors of cancer, alcohol destroys your liver and poisons your blood. Mental effects? Drunk driving and alcohol-related violence, particularly of the domestic variety. Addictive effects? Chain smokers and alcoholics, and just look at how much money Americans spend every year trying to cure themselves of alcohol and tobacco addictions.

    At simple face value, there is nothing negative that can be said about crack cocaine or heroin that cannot also be said of the substances you can currently purchase, in unlimited quantity, in almost any food-selling store in the nation. There are even stores specifically dedicated to selling nothing but alcohol or tobacco (package stores and smoke shops).

    You don't have to be out for social justice to see this. All you have to do is apply the law equally.

  22. bb in GA Says:

    The place where some us right wing a**holes and y'all commies intersect is the WOD.

    The item that has been glossed over is the incredible concentration of power in government that has occurred since the WOD got serious. We libertarian right wingers are in a strange place with our other right wing buds who tend to cop worship.

    We don't.

    //bb

  23. machinic Says:

    great post — thanks for the stats. however, the war on drugs as class warfare actually begins much earlier (c.f. harrison narcotics act revision, '24, and the illegalization of 'addiction' rather than substances). in fact, the highest percentage of people incarcerated in EITHER a prison or asylum was at its highest in the 1950s. the war on drugs in its current incarnation was in part a response to the anti-psychiatry revisions of the 1960s that closed many psychiatric wards/hospitals. . . we needed another place to imprison people, so the national strategy moved, in its totality, to prisons only — hence the post-1970s carceral crisis. reagan(ites) didn't initiate the war on drugs or the incarceration of mass numbers of people — just refined who (black men) and where (the prison as a single strategy, rather than a multi-institution strategy). but yes, disgusting, and class warfare either way.

  24. SeaTea Says:

    If your hypothesis is true then I wonder what effect spending $40 billion annually would have on improving the lives of those below the poverty line such that they'd become contributing and productive members of society? How far could $40 billion/year go toward ending poverty in this country?

  25. The Moar You Know Says:

    "jeneria: I'm not saying that you're wrong, but there hasn't been a single state that has liberalized marijuana and then walked it back."

    Alaska. Repeatedly since the first legalization back in 1975, has been fighting it out over and over and over again in their court system, as their Supreme Court says "it's legal" and every other law enforcement entity and the entire legislature of the state sees those tasty prison dollars and says "no, it isn't".

  26. xynzee Says:

    After I moved to Aus, I saw a doco that covered the rise of the WOD. As Prohibition was being wound up, those in the gov't department responsible for it's administration in an act of job protection found a new boogeyman. Calling it marijuana instead of hemp (a widely used, grown and produced fibre throughout the US) they then spun what is now an obvious script to us. Imported by the Mexicans, and used by the blacks and now they're coming for your daughters! Honestly, that was how the propaganda ran.

    I also had a Tassie neighbour who's father is one of the world's *few* licensed growers of opium poppy. Despite everything, there are somethings that only morphine can take on. He had some interesting tales to tell.

    I agree that there is more than a coincidence between the WOD, rise of mandatory sentencing and the privatisation of the prison systems. Reagan's "zero tolerance" claim is/was BS! If we want zero tolerance start with SE Asia. Singapore has zero tolerance, and even then they're too nice in my opinion. I'm in the you've got drugs on you, against the wall, one bullet and let's not waste time on trials. If you got caught by mistake? Well you've at least served as a warning to others.

    We shouldn't kid ourselves that all drugs are equal, and that it's a mere exchange of harm for harm. The opiate family and their effects are certainly not the same as alcohol. Even in the Netherlands they have problems with junkies. At least an alcoholic or smoker can function and hold down a job and add to the economy.

    But after giving this considerable thought, by far the only real solution is fully legalise and regulate. This ensures quality of the supply, and prevents nasty outliers from getting in the mix eg. methanol instead of ethanol, and it can be taxed to boot.

    Given that the U.S. is the world's major consumer of drugs, and it's policies have an impact on many other nations' as well it has more than it's share of responsibility for the violence in South and Central America and the Golden Triangle. Reading between the lines of many reports coming out of Afghanistan, doing something that would drastically affect the sales of opium, would impact the situation there.

  27. HoosierPoli Says:

    Yeah, when you have Cato giving Glenn Greenwald a platform to speak out, you know this issue has gone full batshit.

    One of the reasons I loved Obama during the campaign was his snippets about "prison reform" which only means one thing. Now Jim Webb, the point man on this issue, is leaving to go "private sector" and the only people who will ask Obama about it are youtube commentors. I don't want to believe that this is an issue that has been flushed down the toilet, but all the evidence points that way.

    Now is some of these glibertarian Teatards actually started pushing the Republican caucus on it, maybe something could get done.

  28. Graham Says:

    This is all true, but a second strand to the argument is that the WOD leads to the alcohol industry having the monopoly on the provision of highs.

    Throughout the Twentieth Century all previously legal drugs were banned, leaving just one legal recreational drug.

    The alcohol industry sure don't want no-one growin' their own sources of pleasure.

  29. John Says:

    @xynzee: "At least an alcoholic or smoker can function and hold down a job and add to the economy."

    This is patently false. An alcoholic, that is a clinical alcoholic, most definitely has severe problems functioning and holding down a job. You show up to work shitfaced or severely hungover, you're just as useless as if you show up to work completely baked. You drive when smashed, you're just as dangerous as if you drive when strung out on any other drug. People will steal and lie and hide their activity from friends and loved ones to feed an alcohol addiction just as much as they will for a smack addiction.

    Lives are lost every year as a result of alcohol-related accidents and violence. Laws in the US have entire sections dedicated to handling people that are intoxicated with alcohol, and entire sections of regulations with regards to who can and cannot purchase or consume alcohol, for these very reasons.

    Alcohol is no different than any other drug. It even had a period of being illegal just like other drugs (Prohibition). The only difference is that alcohol is now considered a socially acceptable drug by affluent white people.

  30. Paul W. Luscher Says:

    Well, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the idea here, at least since 1980, is that "Poverty isn't a crime, but it ought to be."

    Also, let's not forget , a lot of folks have an interest in keeping the War on Drugs going–jobs, careers and money are at stake.

    And it a perfect perpetual gig–since the War on Drugs can never be won, it's lifetime job security for these folks. Especially as the public has been led to believe that this never-ending no-win war is what this country needs—kinda like a certain war in Afghanistan…

  31. Monkey Business Says:

    Let's talk about drugs for a second.

    I think there's a solution to be had that can unite a wide swath of Americans somewhere in the middle between "Criminalize everything" and "Legalize everything".

    First, let's acknowledge a truth: that there are some drugs that are so destructive to both individuals and society that they should not be made legal. These would be things like heroin and meth. They stay illegal.

    Now, lets acknowledge that there are certain drugs that pose no greater risk to individual or society than alcohol or tobacco: mainly, pot, but I'd hear arguments for shrooms as well.

    If you made growing, selling, and consuming marijuana legal, you would create a sizable amount of new tax revenue overnight. First off, you can tax the growers (licenses and safety inspections). Then, you can tax the distributors (i.e. every head shop in America)(more licenses). Then you can tax the consumers (sales tax, sin tax, etc.). From plant to joint, the government would be collecting taxes and fees on the whole process.

    Now, what should the government do with this money? Well, we have millions of drug addicts in prison and on the streets. Why don't we make at least a token effort to rehabilitate them and make them productive tax paying members of society?

    In one stroke, by decriminalizing marijuana, you've freed potentially millions of people from prison, you've established a self-funding mechanism to turn junkies into citizens, you've created a new industry which means new jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurship, and you've increased government tax revenue. Moreover, you're concentrating the War on Drugs on the drugs that should actually be wiped out.

    So someone tell me again why we're not doing this?

  32. John Says:

    @Monkey Business: "First, let's acknowledge a truth: that there are some drugs that are so destructive to both individuals and society that they should not be made legal."

    While I can agree with the spirit of your post, I don't quite agree with this part. I think there is an argument to be made (and certainly something that should have more research dedicated to it to make a scientific determination) that a significant chunk of the "increased destructiveness", if you will, of drugs like heroin or meth is the illegality itself. When the substance is illegal, there is no quality control on the production of it, and behavior around it is inherently secretive and desperate, much moreso than it would be were the stuff legal, yet regulated — perhaps *heavily* regulated.

    Again, I come back to the clinical alcoholic: it's a crippling, life-destroying addiction just like any other, requiring focused rehab just like any other. And to that end, we have laws regarding BAC and public drunkenness; we have legally-established limits to how much you can consume while exposing your behavior to the public. I do acknowledge that other drugs are scientifically speaking *more addictive* than alcohol, of that there is no question. But I believe that a more controlled, educated and less-paranoid user that is aware of the risks and bound by carefully-constructed-and-applied regulation is less likely to become a burned-out addict than a user that is under the "take whatever you can when you can and hope to hell the cops don't catch you" program.

  33. anotherbozo Says:

    @Monkey Business:

    because, as they see it, that would interfere with the rich getting richer. in the short term of course-––all that matters. see Paul W. Luscher above.

  34. HoosierPoli Says:

    Part of the grown-up conversation we have to have about drug policy is to admit that there's a difference between "Morally, heroin use shouldn't be tolerated in our society" and "The social consequences of keeping opiate use illegal are better than if it were heavily regulated".

    Drug use is a PUBLIC HEALTH problem. It has to have public health solutions. Violent crime is created when we try to address a public health problem with a criminal justice solution. We can all agree that having cancer is bad, but we're not going to reduce cancer rates by throwing cancer patients in prison, not even a little.

    The fact is, prohibition does not reduce rates of use, and if anyone ever tells you otherwise, tell them you look forward to their plan to reduce alcoholism by making beer illegal.

  35. Eric Titus Says:

    I consider myself a supporter of legalization, although I think there is room for debate on highly addictive drugs such as heroin. That said, I think the information here is fairly misleading.

    The main driver of the increase in incarceration has been changes in sentencing and increased duration of sentences. If you look at the data, Drug convictions make up less than 20% the US prison population (state and federal correctional facilities).
    http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p09.pdf

    Since this chart includes average number of inmates in jails into the inmate population, I checked whether jails have a difference composition from prisons. They don't–jails are also only 25% drug users.
    http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pji02.pdf

    So is the dramatic increase in the US inmate population driven by the war on drugs? Clearly no. Do we incarcerate too many people for drug offenses? Probably yes. Even this data does not tell the full picture, since violent offences generally have much longer sentences than drug or property crime. The US incarceration crisis is a result of a "tough on crime" approach that emphasizes incarceration and heavy sentencing even for minor crimes. Policies like the "three strikes" approach, more draconian sentencing, and an increased police force are generally responsible for this shift.

    I point this out because I think this is a common misconception, particularly among legalization advocates. At the same time, it is a dangerous misconception, because it makes us think that by advocating legalization we are also helping solve the incarceration issue. Certainly legalizing drugs would reduce the prison population, but it is only a small component of a much larger problem.

  36. ladiesbane Says:

    As much as I have a dim view of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan, I don't believe they were machiavellian class engineers. I think they were simplistic, narrowminded, and prone to the sort of wishful thinking that made nice people favor Prohibition — they assumed drugs were the prime mover in gang violence, prostitution/STDs, homelessness, and a lot of other problems they didn't understand. They were blindered by classism and mother's milk racism, but their goal wasn't personal profit. America's entrepreneurs didn't wait to get their collective foot in the door, but instead of rum running, they built jails. It's just as despicable as war profiteering, in its way.

  37. bb in GA Says:

    I think sane people long ago recognized that debilitating drug use is an emotional/spiritual issue cum public health problem, not a criminal pursuit.

    The crime part of it is obviously generated by the illegality of the materials (can you fathom making a living plant illegal?) and the need to get resources to pay for the addictive substances (as opposed to the rec drugs)

    I think we would have a better shot long term helping people via the public health routine, but we're hooked on the WOD.

    //bb

  38. Hazy Davy Says:

    While I'm opposed to the War on Drugs, how it's been administered, and the consequences to both the criminal population and to tax revenues…

    I admit that as I read this, I kept expecting you to bust out an "Ed vs. Logical Fallacies" gotcha at some point.

    (1) Folks tried to make alcohol illegal, last century. They're making tobacco fringe-legal, now (at least, where I live in CA). I think many of the supporters of the WoD do, in fact, want other drugs made illegal or controlled.
    (2) The WoD is typically propagated by the same people who argue for smaller government, who argue that the government shouldn't "babysit" people to protect them from themselves, right? Why the heck do they oppose government as inefficient, except when it means restricting recreation and reproduction? Then, suddenly, it's all necessary. I mean, we don't prosecute parents who fail to put sunscreen on their children for negligence. Parents who let their kids listen to Ke$ha aren't automatically investigated by CPS.
    (3) sheepishly I believe in the gateway drug argument. I'm serious. I don't know that pot should be illegal as a result. But it definitely has been the gateway in every instance I've been close to.
    (4) So, why does the WoD target poor people. There's money in unregulated business, right? Why aren't any of the distributors/dealers wealthy, like the South American drug lords?
    (5) Other things simultaneously occurred when Reagan came into office, that might also be to blame for the increase in prison populations.

  39. Scott Supak Says:

    For more in this vein of thinking, see Bill Moyers' interview with David Simon:

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04172009/watch.html

  40. HoosierPoli Says:

    Hazy Davy:

    Was pot REALLY the "gateway" drug? Because for me and for everyone I know that got into substances at all, it went:

    1. Cigarettes
    2. Alcohol
    3. Everything else

  41. Web Dunce Says:

    Overall, I agree that the whole war on drugs has been a failure, largely because it hasn't been fought properly. But I can say from personal experience that an alcoholic can and will function on a job, a junky not so much. Just being a junky is a full time job and nothing but the drugs and how to get them matter – not your kids, not your income, or your personal possessions. Not too many drunks rob their loved ones or pawn their stuff to buy booze. Today, crack and heroin are cheaper than pot and cigarettes in many areas. I have never in my life seen so many drug addicts – and a large portion of them started as prescription drug addicts and moved on to street drugs because they're actually easier to get unless you've got a doctor who'll prescribe big doses of XYZ that you can get for free on medicaid. The reality of this asinine drug culture – one that saw my brother murdered over $150 – is that it feeds itself through legal and illegal channels alike. And everyone loses. This so called war should apply to pharmaceutical companies and doctors. We do have an epidemic in this country and if something rational and pretty creative isn't done soon it's not just the impoverished we'll have to worry about.

  42. Hazy Davy Says:

    HoosierPoli :

    Yes.
    I know several people with drinking problems, who don't do illegal drugs.
    I have known several people who smoke cigarettes, who never smoked pot or other things.

    In addition, I know *nobody* who smoked pot for more than 3 years, chronically, ( :) ), who didn't try other drugs. [That avoids the fact that everyone who smoked pot also likes Jell-o pudding pops. But there are people who like Jell-o pudding pops who don't smoke pot.]

  43. Drinking Jim Crow Says:

    Supporting Ed's point is how felony drug convictions preclude the right to vote in most jurisdictions (at least until the convicted is fully "off paper", which can be extremely difficult, especially for those who are fully addicted), as well as eligibility to receive federally subsidized student loans.

    That's two excellent methods toward further marginalizing the underclasses, both of which passed into mainstream acceptability with nary a whimper of protest.

    And right now the notion of denying eligibility for social services based on positive drug screenings is receiving wide approval.

    Basically, it's come down to this: use a drug the government/white, wealthy elite has deemed too dangerous to be legal and regulated, for whatever reason, and risk being exiled to a place where you can't vote, can't go to college, and can't receive any social services.

    And those right wing rubes wonder why folks like me snort at the notion of American Exceptionalism…

  44. Katherine Says:

    I really believe that meth should be treated differently from other drugs on the grounds that it's a public safety hazard. Meth houses and single-kettle meth operations explode *all the time* in West Michigan, where I live. People are warned against picking up 2-liter bottles on the side of the road, because the bottle could be a shake-n-bake meth explosion waiting to happen. Every site where people consistently cook meth becomes toxic.

    That said, I am pro-legalization.

  45. Katherine Says:

    Fun with Meth in Kalamazoo:

    http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2011/04/police_say_they_know_the_ident.html

    http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2011/02/meth_lab_causes_explosion_at_f.html

  46. ladiesbane Says:

    On legalization: shouldn't drugs, like alcohol, be subject to strict quality control standards, both in manufacture and product? Shouldn't it be tested for potency and purity? Shouldn't the FDA advise dosage, contraindications, and other facts, just as they do with other pharmaceuticals? We need MSD sheets, too. I don't use, but I see lots of medical marijuana clinics and wonder what quality controls they have, and what the legalization of other drugs would mean in terms of quality control.

  47. jeneria Says:

    @HoosierPoli My homestate (Montana) is pretty much going to push through legislation to overturn medical marijuana. Even the Democratic governor supports the plan.

    http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/article_6c64d694-76c5-11e0-9b43-001cc4c03286.html

  48. acer Says:

    @Katherine:
    I'd argue that meth is dangerous mostly BECAUSE it's illegal. Bathtub gin blinded people, Sobieski doesn't. Rich smackheads like Wm. Burroughs and Keith Richards have their own problems, but they don't die because the shit they're banging isn't cut with d-CON.

    If you legalize it and HEAVILY tax and regulate it, you won't eradicate the black market entirely, but there won't be an incentive for every moron with a Squirt bottle and a Mr. Wizard kit to start cooking meth in places like West Michigan.

    Unfortunately, without meth chefs and the "corrections" racket, it's hard to think of what poor West Michiganders would do for cash right now.

  49. HoosierPoli Says:

    acer, there is a sad element of truth there. A friend is from a small town in upstate NY, a river town of the kind that are common out east, that used to have a bustling manufacturing sector. At this point their entire economy is dependent on three prisons.

  50. Major Kong Says:

    Pretty soon our entire economy will consist of locking up half the country and paying the other half to guard them.

  51. Mark Smeraldi Says:

    I direct you to "The big space f**k" by none other than Kurt Vonnegut. Man had vision.

  52. xynzee Says:

    @Webdunce: "unless you've got a doctor who'll prescribe big doses of XYZ that you can get for free on medicaid"

    That's the issue baby, I'm intoxicating, in limited supply, and I sure as spit ain't free ;)

    @Katherine:
    That's the whole point of legalisation. If it's now being made in controlled circumstances, then it lessens the chance of it blowing up. Not entirely, lots of distilleries still catch fire, but at least it's a controlled burn. The authorities also know what they're up against so they can put the fire out accordingly. In a back room meth lab, they go in and they have no idea how to contain the situation.

    The only one that would be hard to "regulate" is marijuana as it is so easily grown. It's not like brewing beer which can be a real pain in the arse, and therefore easier to walk down the street to get. However, as there's competition for means of access, which would prevent it from being laced with PCP.

  53. Monkey Business Says:

    @acer: Meth is straight up poison. You can't concoct a "safe" meth recipe. It should be illegal.

  54. Neal Deesit Says:

    And let's not forget the civil forefeiture angle:

    "On October 2, 1992, agents from the Los Angeles Police, The Los Angeles County Sheriff

  55. Neal Deesit Says:

    Aaargh! No preview, no editing, no good.

    And let's not forget the civil forfeiture angle:

    "On October 2, 1992, agents from the Los Angeles Police, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, the Park Service, the DEA, the Forest Service, the California National Guard and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement—thirty agents in all—knocked and announced their presence at 8:30 am at the front door of Donald Scott’s $5 million 200-acre ranch in Malibu, California. Seconds later, the agents kicked in the door and rushed into the house where they found Mrs. Scott screaming and Donald Scott holding a gun. They shot him twice in the chest and killed him on the spot.

    "Agents were acting on a tip that marijuana was cultivated on the property but a subsequent search found no marijuana, no drugs and no paraphernalia whatsoever anywhere. An investigation conducted by the Ventura County DA after the raid found that the Sheriff’s Department lied, that it knowingly sought a search warrant on insufficient information, that much of the evidence supporting the warrant was false while exculpatory evidence was withheld from the judge. The only way to explain why seven agencies and thirty agents were willing to do so much with so little was greed. By their presence at the raid each agency gained a claim to a portion of the revenues that would presumably be generated by the civil forfeiture of the Scott’s $5 million property"

  56. in this ever-changing world in which we live in Says:

    David Simon makes a ver similar point in a recent interview with Bill Moyers: http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/2530/simon_4_1_11/

    David Simon: Again, we would have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions. The people most affected by this are black and brown and poor. It

  57. Jared Lessl Says:

    > If you look at the data, Drug convictions make up less than 20% the US prison population (state and federal correctional facilities).

    Cops raid John Q Citizen's house. They find 2 ounces of weed and a legally purchased and registered firearm, just like the ones owned by millions of other Americans. The DA charges him with felony drug possession and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. The DA then drops the drug charge, leaving the weapons one, which can carry a multi-decade prison sentence.

    Now, is this prisoner in jail because of the WoD? If all you do is tally up the number of prisoners serving time for drug charges, it sure doesn't look like it. And yet owning the gun was perfectly legal, until someone took offense to him having the weed as well.

    A heroin addict finds himself unable to afford the exorbitant prices for his next fix, resorts to petty theft, gets caught, and goes to jail. Certainly the non-drug crime requires punishment, but would it have ever happened without x10 or more markup that illegality and the black market confers on substances? When was the last time you saw a beggar holding people up to afford a $5 bottle of wine?

    Of the 75-80% of prisoners who, on paper, are not in custody on drug charges, how many of them are nevertheless there _because_ of the WoD?

  58. kanamit Says:

    Didn't Schweitzer loudly wonder during the healthcare debate why we didn't just have a Canadian style single-payer system?

  59. kanamit Says:

    Whoops, wrong post.

  60. whenwego Says:

    Think if you superimpose a graph of the wealth growth of the top 1%, there will be a good fit with your incarceration graph

  61. Arslan Says:

    I'll weigh in on this…as for the idea of gateway drugs… The first illegal drug I ever tried was meth. Luckily I paid attention in health class and I knew the risks, so I only tried it a couple times. I can totally understand why people get addicted, because there is no worse feeling than when you start losing your high and suddenly you have to face reality again. For many hours on end you feel like you can solve any problem, and then the feeling starts slipping. You know at that point that all you have to do another line.

    Looking back, I think one of the problems is with how drugs are presented to young people. It's always don't even touch any drug, even once. Marijuana is treated as though it is just as addictive and destructive as meth or crack in this respect. So what happens when a kid tries weed and realizes that it wasn't so bad? Perhaps they're lying about meth too; maybe they're lying about crack. The zero sum game they push on you means that once you've already tried drugs and stepped over the line, you might as well try something else.

    Now what would happen if we were to remove the taboo from these drugs? What if we stated correctly that marijuana is more or less harmless, it should be taken in moderation, in a private place with trusted people? It reminds me of how paranoid I used to get on weed when I still had all those ideas which were drilled into my head for most of my childhood, compared to how I felt on weed many years later when I fully understood how idiotic that propaganda was. Yes, granted, paranoia is a normal effect of THC, but there are certainly different degrees. At least I never had any thoughts like: "Did he REALLY just ask me the time? And did I REALLY tell him? Or did he ask me the time, and I told him I wanted to screw his girlfriend, and now he's kicking my ass but I don't know it because I'm stoned and I think I'm just standing here eating my pizza?" Anyway, I digress.

    The point is, if we can't have legalization just yet, at least we can start thinking realistically about drugs. For example, it may shock many Americans to realize that in other European countries, including those which have decriminalized marijuana, they do not demand drug tests for any old job. No drug tests, and these countries are not degenerating into some kind of Mad Max style dystopian wastelands. Just the idea of drug testing is insane. Let's say you smoke one joint and three weeks later enough is in your system to show up positive on a piss test. What does your potential employer do? Oh they can't hire a DRUG USER! You MUST be a drug user because here you have proof that you used drugs some time in the past. Meanwhile you can go get shit-faced every night and so long as you make it to work on time nobody cares.

  62. Townsend Harris Says:

    In rural, upstate New York, local economies often depend on either SUNY or the Department of Corrections. Thank you, Nelson Rockefeller.

  63. JMPrince Says:

    Economics has something to say here, just a bit here:
    http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/ex-offenders-and-the-labor-market

    JMP

  64. TR Says:

    I don't think Brazil/India are considered second world countries. I think they get lumped into the BRICK (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Korea) that are massively industrializing, and growing into the sorts of wide-distributions wealth pattern we see in the US, as opposed to the other developed countries.
    But more specifically, I think the First/Second/Third world nomenclature dates back to the Cold War, where US = 1st world, USSR = 2nd world, and everywhere else too poor/remote to matter = 3rd world.

  65. berlinerale Says:

    I liked your post, interesting to read about this phenomenon in the US. I recently read a paper about the percentage of populations incarcerated and was surprised that the USA was #1 with 5 % of the total population. For example in Germany we have less than 1%, but we do not have a system that puts people in prison, there are a lot of chances to get help, and as for a War on Drugs, that only exists for large scale operations. People normally smoke pot or hash in parks or bars, where ever. I wouldn't recommend doing this in front of the police, but it is accepted pretty much everywhere, and no one would end up in prison for this.