Failure of the War on Drugs

Frequent readers of this site will know that I support the legalization of most illegal narcotics for adult use, not because I am a secret user who wants to come out of the closet, but because prohibition and efforts to save people from themselves always result in failure.  In particular I remember the old joke that communicates so well the inherent contradictions embodied in the drug war.  It goes: "What is the worst thing that can happen to a teen who smokes marijuana?  Answer: He can get thrown in jail."

Whenever I make the argument for drug legalization, 100 out of 100 times the first response is "what kind of message does that send to kids."  They argue that even if kids under 18 are not allowed access to drugs, legalization for adults will send the message to kids that drug use is more acceptable, and their use of drugs will increase.

What is most surprising about this statement is how easy it is to test.  The approach was suggested to me by something I read in Reason the other day.

Check out this press release from the Department of Health and Human Services on youth drug use:

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration today
announced that current illicit drug use among youth ages 12-17
continues to decline.   The rate has been moving downward from 11.6
percent using drugs in the past month in 2002 to 11.2 percent in 2003,
10.6 percent in 2004 and 9.9 percent in 2005....

The  rate of past month cigarette use among youth ages 12-17 declined from 13.0  percent in 2002 to 10.8 percent in 2005.

The counter proof to the "what about the kids" argument is right here in these two paragraphs.  Tobacco today, which is illegal for teens while legal (but frowned upon) for adults, is a good proxy for post-legalization narcotics.  Note therefore that illicit drug use among teens is 9.9 percent, while tobacco use is 10.8 percent.  There is virtually no difference!  The legal-for-adults substance is used by teens at only slightly higher a rate than illicit drugs, and this from the drug warriors' own figures.  At most, the"message" sent by legalizing tobacco seems to be no different than the "message" sent by making narcotics illegal. Tobacco is legal for adults, does not carry nearly the same stigma as illegal drugs, is far easier for a teen to obtain, and carries much lower penalties for its use, and still it is used by teens at about the same rate as illegal drugs.  In fact, in the figures you can see the legal tobacco use falling faster than illegal drug use.

So what has prohibition, prohibition-related drug violence, and hundreds of thousands of people in jail for drug use achieved?

  • Jim Collins

    I agree with you 100% about drugs. The problem is that there is too much money to be made by both sides for legalization to ever happen.