Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:
First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that's because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.
Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.
Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)
I've seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.
The current regime not only has failed, but is absolutely absurd in its assumptions. The argument that something like marijuana should be illegal is always "to protect the kids." But the solution is nuts. I will put it very personally. It replaces a mildly bad thing (my teenager is smoking rope) with a disasterous, ruin-one's-life thing (my teenager was arrested for possession and may go to jail). Its just crazy to say it is better to send kids to jail than have them do drugs. Drugs I can deal with and correct in my household, or at least I can try -- jail and an arrest record I can't fix.
Drug warriors worry about "the message" we send to kids with legalization, but no one is talking about legalizing drugs for kids, any more than we do with tobacco or alcohol. Use of those are adult decisions and we require one to be an adult to make them.
To be honest, looking at the teens I see, I can't see much difference in teen's perception of smoking tobacco vs. other drugs, despite the fact that the former is legal for adults, and so by drug warrior logic we have sent the message that it is more OK somehow. In fact, in use statistics, it is hard to see any difference, with teens using legal-for-adults drugs like tobacco at about the same rate as they use other illegal-for-everyone drugs.