War on drugs Marijuana legalization a controversial proposal

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Last November, Californian voters went to the ballot for a very controversial proposal about marijuana legalization. Even though the electors rejected it, the issue still remains a very hot potato, in a country that has traditionally always had a very though position against drugs. The fact that a State government itself considered the possibility to oppose the so-called "War on drugs" highlights the deep opinion discrepancies on the topic. As thousands of people are creeping in overcrowded jails and billions of dollars are spent each year to fight organized crime, an increasing number of economists are wondering about the efficiency and the legitimacy of the war on drugs policy. Is the US government's current policy the best to deal with that topic? And if not, would there be anything better?


1/Drug definition: the word drug comes from the Old French « drogue », it originally referred to any natural or artificially made chemical which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body. Which means that tea, coffee, tobacco, cannabis, alcohol or cocaine are drugs. Originally, this word could refer to drugs as well as medicines, but in the early XXth century, this word took a new meaning, and could now refer to something illegal.

But this change of meaning is actually the consequence of some more important changes that the Western societies underwent during the industrial era.

Globalization played an important role in those mutations: drugs were no longer reserved to the inhabitants of the regions they were coming from. The arrival of those exotic products on the western markets, along with offering the consumers a wide range of different drugs (tobacco, coffee, cocaine, opium, tea...) lead to a deep misuse of what they were originally designated for.

That's the case of marijuana for example: basically used by slaves to stand their tough condition, it spread rapidly through US at the beginning of the XXth century. But being smoked and no longer drunk in the traditional infusion known as "Ganja", it turned into a powerful pleasure instrument.

Later, with the discovery of some new products such as the aspirin, a powerful painkiller without psychoactive side effect, or novocaine, the other drugs traditionally used in Western cultures for medical purposes, such as opium for example (alcohol, cocaine, morphine, heroine and opium were sold in pharmacies at the beginning of the century) were abandoned by modern medicine.

That increased the gap between the two different meanings of the word. But what really changed our perception was when drugs were first prohibited, mainly for health concern.

The first to be prohibited in the US was alcohol.

2/Reasons for prohibition:

-Lobbying: the Temperance Movement, a group of associations that were lobbying to pass dry laws at a local scale, and pressed on prohibition at a national scale, with the will to "moralize the working class". Ex: Anti-Saloon Ligue of America (ASL) a religious group funded in 1893.

Feminist associations, such as the WTCU, were also part of this movement as violence against women was culturally asociated to alcohol abuse.

-The first world war: Most of the American brewery belonged to German migrants or to their descendants. Some think that an Anti-German feeling encouraged the prohibition. Alcohol shouldn't stop the Americans on their way to victory. The 18th amendment was proposed the 22th of December 1917. Moreover, war had turned most of the young soldiers into alcoholics, which certainly influenced the States on their decision to adopt this amendment in 1919.

-Capitalism transformation

Economic activity started to be rationalized at this time. The complexity and dangerousness of industrial jobs lead to an increased responsibility of the employees: a hangovered worker is a less productive one, what's more, he risks to hurt himself or to damage the machines, which would mean a loss of money the entire society.

George Dangerfield in his book « the strange death of liberalism », pointed out that capitalism, which promoted alcohol business (a fishy one), now had a good reason to restrain it.

John Stuart Mill stated that the liberty to take drugs such as alcohol or opium was among the most fundamental rights The loss of this liberty is the very sign of the decline of the civilization that Mill defended : the human body is now the State's property/responsibility before to be the people's one. As prohibition came with other civil liberty restrictions, its rise is relevant of how genuine liberalism evolved into a different type of society that aims to control everything.

3/The Prohibition: 1919-1933

Alcohol already prohibited in the « dry states » such as the Maine. By 1855 there were 13 of them.

Alcohol prohibition reached a national scale with the 18th amendment the 19 of January 1919 and the Volstead Act the 28th of October 1919 which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption on a national level.

Very unpopular law: Police was ordered to destroy distilleries and breweries material and to control the boundaries. Alcohol production and business progressively went was in the hands of criminals as it mainly benefited organized-crime. It gave it the opportunity to develop import business, underground/illegal distilleries (Moonshine), and distribution channels, especially through the « Speakeasies », bars were alcohol was illegally sold; some of them had caves and underground tunnels.

Some of the criminals are very famous: Al Capone or the Genna family in Chicago, actually headed empires.

But in the end the prohibition laws have never really been enforced. Criminals were making huge benefits, and could afford to corrupt police and judges. Thus, they used to turn a blind eye on the increased violence and crime rate triggered by this business.

A health concern: Alcohol production was in the hands of criminals=> no control=> low quality=> lot of cases where « bathtub gin » caused permanent blindness or even death for it was made of industrial alcohol or chemical poison. Home-made bark distillation creates methanol, which provokes drunkenness such as ethanol, but it destroys the optical nerve then the entire nervous system. The death toll of adulterated alcohol is estimated to 10 000 death. Home-made distillation was also risky for artisanal/primitive facilities would sometimes explode, causing death and fire

Very high cost, as well as loss of taxes on alcohol sales (about $500 million per year)=> seriously damaged US finances

'Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA)'s arguments: civil liberties restrictions, law inefficiency, taxes loss and increased unemployment, which turned to be an important matter with the economic crisis in the 30's

Prohibition took an end with the Blaine Act, 17 February 1933, authorizing the low alcohol content drinks such as beer. 5th December 1933, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th and it was the end of prohibition.

But above all it allowed the government to get taxes on alcohol

When prohibition stopped, organized-crime lost an important part of its incomes, a direct consequence of legal sales of alcohol (better quality and cheaper product). It then started to make business with prostitution, games (amusement) and other illegal drugs. In a way, modern war on drugs can be compared to prohibition as it reproduces most of its errors.


1/The War on Drugs

Other drugs were also prohibited, notably thanks to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, passed in 1914. It was far to be a prohibition law, but it was quite vague and it soon became so. It initially intended to order the market of opium, morphine and cocaine, requiring drug sellers to get a license. Soon, however, licensing bodies did not issue licenses anymore, effectively banning the drugs.

It's also the case for the later Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. It was basically implemented because the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (created in 1930) noticed an increased pike of marijuana consumption in the mid 30's. Some also said that this law intended to hinder the fishy chanvre industry. Cannabis was back then, used as substitute for synthetic fiber. Nylon industry were heavily lobbying (Dupont family)

It's only in the 60's that drugs were really prohibited. In response to the rising drug abuse among young people and the counter-culture movement, government efforts to enforce prohibition were strengthened in many countries. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, signed in 1961 is an international treaty to prohibit production and supply of specific drugs and of drugs with similar effects except under license for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research

Fight against drugs got toughened when in 1971. President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs iniciative: a prohibition campaign on global scale that includes toughened national drug policies, but also foreign policies that aim to fight against drug trafficking such as the Merida initiative: A security cooperation approved in 2008, between the United States and the Mexican government. Which provides the Mexican government with military equipment, weapons, training, technical advice.

2/Foreign Policy

It even includes military intervention: Operation Just Cause which purpose was to capture Manuel Noriega, head of the government of Panama for he had been trafficking drugs since the 60's. The U.S. military invasion of Panama in December 1989 destroyed large amounts of civilian infrastructure and took many civilian lives as part of Operation Just Cause. Noriega surrendered in January 1990 and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

It also supports various actions intended to reduce drug production such as spraying large amounts of toxic herbicides such as Roundup. Many farmers who live below, and have nothing to do with the drug trade, are exposed to dangerous doses of toxic pesticides which cause severe health problems, birth defects, and deaths, not to mention destroying their legitimate crops, which for many are their sole source of income.

It is actually a real war such as war on terror... but both are related as drug often finances terrorist organization: FARC/Cocaine Al Qaeda/Opium in Afghanistan are gun traffic.

Plan Colombia: United States government currently provides hundreds of millions of dollars per year of military aid, training, and equipment to Colombia, to fight left-wing guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), who are involved in drug trafficking.

According to human right watch, US-trained officers across South-America were directly or indirectly involved in many atrocities during the 1990s, including the Massacre of Trujillo, Alto Naya Massacre and the 1997 Mapiripán Massacre. US military schools and manuals have been training Latin American officers in Colombia and in the region at large since the 1960s, and have taught students to target civilian supporters of the guerrillas.

The efforts of U.S. and Colombian governments have been criticized for focusing on fighting leftist guerrillas in southern regions without applying enough pressure on right-wing paramilitaries and continuing drug smuggling operations in the north of the country. Human Rights Watch, congressional committees and other entities have documented the existence of connections between members of the Colombian military and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces), which the U.S. government has listed as a terrorist group.

3/ Toughened Inner Policy and the problems it causes

What does the law says? Basically: send more people to prison and for longer terms, In addition, the United States provides for the deportation of many non-citizens convicted of drug offenses.

Drug possession is the crime of having one or more illegal drugs in one's possession, either for personal use, distribution, sale or otherwise. Sentences vary depending on the amount, type of drug, circumstances, and jurisdiction, but basically Drug possession can lead to a 5 year sentence jail and a $ 250,000 fine for a first offense, this sentence is doubled in case of a second offense.

Law varies depending on the State: a few examples

California's broader 'three strikes and you're out' policy adopted in 1994 mandates 25 years to life imprisonment for a third criminal conviction of any felony offense. It was then adopted by other states.

Rockefeller drug laws: In 1973, New York State introduced mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for possession of more than four ounces (113g) of a hard drug. Similar laws were introduced across the United States.

Since 1986 and the minimum sentencing laws, judges are forced to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors. Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture (or alleged weight in conspiracy cases), and the number of prior convictions. Judges are unable to consider other important factors such as the offender's role, motivation, and the likelihood of recidivism. Only by providing the prosecutor with "substantial assistance", (information that aids the government in prosecuting other offenders) may defendants reduce their mandatory sentences. This creates huge incentives for people charged with drug offenses to provide false information in order to receive a shorter sentence.

Such a tough policy is criticized a lot for causing more problems than solves:

Racial Injustice In 1986, the year Congress enacted federal mandatory drug sentences; the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.

Black are more likely to go to jail even though white take more drugs (6 more chance to go to jail, and most of them are just for drug possession according to Helen Epstein in his book « American Prison: is there hope? »)

Sentence is different depending on the drug: since 1986, people convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in prison. On the other hand, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. Crack cocaine being cheaper and black people poorer, they are more likely to buy crack than powder cocaine. That's the reason why these laws were widely criticized as discriminatory against minorities.

Laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine This 100:1 ratio had been required under federal law since 1986. 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity to 18 to1

Crime statistics show that in 1999 the United States blacks were far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for drug crimes, and received much stiffer penalties and sentences than non-minorities.

Statistics from 1998 show that supposedly there were wide racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, sentencing and deaths. African-Americans drug users made up for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. Nationwide African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than other races, even though they only supposedly comprised 13% of regular drug users.

Bad reinsertion

Most of the 2000 drug dealer freed everyday (according to Mark Kleiman) don't find work and deal drug again. Penalties for drug crimes among youth almost always involve permanent or semi-permanent removal from opportunities for education, strip them of voting rights, and later involve creation of criminal records which make employment far more difficult. => the system appears to turn juvenile delinquents into real criminals

Prison overcrowding:

Caused a huge increase of prison population: In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes was rising 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%

The United States represents 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the prison population. The U.S. Has the highest prison population rate in the world (756/100,000). From 1980 to 2000, US population grew by about 23% while prison population almost tripled, an increase mainly due to drug convictions (About 25% of prisoners are drug related criminals (prison population is more than 2 millions). They were about 40,000 in 1980... they are now 500,000.

Most of drug related crimes are non-violent ones. About 225,000 are for possession of cannabis, the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States.

In 2008, 1.8 million Americans were arrested for drug offenses. Hopefully they were not all jailed. (bureau of justice, chart)

How much does it cost?

In the year 2009, the US drug-control budget reached $14.1 billion / nearly half of it was spent financing law enforcement while only one sixth was spent on treatment.

But the real financial cost cannot be summed up only by focusing on the Government's expenditures. We also have to heed with what the government doesn't earn: three Nobel Laureates, Milton Friedman, George Akerlof and Vernon L. Smith, have reckoned that Marijuana legalization would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and generate at least $6.2 billion of tax revenues if it was taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco.

Jeffrey A. Miron, an economist from Harvard University, issued a report in 2008, which estimated that legalizing drugs would generate at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue ($6.7 billion from marijuana, $22.5 billion from cocaine and heroin, remainder from other drugs)


1/ Is war on drug efficient?

Over the 35 last years, the US government has invested $ 500 billion, to disturb drug market, thinking that reducing its availability; the increasing prices would discourage people from using drug. LOST BATTLE AGAINST COCAINE Tom Feiling

FAIL: example of cocaine: is purer, more easily available and its price dropped 50% between 1993 and 2003. As it's more affordable cocaine is no longer reserved to the richest, and the demand has increased.

WHY: 2 theories

1/According to Richard Davenport-Hines, the Pursuit of Oblivion, only 10-15% of illicit heroin and 30% of illicit cocaine is intercepted. Drug traffickers have gross profit margins of up to 300%. At least 75% of illicit drug shipments would have to be intercepted before the traffickers' profits were hurt.

2/According to the laws of supply and demand reducing the supply of drugs without reducing the demand, leads the prices (and therefore the profits) to increase. The increased profits encourage the producers to produce more drugs despite the risks, providing a theoretical explanation for why attacks on drug supply have failed to have any lasting effect.

As regards the demand, toughened national policy seems not to discourage people from using drugs. More than a half of US citizen have already tried marijuana: they are criminals according to the law. Hopefully all didn't get caught. But when one is happy to see so many criminals escaped the nets of law it means that this law is not good.

To sum up: war on drugs failed to achieve its objectives:

-consumption is still rising as drugs are easily available and people not afraid of the law

-prices and profits increase

-production increase

War on drugs is war impossible to win but US government keep on the same way, reproducing the errors of alcohol prohibition in the 20's but with more important side effects: increased levels of violent crime and gang activity, wasted government funds, violation of civil liberties, environmental destruction from drug eradication programs, lack of effectiveness. Some argue that it contributed to destroy more lives than drugs did and it should be reappraised.

Critics cite a large number of unnecessary deaths and imprisonments,


About 500 economists, gathered by the Nobel prized Milton Friedman, signed an open letter to President George W. Bush stating "We urge...the country to commence an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition... At a minimum, this debate will force advocates of current policy to show that prohibition has benefits sufficient to justify the cost to taxpayers, foregone tax revenues and numerous ancillary consequences that result from marijuana prohibition."

I'm am not talking about total liberalization as Tomothy Leary defends, but more about decriminalization and regulation There is a consensus among economists to reform drug policy in the direction of decriminalization and legalization. Maybe not the best solution but nowadays the debate appears to be taboo, which is not good.

2 major Possibilities:

Decriminalization: to decriminalize simple drug consumption and use.

Arguments against: it would increase drug consumption

Argument for: That's what Netherlands did, and there were no drug consumption increase apart from drug tourism. It would decrease prison population and allow the government to focus its efforts on big drug traffic instead of little delinquents.

Regulation: to sell legally drugs under strict legislation. Taxing the goods.

According to a study by the RAND Corporation, prices are likely to decrease about 80%. This suggests that consumption will increase, but it is unclear by how much. Yet nobody knows what effect price change will have on the demand.

Legalisation "does not mean that drugs are good…rather we have to see it as a strategy to strike and break the economic structure that allows mafias to generate huge profits in their business, which in turn serve to corrupt and to increase their power," said Calderon president of Mexico

Since marijuana provides the gangs with up to half their income, taking that business out of their hands would change the balance of financial power in the drug war.

Nevertheless, it appears that the topic to be debated is not just "should we keep on prohibiting drugs" but what is the best way to make people consuming drugs in a moderate way so there is no side-effects on public health. How to encourage citizens to reconsider the way they use drugs?

Actually the problem might not be prohibition itself but the way it is implement. As the government has focused on punishment rather than prevention for years, there might still be a way to make prohibition more efficient.

During the early to mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ordered and funded a major cocaine policy study, again by RAND. The Rand Drug Policy Research Center study concluded that $ 3 billion should be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment. The report said that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, stating that drug treatment is twenty-three more times effective than the supply-side "war on drugs".

In the year 2003, 53 percent of the requested drug control budget was for enforcement, 29 percent for treatment, and 18 percent for prevention. The state of New York, in particular, designated 17 percent of its budget towards substance-abuse-related spending. Of that, a mere one percent was put towards prevention, treatment, and research.

By spending the majority of its money on law enforcement, the federal government had underestimated the true value of drug-treatment facilities and their benefit towards reducing the number of addicts in the U.S.


There is no perfect solution; each one has a social impact. But we have to choose the one with the best cost/benefit balance. It is clear that the US needs to change the way it deals with that issue. Obama himself declared in 2004 that war on drug was a tremendous fail. But it appears that the debate is paralyzed, which prevents from experimenting new and better policies.

The Candy Machine, How Cocaine Took Over the World, Tom Feiling, Penguin, 2009

The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield, Serif, 1997

There's no justice in the war on drugs, Milton Friedman The New York Times, Jan 11th 1998

Choose your poison, The Economist, Aug 8th 2002

Thinking the unthinkable, The Economist, Aug 12th 2010

Happy Toking, The Economist, Feb 10th 2011

Books Magazine N°15, Faut-il légaliser les drogues dures?, September 2010

The White House drug policy budget: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/policy/09budget

Drug Policy.org, Mandatory Minimum Sentences: http://www.drugpolicy.org/drugwar/mandatorymin/)

Drug War Facts.org, Prison, Jail and Probation: http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Prisons_and_Jails