Americans realized long before its repeal in December, 1933 that Prohibition had created new and far more dangerous problems than it could have ever been calculated to solve. As the few remaining Americans of the era of speakeasies would tell you, the impact on America was overwhelmingly negative. The affects of Prohibition were bad not simply because of the gangland violence but because of the artificial dichotomy that was created wherein otherwise “good citizens” were routinely flouting the law.
It was a hard lesson in governance, but America learned and moved on.
Or at least, America had moved on until enough time had past that the lessons could be largely forgotten. It is truly amazing to read the Prohibition era stories and see how thoroughly relevant they still seem. The story of the young man determined to end the rum running on the road in front of his house, thwarted by a wise father who took his gun and admonished him to stay out of other people’s business, sounds eerily similar to the stories I hear from the inner city. Not similar in detail obviously: that was a simpler and much different era. Rather, I speak of the similarity of how prohibition set in motion powerful forces with which ordinary people dare not trifle. The similarity of parents who wish to keep their children away both from danger and the dangerous. If you just stay out of the way it seems, the dangerous will most likely leave you alone.
But the dangerous do affect each of us whether we try to stay out of the way or not. The War on Drugs has extracted a price that while hard to precisely total in dollars, is much easier to discern in intangible ways. It can be measured in resources diverted from homeland defense, lives wasted in jail cells, insecurity while simply going to your car at the grocery store, and liberties squandered due to the tactical and strategic exigencies of a phony war.
One may not be able to hang a price tag on these things, but the price is dear none the less.
According to information from the White House, about half of all prisoners in US jails are incarcerated because of the War on Drugs. You have to dig to sort all of that out, but it is worth your time if you doubt the number. Using the White House data, by my rough calculations approximately $18 billion is spent each year to keep these prisoners behind bars. Compare this to the President’s 2005 budget figure for the Department of Homeland Defense of $34 billion (which interestingly includes $6 billion for the Coast Guard, one of the prime players in drug interdiction). I’ll leave it for a person with time to spare to come up with a more thorough accounting, but it is clear that once you add in other expenses, which include a vast array of law enforcement activity from Federal down to local entities and large expenditures in other branches of the military who have been partially co-opted, that we are spending at least as much on the War on Drugs as we are on Homeland Defense.
Eventually we may all be seeking illicit drugs to help us cope with our muddled national priorities.
In my mind, however, the ridiculous expense in financial and human capital of the War on Drugs is not itself a sound argument for the legalization of controlled substances. There are some things that must be illegal if society is to function and what the content of the law is should not be determined simply by what yields a net profit. The exorbitant cost instead should give urgency to the need to commit to drug legalization not because it is a pragmatic good, but because it is the right thing to do.
While legalization is, I am convinced, the morally and legally correct choice, if I am to be totally honest, I must tell you that I truly hate illicit drugs. My personal opposition is, in part, because of moral obligations imposed by my faith, and in part out of my ordinary human fallacy of fearing being out of control. Alcohol, in my view, however, is like liberalism and conservativism: it is OK if consumed in moderation. For me personally, the difference between the two is that moderate alcohol consumption does not lead to inebriation.
But I understand well that others disagree with me on the acceptability of alcohol consumption: the “intellectual” heirs of Billy Sunday are the stock from which I was raised. I know that there are those who would gleefully rob me of my right to enjoy my pint of stout and this is why the principals of Natural Rights are so crucial to building a free society.
When one is certain that they have a clear understanding that particular behaviors are destructive, it is only natural to want to intercede on behalf of the unwitting. But, unlike the majority of Americans, I really do believe in Liberty. As I have said before, I stand for human rights without regard to one’s personal viability, color of skin, religious creed, level of intelligence or unrepentant sinfulness. Free people must have the liberty to make choices that you or I might deem unwise or immoral.
The temperance tyrants sometimes argue back that it is not about controlling the behavior of others, it is about the cost to society of addiction and dangerous behavior under the influence. But I follow the facts where they lead me and not where I wish them to lead, and the obvious fact is that forty years of the War on Drugs has done absolutely nothing to curtail their use or reduce the impact of addictive behavior on society. The reality is that we currently have locked up over 3% of adults and by my conservative estimate annually spend the equivalent of the Gross Domestic Product of Paraguay and yet the cost of drugs continues to decline and the use of drugs is unabated.
The greatest expense borne by Americans in the prosecution of the drug war is the cost in human life and livelihood. Lives which are squandered by poor kids muling or dealing to try to make it in the world no matter what the cost of living in the shadows. Lives of non-combatants who are caught in the real and virtual cross-fire. Livelihood which is squandered by the rising tide of property crimes committed by addicted people seeking money for their next high. Then there is what is perhaps the largest line item on the expense ledger: the lost opportunity to deal with real and pressing issues.
All of this insanity is juxtaposed on the established fact that treatment has been proven far more effective than incarceration. Even the Drug War champions in the White House admit this. It is time to act on reason and end the insanity which is the War on Drugs. Time to give Freedom a chance here in the Home of the Brave.
It is way past time to put a priority on mending broken lives rather than building more jails.