Einstein, insanity and the war on drugs

By Bernd Debusmann
December 3, 2008

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. His definition fits America’s war on drugs, a multi-billion dollar, four-decade exercise in futility.

The war on drugs has helped turn the United States into the country with the world’s largest prison population. (Noteworthy statistic: The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners). Keen demand for illicit drugs in America, the world’s biggest market, helped spawn global criminal enterprises that use extreme violence in the pursuit of equally extreme profits.

Over the years, the war on drugs has spurred repeated calls from social scientists and economists (including three Nobel prize winners) to seriously rethink a strategy that ignores the laws of supply and demand.

Under the headline “The Failed War on Drugs,” Washington’s respected, middle-of-the-road Brookings Institution said in a November report that drug use had not declined significantly over the years and that “falling retail drug prices reflect the failure of efforts to reduce the supply of drugs.”

Cocaine production in South America stands at historic highs, the report noted.

Like other think tanks, Brookings stopped short of recommending a radical departure from past policies with a proven track record of failure such as spending billions on crop eradication in Latin America and Asia while allotting paltry sums in comparison to rehabilitating addicts.

Enter Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization started in 2002 by police officers, judges, narcotics agents, prison wardens and others with first-hand experience of implementing policies that echo the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition, now widely regarded a dismal and costly failure of social engineering, came to an end 75 years ago this week.

As LEAP sees it, the best way to fight drug crime and violence is to legalize drugs and regulate them the same way alcohol and tobacco is now regulated. “We repealed prohibition once and we can do it again,” one of the group’s co-founders, Terry Nelson, told a Washington news conference on December 2. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

FROM AL CAPONE TO DRUG CARTELS

“In the 20s and 30s, we had Al Capone and his gangsters getting rich and shooting up our streets,” said Nelson, who spent a 32-year government career fighting drugs in the U.S. and Latin America. “Today we have criminal gangs, cartels, Taliban and al-Qaeda profiting from the prohibition of drug sales and wreaking havoc all over the world. The correlation is obvious.”

The before-and-after sequence is so obvious that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in September noting that the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition had replaced a “dramatic increase” in organized crime with “a transparent and accountable system of distribution and sales” that generated billions of dollars in tax revenues and boosted the sick economy.

That’s where advocates of drug legalization want to go now, and some of them hope that the similarities between today’s deep economic crisis and the Great Depression will result in a more receptive audience for their pro-legalization arguments among lawmakers and government leaders.

The budgetary impact of legalizing drugs would be enormous, according to a study prepared to coincide with the 75th anniversary of prohibition’s end by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron. He estimates that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy — $44.1 billion through savings on law enforcement and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenues from regulated sales.

Miron published a similar study in 2005 looking only at the budgetary effect of legalizing marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. That study was endorsed by more than 500 economists, including Nobel laureates Milton Friedman of Stanford University, George Akerlof of the University of California and Vernon Smith of George Mason University.

“We urge…the country to commence an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition,” the economists said in an open letter to President George W. Bush, congress, governors and state legislators. “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.”

The advocates of current policy, led by outgoing President George W. Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, never took up the challenge to discuss cost-benefit equations. His Office of National Drug Control Policy has focused, with the single-minded determination of a moral crusader, on doing the same thing over and over again.

But the United States is not alone in pursuing drug strategies that are based more on wishful thinking than on sober analysis. If you put faith in declarations by the United Nations, a “drug-free world” is an attainable goal and the war on drugs all but over.

In 1998, a special session of the U.N. General Assembly forecast that the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy would be eliminated or significantly reduced by the year 2008, a deadline that also applied to “significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction.”

The clock is ticking towards midnight, December 31, 2008.

— You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. For more columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here. —

Want to debate? Send in your written submissions to debate@thomsonreuters.com.

338 comments

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The drug problem in America was not caused by the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. It is caused by physicians who mindlessly prescribed drugs even for simple ailments
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Posted by Constantine | Report as abusive

Dear Editor,

Did you know that the cigarette makers are members of a union- do you know which one?
http://www.bctgm.org/index.html
The candy makers, cigarette makers, and confectioners union!

Does that make any sense to you?
The same people who make our children’s biscuits are also making cigarettes…
How is that safe and sane?
I want to ask a question,

Can Marijuana producers join that union?
Marijuana is much safer than tobacco!

Darral Good
board member of the Washington state Hemp Education
Network (WHEN)

Tomsk wrote: “In the UK, the commonest cause of death from heroin use is caused by impure heroin cut with something nasty.”

-And the long term addicts die because their addiction has cut their life short. A life that is often unproductive, meaningless, and a burden to loved ones. Few hard core addicts (and that is what users become toward the end) work for a living.

These pro-drug users and supporters need to grow up. You are all naive in the extreme and many are callous. Some posts say let the addicts die, let addicts learn their lesson, to bad for them but if I get to smoke my pot or do MY drugs it is OK. If your own family, or friend, or loved one was addicted or had died from addiction your opinion would be different. If you think can never become an addict or alcoholic you are wrong.

Some solutions are more education about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. This has worked for the anti-smoking campaign. Smoking is no where near as popular as is was in say 1940. Programs like Prop. 36 in California are good too. Treatment for addicts not prison. Another solution to stop crime and violence related to drug traffic? How about all of you drug users STOP USING. The huge demand will stop and there will be no market to fight over. Try living a drug and alcohol free life with peace and serenity.

Posted by digialpha | Report as abusive

Here is something for all of the users, smokers, and drinkers. Try living a drug and alcohol free life full of peace and serenity. Try living life on life’s terms and not run to a joint, drink, or a fix to feel better. Try it you might like it. It is easier to stop while you still can than after you cross that line in to addiction, because then you will not be able to stop on your own.

If you need help stopping seek it. There is no shame in asking for help.

Posted by digialpha | Report as abusive

For those of you that think Pot is safe think again. My spouse, a nurse, just told me of a patient that is a long term pot smoker. A well known advocate for legalizing pot. The patient is now dying of LUNG CANCER. Never smoked cigarettes because those are bad for you. The patient is in total denial about the cause of their cancer even though it has been confirmed by doctors. Kid yourself all you want but smoking this stuff is harmful. If pot is legalized the long term studies done in ten or twenty years from now will prove it. But, it will be to late for you folks. People once thought cigarettes were safe now we know better.

Posted by Digialpha | Report as abusive

After reading more and more, pages after pages, it boils down to this, either you have a clue or you don’t and all the round-n-round discussion isn’t going to make the clueless any more clued into the facts:

1) People are people are people! Users of any mind-altering substance have an inalienable right of life to be treated as human beings, not as criminals, with equal rights of so called non-users.

2) Non-users are addicted to something too! Whether it be materialism, capitalism, religion or being a vegetarian, or high on a notion; what ever it is, just because its not a mind-altering substance does not make anyone anyone better than another person and that ever body should live like anybody else.

3) anybody wanting a clue, please read this: http://www.ascentofhumanity.com/text.php
The least of our worries is who can or cannot get high!

4) Love and care about and for each other. We are all in this together as a global family — whether we like it or not! Laws do not make Love and Peace — that comes from the heart; love and accept one another no matter vices or idiosyncrasies.

5) Merry Winter Solstice to All!

Posted by dmk | Report as abusive

War = death and destruction physical first mental after
Drugs = destuction and death mentle first physical after
Big involved Political Wars– Decisive Winners/ Loosers
Drug wars– now world wide Big and involved
Not enough individule disaplined education to fend the sea the beaches the airspace anywhere.
The Monster is here there everywhere. Social systems cannot enlist self destuction by codes of practice, or duty of care. Death to the death The innocent lamb has to endure the sacrifice.

Digialpha,
It is most obvious that smoking anything will have harmful effects on the smoker, the debate here is what is worse? tobacco or marijuana? Its blatantly obvious that marijuana is the lesser of the two evils. Also, why do you insist that these things have to be an escape? Is it not possible to simply enjoy them and not treat them as an escape? Or do you not think that our feeble human minds have to ability to appreciate life in all forms, whether it be sober, drunk, high, or all three? And I’m sure that all people that don’t use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs live lives of peace and serenity. Maybe you should smoke a joint and relax a bit.

Posted by KG | Report as abusive

Its disheartening to read some of these comments discussing “pro drug” and “drug users” and what these people need to consider.

The war on drugs is morally and practically wrong. You do not have to use illicit drugs to conclude this.

Second, those recomending people not use drugs are missing the point. People do use and give drugs to their friends. The issue is: should we mark them as felons for life and put them in jails at 22k a year? Should they have to get a job without financial aid for college or employment to pay for their degree?

Should we put someone in jail that makes a choice that you don’t agree with? Should we have to pay for people to go to mandatory (go or to jail with you) treatment facilities? NO.

Add in the fact that the drug harms are largely a result of prohibition (profit-motivated violence coupled with low market barriers and no legal dispute resolution; impure adulterated substances) and this talk about what drug users should do becomes increasingly irrelevant. The fact is people do drugs. Here’s one non illicit drug user who says my paxil and coffee are addicting and psychotropic but I should not go to jail for it. Here’s one non-illicit drug user that says nobody should go to jail for it, regardless of what some here would prefer they do with their life.

Freedom means you decide for yourself. Until you harm a nonconsenting party (theft, violence, fraud, minors involved) the law should not fine you, jail you (at my expense), or ‘offer’ mandatory treatment which you go to or see jail. Add in the severe ostracizing effect of a felony conviction and record on employment and mobility, and its no wonder the war on drugs is an ineffective method to deal with something a small percentage of the population has a problem with.

Posted by johnm214 | Report as abusive

I’m an American living in Japan, and don’t see the problems with drugs here like I did in America. They definitely exist, and are a problem, but not in the way there are in the states and Mexico.

What the society here has done here that has worked was to deeply educate and condition people not to do drugs to begin with. The penalties for drug crimes are far worse here than in the US. Still, the prisons are not overflowing with drug offenders. Legalizing drugs was not the solution either.

It’s the education and beliefs people develop that prevent them from starting in the first place. In other words, the demand is never there to begin with. At least not in the same way it exists in the US. Alcoholism is quite common and accepted. But drug addiction is still taboo. Society has deemed it wrong, and has burned that idea into the minds of its children.

If the drug problem is really to be stopped, it’s not going to happen through legalization or more money being thrown at a losing drug war. It has to start with educating people, conditioning them, to truly believe that doing hard drugs, or any other type of drugs, is wrong or will cause them pain in the long run.

What could $100 billion in the hands of modern advertising companies and universities do, if it was used to educate people about the problems drug use creates? I think it would do a lot more good than it’s currently doing in this obscene war or dealers and addicts.

Steve

Posted by steve | Report as abusive

Addiction is usually not a problem unless the substance people are
addicted to is illegal. Lots of people are addicted to products containing caffeine, myself included. I could quit if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.

Addiction to coffee containing caffeine is affordable for most people.
Almost nobody has to rob, steal or commit acts of prostitution to
purchase coffee.

Criminalize coffee and the situation would soon change. Then coffee
would be untaxed, unregulated and controlled by criminals and very
expensive — just like marijuana is today. How would coffee consumers
feel if their beverage of choice was criminalized by our nanny-state
government?

Probably the same way marijuana consumers feel today.

Kirk Muse

I’m delighted to see a rational article about how crazy the “war on drugs” is. In addition to its other dysfunctional features, it has been the most powerful tool used against low-income people of color since slavery. And the idea that we should only modify SOME of our prohibitions, e.g. decriminalizing small quantities of marijuana, makes as much sense as saying that in 1933 they should have decriminalized six packs of beer. (Don’t mention legalizing gin, that’s too controversial!) The basic prohibitionist approach is not amenable to tinkering at the margins. It is fatally flawed and must be overturned completely. The sooner the better.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

Keeping drugs illegal is a failed policy. What it does is create drug cartels with no respect for human life, corrupt officials at the borders, increase the profits of the private prison providers and keep the DEA spending $20bil for nothing gained! Poppy production in Afghanistan is at records levels as they sell heroin to buy guns to fight our guys!
Read Forbes December 22 “The Next Disaster” which is the effect of violence exploding across our border all related to drug profits.
Support LEAP and let’s try to get the new administration to listen to the people.
Please write to http://change.gov/page/s/economy and let our new President understand your concerns.
It’s time to wake up America.

Posted by Gerard | Report as abusive

The drug addition in America is increasing violently along with the cocaine production. But there is a good news that the fight against this evil going on by this country and California Drug rehabilitation center is one of the leading organisation which are fighting against addiction.

Posted by Anirban | Report as abusive

“If you put faith in declarations by the United Nations, a “drug-free world” is an attainable goal and the war on drugs all but over.”

The last time anyone in the UN tried to raise a hand and say “this isnt working right” about prohibition (the WHO report on Cocaine), the United States threatened to pull all funding of the WHO if they released it, hence the report died.

Moral to that story? Dont expect the US to have as much genuine support as it may seem.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

THE WAR ON DRUGS IS A WAR ON OUR OWN SOCIETY

Prohibition strains the Constitution and The War on Drugs has been a misguided failure. END IT.

http://pacificgatepost.blogspot.com/2009  /04/war-on-drugs-time-for-change.html

Time to regain control of our streets and our sanity.

iversary of prohibition’s end by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron. He estimates that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy — $44.1 billion through savings on law enforcement and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenu

Re: “Heroin and cocaine were legal and then banned because of the harm they were doing people…”

You need to watch that History Channel show again because you clearly missed what they actually said (or go do some independent research). Heroine and cocaine were not banned because of the harm they were doing people; they were demonized because of racial intolerance of Chinese immigrants and Southern blacks, respectively, and then legislated under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 which circumvented the Constitution of the United States to appease political interests in those states concerned as well as the League of Nations.

Posted by darcmac | Report as abusive