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 “We repealed prohibition once and we can do it again,” one of the group’s co-founders, Terry Nelson, told a Washington news conference on December 2.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.”


“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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

i belive that the united states could benefit very nicely if marijuana was legalized. If they put a little tax on every ounce or pound we could pull this country out of debt and not have to pay for stricter law enforecement because tehy wouldnt have to be. Also if marijuana would be legal all the crooked cops out there would have nothing to do and maybe become a straight regular cop again. I know from first hand experience that there are crooked cops out there We have two in my hometown and they have nothing better to do then to harass all the kids who just want to smoke a little herb and have fun. Remember LEGALIZE DONT CRITICIZE!!!!!!!!!

legalize. ha duh
name 2 things thats wrong with it……you can’t!

Posted by greg | Report as abusive

it is a nice idea, but regardless of the fiscal results, this is not likely to happen. for a long time the message has been that drugs are bad even though the 2 most deadly ones are legal.

Posted by dave | Report as abusive

First finance system was stolen, next education was corrupted, then livelyhoods were destroyed, leading to the largest population of enslaved dumbed down persons in one country. Now we’re told to legally take drugs as an antidote to our drug problem which leads to ensalved dumbed down out of work druggies with no idea what is going on around them. Its a truly sad state of affairs in the best country in the world …. still is but only on Paper no longer in reality……

Posted by Alicat | Report as abusive

Dave, it isn’t going to happen unless citizens like you and I contact our elected officials to tell them that it’s “safe” and that it is what the people really want. You can do so easily at http://www.WeCanDoItAgain.com

Thanks for pointing out the connection between the Taliban’s resurggence and their heroin profits. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs are at odds in Afghanistan and fighting either one will pretty much have to cost us the other.

We need to face the fact that we can’t win the War on Drugs and end prohibition now! We did it once before, with alcohol, we can do it again!!


Alicat, like so many, believe poor character is a by product of drug use. If that was the case, those brave and intelligent men that formed this country would have just been “dumbed down out of work druggies with no idea what is going on around them.” Thank God that was not the case for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who smoked Pot regularly. They even presented each other with gifts of their latest and greatest. History is a wonderful thing to know. It prevents one from repeating the mistakes of the past. I wonder where this country went wrong. We should have learned from alcohol prohibition.

Posted by B. Free | Report as abusive

Not likely to happen? That’s what they said about the abolition of slavery too. It is important to look ahead and learn from our mistakes. We need to see the big picture. With the legalization of drugs, the black market would be eliminated. As an economist, I know that people respond to incentives. And with a profit motive gone, drug dealers will have no incentive to continue in this “business.”

The key words are control, tax, and regulate. Can you imagine the billions of dollars our economy would take in if drugs were not part of an underground market? And also the billions of dollars it would save by not wasting tax dollars on enforcing this ineffective policy and throwing people in jail?

Change is not impossible. Change is inevitable.

Posted by vk | Report as abusive

The punishment for the crime should not be more detrimental to society than the crime itself. Decriminalize cannabis now!

Alicat, I’m not sure what your point is, but if you’re attacking the article, please refer to the number of people already hooked on legal drugs like painkillers and sleeping pills. Our very doctors and government push these drugs while keeping a God made plant illegal, thus incarcerating countless normal, tax paying citizens.

Stop supporting the prison industry! Decriminalize cannabis!

Posted by John | Report as abusive

How to make easy money by jailing people for smoking weed. This country is going mad. We have bigger problems than a pot smoker. This country his going broke and has been hijack by criminal banksters. WAKE UP before it’s too late!

Posted by Cyberguy | Report as abusive

Yes, and some of these “dumbed down” folks think there is a safe way to separate people from their desires. This person may need some sort of smart drug, but seriously folks, the drug war and liberty are mutually exclusive and I say end the madness, now.
Drug prohibition has become an excuse to deprive individuals of human rights and make them second class citizens, but most still know what is going on around them, unlike the poor lost soul who made the previous comment.
Whether or not “it is likely to happen,” struggling against a policy that causes so much human suffering through broken families due to over incarceration is the right thing to do.

It is refreshing to learn that open dialog about the “War on Drugs” policy may actually become a reality. The social damage being done to USA is enormous. Good grief! In the business world when a plan does not meet its goals within a reasonable time (5 years) it is not continually funded. So why has this program spanned for decades without delivering results? Prohibition does not work and never has. LEAP’s position has merit – legalize, regulate and educate. It would be good for not just America but the world.

Posted by Nancy Nelson-Duac | Report as abusive

When I first heard about LEAP I was closed-minded about their concept. Then I read more about probition and our worlds drug problems and changed my mind. It makes sense and cents to figure out how this would work. As long as funds for educators becomes available teaching the young about the proper way to avoid addictions it would work. Good luck!!

Posted by Anne | Report as abusive

The financial crisis has created a great opportunity to end drug prohibition. The amount of money that could be saved by ending the war on drugs and made by taxing revenue on newly legalized substances could pay for all sorts of social services and safety nets that the US is either underfunding or lacks all together. It’s time to stop treating a medical issue as a criminal issue, it’s just another burden the US cannot afford. Check out http://www.WeCanDoItAgain.com for more information on this.

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive

Just look at two things. All the tax revenue we could collect from the LEGAL sale of drugs [not just marijuana].

Two look at all the crime the ILLEGAL sale of drugs produces.

The choice is clearly simple. Too bad we got to many hypocrits in this country who are “legally” drugged up, but can’t draw a correlation between drugs and DRUGS…it’s all the same people. If you take anti-depressants you are drugged everyday. Man… this is almost criminal. Only in america am I right? home of the “legally” drugged up hypocrits. The only thing this war on drugs sustains is the judicial systems intake of profit form court cases, and that normally law abiding citizens become criminals. I vote we just return to the old west ways. Hell everyone was on drugs then, just like today. Not much has changed. Just the tightness of people sphincters.

Posted by james | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann ignores the reality I live in. We finally installed a no drug policy 10 years ago after 1/2 of our work force was on drugs. There were accidents, constant thefts, low productivity, high absenteeism, etc. Additionally, many of our drug addicted employees were locked into emotional childhood. Even if it were legal, we would hire no drug users. To do otherwise is insanity in a manufacturing plant. We offered free rehab to any employee. Only two people took us up on it, none succeeded. To compare lower addictive alcohol behavior, earning capacity, etc. to higher addictive drugs doesn’t balance. Alcohol has the potential to destroy lives, but nothing like addictive drugs.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Drug prohibition has not stopped drug use.

We spend to the tune of 20 billion a year in pork for the war on drugs. Ad Agencies get to sell their demonstrably failed propaganda (D*A*R*E) at ridiculous tax payer rates. What’s left goes to counter the will of voters in the form of propaganda against ballot initiatives, international conferences, subsidies to “faith based” organizations, etc etc.

The people addicted to War on Drugs pork money, are now the only reason this stupidity continues.

That’s why its NOT insanity, its insanity only if the objective was to end the use of drugs. That has never been achievable. On the other hand, perpetually safe jobs for the bureaucrats (and LEO ) is the trick.

I say give them what they want, transform every agency receiving funds from the DEA to Homeland Security. Legalize all drugs and keep the drug warriors as “terror warriors”.

Everyone will feel better then.

Posted by Aleph | Report as abusive

Drugs Prohibition is a mirror of alcohol Prohibition, but its failures are on a scale that dwarfs the former prohibitive attempt at faux moralist social engineering. The mere appearance of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition in the debate is further indication that we are repeating that which has gone before. Just as back then, we now have a growing body of professional opposition to this disaster disguised as policy.

Which is more important? Maintaining sado-moralist, punishment oriented, Constitution destroying policies… or… turning the “Land of the Most Incarcerated” back into the “Land of the Free”?

Bravo Mr Debusmann on a well done piece!

Humbly submitted from beautiful Eugene, OR.

Frank has got the wrong idea about drugs and the workforce. Making drugs illegal does nothing to solve that problem. Good management solves that problem, by firing people who show up stoned, whether it’s on legal drugs like alcohol, or illegal drugs like pot. A good manager knows the difference between a capable, reliable, productive worker who smokes a joint or drinks a beer on the weekend, and someone who lets their personal problems of any kind show up at work.

And I’m blown away by Frank’s notion that alcohol has less potential to destroy lives than “addictive drugs.” (Especially since alcohol is more addictive than illegal marijuana.) Alcohol has destroyed way more lives than all illegal drugs combined. Even still, that’s no reason to make alcohol, or any other drug, illegal — criminalization doesn’t solve drug abuse problems — it just creates other problems. That again, is something we should have learned from the first failed prohibition.


You make very good points (as usual). In theory, I don’t think that the government should protect a rational adult from him-or-herself and the financial and social costs of doing so has been ruinous (more ruinous for some, less for others).

In practice, it would be difficult to do, but I wouldn’t say impossible. I have ideas about some poetential aspects of a move towards medicalization and legalization. In no particular order, first, we would need to truly classify alcohol and nicotine as drugs. The FDA would need jurisdiction of them as well as newly legalized and medicalized drugs. Second, the ATF (Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) never made sense and it will make less sense in the future. Alcohol and tobacco would need to go to the DEA, firearms to the FBI. Third, it would be absurd to start having marijuana commercials on television. By the same token, alcohol commercials are absurd. The decision to use drugs should be made by an adult, it is in the interest of the state to keep marketing out ofthe equation by law. Fourth, hard drugs would probably need to come first. This is because legalization can often have the unintended affect of making the substance harder to get for minors. Young people often find it easier to get marijuana than legal alcohol. We don’t want teenagers getting cocaine because they were unable to get legalized marijuana.

The list goes on. I think it’s doable, but will take time and a great deal of thought. That makes me think that the process should start sooner rather than later.

Posted by Ken | Report as abusive