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 “We repealed prohibition once and we can do it again,” one of the group’s co-founders, Terry Nelson, told a Washington news conference on December 2.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


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@ Leigh York
“Come on. I want to hear your arguments for making drugs legal. You might convince me.”

Are you serious?! Did you read the article?

Go look at other countries’ statistics where drugs are decriminalized.

The current “war” is clearly NOT WORKING… shall we continue to throw money down the toilet and our non-violent addicted citizens into jail so their lives can be ruined further?

I think I want to hear your arguments for continuing to do that! I doubt you’ll convince me since there’s all the data to demonstrate it’s destructive ineffectiveness.

It’s time for half of this country to get it’s collective head out of the sand and quit with the “just keep doing the same thing” attitude and start including reality into it’s world view.

Posted by cointreau | Report as abusive

I’m pessimistic regarding the possibility of the U.S. pursuing a rational drug policy for a couple reasons.
1. This country is still ridiculously puritanical. The fact that euphoria can be achieved by non-religious (in the puritanical sense) means is a threat.
2. Entrenched bureaucracies. As others have pointed out, what would happen to the DEA if we pursued smarter policies? In fact the end of alcohol prohibition led indirectly to cannabis prohibition; Harry Anslinger realized that he would lose his position in the Bureau of Prohibition and helped to demonize the evil weed to help create a position for himself in the Bureau of Narcotics
3. Drug use is an easy tool for demagogues. Who has stood up for drug users when politician need an easy issue to rile people up?
4. Intellectual laziness. This is a complex issue, and Americans tend to not do so well with complexity (see the particularly silly “kill ‘em all” comment by Richard above).
On the optimistic side, with an economy going into the toilet, think of the billions that could be saved by a rational policy and the billions more that could be raised by taxing currently banned substances (I’m thinking of cannabis here, I think hard drugs should be available only through non-profit or gov’t run clinics set up to distribute to addicts).

Posted by Gus | Report as abusive

I have been making these arguments with my friends and colleagues for years now, and all I can really say in response to this is a standard Yankee offering: well, duh!

I agree with every point made here, and would offer a few others not mentioned:

- statistics show that marijuana is the single largest cash crop in the US, with revenue of over $35.5 billion, followed by corn at just under $23.3 billion. These figures represent average production values from 2003 to 2005. Site used for data: http://www.drugscience.org/Archive/bcr2/ cashcrops.html. Whether it’s legalized or not, pot is here to stay in the U.S.A.

- Where I live (Montana), an older gentleman was busted last year when forest rangers and a couple of friends were walking through a nearby national forest and encountered the man driving a 4-wheel ATV along a forest path, pulling a cart loaded with freshly harvested plants. His field had hundreds of plants, all on national forest land. A retiree, making a little extra on the side! This story is a common one, and I know of many people who make ends meet by growing their own, thus saving the purchase cost, or growing for sale, for profit. When confronted, it’s not uncommon to find out that the “criminal” grower doesn’t even smoke it, but doesn’t feel it should be illegal. To the common citizen, pot is just another crop, like corn.

- As a person “on the inside”, I can assure the rest of the world that nothing can stop the drug trade. Nothing, ever. There are too many benefits in ratio to detriments, at least where marijuana is concerned. The harder drugs can be debated, but it’s time that someone (me?) stood up and said the truth in plain terms- you, drug agencies, have lost the war. It’s over. Admit it or not, you’ve lost, period.

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

In response to:

“Also, where does crack and meth come into the picture? Will it be readily available to addicts?”

What is crack and meth? Are they drugs that have no equal? To be short, Crack is Cocaine and Meth is Speed.

I don’t think Crack and Meth would even exist if there wasn’t a market for them. There is a market for these synthetic derivatives because it is cheaper to make and a lot of money can be made on the streets pushing it. The drug market has plenty of people who are trying to make more profit just like a legitimate business. This is why certain areas have seen dealers mixing strawberry quick and chocolate flavors to their meth so that the potent taste wouldn’t deter younger populations to use.

As I said earlier, the only reason there are slaughterhouse grade drugs (think 5 star restaurant beef compared to McDonald’s beef) on the streets is because like a business the drug game is tied to making the most profit. It’s hard to find pure on the streets. Why? Because the suppliers would loose money doing so.

In short, under a complete program that works with individuals who have a history of substance abuse with certain drugs like Crack and Meth would be replaced with a more suitable substance. Let’s say Cocaine in a purer free base form and Amphetamines. Lot’s of possibilities, but the basic principle to follow is not to give power to those who can exploit the weak. Change the rules of the game.

Posted by Frogman Goose | Report as abusive

Do you want street gangs and drug cartels selling drugs on our streets?
Do you want to regulate who can sell drugs?

So you are already on the team. If we ever hope to end this miserably failed public policy we must Legalize-Regulate and Control the distribution of these dangerous substances. So, how do you regulate something? First, it has to be legal. How do you control something? You license the distribution and hold the distributor to standards set by the government. Then you treat pepole that become addicted with the money you make from taxing the product. Sorta like highway taxes. You pay gasoline taxes to repair the roads that you drive on and wear out. This system will be more than revenue neutral and the state will actually make money. Lets take the money out of the hands of drug gangs, cartels and terrorists organizations like the Taliban by legalizing all drugs. They are much too dangerous to be left in the hands of these groups. Stay safe.

Posted by Two Gun Terry | Report as abusive

Hey, Goose… Don’t give power to those who can exploit the weak? Where would our democracy go? Just a laugh…

The author doesn’t mention which drugs he would like to have legalized; as the postings show here everybody assumes marijuana. Legalizing “hard” drugs, even if only to give to those who are already addicted to ensure a clean supply, is frought with peril, because of the same argument that the author presents: if the drug war should provide a risk:benefit analysis to justify its existence, then why shouldn’t the drugs? Purely rhetorical question, but one that has some value in the debate over legalization. Drugs without merit would then not deserve legalization. By that rationale only alcohol would be legal, due to its cardiovascular benefits.

Earlier postings had it most correct: educating about the dangers of drug use, and providing a social current that does not condone the wastefulness of addiction are the only real solution to the drug problem. The vast majority of those who take any drug did not start of their own accord… they saw a friend do it, who saw a friend do it, who saw a friend do it, etc.

Last but not least… decriminalization will not get rid of the worst drug offenders (meth, opiates, etc) which cause a disproportionate amount of morbidity. There are many countries in this world where you can buy prescription strength opiate derviatives over the counter. This is so because the governments regulate the opiate, and are not afraid of addicts abusing the drug. The addicts don’t abuse the OTC drugs because regulation and taxation makes them more expensive than the heroin cut with God-knows-what that they can get down the street. Regulation in this case has not done anything to provide “clean” drugs (because the addicts choose the cheaper “dirty” ones), nor has it cut down on abuse (because even while undercutting the government price the criminals make a hefty profit margin).

Posted by steevio | Report as abusive

Follow the Swiss and embrace harm reduction. Dispensing heroin by prescription from government clinics results in less violent crime, fewer new cases of HIV and Hepatitis, weakening the European drug cartels and up to 70% sobriety for participants. Or follow the US and dramatically increase harm by creating more prisons, police, courts, crime, disease and death. Or, hope that human neurochemistry will suddenly evolve and no one will ever want to get high again. This is a war that cannot be won by fighting, but will end when both sides surrender.

Posted by Whitecoat | Report as abusive

If pot were legalized, I suspect a lot of the harder drug use would drop off.

Posted by MikeF | Report as abusive

Please note that a lot of the hysterical anti-drug propaganda is financed by vested interests – federal agencies that would lose their reason for existing if the drug war ended (DEA) and from the beer, wine and tobacco industries, who would see a decline in sales due to competition from substances like coca leaf and opium resin, which are the unrefined and unadulterated or chemically altered versions of cocaine and heroin.

The best way to manage a transition would be to use the beer and wine regulation approach. For example, raw coca leaf could be treated like beer, and refined cocaine like hard alcohol – i.e. it can only be sold in stores or bars with a special license to sell it. Cities control liquor licenses, so that allows for local, non-police state regulation. Even here there are problems – such as the high numbers of liquor stores in poor urban communities, say. Coca leaf has been used in the leaf form for centuries with no ill effect, certainly no less than coffee.

Deregulation doesn’t mean that people would be shooting up in public, any more than they’d be drinking out of liquor bottles in public. Instead, the issue would primarily become a public health issue.

Finally, you have several other classes of drugs with which there are issues. LSD and psilocybin and mescaline are potent hallucinogens, and MDMA and methamphetamine (as well as Ritalin and Adderall) are powerful stimulants. However, this just reinforces the original point – the Prohibition approach just doesn’t work. In fact, Prohibition makes drug use even more dangerous, as the drugs may be adulterated, or too concentrated, leading to overdoses and increased public health costs. So, for these drugs, the hard alcohol regulatory route is probably fine – along with some public education campaigns.

LSD is a tricky one. I can’t really see “LSD bars” – but I can see allowing various traditional groups to use peyote or whatever in their ceremonies. Keep in mind, though, that emotionally or psychologically unstable people shouldn’t use drugs or drink much, period. Under professional supervision, however, some of the potent hallucinogens/MDMA-type drugs do seem to have unique therapeutic potentials, such as breaking long-term alcoholism, etc.

Posted by ike | Report as abusive

GEOFFREY rues: I agree that the current strategy is not working, but I cannot with good conscience live with government revenues made off selling a product that so imprisons its users that they often wish they were dead.

TO WHICH I reply: Organized crime and international drug cartels appreciate your giving them the nod in preference to a more combination of private businesses subject to sensible government oversight.

Meanwhile, the relatively teeny (less than one million North Americans are users of either crack cocaine or heroin) population of people currently making the very dubious personal choice to use either of those two drugs will continue to do seek out their drug whether it be from regulated, controlled sources or via the unregulated street market for which you unwittingly endorse.

LEIGH ponders: My problem with legalizing drugs is that does it also allow addicts taking them either by prescription or buying them over the counter to have jobs that require clear thinking. The school bus driver, the heart surgeon, the classroom teacher, the plumber, the pharmacist?

I REPLY: Any school bus driver, heart surgeon, classroom teacher or plumber who currently wishes to use mind-altering drugs is free to do so now via the use of the mind altering drug alcohol. Yet I think it’s reasonable to presume that very very few choose to do so while engaged in their primary employment.

Your well intended observation is further exposed as a mental straw man when you consider that it’s unlikely you or I could find anyone in the above noted professions who has any interest in using currently illicit mind-altering drugs while they’re working on their jobs.

How about you? If currently illicit drugs were made legally accessible to adults as over 99.99% of the pharmacopia and alcohol are today, would you add any of them to your current diet while working in your own profession?

I know my answer to that would be No. If we can presume that you too would answer No, why do you infer that the Other Guy is any less wiser and astute than you and I?

The reason you and I and virtually everyone else do not use drugs which impair our mental facilties while working is not because we fear arrest if found in possession. Rather, it is because we all know full well that we prefer to do our jobs with minds which are not impaired.

Such sensible reasoning does not require a criminal justice hammer to keep us in check. And it certainly does not merit our ceding control of these aforementioned mind-altering drugs to a criminal market which actively markets the drugs to minors, actively employs minors to help sell and which wages violence against police and civilians alike.

Finally in response to a couple of other posed notions earlier in this Comment thread:

I am a recovered former abuser of the drugs cocaine and methamphetamine (straight since Oct 1995). I’ve spent the last 13 years attending and working with recovering drug abusers in treatment and recovery settings. Here’s a couple of lessons learned.

1) Crack cocaine only exists because people who want the effects of cocaine cannot afford powder form due to the high street prices forced by Prohibition. If users had more easy access to powder cocaine, it would be very very rare for them to want crack.

The analogy of crack/powder to Everclear/beer&wine is the best I know. Many people enjoy using alcohol and even strong liquor. But very very few have any interest in knocking back 150proof Everclear. It’s simply far too strong and physically debilitating.

1a) Here’s the good news for those concerned about the very real problems associated with the use of cocaine in any form. Give a user virtually unlimited access to powder cocaine and I promise you – in fact would place a wager with anyone – that the user would not last more than 90 days before seeking out whatever help they need to quit forever.

Cocaine is GREAT. Until you can use it ALL THE TIME. Notice that when more highly visible folks like athletes and celebrities get into coke, they peak very quickly and then seek out help to quit. They do so because they are not constrained by the cost of street coke. Only the more regular guy/gal struggles with coke for years because they quite simply Never Get Enough to force them into the realization that they don’t want to do it anymore.

2) “meth” is of course slang for street manufactured amphetamines. We can reduce the current US population of about a half million “meth” users by allowing more reasonable access to pharmaceutical grade amphetamines which are manufactured and distributed in controlled settings.


Thanks again to G Debussman for his astute commentary and to Reuters for giving him the space, as well as the friendly venue for diverse commentary in response.

I searched Brookings site for the article referenced and was not able to find it. Can anyone provide a link or some help to locate it.

Posted by Andy | Report as abusive

We as a society need to recognize drug abuse as a form of mental illness. If we are willing to legalize drugs, we need to be willing to treat the cause of the of the addiction. The danger of drug use is the abuse of ones self and the lack of ability to recognize the underlaying issues of addiction. The Swiss have recognized the cause of addiction and offer mental health support as part of the program for legalizing drugs.

Posted by darc | Report as abusive

No matter what well defined argument is given, our prison and court systems will never agree to legalize drugs. The financial benefit to keep drugs illegal are too great.

That said, I strongly feel that you can’t legislate morality. As long as a drug user is not hurting anyone (but perhaps themselves), then I see no crime as being committed. The legalization of most drugs would end street/gang violence over drug turf, and eliminate many other violent crimes. I think it’s a great idea, but I’m not holding my breath.

Posted by Marla | Report as abusive

ANDY, here’s a link to the New York Times coverage of the Brookings report as archived at our website. Included in the headers is a further link directly to the Brookings website and the referenced report

http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v08/n1061  /a06.html

Cheers from Clearwater FL


If full legalization is too much to soon for our society to accept, why not just weed? Weed is less harmful and addictive than alcohol. Sitcoms make light of marijuana use and no one seems to mind. When celebs get caught with MJ outcry is usually very mild. America is cool with the herb.

Americans do however seem to hate the hard stuff. Catch your high schooler with a joint, you may be disappointed and angry. What about an 8 ball of coke? That has boarding school written all over it.

My plan is to make weed legal to reduce hard drug use. Legal pot will serve as an alternative to the hard stuff for some people. Even more significantly though, legalizing pot will undermine the drug infrastructure.

Everyone knows someone who can get pot. If I want to take up heroin, I may not know someone who can score some. I can however talk to my pot guy, he can talk to his guy, and somewhere upstream there is usually someone with hard drugs for sale. Without the massive network of illegal pot dealers/users the hard drug market looses the core of the illegal drug industry. Pot dealers and resellers make up the vast majority of drug dealers. Take them away and making the connection with someone who can get hard drugs become more difficult.

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

As a northern NY resident, in a perverse way I hope that the government does not come to its senses and legalize drugs because if that transpired, it would hurt the economy of this region.

Currently we warehouse thousands of prisoners, mostly drug-related charges, and that industry provides well-paying employment for thousands of our neighbors, in turn reducing my taxes.

So, please, Stay Stupid !

Posted by Greg Brown | Report as abusive

Well first of all it has been a long time since i saw such a high level in posts regarding an article published by Reuters. Thanks to most of the people for their input in this debate.

Except the fact that lots of tax revenues could be used by the State instead of dealers and/or corrupted functionnaries, there could be a control of the users population age by carding them at the entry of any coffee shop selling it, dealers in the streets do not card anyone but I guess everyone knows that.

Less people in jail, less taxpayers money spent to inneficient agencies like the DEA, cops spending time protecting the population instead of agressing a part of our citizens.

To pretend that weed isnt addicting is a joke though, just as much as to pretend that war on drugs has been a success. A totaly failed policy that actually boost criminality in our streets, creates tragedies in producing countries like Colombia (among many others) and provides tons of money to our ennemies in Afghanistan.

Legalizing drugs with a tight State control is the only way to change things for the better, keeping sales prices as low as possible in order to have peasants in South America and everywhere else understanding that growing corn pays back more than weed or coca.

After decades of propaganda I doubt people will we willing to think with their heads instead of their hearts, even when facing a total failure regarding our drugs policies…

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

I’ve studied the “war on drugs” in an academic setting from the both the criminal justice and political science perpectives for the past four years. In four years all that I have learned is that ablolutely nothing we have done is working. Our prison situation is horrible, dockets across the country are overloaded, and a lousy little possession charge for marijuana can be enough to prevent people from being awarded financial aid for higher education. This is a means by which we label people, from which they can never recover.

I would also like to point out that even among those prosecuted for drugs crimes, there is a theme of wantonness. Two people within the same state, convicted of the same offense, could easily be subject to two radically different sentences (i.e. probation v. hard prison time). This is against the tenets of the American justice system.

Posted by dan | Report as abusive