In 1919, the new United States was going to put an end to drunken fathers coming home and physically abusing their family and their wives. The goal was to prevent alcoholics from wasting away their income and their lives on a substance that took them from reality. In truth, Americans were severely abusing their freedom to drink alcohol, and there were many social ills that occurred as a result of it (as there still does). Why would we not ban a terrible substance ravaging America?
By 1933, Prohibition was lifted as a complete failure. As a result of Prohibition, alcohol-related crime spiked rather than plummeted, and created the likes of Al Capone and other Mafia related criminals. As Ken Burns points out in his recent PBS Documentary, Prohibition seems like it worked at first, as drinking initially went down. However, after a short year that quickly changed. Furthermore, the Sixteenth Amendment, that allowed the federal government to tax income, was largely pushed by "dries" who sought to figure out ways to fund the federal government through other means than the "sins" tax that the government derived from alcohol sales. Today we find ourselves in the same predicament.
As a result of the 1960's over-experimentation with drugs, the United States saw a real social ill that was destroying many lives (just as the "dries" had saw in the first part of the 20th century). In response the United States signed an international treaty to ban the use of drugs in 1961 and enforced it nationally as the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 under President Nixon. So began the United States' "War on Drugs."
After a brief period of drug use on the wane (as it did during prohibition) demand has increased tenfold for drugs and also has crime. As of January 2012, Mexico, from which most drugs are smuggled, announced that its unofficial "death toll" as a result from the War on Drugs was a staggering 47,515. Furthermore, arrests and incarceration rates have skyrocketed in the United States since the War on Drugs commenced. Recently, it's gotten so bad that due to prison overcrowding in California that the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was "cruel and unusual punishment." According the the Brooklyn Journal of International Law,
The United Nations (UN) estimates that: more than 3% of the world's population illegally consumes drugs annually; drug use poses "a significant risk to the health" of approximately 15 million people; "drug related crime costs, law enforcement costs and health costs, range from 0.5 to 1.3 percent of gross domestic product in most consumer countries;" and the $ 400 billion turnover of illicit drug trade constitutes 8% of total international trade. Accordingly, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has dubbed the drug problem a "contemporary plague."
The "war on drugs" has inundated the American criminal justice system. Drug prohibition has increased the flow of people through trial and appellate courts and has exacerbated congestion in incarceration facilities. In the United States, a person is arrested for drug law violations every 20 seconds and 117 people are incarcerated for drug law offenses every day. The costs of prohibition of drug use include: erosion of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution which protects against "unreasonable search and seizure;" reduced quality of life in inner-cities; "overdoses and toxic reactions" due to the lack of regulation of the "safety, potency, or purity of drugs;" and lack of access to adequate medical care for drug addicts. 25 Brooklyn J. Int'l L. 759
In 2005, a group of 500 economists wrote a letter, led by free market economist and conservative hero, Milton Friedman, which stated that the United States would save $7.7 billion a year by simply legalizing marijuana. He said,, "There is no logical basis for the prohibition of marijuana...$7.7 billion is a lot of money, but that is one of the lesser evils. Our failure to successfully enforce these laws is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Colombia. I haven't even included the harm to young people. It's absolutely disgraceful to think of picking up a 22-year-old for smoking pot. More disgraceful is the denial of marijuana for medical purposes." Additionally, Friedman noted that the prohibition of marijuana is undoubtedly tied to the increase of its price and thus funding of deadly drug cartels.
Perhaps the must disturbing statistic other than the human and fiscal cost is the source. The most disturbing statistic is from where these drug cartels derive their profits: us. They do so from the "innocent" drug of marijuana. According to a Congressional Research report given to the U.S. Congress in 2008, "60% of Mexican drug cartel profits from the United States are from marijuana." That joint your college buddy smoked doesn't appear so harmless now huh?
The Cost of a Drug War
Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated, "The war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure..." Additional calls in rethinking this issue have come from the likes of Ron Paul, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a position formerly held by President Obama, and recently hinted at by vice presidential Candidate Paul Ryan. The thing about it is that it is unpopular with the Baby Boomers who have witnessed drugs rampant abuse.. Additionally, no doubt if drugs were legalized, they would be continually abused. (I would also argue that they are anyways)
However, as Prohibition showed us, the government cannot change America's heart through draconian legislation, but must appeal to its sense of conscience and intelligence. I give the example of how the United States has combated tobacco use. The United States has not outlawed tobacco but has appealed to America's intelligence through education and informative commercials. My generation today is far more likely to smoke marijuana (which is illegal) than a cigarette (which is legal). It's a strange paradox, it seems the more we regulate a substance the more its used.
Today we are in an economic depression (though we deny this) and we can no longer afford the fiscal cost and the lives brought on us by the U.S. War on Drugs. Time to change course. Legalizing marijuana does not condone the behavior, just as legalizing alcohol doesn't condone alcohol abuse, but it does recognize that this course of action has failed miserably. The paradox is that the more we regulate the drug, the more it creates an economic incentive to sell it, the more it creates an underground demand for it, and finally the more expensive it is to stop it.