Tatum O’Neal’s recent arrest for drug possession is another sad reminder of America’s failed war on drugs.

The drug market today in the United States is estimated at $150 billion a year. We have the highest incarceration rate for any Western nation at a cost of $30 billion a year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 81% of these dollars are spent on substance-involved offenders. One in three African-American males are in prison on drug-related charges. Gang and gun violence has skyrocketed. Many of our inner cities have become war zones.

Similar results were observed during alcohol prohibition. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the same fate would follow if prohibition were used for other drugs.

Most western countries decided long ago that prohibition wouldn’t work and have found more cost effective ways to control and manage drugs. Those countries have less drug abuse, lower HIV rates, and spend a much smaller percentage of their tax dollars on drug crimes and incarceration.

The U.S. rightly concluded that alcohol abuse and the use of tobacco were health problems and not criminal issues. This approach has yielded a 50% reduction in the use of tobacco -- the most addicting of drugs, which results in 400,000 deaths a year.

It is estimated that 85 million Americans have consumed an illegal drug, but there are only about 1 million regular cocaine users, defined as those who have used the drug at least once in the preceding week. There are an estimated 5 million Americans who regularly use marijuana but an estimated 70 million who experimented with it.

Drugs such as cocaine and heroin are habitually consumed by a small fraction of the residents of any western country. If drugs were legalized, there is no reason to think that Americans would be any different.

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Comment by Christopher Valen on June 9, 2008 at 8:48am
Excellent point. Declaring "war" really locks the country into one mindset, as we've seen with that other failed war in Iraq.
Comment by Dana King on June 8, 2008 at 8:12am
The big problem with the US declaring "war" on anything--drugs, terrorism, poverty--is the resulting restriction on creative problem solving. Once it's called a war and whatever is tired doesn't "win" the war, Step 2 is always to do more of the same, on the premise, "we did the right thing, just not enough of it." It fits perfectly with Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.
Comment by Christopher Valen on June 8, 2008 at 7:49am
Thanks for the positive feedback. I didn't even address the millions the U.S. spends interdicting drugs from Colombia, Mexico and other countries. The current policy just doesn't make any sense. I agree we need to have an open and honest debate. In the near future I hope the U.S. looks to other countries for ideas on how to better deal with drugs.
Comment by John McFetridge on June 7, 2008 at 1:16pm
Certainly marijuana should be legalized. A recent book, McMafia, about the globalization of organized crime showed how marijuana profits finance a huge amount of other crimes - from human smuggling (often for forced prostitution) to research and distribution of hard (very addictive) drugs like ecstasy and meth.

But this is another area in which we don't even have open, honest debate.

It seems like there are even fewer things open for discussion now than there were years ago.

And, another good post from you, Christopher, thanks.

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