The Drug War

Our criminal justice system fails to render justice to the victims of crime because it spends an inordinate amount of resources on "crimes" that do not directly harm the person or property of another. More than 350,000 Americans are in jail today for victimless (or consensual) crimes, such as gambling, drug use, prostitution, sodomy, etc. An additional 1.5 million are on parole or probation. The annual cost of arresting and punishing people for these consensual crimes is more than $50 billion. That figure will grow even larger if politicians succeed in adding smoking tobacco to the prohibited list. No wonder we are so short of resources to protect victims of real crimes like robbery, rape and murder.

Of all our current law enforcement strategies, none has failed as dramatically — or with such devastating results — as the "War on Drugs." By attempting to solve America's drug problem through the criminal law, the government is repeating the same mistakes made 75 years ago during alcohol prohibition. Just as alcohol prohibition gave America Al Capone, the mafia, and shootouts on the streets of Chicago, drug prohibition has brought us the Crips, Bloods and Jamaican Posses. At the same time, drug prohibition has failed miserably in its primary goal — curbing drug use.

The correlation between drug prohibition and violence can no longer be doubted. As Figure 1. shows, America saw its highest murder rate during the years of prohibition. In the years after prohibition's repeal the murder rate steadily declined. Only after the beginning of the crackdown on illegal drugs in the 1960's did murder rates begin to edge back up. Today the murder rate again resembles the prohibition years. While other factors, such as the breakdown of the family and the rise of the welfare state (see below) certainly contributed to this rise, a vast body of evidence links the "war on drugs" to increased violence and crime.

Drug prohibition leads to increased violence and crime in three major ways. First, a black market in drugs will inevitably lead to violence. This includes the classic "turf wars," as well as the murder of informants, rip-offs, revenge, etc. These acts of violence occur because there is no peaceful, legal method for drug dealers to resolve disputes in court and, because the penalties for drug dealing are so severe, additional penalties for murder are a weak deterrent.

Second, because drug prohibition greatly increases the cost of drugs, users often steal in order to support their habits. Indeed, it is estimated that an addict must steal $600 worth of goods a day to support a $100 a day habit. As a result, it is estimated that drug addicts commit 25% of all auto thefts, 40% of robberies and assaults, and 50% of burglaries and larcenies. The FBI estimates the value of goods stolen to support drug habits at more than $6 billion per year.

Third, drug prohibition diverts scarce law enforcement resources to preposterous and irrelevant uses. When the DEA spends 18 months surveiling a Georgia gardening store because it suspects the owners of selling fertilizer to people growing marijuana, it does little to protect Americans from real crime.

The War on Drugs has filled our prisons beyond their capacity. In 1991, state prisons, in the aggregate, were operating at 123% of capacity. At least 34 states are under court order to reduce the prison population, sometimes requiring the release of criminals — including violent offenders — into the community. Yet, at the same time, nearly 60% of all inmates in federal prison, and a quarter of all state prisoners, are there for drug-related offenses. Thus robbers, rapists, and murderers go free to keep peaceful drug users in jail.

Finally, drug prohibition has increasingly led to the violation of constitutional rights. Virtually no part of the Bill of Rights has been immune. The innocent suffer along with the guilty. The Libertarian Party has consistently called for an end to drug prohibition for more than 20 years. Today, we are joined by such academics, law enforcement officers, public officials, and legislators who support drug legalization as Nobel laureates Gary Becker and Milton Friedman, Federal Judges Robert Sweet and Ed Schwartz, former Secretary of State George Shultz, Mayors Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and Carrie Saxon-Perry of Hartford, former Congressman George Crocket of Michigan, and columnists William F. Buckley, Steve Chapman, Richard Cohen, Mike Royko, Thomas Sowell, and Anthony Lewis.

The Economist, Oakland Tribune and Detroit News have editorialized in favor of legalization. In addition, legalization is supported by the National Association of Veteran Police Officers, American Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the American Civil Liberties Union. And, of course, even President Clinton's Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, has recommended that legalization be studied.

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