The War on Drugs… From a Different Angle

Recently Rolling Stone magazine had an article titled “War On Drugs” or “How America Lost the War on Drugs”. The article went through the usual statistics showing how our tactics aren’t working and that we have “lost” this war. As proof, they cite that the number of Americans behind bars on drug charges has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 493,800 in 2003 (and presumably more in 2007).

The point of this post isn’t whether or not you are “for” or “against” the war on drugs – that is done to death at a million other places. The purpose is to look at the situation from an entirely different angle…

Out of these 493,800 offenders behind bars, how many were “casual users” caught in a net of enforcement (run a red light, get stopped for having drug paraphernalia, go to jail) and how many were gang members selling or transporting drugs for resale? Um… while Rolling Stone is definitely catering to the casual user and happily points out those (relatively) few individuals caught in the dragnet I would estimate that the vast, vast majority of these almost 500,000 in jail are actually gang members trafficking or selling drugs.

To Rolling Stone magazine, these offenders are “lost souls” who took some sort of wrong turn and are just languishing in prison due to our society’s rigid and unrealistic moralistic stance. But for our “drug wars”, these would be fine, upstanding individuals presumably designing rockets somewhere and volunteering in schools.

Not so. The key elements are KNOWLEDGE and INTENT. Everyone of these individuals in jail, whether they thought they’d be convicted or not, knew that selling drugs was against the law. Even on the talk shows no one ever says “but I didn’t know it was against the law…”. The second element is intent – they consciously went down the criminal path to make money, choosing this route instead of some legitimate path (i.e. getting a job).

If you look at it that way, we have 493,000 (I dropped the 800 or so casual users caught in a net) criminals in jail that would have been doing some sort of other criminal act if not for our “war on drugs”. What sort of criminal act? Well, something to make money, so that would likely be armed robbery, home invasion, car theft, or even murder for hire.

Instead of having them break down doors and hold up innocent citizens, we have them selling drugs to people choosing to risk their necks in bad neighborhoods who are basically hurting only themselves. They do terrorize citizens in their battles for territory but they’d be doing this anyways, but instead of fighting over drug corners they’d be fighting for the ability to extort, rob and terrorize in their geographic area.

And how is this all chronicled? In hip hop, of course. Listen to one of a million songs about hustlin’ and you never hear “I didn’t know it was illegal” or “I didn’t mean to sell drugs” – they know and intend to break the law and if it wasn’t this it would be something else. As it has been most memorably summarized, “Get rich or die trying”.

These criminals in jail are just that; criminals. If not for drugs, they’d be doing something else illegal to raise cash. They aren’t “victims of circumstance”; they in fact are taking advantage of our society’s moral position on drugs (vs. alcohol, for instance) to make money illicitly.

Posted at LIGTM

28 thoughts on “The War on Drugs… From a Different Angle”

  1. I don’t see why your argument doesn’t apply to the casual users as well. They had knowledge and intent, they knew that buying drugs was against the law, and if not for drugs, they’d be doing something else illegal to blow cash. Why is there a bright line between exchanging drugs for money and exchanging money for drugs?

  2. The basic argument here is that these folks behind bars were going to be there anyway so they might as well be there for drug charges.

    I think that does reflect the basic rationale of suburban America for supporting the war on drugs.

    It is almost a domestic preemption doctrine.

    I don’t think that is a good justification for the current war on drugs.

    The criminal law should outlaw specific acts that are so bad that society must remove the people who commit those acts.

    Drug use and drug selling do not, in themselves, in my opinion, fall into that category. They are malum prohibitum, “bad because they are illegal”, much more than mala in se, “bad in themselves”. Using the criminal process to regulate the use of these products is wasteful and abusive.

    If we are so sure that hundreds of thousands of people would “commit crimes anyway” and that the actual reason they are in jail is not the same reason that we say they are in jail, then we should change the system.

  3. I agree with Lex. Also, your argument seems to be based on the assumption that if drugs were legal, the people who are now committing drug crimes would instead be committing violent crimes. I don’t think there is any evidence for this assumption. I think people are involved in drug dealing because it pays well, and that it pays well because drugs are illegal.

    If drugs were legal they would be relatively cheap, and low-income drug abusers would not have to rob or steal to gain funds to buy them. (This is why high-income drug abusers do not usually, under the current drug prohibition, commit violent crimes to pay for their habit — they don’t have to.) Also, if drugs were legal the profit to be gained by dealing them would be competed down to a low level by legitimate businesses, and therefore the high profits that fuel today’s drug gangs and other organized crime would dry up. I think it’s reasonable to assume, in that case, that most of the participants in the illegal-drug industry would find legal work that payed better than petty crime does. This was what happened after Prohibition was repealed. Would you have retained Prohibition? Organized crime certainly didn’t go away after 1933, so your argument could apply there too.

    I also think that you are much too casual about jailed “casual users” and other collateral damage of our drug war. First, there are probably a lot more than 800 casual users in jail. Second, why should nonviolent addicts be jailed if casual users shouldn’t be? Third, you are ignoring the likelihood that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people in jail. Look at how many people have been exonerated by DNA evidence alone in the relatively small number of capital cases. Consider that standards of evidence and procedure in such cases are generally much higher than they are in relatively small-time drug cases. Finally, consider the damage done by violent police raids to find drugs, by corruption as drug dealers pay off police and other officials, by the many murders committed in turf wars and contract disputes, for which nonviolent options don’t exist because the law prohibits drug dealing. These are substantial costs to keep drugs illegal.

  4. What would all those fatherless, amoral, feral children of our inner cities do if they weren’t selling drugs? They wouldn’t be on the debate team trying to pad their resume for Harvard.

  5. Most people who live in inner cities, including most fatherless children, are not selling drugs. The law-abiding poor are probably the biggest victims of the drug war. They would be vastly better off without the crime that comes from drug prohibition.

  6. Drug use and drug selling do not, in themselves, in my opinion, fall into that category. They are malum prohibitum, “bad because they are illegal”, much more than mala in se, “bad in themselves”.

    I tend to come out on the “leaglize pot” side of this issue, but I do disagree with Lex in general. In a past life I interviewed a lot of addicts. Even those with jobs had a hellish life. A lot of people are self-medicvating psychiatric problems, and legalizing this stuff will cause more societal mental health issues as marginal cases avoid treatment.

    More than THC, more than ethanol, and similar to nicotene, meth, heroin and cocaine cause physical dependence that requires enormous will to overcome. Their use impairs abilities even while not high to a much greater degree than the aforementioned drugs. Nicoteine, while extremely addictive, does not impair judgement. There is a quantifiable difference in the effects of pot, tobacco and alcohol compared to hard drugs.

    It’s not just the problem of commiting crime to finance a drug habit. It’s the negelct of children by parents on these drugs, and the way that long-term use renders the user unsuable to the rest of society. There will be unintended consequences from leagilizing drugs. I don’t want the US to become another Scotland.

    Now, you may argue that normal people won’t suddenly start taking drugs, but I’m reminded of Megan McArdle’s piece

  7. – computer hiccup.

    on gay marriage. Her lesson from the Welfare experiemtn is that middle-class people should not imagine themselves to be the marginal case, nor should they imagine that they can predict how quickly the original mariginal cases will affect naer-marginal cases. All of us on this forum are so far from the marginal case as to make our speculations as suspect as the speculations of those who thought that payin unwed mothers would ahve no effect on the institution of marriage.

  8. Of the total number of those in prison for “drugs,” how many were actually sent to jail for selling (rather than using) drungs? That might be helpful rather than “an estimate” as a guess.

  9. There are always tradeoffs, and in the case of drug legalization the tradeoffs may not be straightforward. However, it is indisputable that under the current drug prohibition a great deal of violence is being done to people who don’t deserve it. Most of that violence is an artifact of drug prohibition, both because of law enforcement efforts and because of gangsters using violence to enforce contracts and block competitors. This situation closely parallels alcohol prohibition. IIRC (I think Lex once discussed it on this blog), alcoholism rates increased after Prohibition was repealed. But the associated reductions in criminal violence, official corruption and public contempt for the law more than made up for the negative effects. (To this day there is no significant constituency for reinstating alcohol prohibition.) I suspect that repealing drug prohibition would have similar outcomes. We might end up with more addicts, but there would be fewer murders, and fewer lives ruined by long jail terms for consensual behavior. And addicts would have an easier time getting treatment, without the stigma and legal consequences of admitting addiction to an illegal substance. And any problems caused by increased addiction rates could be dealt with on their own terms (e.g., we already have social and legal mechanisms for dealing with neglectful or abusive parents).

  10. “Even those with jobs had a hellish life.”

    Bad personal lifestyle choices are not the government’s business. Everybody my age or younger knows perfectly well that drugs are bad for you and hard to stop using. People are responsible for their own decisions, and bear the consequences.

    All that said, our society is built around a lot of assumptions about drugs and what is and is not legal. I have begun thinking we should have a ten year trial period with marijuana being legalized. Let the manufacturers of cigarettes, beer, candy, what have you, come up with branded consumer marijuana products. Regulate it like liquor. Sell it in liquor stores, and make people show ID like for beer or cigarettes. Tax it. Give this ten years and see what happens. I think it will be generally a positive development compared to what we have now. But I am also aware that you can never unring the bell, and that there absolutely will be unforeseen consequences. So, ten years, and reasses whether to just keep that in place, or ease back on other drugs.

  11. We were going to have this experiment, or ones like it, in some of our states. Then the federal govt started prosecuting physicians for prescribing medical marijuana, even though it was legal to do so under state law. So much for federalism.

  12. I do like the discussion threads here but it seems like a lot of people imputed something into what I said.

    I DO maintain that the vast majority of people in jail related to the drug trade are hard core criminals who view criminality as a choice, way of life, and intentional “career choice” of sort. Drugs are merely the best and most effective way for them to commit these crimes to bring in money. The large scale drug trade in a city like Chicago is clearly a massive, organized criminal enterprise full of “soldiers” choosing this way of life. Thus those jailed in the course of their criminal activities are mostly taking true criminals off the street.

    I didn’t say that they’d all commit violent crimes, but they would probably steal / rob on a pretty large scale if the drug trade was legalized. A lot of violence would typically come from stealing relative to “selling” drugs since the violence today is mainly over territory and many of the victims of “traditional” theft would need to be forcibly removed of their items.

    I am not in favor of the war on drugs per se or the course of action we are taking. But we should not view those jailed in the course of this was as victims. They are willingly taking advantage of this situation in a calculated, criminal and often violent manner (over territory). The expectation should not be that these criminals would blend back into society if we should somehow legalize drugs, in my opinion.

  13. As I’ve argued on other blogs, the drug war is better viewed as part of the wider culture wars than as just another attempt at Prohibition.

    As I see it, the drug war has been successful in one, and only one respect: It has kept the prohibited drugs marginalized and out of the cultural mainstream. “Drug warriors” may talk about eradicating drug use and the drug trade for public consumption, but I suspect that [1] they know as well as you and I do what a pipe dream that is (no pun intended), and [2] their real goal is much more modest: to keep the use of these drugs from ever becoming socially acceptable and taken for granted, as alcohol is. In that respect, far from being a quagmire, the drug war is, for all intents and purposes, already won; all that needs be done now is preserve the victory.

    Hmmm… a war whose outcome depends on how one defines victory… sound familiar?

  14. My favorite is the onion headline “drugs win drug war” with a guy from the joint chiefs of staff surrendering to some stoner with a bong. That is about as likely as victory. I have a t shirt with this on it somewhere…

  15. Even if your estimate, and in my opinion that’s a highly questionable estimate, that most are in jail for selling rather then casual use, how does that justify the imprisonment of casual users?

    I think the drug war is the epitome of “mission creep”. Instead of going after the harder to find and arrest hard drugs network, the cops will raid medical marijuana clinics, and bust small time casual users and call it a triumph.

    The drug laws, and the method of fighting this drug war only increase corruption, and increase profitability of drug traffic, as well as profitability for all those outfitting and budgeting the counter drug effort.

    Not to raise the conspiracy flag, but does anyone think the prescription drug lobby has a hand in keeping the ability to grow your own pain reliever and antidepressant, or obatin it more cheaply than they’ll sell it, illegal? Prescription medications are in many instances a boon, but they are also a money making product, not an alturistic gift. Marijuana is a competitor against a profitable part of the legal drug industry.

    Finally, in a less noticeable, but in my opinion equally insidious way, laws related to counterdrug efforts are being misused to abridge our Fourth Amendment rights regarding search and seizure.

    I do not use illegal drugs, and if they were decriminalized, I would not do so; my job is not compatible with drug use. Even so, I don’t believe that the war on drugs has really met its objectives, or that those objectives are even clear or attainable anymore.

  16. Karl von Chicago:

    “Everyone of these individuals in jail, whether they thought they’d be convicted or not, knew that selling drugs was against the law. ”

    Those of us who are baby-boomers were taught that blind obedience to the law was just plain wrong. That was the lesson of Nuremberg. German law and order types like you argued “the Jews knew they were violating the law. All they needed to do was covert”. (Death camp conversions were considered insincere).

    There are some laws which are just plain wrong. Drug laws are evil because they corrupt law enforcement at every level by justifying illegal shortcuts to obtain confessions and wholesale violations of the 4th and 5th amendments. These laws are destroying our constitutional rights in the name of law and order.

    But people like you feel the are somehow exempt from this coninuous destruction of the bill of rights. Remember, not only Jews died in the death camps.

    15 years ago I asked an immigrant from the Soviet Union how they ended up living under totalitarianism. She said “It just happened gradually – laws to fight pornography grew broader,
    laws to fight counter-revolutionaries grew broader, until the laws were written not to prohibit certain things but to say what was legal and all else was illegal”.

  17. Sol – anyone who thinks that totalitarianism happened gradually (and started with pr0nography bans – how much pr0n was there in 1917?!?) in the USSR needs a good whack with a clue bat. And a forced reading of the life of Dzerzhinsky and his relationship to Lenin. Totalitarianism happened quickly after the formation of the RSFSR, that’s why it was called the Red Terror.

    What you got from that person was the typical line of the Socialist or Communist who grew up patriotic in the USSR and who could not bear to admit that the whole system was evil from its inception.

    America has been under much more draconian assumptions about how the legal system should work in the past. Look at some of the famous judges in the Old West. Look at the law during the Civil War. Look at McCarthy. Drug laws are not causing legal shortcuts, overzealous prosecutors are. Did you follow the Duke Rape Case?

  18. I have never used illicit drgus but have wondered about them and the wasted lives they create for some time. Probably no thing has done more to detract from the progress of the civil rights era than the War on Drugs.

    The drug trade exists because it is immensely profitable, at least in proportion to one’s elevation in the distribution hierarchy. I believe Lex’s proposal would do little to reduce our war on drugs problem. Drugs sales to adolescents would remain illegal but the supply of low cost, low risk drugs through legal mechanisms would be increased. The same troubled adolescents who do point of sale marketing to their peers would be motivated to get the same drugs from the same distribution networks for illegal sale to other troubled adolescents. The same problems of turf control and aggressive marketing would prevail. The primary benefit would probably be a reduction in international crime as drug production would become just another agribusiness but no change in retail distribution to minors.

    So what to do?

    There is no single solution, and I would probably favor a form of legalization though with reservations of which more later. Joshua makes a very good point. But I would also look at when and why people start using drugs. I have never seen any scientifically valid data, but my anecdotal experience says most people begin using drugs between 12 and 18 years of age. I suspect that relatively few use drugs for the first time in their lives before or after these ages.

    These people are pretty much adults, certainly physically if not fully mentally. However, we treat them like criminals. They are incarcerated for most of the day in state run institutions where compliance to their overseers demands is the paramount value and punishments are meted out by the family unit for failure to comply with the institutional overseers. They are segregated into groups in these institutions for no reason other than their date of birth. They are legally prevented from making any positive economic contribution to society or their families. They are forced to repress the most powerful natural drives. And we’re surprised they turn to drugs?

    Legalize drugs, but liberate adolescents. End mandatory school attendance at 12. Allow child labor of up to 40 hours per week starting at age 12, 50 at 15 and 60 at 18. Move free public high school education to a voluntary program run from 8 am to 10 pm at night with students allowed to pursue a course of study that is appropriate for them including significant vocational education up to age 50. Start treating them like adults and we are more likely to get adult behavior. Continue to treat them as children long after they are grown or prisoners when they have done nothing wrong and expect demand for illicit drugs to remain high and for the demand to be met by the same losers and exploiters who are today’s drug distribution network. Treat them like adults, make them part of the adult world and expect them to act like responsible adults. If drug use is legalized, legalize drug use for everyone over 12.

    My one reservation about legalization is that sooner or later drug use will be promoted by its distribution system in order to grow the wealth and influence of that system and the people who work in it regardless of who runs it or how. That is clear in looking at the way liquor is distributed in the country now versus 50 years ago. If we legalize drug sales under controls now, they will be as available as beer, wine and spirits are today before todays children have grandchildren.

  19. Mrs. Davis,

    I agree. My friend, who’d taught in England and Eastern Europe, looked at the students milling around our junior college. She saw a country’s wealth in the good quarter to third of which are playing at being students more than being ones. And into drugs & alcohol, indiscriminate sex & tatooing. In Europe, she said, they’d mill around the streets. Surely, however, work would be better: such pretenses destroy work habits and self-respect as well as the level of thinking in classrooms.

    I’m not sure about 12, but does mandatory education past basic skills improve personal or national productivity? I see Edwards, like Dean, float the idea of extending free education 2 years – teaching less, teaching longer.

    We need to bring back apprenticeships. A home decorator I know is complaining about the difficulty finding upholsterers, people who sew curtains, painters, installers. They have to be intelligent & bondable – but milling around a college for a couple more years isn’t great preparation. Seeing my middle daughter’s old boyfriend, arrested at least once for drugs, waiting to take a final reminds me he started a year before she did (eight years ago). We’re a 2-year college.

    We need accessible & practical education at all ages and accessible & enriching education as well. We mature at different rates and in different ways; some can’t concentrate in a classroom at 20 and some want to learn a skill at 50. Both are more productive (and happier) doing what fits their needs.

  20. Ginny,

    I’m not sure about 12, either. Or much of anything else. But I probably picked it because I wish my 11 3/4 year old were starting a job soon so he would get more feedback from the real world than just his mother and me. It’s the idea that counts.

    A couple of other things to think about.

    If we have to add 10% to the number of years we work to support Social Security would you rather they be at the front end or the back? I believe add ing them to the front would increase total lifetime output more than the back. And I’m not looking forward to having to work till 70.

    Education is less and less about skills and learning than entertainment and amusement. That is why I am beginning to see what goes on in schools, at all post-elementary levels, as edutainment with a very few exceptions, such as engineering and the hard sciences. Edutainment can be consumed at any age and need not be done exclusively. 40 years ago, I held down a 30 hour per week job while carrying a full course load at a respectable university. No reason it couldn’t have been shifted even more toward employment.

    Vocational and professional training are something different. We need to find a way for those in the labor force to maintain their skills and obtain new ones as some old become obsolete. This is a very different matter than edutainment.

    I would have been very much more impressed if Harvard had taken some of it’s obscenely excessive endowment and spent it on trying to fix the disaster that is 21st century edutainment instead of eliminating annual fees at the world’s most exclusive country club. They have helped themselves and hurt the country in typical boomer fashion.

  21. As I see it, the drug war has been successful in one, and only one respect: It has kept the prohibited drugs marginalized and out of the cultural mainstream.

    Joshua, that can only go on for so long, though. Here in the UK- anecdotally, at least- drug use is, if not common, seemingly accepted amongst the under-30s as something that normal people do.

    Of course, the older generation still treat drug use with swivel-eyed fear, but that’s because they still believe the propaganda. The difference is, the younger generation do not. They know it is untrue.

    The wider acceptance and use of all but the hardest of drugs (crack and heroin) is already here. It could not be stopped and I cannot see it going backwards, as too many people know the reality of things, that is, that up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are enjoying their weekend with something illicit and safely making it in to work on a Monday morning, feeling no worse than they would if they’d been drinking.

    The state’s folly is that when it does come to addressing serious concerns of abuse, it will be eyed with suspicion and/ or ignored. The scare tactics of “your brain will rot and your teeth will fall out” will see to that.

    Drugs are merely the best and most effective way for them to commit these crimes to bring in money.


    I would not say that drugs are an accessory to crime, but are the crime itself.

    Perhaps things are different from where I am, but the drug-related crime I come across is mostly from the abuser funding their addiction. Of course, some will be involved in criminality already, but the primary purpose of theft and violence is to fund the addiction.

    The rest of the drug-related crime is, of course, just the mere criminality of possession and supply- nothing more, nothing less. I have no idea how much this alone inflates crime statistics.

  22. I think the bigger problem here is that we’re looking for poignant analysis on a deep and complex issue from a magazine that is essentially Tiger Beat for adults. Most of the comments I see above are more well thought out than the underpinnings of the article.

  23. I just can see what the drugbusiness does here in Brazil. Gangs are washed with money from the drugbusiness. The police seems to be in no way capable to stop these groups, who terrorize the big cities at will. In fact, they have so much money, they are often armed better then the police, they buy cops and even high ranking officials off. Even as high as senators are known to be involved with these groups in some occations.

    So just think how this war would change if you’d take away the main moneymachine, by legalizing drugs. we could not only control the quality and range of the drugs, but also the money would flow away from the narco-gangs into an other direction. tousands of these gang members are just with these people, because it seems to them like an easy and fast way to get to cash. also the druglords buy off whole favelas (shanty towns) with their money, by building schools, free services etc. the rest gets silenced. young kids get brought up, seeing this as normal. its like a never ending circle. and a huge market.

    i cant see how the war on drugs has been any success at all. maybe its time to rethink policy.

  24. I guess he is right that Rolling Stone can’t be counted on for solid intellectual arguments… he has a point there.

    I do agree that drug users commit crimes to support their habit; we have a relative in Montana who is a speed freak (I guess meth-head is a more modern term) and we can’t leave anything not nailed down in his reach when we visit or it is stolen instantly.

    I think that the petty crime hurts everyone’s quality of life; but I don’t think those are the people in jail under ‘drug related offenses’ – they are in under other categories, but certainly involved in drugs and this is a ‘root cause’ of their incarceration; and what happens to them if drugs are legalized is a parallel topic, one I didn’t attempt to address.

    But I still maintain 100% that the majority of the criminals in jail for drug crimes are stone criminals and we should be happy to have them off the streets. The gangs, vast criminal enterprises here in Chicago, won’t just shut down if drugs are legalized… they will move on to other sources of income, although the money won’t be as easy as drugs (maybe selling cigarettes if the taxes per pack gets high enough…)

  25. One thing people forget is that these drugs were all legal before the Harrison Narcotic Act (opiates), the Marijuana Act of 1934, and subsequent “dangerous” drug control acts. The original push for drug prohibition grew from over zealous “Temperance” movements, some traditionally religious in nature, others secularly or socialistically religious nature. These groups were not above using rank, over-the-top anti-drug propaganda to further their cause.

    The dangers of these drugs, while real and dose/route of administration related, are overblown. Likewise, euphoria is conflated with intoxication and withdrawal reactions with addiction. Face it, addicts are born every day. Many of them never ever use nor abuse a substance, but they are an addict nevertheless.

    All of these drugs should be legal, just as they were prior to the rise of the “Progressives” and other do-gooders backed by the power of government. Focus on the truly intoxicated and the extremely obsessed addict (these 20% or so are 80% of the real problem).

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