War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure

End_ProhibitionIn 1925, H. L. Mencken wrote an impassioned plea: “Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. … The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

This week marks the 79th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933, but Mencken’s plea could easily apply to today’s global policy on drugs.

We could learn a thing or two by looking at what Prohibition brought to the United States: an increase in consumption of hard liquor, organized crime taking over legal production and distribution and widespread anger with the federal government.

Here we are, four decades after Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and $1 trillion spent since then. What do we have to show for it? The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with about 2.3 million behind bars. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for a drug law violation. What a waste of young lives.

In business, if one of our companies is failing, we take steps to identify and solve the problem. What we don’t do is continue failing strategies that cost huge sums of money and exacerbate the problem. Rather than continuing on the disastrous path of the war on drugs, we need to look at what works and what doesn’t in terms of real evidence and data.

The facts are overwhelming. If the global drug trade were a country, it would have one of the top 20 economies in the world. In 2005, the United Nations estimated the global illegal drug trade is worth more than $320 billion. It also estimates there are 230 million illegal drug users in the world, yet 90% of them are not classified as problematic.

In the United States, if illegal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, they would yield $46.7 billion in tax revenue. A Cato study says legalizing drugs would save the U.S. about $41 billion a year in enforcing the drug laws.

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