America faces a plethora of social problems in its inner cities: Crime and gang violence. A growing disrespect for the law. A prison system bursting at the seams. Children growing up without their fathers. An entire class of unemployable able-bodied men. Perceived racial profiling by the police. And although each of these issues seems distinctly different on the surface, they all share an underlying cause. They are all exacerbated by the continuing war on drugs.
The term "war on drugs" was coined by Richard Nixon in 1971, though the efforts began a decade earlier when the United Nations implemented the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international treaty limiting drug production and trafficking. After 50 years of fighting this war, it's time to look back and evaluate its effectiveness.
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 23 million Americans, or roughly 9 percent of the U.S. population, were illicit drug users. So if the original objective of the war on drugs was to rid the country of recreational drugs, it has been a dismal failure.
But that is not so say that the war on drugs hasn't had a major impact on society.
One in every 100 Americans is in prison or jail, the highest incarceration rate in the world (including North Korea), and the bulk of these Americans are imprisoned for drug-related crimes. The costs associated with the police, courts and prison system are high, but these are only part of the costs. The dehumanizing environment within prisons, combined with the concentration of criminals, serves as a training ground for future criminals. Those leaving prison lack the education and work experience that might make them eligible for employment. Instead, they have the scarlet letter of being an "ex-con," that effectively makes them ineligible for work. They inevitably become the parasites of the social safety net.
The cost of their imprisonment does not end there. The families they leave behind are broken — their children grow up without a father.
The illegal drug trade introduces children to a life of crime. Inner-city children observe that the wages their unskilled labor can earn in the bustling market for illegal drugs are far greater than that earned at McDonalds. It is almost as though the U.S. government found a solution to the living wage controversy: Have the unskilled work in the illegal drug industry. After children get a taste of the camaraderie, not to mention the flexible work hours, afforded by the illegal drug trade, it is difficult to get them to work in the legal economy.
Fighting the war on drugs is not only a distraction for law enforcement from fighting "real crime," but it results in ancillary problems. Because drugs are widely available and broadly used, it makes "breaking the law" seem like playful mischief rather than a serious issue. It is a source of much racial strife, as urban blacks are disproportionately targeted for arrest and prosecution.
Here's the bottom line: In an attempt to prevent people from harming themselves with recreational drugs, the state has done more harm than good.
There too is a libertarian argument to ending the war on drugs. Whether it is Lipitor or heroin, shouldn't I have the right to purchase the items I want to? To borrow a phrase from the pro-choice movement, isn't it my right to control my body?
Opponents are naturally concerned about the consequences of legalizing recreational drugs. So what would happen if we were to legalize drugs? First of all, all these drugs are freely available now (just ask your teenager). Second, lack of regulation means that rather than trusted companies (such as Philip Morris) selling products through reputable distributors (such as 7-11), we have drug dealers infiltrating our schools and marketing to our youth.
Would America suddenly become one giant opium den? Empirical evidence suggests that this would not be the case. Drug liberalization in Portugal actually lowered illicit drug use. Although it is admittedly too early to come to definitive conclusions, marijuana legalization in late-2012 in Colorado and Washington State have yet to produce a swell of addicts.
In 1920 Prohibition was instituted to save the nation from the ills of alcohol. Thirteen years later, Prohibition was ended because it had only served to support organized crime and had little effect on alcohol consumption. It's time we end the prohibition on drugs.
Scott Soffen was the Libertarian candidate for Congress in the 4th District of Maryland in 2012, and he intends to run for Congress in the 7th district for 2014. His email is ScottSoffen@yahoo.com
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.