Richard Nixon proclaimed the “War on Drugs” in 1971 but attempts at prohibition have been made since early in the last century.

Just as alcohol prohibition was an utter failure, so is the one on drugs.

There are many similarities that are readily visible.

  • Both tried to control human behavior in using substances that the governement declared to be harmful.
  • Both resulted in the development of illegal activities to circumvent the law.
  • Both became breeding grounds for organized crime activites.
  • Both fomented violence in the streets that, though aimed at the participants in the illegal trade, often generated innocent victims.
  • Both tacitly encouraged widespread corruption among law enforcement officials as well as within the judiciary system.
  • Both had no effect on the use of the targeted substances.

But there were/are important differences.

  • The alcohol prohibition was achieved through Comstitutional amendment
  • The alcohol prohibition lasted only 13 years.
  • The alcohol prohibition did not penalize possession or use.
  • The alcohol prohibition did not see the incarceration of more people than any other nation on the planet.

We have made criminals out of the approximately ten percent of the population that uses illegal drugs, according to various surveys. However, my sense is that far more of our citizens indulge at least on occasion. Still that percentage may be lower than the proportion of the citizenry who drank alcohol during Prohibition. But again, use was not illegal.

(Full disclosure—I have used both marijuana and hashish in my life, the latter only on one occasion. My first use occurred during the period 1972 to about 1980-81. I did not use pot again until about 11-12 years ago over several months when I dated a lady who liked to smoke pot. Let us just say she had ways of being very persuasive.)

In our zealous pursuit of substance abusers we now impose draconian measures upon them ranging from forced drug testing in the workplace amid threats of job loss to, of course, criminal charges.

I will not insult you with arguments that someone actively using many drugs may not be the most efficient employee. On the other hand job punishment may come even when no use on the job is detected or even suspected. Residue of use can be found from casual, off-the-job partaking when no reduction in workplace production is in evidence.

But most egregious are the absurdities of punishing physical and emotional weakness by our criminal system even when that weakness is manifest away from any possible danger to the public at large.

An op-ed in the Post-Gazette by a sitting federal district judge illustrates the type of offenders who appear before him and he has now spoken out against these absurdities.

Judge Mark W. Bennett has sentenced nearly eleven hundred “criminals” to mandatory minimum sentences between 5 years to life without parole.

The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts. Methamphetamine is their drug of choice. Crack cocaine is a distant second. Drug kingpins? Oh yes, I’ve sentenced them, too. But I can count them on one hand. While I’m extremely proud of my father’s service in World War II, I am greatly conflicted about my role in the “war on drugs.”

Judge Bennett further notes the inequities in whom the system chooses to punish.

Crack defendants are almost always poor African-Americans. Meth defendants are generally lower-income whites. More than 80 percent of the 4,546 meth defendants sentenced in federal courts in 2010 received a mandatory minimum sentence. These small-time addicts are apprehended not through high-tech wiretaps or sophisticated undercover stings but by common traffic stops for things like nonfunctioning taillights. Or they’re caught in a search of the logs at a local Walmart to see who is buying unusually large amounts of nonprescription cold medicine.

But if you believe use of illegal drugs is confined to the underclass and doesn’t exist within the split levels of suburbia do I have a bridge for you.

Aside from those already in prison, purveyors and consumers of medical marijuana in states where that has been legal have been targeted by the Obama Administration. In Tuesday’s voting both Washington and Colorado approved laws allowing possession  of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. I suspect the federal bullying will be extended to this new legality.


Our federal government currently spends about $25 billion fighting drugs. It is money thrown down a rathole. Now I will repeat something I have said many times in various forums and contexts.


Legalize ALL drugs and regulate and tax them. In previous posts I’ve speculated…with no reliable data available…that doing so would turn this $25 billion cost into much more than $100 billion revenue.

We have dealt with the destructiveness of alcohol and tobacco by imposing excise taxes at a rate designed to discourage use. While I will not suggest this approach has been wildly successful, it still should be adopted for drugs.

Besides the money saved in the federal budget (and the added revenue) billions more will be saved in state and local enforcement of the laws. The incentive for drug dealers to kill each other will be removed.

I have no illusions that the folks active in the drug trade are angels. Yet to continue their pursuit with only occasional triumphs against individuals but none against drug use itself is an utter waste of resources.

If my general plan would be adopted I would advise dedication of at least a portion of the revenue  to treatment of addiction.

Drug use is a problem. But it is a  public health and sociological problem, not a criminal one.

We need public officals with the courage and fiber to recognize this and fight for change.

I am not optimistic.

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