War on Drugs Remains at Stalemate After 40 Years

Pretty much everyone agrees the war on drugs is a failure. So why don’t we try a different approach?

The headlines, commission reports and op-eds have been singing in chorus this month around the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s declaration of a national war on drugs.

Panel Calls War on Drugs a Failure," reads the Wall Street Journal headline on a new high-profile report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

“Law Enforcement Study: War on Drugs is a Failure,” announced the release of another analysis from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Next came “U.S. Mayors Call U.S. ‘War on Drugs’ a Failure.”

And just to underscore the bipartisan nature of all this condemnation, former President Jimmy Carter (“Call off the Global Drug War”) and libertarian magazine Reason (“Declare Defeat and Go Home”) have taken up the cry as well.

Their collective assessment isn’t new (see past reports reaching similar conclusions from: the Cato Institute last year, Brookings in 2008, RAND in 2005 and the ACLU in 2000 — to cover just the past decade). By many metrics — drugs used, dollars spent, communities impacted, violence averted — the war on drugs, with its heavy emphasis on incarcerating even low-level couriers and nonviolent tokers, has been deemed ineffective relative to America’s sweeping investment in it.

But now that we’re marking four decades with the strategy (a rhetorical milestone more than an actual one), perhaps it’s time to ask a different question: Not why has the “war on drugs” failed, but why have policymakers stuck with it for so long in the face of so much evidence of failure?

“If you stop 10 people on the street and say ‘Do you think we’re winning the war on drugs,’ nine of them would say no,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “Part of it is a question of what other kinds of approaches can we suggest? How do we suggest different options other than large-scale incarceration?”

Mauer blames inertia for Washington’s inability to think differently, along with the deep entrenchment that’s come with pushing law enforcement to log ever more drug arrests. He notes that we’ve prioritized prohibition over treatment and defined the problem as a matter of “criminal justice” instead of “public health.”

Mauer’s analysis suggests we’re in a particularly tricky spot decades in, because the longer the war on drugs drags on, the harder it becomes to adjust deeply ingrained practices.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

He bemoans “a mix of institutionalized policies and resource allocation and general commitment that’s difficult to turn around, even though consciousness is shifting and there’s more evidence about doing things differently. The drug war has just been ratcheted up so dramatically that it’s difficult to change direction.”

Jimmy Carter, writing in The New York Times, ticked off some of the familiar data behind that boom. In 1980, when he left office, America was incarcerating 500,000 people. Now, it’s more than 2.3 million, giving the U.S. the highest rate of incarceration in the world (and a dramatically disproportionate share of all the world’s prison population).

The greatest flaw in our policy, says Carnegie Mellon professor Jonathan Caulkins, is that so many of those people are non-violent users or low-level drug runners whose long prison sentences were triggered not by any harm they’ve caused their communities but by how many ounces they were caught carrying.

“The better criticism to my mind is not prohibition versus legalization,” said Caulkins, who previously co-directed RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center, “but why do we do the prohibition the way that we do?”

We would do better, he suggests, to target not the number of users in existence, but the consequences of drug use that do the most damage to communities, such as violence and HIV transmission. He points out that the drug dealer who carries a weapon, sells outside treatment centers and employs children as lookouts — in other words, one “who creates unusually large problems per kilogram sold” — contributes to that collateral damage much more than the run-of-the-mill seller.

Users who are addicted to drugs, Caulkins adds, also aren’t likely to be dissuaded by the drug war’s long mandatory sentences.

“Long sentences are terrible at deterring people particularly from using drugs when they’re dependent,” he said. “Cravings and compulsions make it just [impossible] for people to process the consequences of a low probability of a long sentence.” Dependent drug users who don’t pose a violent threat might be better addressed through treatment programs (or through “coerced abstinence,” a strategy of constant testing and brief incarceration Caulkins believes could be particularly effective). But the current drug war skews most of its resources toward prohibition. That 2005 RAND report Caulkins helped write cited one presidential budget for the drug war: 53 percent of the requested money was earmarked for enforcement, with only 29 percent for treatment and 18 percent for prevention.

Caulkins says the government isn’t organized to recalibrate that balance between toughness and treatment. For one thing, we don’t have a single authority in charge of both. Obama’s drug czar,” for example, has a bully pulpit but no purse strings.

And then there’s the tricky issue of morality, which is another obstacle to adjusting our current course. Decisions about drug policy are colored by the public’s moral reactions in a way that decisions about, say, agriculture subsidies are not.

This reality particularly frustrates economists like Jeffrey Miron, who’ve tracked the billions of dollars America has spent on the drug war because, for no particularly rational reason, society has decided drugs are immoral, but alcohol is not.

“People accept that it’s immoral because it’s illegal, then turn around and say, well, because it’s immoral, therefore it should be illegal,” said Miron, director of undergraduate studies in the Harvard economics department and a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. He produced the study last fall suggesting America wastes $88 billion a year waging the war on drugs.

Miron’s reasons for opposing the current policy differ from Mauer’s, whose organization is also concerned with how the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted minority communities. That diversity of criticism — whether on free market, social justice or public health grounds — would seem to give the collective case against the strategy all the more momentum.

Miron, though, isn’t optimistic, even though the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration and the new report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy — which included former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Columbia — have brought the issue back into the news.

“There have been commission reports going back 50, 100 years,” Miron said. “There’s always been a new commission report, there’s always a new well-known person who comes out for this. But it turns out these people always do this well after they’re retired, well after they need to get re-elected. They never do it when they’re still the president of Mexico.”

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