Skip to main content

Drug prohibition is a global folly

By Ted Galen Carpenter, Special to CNN
October 4, 2013 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana to the legalization of recreational weed use. Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana to the legalization of recreational weed use.
HIDE CAPTION
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ted Carpenter: It's no surprise that a new report says the global war on drugs is failing
  • Carpenter: Drug prohibition leads to corruption, violence and a host of societal problems
  • He says the folly of alcohol prohibition offers us lessons in anti-drug strategies
  • Carpenter: Change of policy should begin with legalization of marijuana

Editor's note: Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books, including "The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America."

(CNN) -- A report released this week tells us that the international war on drugs is failing. That comes as no surprise as a growing number of policy experts, pundits and politicians have reached that conclusion, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Among other findings, the report documents that inflation-adjusted and purity-adjusted prices of marijuana, cocaine and heroin have all decreased dramatically since 1990 in as geographically diverse areas as Europe, the United States and Australia. In other words, illegal drugs are plentiful and cheap around the world.

So now what?

Ted Galen Carpenter
Ted Galen Carpenter

The report's policy recommendations are relatively tepid. It emphasizes the need to shift from a strategy of eradication and interdiction of drugs to one focused more on drug abuse prevention and treatment. Although that shift away from law enforcement to a "harm reduction" approach would be an improvement on the current futile, counterproductive strategy, it is not nearly sufficient.

Moreover, the report too readily accepts the conventional wisdom that drug use is largely responsible for a host of social pathologies. The reality is that the strategy of drug prohibition, not drug use itself, is responsible for many of those pathologies.

Drug abuse is certainly a major public health problem, and its societal costs are considerable. But banning the drug trade creates ugly social and economic distortions.

Because certain drugs are illegal, there is an enormous black-market premium (by most estimates, up to 90% of the retail price) associated with them. Moreover, people who are willing to traffic in an illegal product often do not have many qualms about violating other laws. Prohibition enables the most unsavory, violence-prone individuals and organizations to dominate the commerce.

Drug prohibition leads inevitably to corruption and violence -- to a disturbing extent in the United States and even more so in drug-source or drug-transiting countries. The problems caused by the war on drugs are even more damaging to societies than those caused by drug use per se.

Opinion: Legalized pot would mean more addiction

Washington details pot sale rules
White House clarifies stance on pot

In Mexico, for example, about 60,000 people have perished in armed conflicts among the various drug cartels and between the cartels and the Mexican authorities over the past 6½ years. Another 20,000 people have gone missing. That turmoil has found even more fertile soil in the smaller, weaker countries of Central America. Today, Mexican-based drug cartels control major swaths of territory in both Honduras and Guatemala, and they pose a growing threat to the authority of governments throughout the region.

As the report notes, the international drug trade is a $350 billion-a-year industry. There is no realistic way to suppress such an economic juggernaut. We can only determine whether the trade will be in the hands of honest businesses or ruthless criminals.

The quixotic U.S. crusade against alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s demonstrated that a prohibition strategy empowers and enriches odious criminals. When alcohol was outlawed, the commerce fell into the hands of gangsters like Al Capone and Dutch Shultz. Bootleggers bribed and corrupted elected officials and police personnel throughout the country. There were shootouts on the streets of Chicago, New York and other American cities—just as we have gunbattles between drug gangs in large cities today.

Once Prohibition ended, legitimate business provided consumers with the beverages they sought, and the carnage and corruption subsided. Today, suppliers such as Gallo Wines, Coors Brewery, and Jack Daniels Distillery dominate the trade.

Ending drug prohibition is not a panacea. Under a legalized system for alcoholic beverages, we still have to deal with drunk driving, alcoholism and other social problems. Yet no rational person would advocate returning to Prohibition with all its ugly consequences.

The folly of alcohol prohibition was confined to the United States. Thanks largely to Washington's pressure -- drug prohibition is a global folly. We should learn from history and do more than make modest shifts in anti-drug strategies. We need to bite the bullet, accepting the reality that our second fling with prohibition hasn't worked any better than the first.

Change should begin with the comprehensive legalization of marijuana, not just incremental, partial legalization as voters in Colorado and Washington approved last year. We also need to begin a serious discussion about how to deal with harder drugs within a framework of legalization. Whatever the specifics of a new policy, there needs to be recognition both in the United States and around the world that prohibition is an unsustainable approach.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ted Galen Carpenter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT