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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT