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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT