Prohibition is failing. OK, you might expect a blog like this to come out with a statement like that, after all the creeping anarchy and state repression created by prohibition is the main reason sites like this exist. What might not be quite so expected is that prohibition supporters also think prohibition is failing. Despite all the hundreds of thousands of people locked up, despite the carnage caused by the drug wars and despite an almost total lack of evidence for any success whatsoever – the reason prohibition is failing according to these people is because we’re not doing enough of it , we’re not locking enough people up.
One of the leading loonies of the prohibition lobby is Peter Hitchins who has a column in the good old Daily Mail. Peter wrote, in his usual objective style, this week
I do not understand why we treat drug-dealers as wicked, vicious criminals, while treating moronic, self-destructive drug-users as victims. It is users who bring misery to their families by wrecking their mental health. It is users who commit crime to pay for their pleasure. It is users who become a danger to their fellow creatures. If there were no users, there would be no dealers.
Peter is a true prohibitionist who sees the only way to safeguard the freedoms we all love as being through intense police state repression. His argument does have a logic of sorts though because in a way he is right; if there were no consumers of drugs, there would be no market in them. Unlike most prohibition supporters, Peter at least seems to understand the laws of supply and demand.
So all you have to do to make prohibition work is to stop people wanting and deciding to use drugs. Simples.
Peter’s “logic” of course doesn’t extend to alcohol, but as we all know, alcohol isn’t really a drug, is it? Peter is talking only of the “illegal” drugs, the ones politicians have decided we should not use. The reason we see all this violence surrounding “illegal” drugs is because so many people make their own choices and don’t do what politicians tell them.
The BBC’s Mark Easton wrote of a report issued last year and published in the International Journal of Drug Policy entitled “Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review” (link). The hypothesis the study tested was that the results “would demonstrate an association between increased drug law enforcement expenditures or intensity and reduced levels of violence” – in other words the more spent on drug law enforcement, the lower the intensity and levels of violence we would expect to see. This, after all, is the reason given for enforcement of the drug laws, there’s not much point to doing it if that isn’t going to happen. Guess what?
“From an evidence-based public policy perspective and based on several decades of available data, the existing scientific evidence suggests drug law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates and that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting organisations involved in drug distribution could paradoxically increase violence.”
As Mark reports
The very act of disruption, they suggest, creates a more violent climate: “As dealers exit the illicit drug market, those willing to work in a high-risk environment enter, and that street dealing thereby becomes more volatile.”
Ed Dolan is an economist, textbook writer, and author of Ed Doland’s Econ blog, which gets very technical about things economic. This week he wrote an explanation entitled “Why It’s Obvious We Are Losing The War On Drugs” (link), which is all to do with the way the drugs market responds.
The point of this is that drug cartels are like normal business in some ways, but not in all ways. If cocaine and heroin were legal products like tobacco and alcohol, their producers’ revenue would still respond to changes in price as predicted by elasticity, and increases in revenue would still be devoted, in part, to innovation and capital investment aimed at expanding supply. But those businesses would not share the extreme badness of the drug cartels. It is not the nature of their products that makes drug gangsters so readily engage in murder, kidnapping, and other forms of mayhem. Rather, the conditions in which skill and enthusiasm in committing acts of violence become a path to promotion and power are created by the very fact that cocaine and heroin are prohibited substances, and those conditions are only intensified the more vigorously the prohibition is pursued.
So ignoring the minor detail that prohibition is at the root of the violence in the first place, if we can’t fight the war on drugs by going for the dealers is Peter Hitchens right? Is the only way to effectively deal with this to declare all out war on all forms of drug use? If prohibition is to work, does it have to be a “bottom up” process, focused not on the supply side, but on the consumer?
Well, there are a lot of arguments to be used against this approach of all out war on a huge section of our population and not all of them fluffy ideals about such values as freedom and liberty – values prohibitionists don’t rate very highly. The sheer practicality of actually locking everyone up would present more than a few problems apart from anything else. But this is the logical end game for prohibition, the only way it might be made to work is when every home becomes a prison and each and every one of us is under constant surveillance and monitoring to ensure we are obeying the law.
So could this work? Sadly for the drug warriors experience seems to just say no. In the home of prohibition, the USA, drug use is endemic and levels of violence worse than here despite far harsher enforcement laws aimed against low level use. Worse, the workings of these drug laws are culturally damaging and in the “land of the free” more black men are behind bars because of the war on drugs than were enslaved in 1850 (link).
In truth what’s happened is that the war on drugs as it’s been fought has not only failed but has created a worse problem than originally existed. Peter Hitchens is not willing to entertain the idea that the basic concept of prohibition is wrong and so the only way forward is take the fight to every man woman and child of the country. The idea that you can force people to obey laws is at the heart of the prohibition concept and so this is the natural conclusion; a war against everyone.
There is, of course, another way – but that involves treating us adults like adults.