As the "fiscal cliff" racket in Washington produced a predictable deal and compromised between both parties' favorite pet welfare programs, it was not a surprise that government spending and power took precedence over cutting spending. While someone like me could find trillions to cut in the federal budget, I wanted to offer a modest proposal that would both save money and enhance freedom: abolishing the drug war.
The Orwellian-named "war on drugs" costs about $40 billion per year. Since it was heavily ramped up by President Nixon, it has cost nearly $1 trillion. It has resulted in one of largest bureaucracies in Washington, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with over 10,000 employees, 226 offices in 21 divisions throughout the U.S., and 86 foreign offices in 62 countries around the world. The DEA also employs 300 chemists and 124 pilots. All of this doesn't even include the states, which also have redundant "drug enforcement" agencies.
While $40 billion per year is a drop in the bucket for the U.S. government, this figure doesn't even begin to calculate the nearly incalculable opportunity costs of the drug war.
Thanks to the drug war, the U.S. has the infamous distinction of being the world's largest prison state, imprisoning more people than any other nation in the world, both in absolute numbers and proportionality. The U.S. imprisons people for longer periods of time, more mercilessly, and for more trivial transgressions than anywhere in the West.
For example, of the nearly 500,000 people in prison for drug violations, almost half of them are caged for possession alone. Many states have "three-strike" laws and private prisons lobbies that together create a distorted incentive to keep the prisons filled. Hundreds of thousands of these arrests are of people who have committed no aggression against anybody. Rather than having the opportunity to participate in the market and the division of labor, many of them get tripped up in this revolving door system.
The drug war has simultaneously been the largest contributor to a general erosion of our civil liberties while making it more difficult for police to catch real criminals. All one needs to do is look at the hundreds of police departments around the country and see military gear, dress, language, and demeanor where police resemble occupying forces rather than peace officers. "No-knock raids" and SWAT raids (100 per day in America), which represent a reversal on traditional restraints on government power, are a direct consequence of the state's regulation of our blood content.
Thanks to the drug war, the U.S. has a heavy presence in Central and South America with the ATF, FBI, DEA, Coast Guard, and occasionally even the U.S. military. The U.S.-Mexico border may be the most dangerous place in the world right now. And who can forget the CIA financing its imperial ambitions by running drugs from Latin America into Arkansas? Oliver North can tell you all about that. Or the lucrative opium trade during the Vietnam War and now in Afghanistan?
All of these factors are impossible to plug into a data sheet and quantify their costs, which is why the economics concept of "opportunity costs" is so applicable. The waste of resources beefing up police departments for a country that has seen a 50% reduction in violent crime in the last two decades, the murderers, rapists, and crooks that run free thanks to the incentives that fill up prison beds with drug violators, the foreign meddling and corruption at the highest levels; the societal costs, both monetarily and to our liberty, are truly staggering.
But even more importantly than any financial cost, the war on drugs is a war on liberty. While it should be more appropriately called a war on people, drug prohibition is one of the biggest encroachments on individual liberty in America today. To tell what someone can or can't ingest or smoke is like telling them what they can or can't read, write, listen to, or say. This is not an endorsement of drug use, but the realization that the war on drugs and government power are far more dangerous narcotics than drugs could ever be.
Even if the virtues of individual liberty and choice fail to convince, the horrors unleashed by the drug war combined with recent reforms around the world show tangible evidence of the benefits of drug legalization. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of current and former members of law enforcement advocating drug legalization, know first-hand how drug prohibition increase crime rates, gangs, and cartels, and also distract police from prosecuting real violations of persons and property.
Or what about the case of Portugal, who decriminalized drugs and is witnessing a decrease in drug crime and addiction? Or how drug prohibition has directly related to the spread of crystal meth?
So I say legalize (or more accurately, re-legalize) all drugs, including heroin, and none of this "decriminalize marijuana and tax it" nonsense! Marijuana was taxed so heavily beginning in 1937 that it effectively became illegal. Politicians gave us the drug war and created this mess. They don't deserve a penny.
The $1 trillion spent on the war on drugs in the last few decades, and the $40 billion annually, is just the tip of the iceberg of the societal costs imposed by drug prohibition. And while there are a multitude of other wars that need repealing, the war on drugs would be a great start.