The Future of Drug Prohibition


Tobacco, marijuana, opium, coca, and alcohol have a long history of use across the globe. People have sought out these substances to relieve the pain and monotony in their lives. The repeated efforts to impose zero tolerance always end in failure because human beings are genetically designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The current drug war is the usual battle over who will control the marketing of which drug.

 The economic collapse of the U.S. economy in 1929 helped bring about the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933. Presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, understood that the misery of the Depression and the rising cost of fighting corruption and violence was too great a burden to impose on the American people. In the same way, our 2009 economic crisis has triggered a debate over the legalization of cannabis – a debate no politician seeking re-election would have dared to suggest twenty five years ago.

The sudden interest in a change in U.S. drug policy is fueled by the efforts of pro-legalization groups like NORML, MPP and LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) that want drug violence to end and a new policy to begin.

Most Americans are not aware that cannabis was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia as an approved medicine until 1943 when pressure from federal bureaucrats forced the AMA to remove it.

Many Americans who support the noble idea of a drug-free society do not realize how costly it is to build and maintain a huge prison system. The network of surveillance, drug testing, arresting and processing suspects, all feed into our overburdened state and federal courts. From there, an arrested family member may be sent to prison, forced into a drug treatment program, put on probation, or told to pay a fine. If this policy had merit, it would have created a safer, healthier society instead of a criminal population of disenfranchised ex-cons seeking help from charitable organizations.

 So far, Federal lawmakers have borrowed fourteen trillion dollars through the Treasury and California lawmakers have borrowed twenty billion dollars just to keep going. The drug war costs tax payers 69 billion dollars each year. What’s wrong with this picture?

 If winning the war is more important than balancing budgets or abiding by the Constitution then why not pass nationwide, random, mandatory, drug testing, and force the taxpayer to foot the bill? We could send those who failed a drug test to private prisons where they can work menial jobs at low wages and receive free drug education. What’s wrong with that?

Drug warriors fear that drug re-legalization means “anything goes.” Why would they think that?

Before 1914, all drugs in America were legal, regulated and taxed. Somehow, most, but not all Americans managed to live ordinary lives in the presence of patent medicines which contained opium, morphine, and cannabis tinctures and extracts.

Drug re-legalizers argue that “legal” means “control”. It means ID cards and taxation. It means adults only. It also means “addiction recovery clinics” for those who need help with hard drugs - the kind of clinics we had before 1920 when zero tolerance lawmakers forced them all to shut down.

Drug warriors argue that the cost of treating drug addicts would cancel out all the benefits gained from re-legalization. If we stopped the arrests then drug use would explode and exacerbate the problem.

 What is missing here is trust in people to manage their own lives instead of hiring SWAT teams to break into people’s homes. Legal drugs like alcohol and prescription pills have the potency and purity listed on the drug which reduces or eliminates accidental overdose. If one person suffers injury or death with full knowledge of the risks, should the rest of us be punished?

If a popular referendum denies politicians additional tax money to throw away on a failed drug policy then that sends a clear message. After that, it is up to the state lawmakers and not the federal government to make changes that will reduce the violence, corruption and financial burden of a war we cannot win.


James Wiley

San Anselmo, CA


May 2011