[many references from drug war facts ]
The consequences of our irrationality on this front are so egregious that they bear closer examination. Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws. At this moment, somewhere on the order of 400,000 men and women languish in U.S. prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. One million others are currently on probation. More people are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses in the United States than are incarcerated, for any reason, in all of Western Europe (which has a larger population). The cost of these efforts, at the federal level alone, is nearly $20 billion dollars annually. The total cost of our drug laws – when one factors in the expense to state and local governments and the tax revenue lost by our failure to regulate the sale of drugs – could easily be in excess of $100 billion dollars each year. Our war on drugs consumes an estimated 50 percent of the trial time of our courts and the full-time energies of over 400,000 police officers. These are resources that might otherwise be used to fight violent crimes and terrorism.
In historical terms, there was every reason to expect that such a policy of prohibition would fail. It is well known, for instance, that the experiment with prohibition of alcohol in the United States did little more than precipitate a terrible comedy of increased drinking, organized crime, and police corruption. What is not generally remembered is that Prohibition was an explicitly religious exercise, being the joint product of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the pious lobbying of certain Protestant missionary societies.
The problem with prohibition of any desirable commodity is money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs constitutes 8 percent of all international commerce (while the sale of textiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent). (35 – www.lindesmith.org) And yet, prohibition itself is what makes the manufacture and sale of drugs so extraordinarily profitable. Those who earn there living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their investment, tax-free. Every relevant indicator of the drug trades – rates of drug use and interdiction, estimates of production, the purity of drugs on the street, etc. – shows that the government can do nothing to stop it as long as such profit exists (indeed, these profits are highly corrupting of law enforcement in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stratospheric cost of his lifestyle, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his territory and his goods, are likewise the result of prohibition. (36 footnote below) A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Shining Path, and others. [supporting link – not from Sam Harris: drug policy and terrorism]
Even if we acknowledge that stopping drug use is a justifiable social goal, how does the financial cost of our war on drugs appear in light of the other challenges we face? Consider that it would require only a onetime expenditure of $2 billion to secure our commercial seaports against smuggled nuclear weapons. At present we have allocated a mere $93 million for this purpose. (footnote link) How will our prohibition of marijuana use look (this comes at the cost of $4 billion annually) if a new sun ever dawns over the port of Los Angeles? Or consider that the U.S. government can afford to spend only $2.3 billion each year on reconstruction of Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are now regrouping. Warlords rule the countryside beyond the city limits of Kabul. Which is more important to us, reclaiming this part of the world for the forces of civilization or keeping cancer patients in Berkeley from relieving their nausea with marijuana? Our present use of government funds suggests an uncanny skewing – we might even say derangement – of our national priorities. Such a bizarre allocation of resources is sure to keep Afghanistan in ruins for years to come. It will also leave Afghan farmers with no alternative but to grow opium. Happily for them, our drug laws still render this a highly profitable enterprise.
Anyone who believes that God is watching us from beyond the stars will feel that punishing peaceful men and women for their private pleasure is perfectly reasonable. We are now in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we should have better reasons for depriving our neighbors of their liberty at gunpoint. Given the magnitude of the real problems that confront us – terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the spread of infectious disease, failing infrastructure, lack of adequate funds for education and health care, etc. – our war on sin is so outrageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment. How have we grown so blind to our deeper interests? And how have we manages to enact such policies with so little substantive debate?
36 footnote pg 259 of book
When was the last time someone was killed over a tobacco or alcohol deal gone awry? We can be confident that the same normalcy would be achieved if drugs were regulated by the government. At the inception of the modern “war on drugs,” the economist Milton Friedman observed that “legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement.” He then invited the reader to “conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order” (Friedman, “Prohibition and Drugs,” Newsweek May 1, 1972). What was true then remains true after three decades of pious misrule; the criminality associated with the drug trade is the inescapable consequence of our drug laws themselves.