Wars, if we are to accept their necessity, need a goal by which we can measure success. The war on drugs is the poster child for a lack of goals.
This is not our first dance with wars lacking measurable goals. We have a recent history of sending troops into war without clear goals.
Korea. Technically we and our allies the South Koreans are still at war with the North, albeit paused by a truce that is 64 years old. So that’s a stalemate, with continuing implications today.
Vietnam. In 1973, we ended combat operations, declared victory, and went home. By 1975, the last vestiges of our efforts there were fleeing the country by helicopter from the roof of our Embassy.
One could say our foray into Afghanistan was based on sound argument, which we then squandered by moving into Iraq. This all started in 2001 and we still have troops on the ground.
No end in sight. No end defined to measure success.
In the continuing saga that is the war on drugs, the lack of a measurable goal or, depending on your perspective, our measure of failure continues.
For if this is indeed a war, we sorely lack measurable success. Unless our success is measured in the number of prisoners captured, then one might argue we’ve done very well.
I won’t bore you with numbers. I invite you to search for the information on your own. You might be surprised at what you find. You’d be shocked at the number of arrests, and associated costs, for possession of marijuana.
In light of the debate on legalizing personal use of marijuana, I will offer some perspective. The price of marijuana, compared to 1970’s and the beginning of the war, has fallen and availability has increased. (This is somewhat related to several states legalizing it yet need be included in our discussion. The camel’s nose is in the tent on that one.)
The price of cocaine has fallen and availability is up. In 1980 cocaine cost $100-150/gram. Today, it is $60-90. This doesn’t even consider the comparison of 1980 vs 2017 dollar.
In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs. This doesn’t even take into consideration cost of housing prisoners.
If we want to measure success by the reduction of the number of people dying from illegal drugs, we failed there as well. Deaths have increased. Opioid overdoses are increasing.
I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with numbers, but here’s just one chart about deaths from drugs in 2015. (Marijuana didn’t make the top ten. There were no documented cases of death by marijuana toxicity.)
|1||Tobacco||480,000 + deaths|
|3||Prescription Painkillers||16,235 deaths|
When a strategy is failing by all measures, doesn’t it make sense to change tactics? That’s what one does in a war. If something is causing more harm than good, you stop.
Focusing the bulk of our resources on criminalizing the personal use of substances such as marijuana is not achieving its expressed purpose. If adults can be trusted to make rational decisions when it comes to the risks of using substances such as tobacco and alcohol, with well documented, sometimes fatal, effects, then it may be time to reconsider the rationale behind making those same adults criminals if they choose to use marijuana.
This is not an argument for legalizing all drugs. I’m not certain legalizing marijuana is a sound policy. But I do know that continuing down the same path will fail. We will continue to turn otherwise law-abiding individuals into criminals, ignore the opportunity to focus our resources on addiction treatment and education, and stumble down the road to another measurable failure.
We’re not losing this war. We lost the war before we started because our policy consisted of Ready, Fire, Aim.