Special Guest Essay
This guest op-ed appears here with the author's permission.
The True Villain in Our Drug War is Prohibition
by Buford C. TerrellThe Office for National Drug Control Policy spent $3.2 million for Super Bowl ads claiming that people who buy drugs are supporting terrorists. But that's not the real story. The real story is that the profits in the drug trade garnered by gangsters and terrorists is a product, not of the drugs, but of the laws prohibiting the drugs.
Almost nine out of 10 of us use the addicting, mind-altering drug caffeine, but coffee sales don't fund terrorists. A quarter of all adults are addicted to nicotine, but cigarette sales don't fund terrorists. Two-thirds of the country uses the psychoactive drug alcohol, but since 1933, alcohol sales haven't supported terrorists or criminals.
Why? Beer sells for a few dollars a six-pack and vodka can be bought for less than $10 a liter. Coffee and tea sell for pennies an ounce, and even cigarettes with their taxes are only about $3 an ounce. There's no excess profit for terrorists in those prices.
But marijuana goes for $100 an ounce and cocaine for $10,000 a kilogram. Heroin weighs in at well over $100,000 a kilogram. People will kill and risk prison for those profits, and there's plenty of money to support terrorists and gangsters and buy crooked cops to protect the deals.
The villain is prohibition. End the black market by selling legal marijuana for the price of cigarettes and heroin for the price of aspirin (the price at which it is sold when legal). Drug dealers and terrorists will go away because there will be no money for them.
The experience with alcohol prohibition showed that when prohibition ended, gangsters got out of the business. What is more, legal beer distributors do not settle their business disputes with machine guns; they use the courts. Ending the failed prohibition against marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and select other drugs -- regulating their sale and use the way we do that of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine -- would remove the dangerous drug dealers, the vicious smugglers, the crooked cops and, yes, the al-Qaida terrorists from our society just like ending alcohol prohibition ended the reigns of Al Capone and Myer Lansky.
And the terrorists? They would continue to get their money from religious contributions, from the sale of honey (a major source of Osama bin Ladin's income) and from oil. They use drug money because prohibition makes it easy for them, but it is not a major source of their income.
Ending drug prohibition would not end the problems created by those few drug users who cannot control their use; but neither has drug prohibition ended them. We probably have more heroin addicts now than we did in 1914 when we first prohibited it.
The problem is that now we have both drug problems and drug prohibition problems: large sums of money going to gangsters and terrorists, corrupt public officials, drive-by shooting and crack houses, HIV and hepatitis C infections from the inability to buy syringes and more than 700,000 arrests last year for the mere possession of marijuana. We have not been able to stop the problems caused by the misuse of drugs, but we do not have to compound those problems with the miseries caused by foolish and ineffective laws of prohibition.
Our country is again facing budgetary deficits, a large part of which are caused by the $1 billion a month that the war against terrorism is costing. At the same time, the federal government is spending $20 billion a year on the war on drugs, an amount that would more than make up for the cost of the war on terrorism.
About $25,000 a year would be saved for each drug user not sent to prison; 700,000 young marijuana users would not be branded as criminals for the rest of their lives, and drug misuse could be attacked as the medical problem it is instead of being treated as a crime. Fight terrorism; stamp out prohibition.
Buford Terrell is a professor at South Texas College of Law who teaches controlled-substances law.
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