The War on Drugs is a tricky issue. On the one hand, drug abuse is dangerous and wrong just as murder or assault is wrong and therefore it makes sense for our government to intervene. However, some people such as Congressman Ron Paul and the late economist Milton Friedman argue that the War on Drugs does far more damage than good and therefore must be repealed and drugs legalized. As a senior nursing student I am well aware of the adverse health effects of drug abuse and have witnessed their effects first-hand in some of my patients. However, I also believe that Ron Paul and Milton Friedman make a strong case in favor of legalization so I would like to present their argument and how, as I Catholic, I think this dire issue can be resolved.
First, its important to establish that the War on Drugs, like any government intervention, has unintended consequences. Since drug prohibition is likened to a war I would first like to compare it to Catholic just war doctrine to ensure that this really is a just war. The principle of proportionality states, “The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.” Therefore, if the harm created is disproportionate to the sum of harm prevention and good brought about than the war is unjust. Sure enough Milton Friedman does argue that, indeed, the unintended consequences of the War on Drugs far outweigh any good that it may have done. I’m being somewhat facetious of course; just war doctrine doesn’t really apply to drug prohibition but my point is illustrated.
Friedman argues that drug prohibition is hardly any different than the prohibition of alcohol that was repealed in 1933. Alcohol was readily available during prohibition and bootlegging was common – just as illicit drugs are readily available today. Worse, however, prohibition of alcohol fueled organized crime leading to Al Capone and the mafia and an era of hijacking and gang wars – ultimately, prohibition was a bad deal that lead to more harm than good.
Criminalization of drugs has had the same effects today. Interdiction essentially drives people from mild drugs to strong drugs. The reason being that mild drugs like Marijuana are bulky, difficult to smuggle and easy to interdict. More potent drugs, however, are less bulky, easier to smuggle and thus more profitable (and, additionally, far more dangerous). Marijuana was made more expensive which creates an economic drive to make more potent marijuana and a drive to market more potent drugs like heroin or cocaine. In fact, Friedman argues, crack never would have existed except for drug prohibition which made cocaine more expensive thus necessitating a more potent version.
Friedman continues by offering his expertise in economics by predicting that legalization of drugs would result in half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, 10,000 fewer homicides annually, inner cities in which there’s a chance for poor people to live without fear for their lives, the assurance of quality of drugs (illicit drug use kills less than 1,000 people a year – compared to 40,000/year from alcohol – but with higher quality drugs that number may drop even lower), and no criminalization of otherwise respectable citizens. Also note that the 10,000 fewer homicides Friedman mentions is within US borders. Legalizing drugs in the states would bring drug cartels in Mexico to their knees, a huge blow to the Mexican drug wars, drastically reducing violence outside US borders as well. Also not mentioned, legalization of drugs would drastically reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.
So, lets take a closer look at some of Friedman’s claims. Most arrests are of possession by casual users (often marijuana) – these people are imprisoned where they are exposed to inmates convicted of violent crimes and these people who were, prior to imprisonment, respectable citizens come out and are much more likely to become violent criminals themselves. According to Friedman, criminalization of drugs helps drug cartels by making the business excessively costly. Only massive drug cartels have the capital to run an effective business model. In turn this leads to drug wars between cartels – competing illicit businesses each fitted with essentially their own private armies. As with any war, there is collateral damage and it is in no way uncommon that the neighbor kid minding his own business down the street gets shot. Additionally, by keeping goods out and arresting local growers authorities keep costs high in the favor of the drug cartels – what more could a monopolist want?
The only possible negative feature to drug legalization that Friedman notes, is that there might be additional drug addicts. However, despite the prohibition, more than 40 percent of Americans over age 12 have tried marijuana and were subsequently willing to say so on a survey – so its hard to argue that the War on Drugs is even reducing drug use now. Additionally, Friedman points out, a drug addict is not an innocent victim – it is immoral, he argues, to inflict hefty costs on society – costs in lives in addition to capital – in order to protect people from their own choices. This is not an economic problem but a moral problem – the economics is only tertiary. Its about the harm that the government is doing by enabling drug cartels, causing an additional 10,000 homicides a year and making criminals out of otherwise respectable citizens. Fundamentally, the case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong as the case for legislating overeating – except that overeating causes more deaths per year than all drugs combined. Ron Paul had this to say on the War on Drugs:
On the issue of drugs, we have spent nearly five hundred billion dollars on the War on Drugs, since the 1970s. Total failure. Some day, we have to admit it. Today, we have the federal government going into states that have legal medical marijuana, arresting people–undermining state laws–arresting people who use marijuana when they’re dying with cancer and AIDS, and it’s done with, as a compassionate conservative. And it doesn’t work.
What it does, it removes the ability to states to do their things, and also introduces the idea that it’s the federal government that will get to decide whether we get to take vitamins, and alternative medical care, or whatever. Most of our history, believe it or not, had no drug laws. Prohibition has been an absolute failure for alcohol. Drug addiction is a medical problem. It’s not a problem of the law.
However, while legalizing drugs would save lives, reduce the cost of our justice system and law enforcement agency, and create an additional estimated 75 billion dollars in government revenue there is one issue that Milton Friedman does not address, although I think Ron Paul hints at it. As Catholics we have an obligation to promote the common good within our society which means that, while drug abusers are not innocent victims, we have a responsibility to reduce drug abuse and help those who abuse drugs. Drug abuse is a disease and can be debilitating and even deadly. So, how can we avoid the terrible consequences of the War on Drugs and actually help those suffering from addiction? Instead of inflicting draconian punishments on drug users we can save money and lives AND help people overcome addiction by instead offering these people community support and medical intervention (according to one report, jail sentences do nothing to help addicts while treatment is the most effect way to reduce drug use). The War on Drugs has proved to be a direct obstacle to people getting help and this needs to change. By removing harsh prison sentences and redirecting the additional revenue from drug legalization to rehabilitation and prevention of the disease of addiction we can promote the common good without having to sacrifice thousands of lives and billions of dollars to do so.
Daniel Wolfe, director of OSI’s International Harm Reduction Development Program stated that “the global war on drugs has devolved into a war on individual drug users and their communities. While the drug trade continues to thrive, families across the globe are being torn apart by HIV, draconian prison sentences, and wholesale police abuses.” The War on Drugs does not care about public health issues, its job is not to promote the common good. The job of the War on Drugs is to wage war on individuals, arbitrarily selecting them from other criminals. We as Catholics are not called, however, to wage war against our fellow man. We’re called to promote the common good for all our brothers and sisters in Christ to benefit and that means that, in the context of drug use and abuse, we help these people seek treatment, not accelerate their journey down the path of ruin and vice.