Against Drug Prohibition

ACLU Paper #19

More and more ordinary people, elected officials, newspaper columnists, economists, doctors, judges and even the Surgeon General of the United States are concluding that the effects of our drug control policy are at least as harmful as the effects of drugs themselves.

After decades of criminal prohibition and intense law enforcement efforts to rid the county of illegal drugs, violent traffickers still endanger life in our cities, a steady stream of drug offenders stiil pours into our jails and prisons, and tons of cocaine, heroin and marljuana still cross our borders unimpeded.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes criminal prohibition of drugs. Not only is prohihition a proven failure as a drug control strategy, but it subjects otherwise law-abiding citizens to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for what they do in private. In trying to enforce the drug laws the government violates the fundamental rights of privacy and personal autonomy that are guaranteed by our Constitution, The ACLU beleieves that unless they do harm to others, people should not he punished even if they do harm to themselves. There are better ways to eontrol drug use, ways that will ultimately lead to a healthier, freer and less crime-ridden society.

Currently Illegal Drugs Have Not Always Been Illegal
During the Civil War, morphine (an opium derivative and cousin of heroin) was found to have pain-killing propetties and soon became the main ingredient in several patent medicines. In the late 19th century, marijuana and cocaine were put to various medicinal uses - marijuana to treat migralnes, rheumatism and insomnia, and cocaine to treat sinusitis, hay fever and chronic fatigue, All of these drugs were also used recreationally, and cocaine, in particular, was a common ingredient in wines and soda pop - including the popular Coca Cola. At the turn of the century, many drugs were made illegal when a mood of temperance swept the nation. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrlson Act banning opiates and cocaine. Alcohol prohibition quickly followed, and by 19 18 the U.S. was officially a "dry" nation. That did not mean, however, an end to drug use. It meant that, suddenly, people were arrested and jailed for doing what they had previously done without government interference. Prohibition also meant the emergence of a black market, operated by criminals and marked by violence.

In 1933, because of concern over widespread organized crime, police corruption and violence, the public dernanded repeal of alcohol prohibition and return of regulatory power to the states. Most states immediately replaced criminal bans with laws regulating the quality, potency and commercial sale of alcohol; as a resuit, the harms associated with alcohol prohibition disappeared. Meanwhile, federal prohibition of heroin and cocaine remained, and with passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937 marijuana was prohibited as well. Federal drug policy has remained strictly prohibitionist to this day.

Decades Of Drug Prohibition; A History Of Failure
Criminal prohibition, the centerpiece of U.S. drug policy, has failed miserably. Since 1981, tax dollars to the tune of $150 billion have been spent trying to prevent Columbian cocaine, Burmese heroin and Jamaican marijuana from penetrating our borders. Yet the evidence is that for every ton seized, hundreds more get through. Hundreds of thousands of otherwise law abiding people have been arrested and jailed for drug possession. Between 1968 and 1992, the annual number of drug-related arrests increased from 200,000 to over 1.2 million, One-third of those were marijuana arrests, most for mere possession,

The best evidence of prohibition's failure is the government's current war on drugs. This war, instead of employing a strategy of prevention. research, education and social programs designed to address problems such as permanent poverty, long term unemployment and deteriorating living conditions in our inner cities, has employed a strategy of law enforcement. While this military approach continues to devour billions of tax dollars and sends tens of thousands of people to prison, illegal drug trafficking thrives, violence escalates and drug abuse continues to debilitate lives.

Those who benefit the most from Prohibition are organised crime barons who derive an estimated $10 to $50 billion a year from the illegal drug trade. Indeed, the criminal drug laws protect drug traffickers frcm taxation, regulation and quality control. Those laws also support artificially high prices and assure that commercial disputes among drug dealers, and their customers will be settled not in courts of law, but with automatic weapons in the streets.

Drug Prohibition Is A Public Health Menace
Drug prohibition promises a healthier society by denying people the opportunity to become drug users and, possibly, addicts. The reality of prohibition belies that promise.
Drug Prohibition Creates More Problems Than It Solves
Drug prohibition has not only failed to curb or reduce the harmful effects of drug use; it has created other serious social problems.
Prohibition is a Destructive Force in Inner-City Communities
Inner city communities suffer most from both the problem of drug abuse and the consequences of drug prohibition. Although the rates of drug use among white and non-white Americans are similar, African Americans and other racial minorities are arrested and imprisoned at higher rates. For cxample, according to government estimates only 12 percent of drug users are black, but nearly 40 percent of those arested for drug offenses are black. Nationwide, one quarter of all young African American men are under some form of criminal justice supervision, mostly for drug offenses. This phenomenon has had a devastating social impact in minority communities. Moreover. the abuse of drugs, including alcohol. has more dire consequences in impoverished communities where good treaunent programs are least available.

Finally, turf battles and commercial disputes among competing drug enterprises, as well as police responses to those conflicts, occur disproportionately in poor communities, making our inner cities war zones and their residents the war's primary casualties.

Drugs Are Here To Stay - Let's Reduce Their Harm
The universailty of drug use throughout human history has led some experts to conclude that the desire to alter consciousness, for whatever reasons, is a basic human drive. People in almost all cultures, in every era, have used psychoactive drugs. Native South Americans take coca breaks the way we, in this country, take coffee breaks. Native North Americans use peyote and tobacco in their religious ceremonies the way Europeans use wine. Alcohol is the drug of choice in Europe, the U.S, and Canada, while many Muslim countries tolerate the use of opium and mari juana. A "drug free-America" is not a realistic goal and by criminally banning psychoactive drugs the goyernment has ceded all control of Potentially dangerous substances to criminals. Instead of trying to stamp out all drug use. our government should focus on reducing drug abuse and prohibition-generated crime. This requires a fundamental change in public policy: repeal of eriminal prohibition and the creation of a reasonable regulatory system.
Ending Prohibition Should Not Necessarily Increase Drug Abuse
While it is impossible to predict exactly how drug use patterns would change under a system of regulated manufacture and distribution, the iron rules of prohibition are that 1) illegal markets are controlled by producers. not consumers, and 2) prohibition fosters the sale and consumption of more potent and dangerous forms of drugs.

During alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, bootleggers marketed small bottles of l00=plus proof liquor because they were easier to conceal than were large, unwieldy kegs of beer. The result: Consumption of beer and wine went down while consumption of hard liquor went up. Similarly, eontemporary drug smugglers preference for powdered cocaine over bulky, pungent coca leaves encourages use of the most potent and dangerous cocaine products.

In contrast, under legal conditions, consumers - most of whom d6 not wish to harm themselves - play a role in determining the potency of marketed products, as indicated by the popularity of today's light beer, wine coolers and decaffeinated coffee. Once alcohol prohibition was repealed, consumption increased somewhat, but the rate of liver cirrhosis went down because people tended to choose beer and wine, over the more potent, distilled spirits previously promoted by bootleggers. So even though the number of drinkers went up, the health risks of drinking went down. The same dynamic would most likely occur with drug legalization: some increase in drug use, but a decrease in drug abuse.

Another factor to consider is the lure of forbidden fruit. For young people, who are often attracted to taboos, legal drugs might be less tempting than they are now. That has been the experience of The Netherlands: After the Dutch government decriminalized marijuana in 1976, allowing it to be sold and consumed openly in small amounts, usage steadily declined - particularly among teenagers and young adults. Prior to decriminalization, 10 percent of Dutch 17- and 18-yesr-olds used marijuana. By 1985, that figure had dropped to 6.5 percent.

Would drugs be more available once prohibition is repealed? It is hard to imagine drugs being more available than they are today. Despite efforts to stem their flow, drugs are accessible to anyone who wsnts them. Ins recent government-sponsored survey of high-school seniors; 55 percent said it would be "easy" for them to obtain cocaine and 85 percent said it would be "easy" for them to obtain marijuana. In our inner cities, access to drugs is especially easy, and the risk of arrest has proven to have negligible deterrent effect. What would change under decriminalizatian is not so much drug availability as the conditions under which drugs would be available. Without prohibition, providing help to drug abusers who wanted to kick their habits would be easier because the money now being squandered on law-enforcement could be used for preventive social programs and treatment.

What The United States Would Look Like After Repeal
Some people, hearing the words "drug legalization," imagine pushers on street corners passing out cocaine to anyone who wants it - even children. But that is what exists today under prohibition. Consider the legal drugs, alcohol an) tobacco: their potency, time and place of sale and purchasing age limits are set by law. Similarly, warning labels are required on medicinal drugs and some of these are available by prescription only.

After federal alcohol prohibition was repeaied, each state developed its own system for regulating the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. The same could occur with currently illegal drugs. For example, states could create different regulations for marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Ending prohibition is not a panacea. It will not by itself end drug abuse or eliminate violence. Nor will it bring about the social and economic revitalization of our inner cities. However, ending prohibition would bring one very significant benefit: It would sever the connection between drugs and crime that today blights so many lives and communities. In the long run, ending prohibition could foster the redirection of public resources toward social development, iegitimate economic opportunities and effective treatment, thus enhancing the safety. health and well-being of the entire society.

What You Can Do
You can help bring about drug policy reform: