Prohibition and the war on drugs

Sanho Tree, “An Inside Look at the Drug War Vs. Civilization,” 5 February 2014, The Fix

We unfortunately live in a society that likes to talk in simple dichotomies—good or bad, yes or no, black or white. It carries over very often into the way we talk about drug policy. Historically, when I would debate drug warriors, because I would be critical of prohibition and the war on drugs, they would say, “Oh, so you want to sell heroin in candy machines to children.” No. I actually want more control over these substances. The myth of prohibition is that prohibition doesn’t mean you control drugs. It means you give up the right to control drugs.

I usually travel with a prop. It’s the Mexican finger trap, or the Chinese finger cuffs. That’s an illustration of counter-intuitive thinking. If you give it to a child, the first reaction to get out of this trap is to pull harder and harder. And the harder you pull, the stucker you get. That’s the problem with the war on drugs: The more prohibition, the more valuable you make the drugs. The more valuable the drugs are, the more people get attracted to this economy. And you will never make these substances disappear by making them astronomically more valuable, which is what we’ve been doing for decades now.

When we talk about heroin, cocaine, marijuana, these are minimally processed agricultural commodities. Remember that if you remember nothing else. Remember that these drugs are incredibly cheap and easy to make. They’re not exotic. There’s no reason they should be worth what they’re worth on the street today in terms of the black market. It’s our policies that make these substances so incredibly valuable. …

The smartest traffickers are the people we miss – the most innovative traffickers, the ones who keep their heads down and stick to the business of making lots of money smuggling drugs. So we have had this filtering effect. We’ve been fitting up the herd. It’s almost like we’ve had an unintended policy of artificial selection. We’ve been selecting for super-traffickers. You can’t possibly win a war on drugs when you ensure that only the most adaptable, the most efficient operations survive.

Not only do they survive, they thrive – because, again, we’ve done two things indirectly to help them. Number one, we’ve eliminated the competition for them. We’ve picked off the clumsy, inefficient traffickers and opened up this very lucrative economic space for them. And, number two, we’ve artificially tried to constrict the supply of drugs in the street while the demand remains constant, thereby driving up their prices and profits. …

Over and over again we’re running into these limits. It’s a dangerous downward spiral, because what we’ve done through the drug war and drug prohibition, is essentially set up an XPRIZE. If you can innovate and find ways to penetrate our homeland security, you stand to make a fortune. There are other people in this world who are not interested in smuggling drugs. They’re interested in smuggling more dangerous things, WMDs and whatnot. I’m not saying there’s a connection between drug traffickers and international terrorists. It’s not in their interest right now to help terrorists get into the U.S., because any drug organization that does this will feel the full weight of all law enforcement focused on them specifically. But maybe some lieutenant could be bribed in that organization to smuggle some people or dangerous substances in these tunnels or by these methods.

From a homeland security perspective, this has made us very much less safe, because terrorists on their own could not have innovated all these different techniques for penetrating our border security. Time and again we end up making ourselves less safe from these policies. …

If you go to the Netherlands, historically they have had fairly liberal drug laws. The coffee shops are famous. But if you take a drug policy tour, they will show you the education system, public housing, the health care system – all these things that it takes to build a healthy individual. Then they will show you the coffee shops and the drug-control system.

That’s the right order. Sequencing is everything, prioritization is everything.

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