The War on Drugs

A Vision for the Future

For the last 20 years, the United States has been waging a so-called "War on Drugs". This war has been, at best, ineffective; at worst, an unmitigated disaster We're fighting this war for a variety of political, economic, and ideological reasons The United States is a democracy. The people who are running the War on Drugs—those who directly benefit and profit from it—are a minority of the electorate. In order to keep the War on Drugs going, they need the support—or at least the acquiescence—of the majority.

Logic of War

Right now, they have that support. But they don't have it because people in this country are deeply committed to fighting this war, or specially pleased with the results. They have it because there don't seem to be any alternatives. The War on Drugs has been going on for so long that most people can no longer imagine a world without it. And the rhetoric of war has been effective: there is an unspoken—and unquestioned—assumption that the alternative to fighting this war is defeat.

The unexamined logic goes something like this. Right now,

and still we have drugs, and drug dealers, and drug users. Obviously, if we stop fighting, the country will be overrun with drugs

Force of Nature

Such is the logic of war.

Of course, it's not really a war: that's just a metaphor. But metaphors have power. They express implicit assumptions. They frame discussion, and constrain possibilities.

Here's a different metaphor. Drugs are a force of nature, like the tide. The tide comes in; the tide goes out. You can't stop the tide, and if you're smart, you don't try. If you're smart,

And if someone declares war on the tide, you don't question their judgement; you question their sanity. If drugs are a force of nature, then we need to call off the war and start building bridges.

So how do we get from metaphor to reality? How do we stop the War on Drugs?

The Easy Part

The first step is simple—simplistic, even. To stop the War on Drugs, we legalize drugs. Not decriminalize; not look the other way because we're tired of enforcing the law: legalize. Production, distribution, sale, possession, use: all legal.

The next thing we do is release all the prisoners of war: all the people we've imprisoned for drug offenses. Not every prisoner would walk: some have committed other crimes, like theft, or murder. But we could probably release a million people overnight.

The Hard Part

Now comes the hard part: how do we run a society were drugs are legal? How do we escape the defeat and devastation that the drug warriors fear?

Organized Crime

Let's start with the easiest problem: organized crime. Contrary to what some people think, the War on Drugs doesn't suppress organized crime: it creates it. If we legalize drugs, then organized crime goes away. If drugs are legal, then marijuana is just another crop, like tobacco. If drugs are legal, then heroin is just another drug, like penicillin. Organized crime thrives on illegal products; it has very little ability to control or profit from legal ones.


It certainly seems plausible that legalizing drugs will increase addiction. It just doesn't seem to be true. Drugs used to be legal in this country: until 1900, there were no drug laws. Drugs were sold over the counter, and a few percent of the population was addicted—mostly to morphine.

Since then, we have

and, today, a few percent of the population is addicted—albeit to a somewhat wider variety of drugs. The War on Drugs doesn't have any effect on drug addiction.

Good Things

So, we could legalize drugs, and nothing very bad would happen. On the other hand, many good things would happen. We would likely see less dangerous patterns of drug use.

When drugs are illegal, the market is controlled by the suppliers, who provide the most concentrated and addictive forms of drugs, because those are the easiest to carry and conceal, and have the highest profit margins.

When drugs are legal, the market is controlled by consumers. Most drug users don't actually want to hurt themselves. Given the choice, they typically prefer less concentrated and less dangerous forms of drugs.

Reality Check

So we could legalize drugs, and nothing very bad would happen, and the problems that we do have would become quite a bit more manageable. However, none of this can happen until we, as a society, come to terms with some very basic facts about the world.

People use drugs

First fact: people use drugs. People use drugs in every country, every society, every place on this globe. No exceptions. We can't seem to accept this fact—not in the sense that we don't believe it, but in the sense that we don't want it to be true. We want people to not use drugs.

Now, there are reasons to not use drugs. Good enough reasons that many people choose not to. But we need to accept the fact that this is a decision made by each person, for themselves, and that we have neither the practical ability nor the moral authority to make that decision for them.

These are worthy principles—especially in the abstract. But if we legalize drugs, they won't stay abstract: they will change our world in very concrete ways. There is a tendency to think of drug users as "other people". But they aren't. We are drug users: we, our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues—people reading this page.

If we legalize drugs, these people will no longer be criminals. We won't be able to lock them away in prison. They will be able to use drugs openly. Then we will be put to the test: whether we who don't use drugs can dwell together in peace with we who do use drugs.

Drugs are dangerous

Second fact: drugs are dangerous. People use drugs; some users Again, the simple facts aren't in contention, but we don't want to accept them. The prevailing attitude is, roughly, It sounds reasonable enough until you consider that we don't treat any other risk this way. Life is full of risks. People die These things aren't illegal.

Driving is dangerous: 1% of all Americans die in automobile accidents, but we don't outlaw cars.

And then we send our children out on the highways, and pray for their safe return. Driving is a risk that we accept.

The argument that drugs must be illegal because they are dangerous doesn't even stand on its own terms. Making drugs illegal doesn't stop people from using them, and it actually increases the dangers of using them.

Drugs are dangerous, but we don't outlaw drugs to reduce the danger; we outlaw drugs so that we can ignore the danger. We outlaw drugs so that we won't have to take responsibility for the harm that they do. As long as drugs are illegal, then drug users are criminals, and if some of them are hurt or killed, well, what need we care? They are criminals. They are "other people".

If we legalize drugs, then we can substantially reduce the harm that they do, but we can not eliminate it. Some people will still use drugs; some will still be hurt, addicted, killed by drugs. And when they are, we won't be able to hide behind our laws. We won't be able to comfort ourselves with the illusion that drug users are "other people". Then we will be put to the test: whether we have the courage to live knowing the risks that we all face, and knowing the tragedy that some of us succumb to those risks.

We can end this war

Thirty years ago, we ended the Vietnam war, not because it was a bad idea, although it was; not because we were losing it, although we were, but because it no longer had the support of the American people.

If we can come to terms with these basic facts about the world: that people use drugs, and that drugs are dangerous, then we won't need the War on Drugs any more, and support for it will evaporate. There will still be a political struggle to end it. It won't end all at once, or everywhere at once. But the interests that are running the War on Drugs cannot continue it without our support. We can end this war.


Organized crime cannot control or profit from legal products.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but there is specific historical precedent for it. Until 1919, alcohol was legal in the United States. It was produced in distilleries; sold in bars; purchased by consumers. Organized crime had no particular involvement with it. Then we passed prohibition. Immediately, organized crime took over of the production and distribution of alcohol. By the end of the '20s, gangsters in Chicago were killing each other for control of the alcohol trade. In 1933, we repealed prohibition. Immediately, the gangsters lost control of the alcohol trade: they became irrelevant. Today, alcohol is a large, lawful industry, and organized crime has nothing to do with it.
control what drug producers say about their product
as the FDA currently dictates what pharmaceutical companies say about prescription drugs
keep drugs away from children
as we currently do for alcohol and tobacco
prefer less concentrated and less dangerous forms of drugs
When prohibition was repealed, overall consumption of alcohol increased, but cirrhosis of the liver decreased, as consumers drank less gin and rum, and more beer and wine. Today, this trend continues, with the popularity of lite beers and wine coolers. If we legalized drugs, we would likely see more people smoking opium, and fewer injecting heroin; we would likely see more people chewing coca leaves, and fewer smoking crack.


Psychoactive drugs are those that affect mental functioning. They are found in every known culture, and human beings seem to take endless delight in finding ways to change their consciousness. Many psychoactive drugs can be dangerous, or even lethal, if wrongly used, and most cultures have a complex system of rituals, rules, and traditions that limit who can take which drugs, under what circumstances, and with what preparation. An exception is modern Western culture, where prohibition means that such natural protective systems cannot develop, and many of the most powerful psychoactive drugs are bought on the street and taken by young people without any such understanding or protection.
—Susan Blackmore

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The War on Drugs by Steven W. McDougall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Steven W. McDougall / resume / / 2001 June 03