The Drug War is a Failure

Laurence M. Vance – January 30, 2019

According to the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 70,237 drug-overdose deaths in the United States in 2017. From 2013 to 2017, drug-overdose death rates increased in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Of those deaths, 47,600 (67.8 percent) involved opioids, “with increases across age groups, racial/ethnic groups, county urbanization levels, and in multiple states.” During the period from 1999 to 2017, drug overdoses resulted in 702,568 deaths, with 399,230 (56.8 percent) involving opioids (morphine, oxycodone, methadone, heroin, tramadol, fentanyl). The opioid overdose epidemic “continues to worsen and evolve because of the continuing increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids.”

Politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, physicians, and other health professionals will analyze the minutiae of these data and make policy recommendations on how best to tweak the war on drugs. But for us regular folks there is one important conclusion that should be drawn from this data: the war on drugs is a failure.

The war on drugs has failed to stop people from dying from drug use. It has failed to prevent drug abuse. It has failed to thwart drug overdoses. It has failed to reduce the demand for drugs. It has failed to help drug addicts get treatment. It has failed as a disincentive for trying drugs. It has failed to keep drugs out of the hands of teenagers. It has failed to end the violence associated with drug trafficking. And it has failed to stop the crimes that are committed by people desperate for money to buy drugs.

But the war on drugs has also failed in other ways. It has failed to have a constitutional justification. It has failed to be a proper role of government. It has failed to be a necessary element of a free society. And it has failed to be cost effective.

The consequences of the war on drugs are all negative: infringement of personal freedom, corruption of law enforcement, militarization of the police, increased asset forfeiture, destruction of personal and financial privacy, a clogged judicial system, swollen prison populations, hindering of legitimate pain management, erosion of civil liberties, ruined lives, impeding the treatment of debilitating diseases, more intrusive government, mass incarcerations, criminal records for committing non-crimes, separation of families, violation of property rights, eradication of the Fourth Amendment, interference in the free market, and the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it.

So why does the war on drugs continue to have virtually unanimous bipartisan sponsorship in Congress; to have the equal support of both major political parties; to never be an issue in any congressional election; to be backed by the majority of Americans; to be advocated by the majority of law-enforcement personnel; to be cheered by most religious people; to be espoused by most parents with young children; to be championed by liberals, conservatives, and populists alike; and to be defended even by those who say they favor “the Constitution,” “the free market,” “individual freedom,” “civil liberties,” or “limited government”?

But what about all the states where marijuana is legal?

There are thirty-three states that have legalized the medical use of marijuana, ten states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and at least twenty states and more than fifty localities in a dozen states that have either fully or partially decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Although those are all good things, they are a far cry from marijuana freedom. There still exist a myriad of rules and regulations concerning marijuana in those states. And of course, we are only talking about marijuana. The possessing, using, buying, and selling of other drugs, including opioids, is still subject to the full fury of the drug war in every state.

So then, why do so many people support such a failed policy as the war on drugs?

For some, it is because using illegal drugs is dangerous. Yet, skydiving, bungee jumping, using a chainsaw, and cliff diving are certainly dangerous, but I don’t hear supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to prohibit those activities.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs to get high is “different” from using alcohol to achieve a similar effect. Yet, alcohol abuse has severe short-term and long-term risks and is a factor in many drownings; home, pedestrian, car, and boating accidents; acts of violence; sexual assaults; and fires, but I don’t hear supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to re-institute Prohibition.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs is unhealthy. Yet, eating junk food and drinking beverages laden with high-fructose corn syrup is certainly unhealthy, but I don’t hear supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to ban Twinkies or Coca Cola.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs is immoral. Yet, committing fornication and adultery is certainly immoral, but I don’t hear supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to criminalize them.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs is addictive. Yet, playing video games and viewing pornography are certainly addictive, but I don’t hear any supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to prohibit those activities.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs is irreligious. Yet, even though it is against the tenets of most religions for someone to alter his mind or mood with any substance, I don’t hear religious supporters of the war on drugs calling for the government to ban the using of alcohol to alter one’s mind or mood.

For some, it is because using illegal drugs has no value. Obviously, those who use illegal drugs to harm themselves, pleasure themselves, medicate themselves, or enlighten themselves do so because they believe that using illegal drugs has some value to them. Even so, an activity’s having no value is no reason for the government to ban it.

But for most, it is simply because drug abuse is bad so therefore it is the job of the government to “do something” about it. This statist mindset infects most Americans, including those in the above groups. In spite of the low approval rating of Congress and complaints about the government, Americans in general have a myopic, irrational, and naïve trust in government.

The decision to use drugs should be an ethical, religious, medical, or moral decision, not a political decision. The drug war is not only a failure, it is a monstrous evil that has ruined more lives than drugs themselves.

This article was originally published at Laurence M. Vance is a columnist and policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at He is the author of Gun Control and the Second AmendmentThe War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and War, Empire and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. His newest books are Free Trade or Protectionism? and The Free Society. Visit his website:    


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