The American war on drugs – or, more generically, the global war on drugs – can’t be won. The more intensely that governments wage it, the more certain is the defeat. This is because risk determines reward. More pressure on the supply of drugs means more risk and more profits. More profits mean more drugs and more violence. The proof is in the body count across Mexico, across Central and South America and, indeed, across the Western Hemisphere.
This is why we need to end the war on drugs and why Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs was right the other day to champion the complete legalization of marijuana in Canada – as a straightforward economic proposition. “Look at the money that governments make off alcohol,” Mr. Hobbs told the CBC. “You know, perhaps instead of organized crime getting the profits [from marijuana] the federal government could generate revenues from it.” Mr. Hobbs errs only in limiting his proposal to cannabis. He should extend it to opiates, cocaine and most other drugs. Governments can raise revenue off all of them – without hurting drug users nearly as much as prohibition hurts them.
Canada can’t do this alone, alas, without making the country a sanctuary for drug tourists. (See The Netherlands.) It would be best done with a number of countries acting more or less simultaneously – the reverse process of prohibition. Western governments left drugs alone in the 19th century. (The Victorians loved laudanum: 10 per cent opium, 90 per cent alcohol.) It wasn’t until 1906 that the U.S. required the labelling of alcohol, cocaine, heroin and morphine; Canada did so in 1908. It wasn’t until 1914 that the U.S. required a licence to sell them; Canada did so in 1911. The two countries marched step by step toward criminal prohibition.
Assuming some international consensus for repeal, though, Canada has a number of retail models to contemplate. Assuming a government monopoly, it could regulate the drug trade through government-owned outlets (“beer and liquor stores”). Assuming a regulated industry, it could exploit existing pharmaceutical emporiums (“drugstores”). Assuming a more free-market approach, it could use corner-store outlets (“smoke shops”). All these establishments sell lots of government-regulated drugs already – most of them, when you think about it, for medical purposes of one kind or another.
Canada would presumably delegate the manufacture and distribution of illicit drugs to big-brand drug companies – or (for marijuana) to supply management. Canada, after all, has practice with such things: It has marketed chicken and eggs as controlled substances since the 1970s. Provincially operated Cannabis Growers Marketing Boards would appear inevitable.
Ironically, drugs became a significant problem only when governments declared war on them. Although Richard Nixon cited drugs as “public enemy No. 1” when he declared war in 1971, the statistical evidence doesn’t support the pronouncement. The U.S. incarceration rate, now the highest in the world, was one-eighth the problem 40 years ago than it is now. From 1920 through 1970, the rate remained flat: with 0.1 per cent of Americans in prison at any one time. By 1980, the rate doubled: 0.2 per cent. By 1990, it doubled again: 0.5 per cent. By 2010, it reached a record high: 0.8 per cent. This exceeds two million people – roughly 25 per cent of whom are serving time for drugs.
The consequences of the war on drugs are appalling, from excruciating personal suffering to intractable national tragedy. It’s enough to note that the death toll in Mexico alone exceeded 15,000 last year, bringing the number of people killed in the past five years to nearly 40,000.
Some Canadians sneer at U.S. drug policy, and there’s much in it to justify the response. Yet, the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute reported in April that more Canadians (17 per cent of the population) consume marijuana than Americans (12 per cent), and almost as many Canadians (2.3 per cent) consume cocaine as Americans (2.8 per cent). But the issue isn’t drugs; the issue is war and peace.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, incidentally, says legalizing drugs would save the United States $44-billion a year in law-enforcement costs and generate another $42-billion in tax revenue – finally, after the longest war in American history, a peace dividend that could buy a lot of help for a lot of troubled people.