The Crisis in Drug Prohibition

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. The Crisis in Drug Prohibition is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


David Boaz edits this collection of reasons for ending modern prohibition.

The Case for Legalization

Ethan A. Nadelmann compares modern prohibition with alcohol prohibition: more laws and more enforcement generate more crime.

p. 16

“Most proposals for dealing with the drug problem today reflect a desire to point the finger at those most removed from one’s home and area of expertise. New York Mayor Ed Koch, Florida Congressman Larry Smith, and Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, who recognize government’s inability to deal with the drug problem in the cities, are among the most vocal supporters of punishing foreign drug-producing countries and stepping up interdiction efforts. Foreign leaders and U.S. State Department and drug-enforcement officials stationed abroad, on the other hand, who understand all too well why it is impossible to crack down successfully on illicit drug production outside the United States, are the most vigorous advocates of domestic enforcement and demand reduction efforts within the United States. In between, those agencies charged with drug interdiction, from the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service to the U.S. military, know that they will never succeed in capturing more than a small percentage of the illicit drugs being smuggled into the United States. Not surprisingly, they point their fingers in both directions. The solution, they promise, lies in greater source-control efforts abroad and greater demand-reduction efforts at home.”

P. 18

“It is worth observing that the increases in potency of illegal drugs have coincided with decreases in the potency of legal substances. Motivated in good part by health concerns, cigarette smokers are turning to lower-tar and lower-nicotine tobacco products, alcohol drinkers from hard liquor to wine and beer, and even coffee drinkers from regular to decaffeinated coffee. This trend may well have less to do with the nature of the substances than with their legal status.”

P. 24

“They saw that more laws and policemen seemed to generate more violence and corruption.”

(On alcohol prohibition.)

Thinking About Drug Legalization

James Ostrowski writes about the horrible things that will happen after legalization: organized crime gets a huge pay cut, violent criminals go to jail longer, street violence drops.

p. 59

“In a world of scarce prison resources, sending a drug offender to prison for one year is equivalent to freeing a violent criminal to commit 40 robberies, 7 assaults, 110 burglaries, and 25 auto thefts.”

“Prohibition is an awful flop.
 We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
 We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
 Nevertheless, we’re for it.
—Franklin P. Adams (1931)”

p. 62

“The night basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose, his friends, fearing the police, waited until after his third seizure before calling an ambulance. Illegal drug users have been arrested at hospitals after seeking medical attention. Legalization would put an end to that kind of nonsense.”

P. ?

It is clear that most of the serious problems the public associates with illegal drug use are, in reality, caused directly or indirectly by drug prohibition.

Let’s assume the war on drugs is given up as the misguided enterprise it is. What will happen? The day after legalization goes into effect, the streets of America will be safer. The drug dealers will be gone. The shoot-outs between drug dealers will end. Innocent bystanders will not be murdered anymore. Hundreds of thousands of drug "addicts" will no longer roam the streets, shoplifting, mugging, breaking into homes in the middle of the night to steal, and dealing violently with those who happen to wake up. One year after prohibition is repealed, 1,600 innocent people who would otherwise have been dead at the hands of drug criminals will be alive.

Within days of prohibition repeal, thousands of judges, prosecutors, and police will be free to catch, try, and imprison violent career criminals — criminals who commit 50 to 100 serious crimes, including robbery, rape, and murder, per year when on the loose. For the first time in years, our overcrowded prisons will have room for them. Ultimately, repeal of prohibition will open 75,000 jail cells.

The day after repeal, organized crime will get a big pay cut — $80 billion a year.

How about those slick young drug dealers who are the new role models for the youth of the inner cities, with their designer clothes and Mercedes convertibles, always wearing a broad, smug smile that says crime pays? They snicker at the honest kids going to school or to work at the minimum wage. The day after repeal, the honest kids will have the last laugh. The dealers will be out of a job, unemployed.

The day after repeal, real drug education can begin and, for the first time in history, it can be honest. No more need to prop up the failed war on drugs.

The year before repeal, 500,000 Americans will have died from illnesses related to overeating and lack of exercise, 390,000 from smoking, and 150,000 from drinking alcohol. About 3,000 will have died from cocaine, heroin, and marijuana combined, with many of those deaths the result of the lack of quality control in the black market. The day after repeal, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana will, by and large, do no harm to those who choose not to consume them. In contrast, the day before prohibition repeal, all Americans, whether or not they choose to use illegal drugs, will be forced to endure the violence, street crime, erosion of civil liberties, corruption, and social and economic decay caused by the war on drugs.

Legalize Dope

William F. Buckley notes that with prohibition comes unregulated sales; products adulterated with true poisons if they’re even the desired product at all, and wildly varying degrees of purity.

“Ours is a free society in which oodles of people kill themselves with tobacco and booze. Some will do so with coke and heroin. But we should count in the lives saved by having the deadly stuff available at the same price as rat poison.”

Nancy Reagan and the Real Villains in the Drug War

Stephen Chapman notes the hypocrisy of making drugs illegal, fostering a violent black market, and then putting the blame elsewhere.

“The casual user may think when he takes a line of cocaine or smokes a joint in the privacy of his nice condo, listening to his expensive stereo, that he’s somehow not bothering anyone. But there is a trail of death and destruction that leads directly to his door. I’m saying that if you’re a casual drug user, you are an accomplice to murder.”—Nancy Reagan

“Nancy Reagan and the other crusaders against drugs may continue to preach that still tougher measures are needed. But no one should imagine they will succeed at anything but perpetuating the bloody status quo. And no one should have any doubt who are the real accomplices to murder.”

Why Not Try Decriminalization?

Richard Cohen draws the obvious parallel to worries about the drug trade with similar worries during alcohol prohibition.

“Say what you will about the decriminalization of alcohol, it has rid the nation of bootleggers.”

A Political Opiate

Lewis H. Lapham writes a little about the prejudices that fuel the drug war.

“The drug war plays to the prejudices of an audience only too eager to believe the worst that can be said about people whom they would rather not know.”