Why the War on Drugs is a War on People

Jacob Sullum,

Release Date
April 28, 2021


War on Drugs

The War on Drugs was launched in the United States by former President Richard Nixon in 1971. This allowed for the criminalization of drug use, which led to the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, particularly for communities of color.

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine, has been writing about drug policy since the 1980s. In this video, he answers the following questions:

How does the War on Drugs give rise to a black market with fatal consequences? How does the War on Drugs endanger the general public’s privacy? How does the War on Drugs give police a license to steal your cash?

#WaronDrugs #EndTheDrugWar #DrugPolicy

The War on Drugs is the government’s name for coercive and often violent efforts to prevent the consumption of certain arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. But since drugs are not animate and cannot act on their own, this war is really a war on people: people who want to use the psychoactive substances that the government has decided to ban, and people who help them do that. The War on Drugs officially aims to reduce the harm caused by substance abuse, but it causes a lot of harm on its own. While potential drug abusers who are deterred by prohibition may be better off than they otherwise would be, people who defy prohibition are decidedly worse off, and so is the general public, which suffers from the side effects of the attempt to dictate which chemicals people may swallow, snort, smoke, or inject. Even nonviolent drug offenders can be sent to prison for years or decades because of conduct that violates no one’s rights, such as growing marijuana or selling cocaine. That policy not only punishes drug offenders, but hurts their families and communities while costing taxpayers money that might otherwise be used to fight predatory crime. In addition to the risk of arrest and jail, drug users face the danger of violence in a black market where there are no legal, peaceful methods for resolving disputes. They also find that the quality and potency of illegal drugs are uncertain and unpredictable. The tendency of drug traffickers to favor more potent drugs, which contain more doses in any given volume, helps explain the shift from beer and wine to distilled spirits during alcohol prohibition, the shift from opium to heroin after nonmedical use of narcotics was banned, and the more recent shift from heroin to fentanyl. The artificially high prices of illegal drugs, meanwhile, encourage users to get more bang for their buck by injecting drugs, which opens the door to soft-tissue infections and transmission of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS, especially when legal restrictions make clean needles hard to get. Those artificially high prices also make it more likely that heavy drug users will support their habits by theft, which has a spillover effect on the general population. So does the violence associated with the black market. Criminal organizations use murder to grab territory and retaliate against competitors, sometimes killing bystanders in the process. The “risk premium” that can be earned by supplying illegal drugs enriches and empowers these gangs, leading to carnage, disorder, and rampant corruption in countries such as Mexico and Honduras. The War on Drugs, in short, imposes heavy burdens on identifiable victims, including drug users, drug suppliers, bystanders caught in the crossfire, and anyone who values his privacy or wants to carry cash without worrying that it will be legally stolen by police. It imposes these burdens for the sake of hypothetical people who might otherwise suffer as a result of their own drug abuse. Whether that tradeoff can be justified in strictly utilitarian terms is doubtful, and it is impossible to square with any moral theory that recognizes individuals as sovereign over their own minds and bodies.