When will drug prohibitionists learn what alcohol prohibitionists found out?

January marks the 97th anniversary of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in 1920 banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors.” Backers hailed Prohibition as a cure for many of society’s problems, arguing it would reduce crime and corruption, prevent the disintegration of American families, and lower the tax burden from prisons and poorhouses. 

Despite these good intentions the 18th Amendment failed. Although alcohol consumption sharply decreased at the beginning of Prohibition, it quickly rebounded. Within a few years consumption was between 60 and 70 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. The quality and potency of bootleg liquor varied greatly, resulting in deaths from poisoning and overdoses. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Barred from buying legal alcohol, many former drinkers switched to opium and cocaine. Organized crime flourished. 

In light of all those failures, Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by ratification of the 21st Amendment. 

The idea that banning a product can stop its sale and use should be laughable even to those untrained in economics. Alas the 18th Amendment wasn’t the government’s last foray into prohibition. For more than 40 years, the U.S. government has waged the War on Drugs. 

Proponents of drug prohibition promise many benefits, like reducing crime, preventing the spread of drug-related illnesses, and dismantling criminal cartels. Just like alcohol prohibition, however, these policies have failed. For example, overdoses have skyrocketed.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1980, 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States were drug-related. By 1990 that toll rose to 3.4. But in 2014, 40,055 people died of overdoses—14.7 per 100,000 people.

As alcohol prohibition showed, crime thrives in the black market. Today organized drug enterprises like Mexican cartels flourish. Joaquín Guzmán, better known as “El Chapo,” sells more drugs today than the notorious Pablo Escobar did at the height of his cocaine empire. 

The problems associated with U.S. drug policy have not lessened under the Obama administration. In 2010 President Obama launched a new National Drug Control Strategy, which was to lower overdose deaths, overall use, and use by young people, among other things, by 2015. 

By its own measurements, however, the administration’s strategy has been an utter disaster. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, heroin overdose deaths increased 28 percent. They are 440 percent higher today than they were under President Bush. And despite Obama’s goals, prescription-opioid deaths have also increased. 

Marijuana use by high school students remains roughly constant, though it was supposed to decline by 15 percent. For 18-25-year-olds the “past-month” rate of use was projected to fall 10 percent. Instead it increased 12 percent. Other statistics tell similar stories. “Lifetime” drug use by eighth-graders, for example, is up 8 percent since 2007. Driving under the influence of drugs has also increased. 

It’s unclear whether drug policy will improve under the Trump administration, but many are pessimistic. In a recent interview Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a well-known drug-policy-reform advocate, expressed concerns over the appointment of John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, stating that “the Trump administration looks like bad news for almost every element of drug policy reform—from sentencing to marijuana … to the international aspects, to the you name it.” In another interview, Nadelmann referred to Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, as a “drug war dinosaur.” He noted Sessions’s support of Nancy Reagan’s antiquated “Just Say No” campaign despite overwhelming evidence of failure. More than 1,200 law professors published an open letter opposing his nomination, citing among other issues “regressive drug policies.”

Drug policy is the concern of all Americans. In 2010 the U.S. government spent some $50 billion on the War on Drugs—that’s $500 a second on policies that have failed.

When policies don’t deliver on their promises, policymakers have two options. They can repeal the policies and try something new or double down on their mistakes.  After 13 years, the failure of the 18th Amendment was clear for all to see. The drug war is now more than 40 years old. When will the prohibitionists learn?

Abigail R. Hall-Blanco, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Oakland-based​ Independent Institute and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.