How Drug Prohibition Fuels American Carnage

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears not to understand the most basic cost of the drug policy he recommends: the guarantee of violent crime.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

During President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, he declared that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The populist right would do well to apply that formulation to the street violence associated with the drug trade. The War on Drugs is a decades-old federal effort that has failed as consistently and completely as any government initiative in American history. A generation has passed since National Review declared it irrevocably lost. Yet Attorney General Jeff Sessions, America’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, doesn’t even grasp the most obvious tradeoff that prohibitions are making.

“Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business,” he declared in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.” Yet marijuana is a drug, and in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and beyond, dispensaries operating openly in neighborhoods including mine traffic in pot while deploying lawyers, not gun barrels. Other drug trafficking is violent for the same reason liquor trafficking was violent during Prohibition: because of the inherent violence of black markets, not anything inherent to drugs. The honest, informed prohibitionist acknowledges that his preferred policy is inseparable from ineradicable black markets in narcotics, which have fueled street violence throughout the War on Drugs.

The only honest prohibitionist counterargument is that decriminalization or legalization would impose still higher costs: for example, more addiction, more overdoses, or a degradation of culture. It is theoretically possible for that calculus to stand—for the epidemic of violence associated with the drug war to be offset by its benefits.

But Sessions wants the public to believe that doubling down on the drug war will reduce street violence. “Federal drug offenders include major drug traffickers, gang members, importers, manufacturers and international drug cartel members,” he notes later in his op-ed, urging harsher penalties for those who possess drugs with an intent to sell. In fact, without the black markets created by drug policy in nations like the United States, neither criminal traffickers nor the black market importers nor drug cartels would exist. Criminal gangs would likely endure, but as after the repeal of alcohol prohibition, they would wield less power and maim or kill fewer people.

Would the blessedly reduced street violence that legalization or decriminalization would produce coincide with a significant increase in drug abuse, addiction, and overdose deaths?

That depends on the drug.

Legalization of marijuana actually seems to reduce overdose deaths, as drug users substitute relatively safe cannabinoids for relatively dangerous opioid pain killers. If Sessions wants to significantly reduce the number of Americans dying of drug overdoses, the most effective measure he could take is to push for research into cannabinoid painkillers and the federal legalization of medical marijuana. “In 2014, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states with medical marijuana laws saw a 24.8 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths, compared with states without such laws,” the Washington Post reported, clarifying the tradeoffs.“That worked out to about 1,700 fewer deaths in 2010 alone.”

The horror of the present epidemic in the abuse of relatively dangerous opioids has understandably tempered the enthusiasm that some people have for hard-drug legalization. In fact, it would seem to be a political nonstarter for the foreseeable future.

It is nevertheless worth noting that the present opioid epidemic unfolded despite ongoing prohibition and its associated costs––and that the vast majority of Americans were sensible enough to refrain from trying heroin until they became addicted to opioid pain pills that they took without understanding their risks, on the advice of doctors, who were themselves influenced by drug companies with perverse financial incentives. A great many overdose deaths resulted from legally obtained pills.

Of course, that combination of legality and deadliness warns against a totally unregulated market in opioids. They aren’t a substance that corporations should be able to advertise like cola. Still, the opioid epidemic can likely be unwound more effectively through education, treatment, and a shift toward cannabinoids for pain management than an inhumane, law-and-order campaign of tougher drug penalties and longer incarceration. (A higher likelihood of being punished has a bigger deterrent effect on crime than the severity of the sentence handed down to convicts.)

In any case, for all the fraught tradeoffs and uncertainties that surround drug policy, there is little doubt about what happens when policymakers crack down on the sale of a desired product. Violence happens. The Trump administration can claim that it will reduce street violence. And Sessions can argue that doubling down on mandatory-minimum sentences, even for nonviolent drug crimes, and prohibition of even “soft” drugs like marijuana, is the best available drug policy. But he should not try to mislead Americans about an inevitable consequence: ongoing violence in the street that is intrinsic to the course that he is pursuing. Whatever its other costs, only legalization or decriminalization can end that carnage.