The Vietnam Solution for Drug Victory
Lou Dobbs declares that there is only one option in the war on drugs — victory. I agree.
The real question is how to achieve this victory. The two things we know for certain are that we will never eliminate drug abuse and addiction and we will never make any real progress towards reducing drug abuse and addiction by government.
All the rest of the problems with "drugs" are directly the result of the war on drugs — government prohibition. Drug-related crimes, drug gangs, overcrowded prisons, a poisoned judicial system, and political corruption are all the result of drug prohibition, not drugs themselves.
Look at the problems in drug-producing areas of the world such as Mexico, South America, the Middle East and Afghanistan. What would these nations be like absent our drug war? We know very well that the drug war and illegal drug money is helping to undermine local institutions, spread dangerous ideologies, and fuel anti-Americanism. The same applies to the inner city ghettos.
Most importantly, Americans are dying from illegal drugs at rising and alarming rates. These deaths are also the result of the drug war because government prohibition makes drugs more potent, more impure, more dangerous, more addictive, and more deadly.
People who sell illegal drugs want their products to be as concentrated as possible in order to avoid detection from law enforcement. They are not trying to kill their customers, but in black markets sellers are not held accountable by law or competition. If McDonald's sold a hamburger that killed one customer it would affect its sales around the globe and they would be prosecuted and sued for millions of dollars. The same is true for all businesses in the free market.
The solution is to end prohibition and all government involvement with drugs in the same way we left Vietnam. No prohibition, no law enforcement, no government distribution centers, no regulation, no controls, just abandon government drug control like we abandoned Vietnam — completely and in disgrace for what we had done. Vietnam was a complete basket case when we left and has improved a great deal in many ways, including abandoning communist economics and allowing some freedom of religion.
Drug legalization will also lead to improvements because sellers will be legally liable for selling drugs that harm their customers by causing overdoses and death, or to minors. Before prohibition, Bayer sold heroin and Coca Cola sold cocaine and nobody died as a result from overdose. Marijuana is still safer than alcohol, tobacco, and most FDA-approved prescription drugs, even though it has greatly increased in potency under prohibition.
Sellers will also not be shooting guns at their competitors. Drug gangs will lose their source of funding. There will be plenty of space in prison for real criminals. The corruption and bribery that infects our entire law enforcement and legal system will be purged.
Of course we must do more to help those who abuse or who might potentially abuse drugs. As individuals we must be prepared to help our friends, family, and coworkers. As a nation we must also be prepared with "tough love." To that end we should eliminate the so-called social safety net that allows individuals to abuse drugs and pass the cost onto society.
Programs such as welfare, unemployment insurance, and government-provided healthcare and insurance all must go. The job market provides a great incentive to not abuse drugs. Drug abusers get lower paying jobs, fewer promotions, and are fired at a much higher rate than those who do not abuse drugs. By providing welfare and unemployment insurance we unwittingly encourage drug abuse and bad behavior by creating what is called a moral hazard because we as a nation bail out people for their bad behavior.
Government subsidized health care must also go. Mandates that require hospitals and emergency rooms to take on all customers whether they can pay or not is a grand inducement to bad behavior with drugs. There were nearly 20,000 drug overdoses in 2004 and most of them ended up in hospitals unable to pay for their treatment. Think of all the drug gang violence that ends up sending un-paying customers to emergency rooms all over the country night after night. Subsidizing drug abuse and ruining our health care system is not the right approach.
Victory will be achieved when we all realize that the drug war prohibition is just another Vietnam — a morally reprehensible and intellectually dishonest crusade of self delusion. It cannot end too soon.
Mark Thornton teaches economics at Auburn University. He is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is co-author of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.