The War on Drugs, which is celebrating its 40th year, has been a colossal failure. It has curtailed personal freedom, created a violent black market, and filled our prisons. It has also trampled on states’ rights: Sixteen states have legalized “medical marijuana” — which is, admittedly, often code for legalizing pot in general — only to clash with federal laws that ban weed throughout the land.The article praises bipartisan legislation to return authority for regulating marijuana to the states when the product doesn't cross state lines, and criticizes Texas Congressman Lamar Smith for misrepresenting Supreme Court precedents on the subject. The story closes, "Public opinion is such that fully ending the drug war is not within the realm of political possibility. Returning marijuana policy to the states, however, is a workable idea, and it would mark an excellent first step toward real reform." It's a strange debate indeed where Lamar Smith and the Obama Administration are on the same side vs. the National Review and Jessie Jackson.
Relatedly, the National Drug Intelligence Center has issued a 123-page report titled "The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society" (pdf), the first such analysis in a decade, according to the introduction. According to their analysis, illicit drug use cost $193+ billion in 2007, with most of that ($113 billion) spent on the criminal justice system at all levels of government. Productivity costs made up most of the rest, with health-related costs amounting to $11.4 billion. In other words, the United States spends roughly ten times the amount on criminal justice responses to illicit drug use than it does on health-related responses.
Indeed, the amount spent on criminal justice dwarfs drug cartel profits. The State Department in 2010 estimated (pdf) that international drug trafficking organizations' annual gross revenue from illegal drug sales in the U.S. ranges between $15-30 billion. Of course, that represents the wholesalers' gross revenue, not retail sales, but it's still remarkable that the economic cost of the justice system's response to illegal drugs appears to be greater than the drug market itself.
By these data, locking up drug users and sellers is a massive market in and of itself that's at least as or more economically significant than illicit drug sales. That $113 billion figure is roughly the same as Bank of America's 2010 gross revenue ($111 billion according to their annual report), for example. If Bank of America is "too big to fail," then so too is the Drug War.
The National Review is probably right that "fully ending the drug war is not within the realm of political possibility." But it's also accurate that treating drug use as a criminal-justice issue as opposed to a health concern has lately garnered critics from across the political spectrum. The economic priorities described in this report are wholly skewed. Budgets are moral documents and the 10-1 criminal-justice-to-health-expenditures ratio speaks volumes about the nation's (misplaced) priorities. One wonders, is the Drug War really about protecting the public weal, or has it become a job-generating enterprise so vast that ending it or even reducing its scope is simply no longer "within the realm of political possibility"?