June 6, 2011, The Wall Street Journal
An increasing number of world leaders are concluding that laws against drug consumption do more harm than good.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Tomorrow marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the U.S. prohibition on alcohol. On that day in 1932 John D. Rockefeller Jr., a vociferous advocate of temperance, called for the repeal of the 18th amendment in a letter published in the New York Times.
Rockefeller had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for the constitutional prohibition on alcohol. But his letter did more than admit the error of his investment. Because of his moral authority on the matter, it effectively ended the conservative taboo against admitting that the whole experiment had failed.
Rockefeller had not changed his views on the destructiveness of drink, and he asked for ongoing "support of practical measures for the promotion of genuine temperance." But he insisted that lifting prohibition was essential if America was to "restore public respect for the law."
Rockefeller's reversal came to mind last week when former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, three former Latin American presidents from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, and the current prime minister of Greece (among others) issued a joint report—as the Global Commission on Drug Policy—"describ[ing] the drug war as a failure and call[ing] for a paradigm shift in global drug policy."
Like Rockefeller, the commission members do not embrace a laissez-faire policy toward drug use. But they recognize, as he did, that the attempt to use force to halt consumption has been disastrous. They recommend alternative approaches to controlling substances and more emphasis on treatment for addicts.
The parallels between the situation Rockefeller faced and today's scandalous war on drugs are dramatic. The wealthy philanthropist had begun his campaign against alcohol with great expectations. "When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped—with a host of advocates of temperance—that it would be generally supported by public opinion" and, he wrote, that teetotaling would eventually take hold.
"That this has not been the result but rather that drinking generally has increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unbashed[ly] disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree—I have slowly reluctantly come to believe."
He noted that any "benefits" from the 18th amendment were "more than outweighed by the evils that ha[d] developed and flourished since its adoption, evils which, unless promptly checked," were "likely to lead to conditions unspeakably worse than those which prevailed before."
Sound familiar? Almost 100 years after drug prohibition was ushered in, school children report that they can easily access narcotics and surveys indicate they are used across social classes. A May 23 story in the Economist reported that Canada now trumps Mexico as an entryway into the U.S. for the drug "ecstasy." American jails are taking in record numbers of young minorities and converting them into hardened criminals; gang violence is on the rise; organized crime is undermining U.S. geopolitical interests in places like Mexico, Central America and Afghanistan. Thousands of innocents, including children, have been killed in the mayhem.
Having produced nothing but hardship for the most vulnerable, disrespect for the rule of law, terror in formerly peaceful cities and profit opportunities for gangsters, drug warriors now want to militarize the southern U.S. border.
If history is any guide, says Angelo Codevilla, in a recent Claremont Review of Books essay titled "Our Borders, Ourselves," this isn't going to end well. Look at what happened, he warns, in the Peloponnesian War when hostility broke out on the Athenian doorstep: "Having lost a friendly border, Athens turned itself inside out trying to secure an unfriendly one."
The border is unfriendly not because of too few fences, drones or soldiers, but because American drug habits finance the traffickers. "These dollars, and nothing else," writes Mr. Codevilla, "are responsible for the near collapse of law and order south of the border and for the insufficiently publicized corruption on the northern side."
We have met the enemy and it is us, the Claremont Institute scholar posits: "Even if our southern border were completely closed off . . . it would do nothing to change the fact that mind-altering drugs have become morally and politically acceptable to mainstream American society."
Americans can cut their demand, perhaps with education and by stigmatizing use, as was done with cigarettes. But until then, victory is unlikely. As Mr. Codevilla notes: "America's assumption that restricting supply can somehow make it safe for us to tolerate widespread drug use has itself proved to be a habit-forming narcotic that has reduced our sensitivity to moral rot." Rockefeller could not have said it better.