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Editorial: How Long Does an Experiment Need to Continue Before It's Declared a Failure? (e.g. Drug Prohibition)

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #541)
Politics & Advocacy

David Borden, Executive Director

David Borden
How long does an experiment need to continue before it's declared a failure?

For alcohol prohibition, our US version, it was about 13 years. Between mafia crime, poisonings from adulterated beverages, and the dropping age at which people were becoming alcoholics, Americans decided that the "Noble Experiment" -- whether it should actually be regarded as noble or not -- was a bad idea. And they ended it. New York State did its part 75 years ago today, ratifying the 21st amendment to repeal the 18th amendment, bringing the Constitution one state closer to being restored. It took another half a year, until December 5th, to get the 36 states on the board that were needed at the time to get the job done. But Americans of the '30s recognized the failure of the prohibition experiment, and they took action by enacting legalization of alcohol.

Industrialist John D. Rockefeller described the evolution of his thinking that led to the recognition of prohibition's failure, in a famous 1932 letter:

"When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before."

In the context of today's leading prohibition -- the drug war -- it's important to realize that those other drugs were made illegal even before alcohol was. It was December 17th, 1914, when the Harrison Narcotics Act passed the US Congress -- ostensibly a regulatory law to synchronize America's system with a new one being adopted by countries around the world. But law enforcement interpreted it as prohibiting drugs -- coca and opium, and derivatives of them such as heroin and cocaine, were the ones in question then -- and law enforcement got its way.

Which means that drugs have been illegal for almost a century. And yet despite a century of prohibition -- a century of fighting opium -- the Taliban could somehow make a hundred million off of it last year, that's how much of it is still being used. Our addiction rate in the US is higher today than it is believed to have been at the turn of the 20th century, and while other things that have certainly changed that could affect drug use, if you're fighting a "drug war" to end drug use, if addiction goes in completely the opposite direction, then you have a problem. A recent example of things going in the completely opposite direction as intended is cocaine prices on the streets of our cities, which according to DEA data is about a fifth of what it was in 1980 when adjusting for inflation and purity. The goal of the eradication-interdiction-arrest-incarceration strategy is to raise prices, in order to discourage use. Oh, and the drugs have gotten worse too -- who had ever heard of crack cocaine before 1986 -- 72 years after passage of the Harrison Act?

Marijuana prohibition, enacted in 1937, is an even less successful experiment than opiate and cocaine prohibition. For the harder drugs one might say at least that some young people have trouble getting them, although that's really just the kids who aren't into drugs. But marijuana can be purchased by virtually any high school student in the country, at virtually any high school in the country, and generally from other students. When kids are dealing drugs to other kids, and that is happening EVERYWHERE, what is the result of the experiment? What is its conclusion? Is further research really necessary at that point?

No, it's not. The findings are on the drug prohibition experiment are conclusive -- it's a failure. And while many of the people waging the drug war believe it's noble, that belief is misguided -- with half a million people incarcerated in US jails and prisons for drug offenses, the prohibition experiment is anything but noble.

The day we legalize drugs is the day we can begin to clean up the mess that the drug prohibition experiment has created.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

for drug dealers and law enforcement. They both want the prohibition to continue forever. Oh, I forgot, stupid people also want it to be endlessly fought too. Stupid people think the phony drug war can be "won". So ,to reiterate, if you are a criminal type, or in law enforcement,or just stupid, or maybe all three,Hooray for Drug War Forever !!!!

Fri, 06/27/2008 - 6:24pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada The opium trade was at an all time low in Afghanistan under the Taliban.I believe the figure is around 800 tonnes in 2000.It is now at around 3600 tonnes and breaks records every year.A small point.Name a war that the CIA hasn't financed with drug money?The drug war is filled with such contradictions and weirdness.Nixon,who declared war on drugs for the first(second?)time did so against the best advice of his own hand picked panel of hardliners.The whole history of drug war politics is rife with racism and misinformation and has been perpetrated by men with moral rather than actual arguments.There is more harm done in the name of the drug war than could be caused by all the drugs available if they were freely handed out on a street corner.Polls have shown that 99% of the public wouldn't do hard drugs if the opportunity was provided.Marijuana should never have been banned in the first place.Those that propagate this atrocity do so out of ignorance and fear.

Sat, 06/28/2008 - 4:08am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

is not to "help" people, but to support and buttress the police-and-prison state. There are plenty of parasitic organizations that are nourished by the unlimited tax money thrown away at police, jails, lawyers, piss-testers, and others. Drug war prisoners are used as commodities to infuse tax money into rural communities by building prisons and their support industries. The drug war is a fascist enterprise that has been wedded to the American knack for making money. The result is that our prisons are bulging at the seams, but at least people are not put to death for drug offenses, as they are in China, Malaysia, and other uncivilized hell-holes. Not that our drug warriors are any more humane than the Orientals, it's just that one can't make money off dead people. No, you keep them alive in prison for as long as possible while sucking tax money to enrich the drug warriors. I wonder how many government and police bastards hold stock in the Corrections Corp. of America and other prisons-for-profit. That's what it's all about, profit. This is America, no? Just follow the money.

Harry Fisher

Sun, 06/29/2008 - 5:59pm Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

Libertarian Bob Barr tells us that interdiction has never been more than 30% successful at stopping drugs getting into the hands of American children. That gives the war on drugs a 70% failure rate.

Right-wing Republican Dan Burton, in his last comments as chairman of the Government Reform Committee in 2002 asserted: "Over seventy percent of all crime is drug-related."

British military expert John A. Glaze in an Oct 2007 paper titled: "OPIUM AND AFGHANISTAN: REASSESSING U.s. COUNTERNARCOTICS STRATEGY" for the U.S. Army War College pointed out that;

"Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved
in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking"


"70 percent of the Taliban’s income now comes from protection money and the sale of opium."

It would appear that ending the war on drugs is our 70% solution. And it does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure this out.

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 10:20am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

The war on drugs has always been a war against democracy by authoritarians manipulating the ignorance and emotions of puritans.

With the alcohol prohibition authoritarians and their puritanical meat puppets learned not to trust or depend on democracy. The U.S. Amendment process is the ultimate expression of democracy. The people took alcohol away and the people gave it back.

Since 1933 the authoritarians and puritans turned their attention to the more limited democratic institution that we call the U.S. Congress. Rather than needing to control a majority of the nation's voters all that is needed is to control the vote of a majority of 535 people. Using law and order demagoguery against "liberals" and pious intolerance against the Bible belt moderates has allowed the right-wing to effectively control and subvert the entire democracy and constitutional public policy process in America.

Watch closely what Ron Paul is doing by organizing candidates for congress. This is could be the most powerful weapon that drug policy reform will ever have to fight back where the fight needs to be waged, in the United States Congress.

All that we need to do to end the war on drugs is to convince a majority of 535 Americans that the war on drugs is wrong for America.

Many organizations have been quietly lobbying the congress the past few years and it is paying off. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has had a lobbyist in the congress for two years. Howard Wooldridge. He reports that many of the staffers for the members of congress are on our side and need only to have US writing to congress and making the drug war an issue in the elections.

We have the opportunity to change the world. All it takes is our effort.

Confront your members of congress with email, fax and phone calls. Contact candidates for congress and tell them that you will not support them if they support the war on drugs.

Show up at campaign events with anti drug war literature, tee-shirts and signs. Make the drug war a major issue of the 2008 presidential campaign by speaking out about it. Write letters to the editor about candidate positions.

Learn about the wide range of possible topics to talk about. Drug war policy negatively impacts America public safety, public health, national security, international standing and democratic institutional integrity.

The war on drugs has always been and still is about the Jim Crow subversion and suppression of democracy in America by authoritarians who we more commonly know as white racists. Ira Glasser of the Drug Policy Alliance nailed it last year when he wrote the column: "Drug Busts=Jim Crow"

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 11:07am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's not exactly stupidity. Victories in the Culture Wars are symbolic, not practical. As long as official line reflects my beliefs, my side is "winning."

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 6:06pm Permalink
rita (not verified)

"There's no way to control innocent men. The only power any government has is to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws." -- Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged."

The original purpose of prohibition in America was the oppression of non-white minorities. In that, prohibition is a rip-roaring success.

The "war on drugs" started as a scam by Richad Nixon to make him appear to be "tough on crime" and thereby win re-election. As a vehicle to further the careers of arrogant, self-serving politicians, the "war on drugs" is overwhelmingly successful.

Protecting, helping, educating, harm reduction, diversion, compassion and justice are smoke screens and stumbling blocks

Tue, 07/01/2008 - 6:38am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

A Drug War Constitutional Challenge to Obama & McCain

I challenge the two leading candidates for president, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, to offer America a drug war policy that conforms to the following constitutional mandate:

" order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity..."

Wed, 07/02/2008 - 2:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Mccain is an IDIOT who want's to continue the drug war as it already is!!!!

Obama at least says he will end the D.E.A. Raids on medical marijuana dispensarys,...It's an encouraging start at least!! END THE DRUG WAR! LEGALIZE MARIJUANA!!!! Its a GOOD start!

Sat, 07/05/2008 - 3:19am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Change, it seems to be the mantra of not only the Democrats, but Senator McCain has picked up the chant too, pointing out his maverick reputation. The central question remains, what will real change amount to?
Healthcare for all our citizens, winning the war on terror, better break for the middle class, no more dependence on foreign energy?
Even if all these things happen will it amount to any kind of real change? Will you still be worried if you have to use a cash machine late at night? Will there still be gang violence if we all have health care? Will you still worry that your kids are in a dangerous place trying to score some weed? Will people still be afraid to sit on their front porch without getting hit by a stray bullet?
Try this, bring up the subject of marijuana in a crowd like a restaurant or store and use the word drugs or marijuana in a somewhat loud voice. Watch the people near you
automatically lower their voices or move away from you out of what? Bad hygiene? Bad breath? No, they lower their voices out of fear, not fear of drug dealers or users. They move away and lower their voices out of fear of the LAW! Someone might say I heard so and so talking about drugs ect: ect:
I don’t know about you but as a lifelong defender of this great nation this is certainly not the America I fought for.
The huge black market in drugs is the financial machine which pays for the gangs and guns and violence that plagues us all from large city to little burg. If these politicians really want change they will get serious about ending this long nightmare.
There will be no real change in America until the ’police state like cloud’ of the War on Drugs , which hangs over the country like smog over LA, is dissipated by the fresh wind and bright light of personal freedom.

Sat, 07/05/2008 - 11:05am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The Drug War needs to end! This war is doing more harm than good. Its hard to imagine that our country could do us wrong, but is it really?
Let's talk about coruption. Before these various drugs were deemed illegal, how many people abused them? How many people were addicted to them? Could you even say that drugs back in the day were considered drugs, or were they formulated into energy drinks, or appetite supresents, it wasn't until the government stepped in and prohibited these drugs that they became so popular. People wanted them once banned and it didn't matter the shape or form, it was their way in rebelling against one of the biggest mistakes the government could have made!
Although this was a big mistake on all citizens, it was a step into coruption for the government. Banning these drugs meant that it would be harder to create and distribute these drugs but it also made a gateway for politians, doctors, lawyers, judges, cops, DEA, CIA. These trusted proffessions fell into the drug line up! Cops sell to other cops, DEA agents carry kilos of cocaine across borders, and you know why... Money, Power, and to keep the drugs coming.
The reason the government banned drugs was so that they could get their hands on them, and cover their tracks by implementing laws and prison time for violators, and every corupt cop or politian would be harder to catch!

Mon, 01/05/2009 - 10:24pm Permalink

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