George Shultz on the Failure of the War on Drugs

Former Reagan Administration Secretary of State and George Shultz has an interesting article on the failure of the War on Drugs:

I have been concerned about the drug issue since I became secretary of labor in 1969, my first cabinet position in the Nixon administration….

One day Pat [Moynihan] and I were driving together to Camp David, where I was to make a presentation to the president and some of his advisers. As I studied my notes, Pat, who was in a state of exuberance, kept interrupting me. “Shultz, don’t you realize that we just had the biggest drug bust in history?” “Congratulations,” I replied, going back to my work. “Come on,” he insisted, “this was a huge bust in Marseilles. We’ve broken the French connection!” “Great work,” I replied unenthusiastically. After a pause, Pat said, “Shultz, I suppose you think that as long as there is a big, profitable demand for drugs in this country there will be a supply.” “Moynihan,” I said, “there’s hope for you…”

The war on drugs that has been waged in the United States for over forty years now has failed, just as our national experiment with the prohibition of alcohol failed. Drugs are still readily available and their use in the United States is no lower than, and sometimes surpasses, drug use in countries with very different approaches to the problem. Every activity related to illegal drugs has been formally criminalized in the United States and a large bureaucracy has been created. Incarceration rates are high and a massive, costly, and sustained effort has been made to keep drugs out of the United States.

How costly is this war on drugs? A good friend of mine, Nobel Laureate in Economics Gary Becker, and his colleagues estimated in 2005 that the direct costs are over $100 billion annually in police services, court time, effort spent on offenders, and imprisonment—a minimum of about $40,000 per year per prisoner. Becker notes that this estimate does not include “intangible costs, such as the destructive effects on many inner city neighborhoods, the use of the American military to fight drug lords and farmers in Colombia and other nations, or the corrupting influence of drugs on many governments.”

Shultz’s skepticism about the War on Drugs is part of a growing trend of public and elite opinion gradually turning against it. Recently, CNN health policy specialist Dr. Sanjay Gupta announced a reversal of his longstanding support for marijuana prohibition. The Obama administration’s recent announcement of a change in sentencing policy for drug offenders had far more hoopla than actual substance. But it’s noteworthy that the administration apparently thought it politically advantageous to overstate the extent to which they are easing up on the War on Drugs rather than understate it.