The insanity of the official war on drugs was begun by president Nixon in 1971. Why Nixon and why 1971? The most likely answer is politics. Let us consider what was happening in the US when Nixon first used the term “war on drugs” on June 17. At that time Nixon was in political trouble due to the ongoing war in Vietnam but more importantly, the deteriorating economy that prompted him to default on the national debt by introducing a completely fiat currency via the severing of the US dollar from gold on August 15. Although federal anti-narcotics laws had been on the books for decades, enforcement was not a priority. By elevating the anti-narcotics effort to a “war”, Nixon attempted to accomplish the following political goals. First, since the prosecution of the cold war and the war in Vietnam had played such large roles in bankrupting the country, it would have been politically impossible for Nixon to start yet another foreign war to distract the sheeple from the nation’s economic woes. With the elections coming up in November of 1972, Nixon gave himself time to appeal to those who felt threatened by the hippies and elements of the “counterculture”. He was able to position himself as a “law and order” candidate. By upping enforcement of anti-narcotics laws, Nixon could legally attack and jail his most vocal opponents: hippies and anti-war protestors. Additionally, as the reinvigorated anti-narcotics policy would be run from the executive branch, the declaration of the war on drugs was just part of ongoing trends of increasing presidential powers versus congress and increasing federal control over the American people.
The failed 40 year effort to eradicate narcotics from the US has resulted in the largest prison population in the world (as a percent of overall population) and probably over a trillion dollars wasted*. The cost is the key to a path for reducing if not ending the war on drugs.
Let us proceed by analogy by reviewing how prohibition was ended. The passing of the 18th amendment to the constitution and enactment of the Volstead act were due to decades of unrelenting political activism by the busybodies and killjoys of the temperance movement (see Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent for an excellent presentation). Despite the moral crusade of the busybodies, the only reason why prohibition was possible in 1920 was the enactment of the income tax in 1913. The US alcohol industry was enormous and an indespensible source of revenue for the federal government. With an income tax, the government was able to more than replace the lost revenue due to prohibition. The problems of violence and corruption due to prohibition are well known. Yet even this and the fact that alcohol was readily available was not enough for the politicians to acknowledge the failure of prohibition and repeal the Volstead act. Repeal was due to the onset of the great depression and insatiable appetite for revenue that characterized the failed efforts of presidents Hoover and Roosevelt to apply what would soon be known as Keynesian economics to the nation’s economic problems.
The importance of the nature of the defeat of prohibition is important for understanding why the current war on drugs was enacted and how it may end. Prohibition was not defeated on moral grounds or for utilitarian reasons. It was defeated by a bankrupt government that was in the process of confiscating as much of the wealth of the people of the US as was politically possible. Since the concept of prohibition was never defeated, the same scare tactics of the temperance movement could be resurrected to enable the contemporary war on narcotics. In 2012, we again have the federal and state governments desperate for revenue as they were in 1933 when the 21st amendment to the constitution was passed. At some point in the near future, a state government on the verge of defaulting on its bonds will realize that decriminalization of narcotics will ease its budget problems. Additionally, it will then realize that legalization will permit taxation, thereby turning a net loss to the state budget into a net gain. California and Oregon are the states that are most likely to be the first to pursue this path. California is de facto bankrupt and the region of the boarder between the two states is the largest marijuana growing area in the US. At some point, these two states will realize that legalization and taxation represent politically expedient means of addressing their budget problems.
Once the precedent has been established, many, but not all, other states will follow with various levels of decriminalization and legalization. This will put pressure on the federal government to ramp down enforcement of anti-narcotics statutes, leading to de facto, if not de jure, decriminalization.
* It is probably impossible to estimate the true prompt cost of the drug war. In recent years the federal government has spent $15 billion on the drug war, while the states have spent $25 billion (here, here). However, this does not include the various military interventions to disrupt drug production and transportation overseas. These efforts are funded by the defense budget or those of the intelligence agencies, so who knows how much has been spent over the past four decades. Also, part of this effort comes in the form of giving military equipment to foreign governments and as part of the unfortunate vast web of alliances that characterizes the bizarre US empire. Additionally, parts of the foreign aid budget must be included in the costs of the war on drugs. When the US government gives country X aid money, there are often strings attached. Some of these requirements are to use the money to buy military equipment from US companies and then cooperate with various anti-narcotics efforts. There are other prompt costs that I have neglected and I have certainly not attempted to estimate the unseen costs of throwing millions of people in prison and the associated violence due to the war on drugs.