The Lost War on Drugs

An aspect of the topical debate about policing is the issue of zero tolerance policing. Some liberals point a finger at this as a cause of unreasonably high incarceration rates among the underprivileged, particularly blacks in inner cities. On the other hand, it is widely acknowledged that this has contributed to reducing crime, although the exact correlation and significance is disputed.

But what puzzles me is what exactly is the alternative? Five percent tolerance policing? Ten percent? Which laws should be ignored and why? Is it a function of who breaks the law? Actually, neither the concept nor its alternatives survive close examination.

More to the point, perhaps the rules should be different in the ghetto from those in more affluent areas to compensate for different life experiences. I believe that this is essentially what I hear from some advocates and politicians. But then what about the victims of crime? Who speaks for them? Lax law enforcement is a dubious remedy. If the root causes are bad laws, then face up to it and change them.

That is precisely the situation. There is one cause underlying all of this. Fix it and many of these issues will fade into insignificance. It is our drug policy. Like the Volstead Act almost a century ago, this has been a failed experiment in moral enforcement. There are good arguments for trying to limit drug usage, but indiscriminate prohibition and fierce enforcement causes at least as many ills as it cures.

Drug War QuestionZero tolerance enters into this by focusing enforcement on drug users rather than suppliers and transporters. The idea was that strict enforcement and draconian penalties would quench demand and lead to the ideal of a drug-free society. No consideration was permitted for degree of violation or the known differences among varieties of narcotic substances. It is mindless, and consideration of predictable societal impacts was entirely ignored.

Let’s face facts. We have lost this war on drugs and our casualties have been severe, most notably in the poorer neighborhoods. Let’s try more judicious controls and see if that works better. This doesn’t mean anything goes; there must be some sensible middle ground. We could hardly be worse off, or at least that is so for the currently over-criminalized segments of society.