Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon announced that “we must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States, the problem of dangerous drugs.” It has not gone well. Illicit drugs are easily available and continue to be used by tens of millions of Americans. For this complete lack of results, we have wasted over a trillion dollars, imprisoned more people per capita than any nation on Earth, and fed wars and rebellions across the world that have done nothing but destroy people and property while further tarnishing our reputation. No wonder then that former Maryland State Police Officer Neil Franklin recently referred to the drug war as the “worst piece of public policy since slavery.”
The good news is that people finally seem to be realizing that drug prohibition is no more workable than alcohol prohibition. At the beginning of the month, I discussed a new report calling for an end to the drug war that has continued to spur discussion, but it appears that the report’s luminary authors are far from alone in their assessment. Over at Hit and Run, Jacob Sullum has helpfully rounded up a wide selection of the commentary on this unhappy anniversary, and from Time to The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune everyone seems to think that it might be time to start developing an exit strategy from this unwinnable quagmire. While visiting CBS’s News for a completely unrelated story, I stumbled upon this relatively critical piece on a policy that was unquestionable fifteen years ago.
And there’s good reason to think that this shift in opinion among pundits will (eventually) change policy. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan reports here on research that supports the idea that “intellectuals change their minds first, and activists, the rank-and-file, and politicians gradually get into line.” That process appears to take a decade or so–or at least it did in the early to mid twentieth century–but still it offers hope that we can change tragically bad policies…even after forty years of senseless repetition.