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June 30, 2008 -- AlterNet (US)

How Long Does An Experiment Need To Continue Before It's Declared A Failure?

By David Borden, executive director and founder of the Drug Reform Coordination Network

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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.

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