All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 2002

After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century by Timothy Lynch

A Considerable Spectrum of Opinions on the Drug War

Cato Institute • 2000 • 193 pages • $18.95

Reviewed by Kevin B. Zeese

As the title indicates, this book takes an adult approach to drug issues. While most politicians argue over the mix of drug war funding—interdiction, eradication, law enforcement, treatment, or prevention—After Prohibition avoids merely moving around the furniture on the Titanic and takes a different approach; it recognizes the bankruptcy of current drug policy and seeks to come up with a new paradigm for the 21st century.

Not many attempt to argue these days that we are winning the war on drugs. It is difficult to keep a straight face when you do hear someone make that claim. We have spent approximately a half a trillion tax dollars—federal, state, and local—on the drug war since 1980. The facts show we are worse off now than when we began.

Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, has brought together in this book (based on a Cato conference) a collection of essays by individuals who, for the most part, recognize the folly of our attempts to prohibit drug use and want to see change in our policy. There is a considerable spectrum of opinion represented here, ranging from those who want to end the drug war altogether to those who believe it must continue.

Lynch first describes Cato’s position, which is that the United States would be better off with no drug laws: “The most valuable lesson that can be drawn from the experience of alcohol prohibition is that government cannot effectively engineer social arrangements. Policymakers simply cannot repeal the economic laws of supply and demand. Nor can they foresee the unintended consequences that invariably follow federal intervention. Students of American history will someday wonder how today’s lawmakers could readily admit that alcohol prohibition was a disastrous mistake but recklessly pursue a policy of drug prohibition.”

Roger Pilon, Cato’s vice president for legal affairs, puts drug policy into a broader perspective, declaring drug prohibition to be beyond the constitutional power of the federal government.

What to put in the place of drug prohibition? Lynch answers, “Education, moral suasion, and social pressure are the only appropriate ways to discourage adult drug use in a free and civil society.”

Other contributors to the book include former DEA agent Michael Levine, former San Jose, California, police chief Joseph D. McNamara, University of Missouri professor of criminology David Klinger, Independent Institute research director David B. Kopel, Yale Law School professor Steven Duke, former California Attorney General Dan Lungren, George Mason University law professor Daniel Polsby, Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

One of the most insightful pieces is by McNamara. He brings the clear thinking of someone who was a cop on the streets of Harlem in the 1950s and rose to become police chief of California’s fourth largest city. After recounting personal stories of policing that demonstrate the futility of trying to prevent drug use, he points out the rising expenditures on drug control. In 1972, when President Nixon called for a drug war, the drug budget was roughly $100 million. Today the federal budget is approaching $20 billion annually. He asks: “What have we got for our money?” In addition to the undiminished problem of drug abuse, he notes that drug profits—markups as great as 17,000 percent—have corrupted public officials and created widespread violence. McNamara urges that we stop making what is merely an unconventional lifestyle a crime.

The only disappointing essay is Lungren’s. He merely reiterates the familiar drug-war rhetoric and despite the strong counterarguments voiced at the conference, could only say, “we should always be ready to re-examine our positions.”

After Prohibition comes at an important time in the evolution of the drug war. Our military is becoming increasingly involved in the anti-drug effort in Colombia; we’ve gone through a record prison-building binge largely to house drug offenders; and the public seems to be tiring of the never-ending crusade. Moreover, it is becoming evident that we can no longer afford to continue it when we are in a real war with terrorists—especially when drug prohibition is a major source of their revenue.

Kevin Zeese is the president of Common Sense for Drug Policy,