Ending the "War on Drugs": The Fierce Urgency of...When?

If it accomplished nothing else, the recent rumpus over a gold-plated athlete's bong hit brings into sharp relief the need for a national, rational gut-check about America's drug policy.

But when?

We are, after all, a little busy at the moment. Struggling to hold onto our jobs, our homes, our automobiles. Our 401ks. Our children's lunch and college money. At the moment, forty-six million Americans without health insurance pray to make it through another day without stepping in front of a bus or being laid low by catastrophic illness. Energy needs and the environment vie unendingly for our attention. Terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been reduced, temporarily, to background noise, the result of primal economic fears, but national security concerns still loom large.

So, what's so urgent about drug policy reform?

Dot-connecting time. Since 1971, when Richard Nixon pronounced drugs "public enemy number one" and declared all-out war them (or, more accurately, on the people who took them), we have spent $1 trillion prosecuting that war. Eight Nixon successors and 38 years later what do we have to show for our investment?

We've arrested tens of millions of Americans for nonviolent drug offenses, most for simple possession of marijuana. We've damaged or ruined the lives of countless citizens who've lost school loans, publicly subsidized housing, and jobs. And yet, drugs are more readily available--especially to our kids--at lower prices and higher levels of potency than in the history of the drug war. (If you hear some "expert" claim the war is being "won" because cocaine prices are spiking, consider this: prices, like use levels, fluctuate. By way of analogy, think of the economic pain and suffering of those impoverished oil cartels when the cost of a barrel goes up. What never fluctuates, by the way, is the immutable law of supply and demand.) Even the staunchest drug warriors are in agreement: This is one war whose mission remains unaccomplished, a costly battle with no victory in sight.

The nation's longest running armed conflict, the drug war, financed to the tune of about $70 billion a year, is an unmitigated economic disaster. Think of the money that could be invested, right now, in "shovel-ready" infrastructure improvements, or in the credit crisis, the home mortgage crisis, the energy crisis, the automobile industry crisis, the banking crisis, the education crisis, the deficit crisis...

And consider terrorism. I almost fell out of my La-Z-Boy when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft informed us that terrorist missions are financed by drug trafficking.

Finally, I thought, the highest-ranking cop in the country gets it. Terrorist are using the gains of illicit drug trafficking to secure and train weapons against us. Ashcroft famously stated that, "Terrorism and drugs go together like rats and the bubonic plague." A spot-on observation.

Intrinsically worthless weeds such as cannabis, coca, and poppies grow with abandon throughout much of the world. But cultivated and rendered into illicit drugs, they bring a heady profit (up to 17,000 percent, according to Jack Cole, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Enter Al Qaeda and the Taliban. What better way to finance their deadly operations, converting marijuana, cocaine, and opium into car bombs, grenade launchers, and AK-47s.

Mr. Ashcroft failed to recognize that terrorists would have to find other means of support if these drugs were no longer illegal, and therefore no longer obscenely profitable. The truth would have been better served had the former AG said, "Prohibition and drug trafficking" go together like rodents and the plague. Simply put, prohibition has never worked, nor will it ever. In clinging to the prohibition model we are dooming ourselves to failure.

Ending the drug war, diverting funds from drug busts to prevention and treatment, taxing (and rigorously controlling) a regulated market would help pull the U.S. and the global economy away from the precipice of depression.