Anatomy of a failure

Late on the night of August 9, 1999, the El Monte Police Department’s SWAT team attacked the house of Mario Paz. The cops shot off the locks on the front door, tossed in a Flashbang grenade and proceeded through the house to the elderly man’s bedroom.

Thinking it was a home invasion, Paz reached for his gun. The police shot him dead. They were looking for drugs. They found none.

Mario Paz is just one of many innocent victims of the drug war cited in Joel Miller’s scrupulously documented and passionate polemic, Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America. In a sense we are all victims, he argues, because collectively we have sacrificed the freedom to be safe in our homes from overzealous cops. And that’s just a small part of the outrageous cost of our futile quest to force people not to use certain prohibited drugs.

Is there anyone who still believes the war on drugs is being won? That drugs are less available on the streets than they were, say, 15 years ago? That the billions of dollars spent, the tens of thousands of nonviolent criminals imprisoned, the diminishment of our civil rights, the militarization of urban police forces and the pervasive corruption in law-enforcement ranks are somehow preferable to whatever damage folks might do to themselves by ingesting certain chemicals? If so, please read this book.

Chapter by chapter, Miller marshals data and anecdotes to make a powerful case that the war on drugs has not made us safe. On the contrary, it’s created a vast criminal culture in which disputes are settled with violence, and it’s empowered and financed not only urban gangs, but also international terrorists. It’s also turned local cops into dangerous, commando-style paramilitary forces and given police and the courts license to ride roughshod over property and privacy rights.

And, no matter how much the drug warriors up the ante, they will never win. The profits are just too great. Smugglers, for example, will always find ways to get dope into the country. After spending billions on interdiction, we still catch at best 10 percent of all smuggled drugs, Miller notes. To the smugglers, it’s just the cost of doing business.

The problem, of course, is prohibition. Just as it didn’t work in the 1930s, it’s not working now. That’s because it violates a principal law of capitalism, supply and demand. By limiting supply and increasing risk, it forces prices way up, creating a business so profitable that destroying it becomes impossible. As Miller puts it, “The reason drug warriors never really get the upper hand in the drug war is that they are fighting entrepreneurs with bureaucrats.” It’s no contest.

Miller is an editor at WND Books, a quirkily conservative publishing house affiliated with, but that in no way diminishes the value of his book. He makes a convincing case that the war on drugs is the worst public policy in America today.

His solution? He recommends “drug-war detox” through a gradual process of legalization, beginning with marijuana. Whether to use drugs is up to each “free and sovereign” person, he writes. Society eventually will find equilibrium vis-à-vis drug use. And the criminality, violence and social corruption of the illegal-drug trade and the war on it will be a thing of the past.