I would be completely in agreement with Tyler on this issue. Unfortunately the 'war on drugs' has been the background for a lot of sensationalism on the part of the government and the media. The most obvious example of this here in the UK is the 'talk to Frank' service that specialises in propaganda, and the spreading of misinformation about substances ranging from Nitrous Oxide to Heroin.
Unfortunately this has the (intended) side effect of poisoning the vast majority of my parent's generation against all drugs, meaning that while they remain the majority in this country there will be no chance of political change with respect to the war on drugs.
So with that in mind I think I would support a systematic campaign of education, using scientific papers and experiments on live subjects, to help to redress the balance of false information that has created this view of drug use as an evil choice. When that has been completed, I would then push to see drugs legalised slowly -- accessed through special pharmacies whose proprietors have received impartial training about the risks and effects of drug use. A government website could then be set up in order to help people get the best out of their high whilst remaining safe (containing information such as the recommended amount of fluid to ingest whilst on MDMA, and advice on sterilisation techniques for needles).
With all of that in mind I think it's time to get into arguments for why the war on drugs is a flawed one.
Drug Demand Is Inelastic
People (addicts) do not change their demands based on changes in price. That means that the more the governments of the world push to stamp out drug use, the higher the prices go, and more money goes to the drug dealers as a result. As a well-known economics textbook states:
'The more effective prohibition is at raising costs, the greater are drug industry revenues. So, more effective prohibition means that drug sellers have more money to buy guns, pay bribes, fund the dealers, and even research and develop new technologies in drug delivery (like crack cocaine). It’s hard to beat an enemy that gets stronger the more you strike against him or her.'
Indeed, prohibition era alcohol consumption statistics support this judgement.
Underground Markets Breed Violence
The problem with underground markets is that there is no legal right to own any of that illegal property, nor is there any means of recovery of said property if it is stolen. In other industries you have both criminal and civil court options to take if someone wrongs you through fraud or theft. However in the drug industry you have only one option: violence. That is why you see rival cartels killing each other in Mexico, and why major drug dealers always seem to be arrested with an arsenal of knives and guns at their disposal. You can see similar problems in other markets that have been both illegal and legal at various points in time. During the prohibition era in America crime increased and became organised, and the murder rate increased dramatically, before falling after the repeal of prohibition legislation.
For another comparison, compare legal gambling institutions with illegal ones, and see the difference in method.
And of course there is the fact that these drug revenues sometimes go directly into the pockets of insurgents and terrorists who maintain massive arsenals of weapons and who are capable of mass acts of terrorism.
It is estimated that global prohibition costs $100billion or so per year to enforce (more than the nominal GDP of all but 59 of the countries in the world), but due to poor figures it could be well in excess of that. In spite of this the drug industry is still turning over upwards of $330billion, meaning that this money -- which could be spent on a myriad of useful things, especially in a time of such economic doom and gloom -- is going to waste.
Drug imprisonment also impacts on the productivity of a nation. The USA now has 13x the amount of people in jail for drug offences as it did just over 40 years ago. This causes estimated productivity losses of around $40billion each year. Here's a graph for illustration.
Of course, if drugs were to be legalised then it would end in a windfall for the world's governments, in the form of taxes. Amsterdam's coffee houses generate about €400million in taxes, largely through the selling of cannabis. A fully legal market would open up even more potential revenue because the Amsterdam model is by no means an open market.
As drugs are filtered through numerous dealers and traffickers the prices at street level reach ridiculous levels. Here's an interesting infographic:
This funnels money into the hands of rather nasty groups of people, and causes problems for users by making large habits financially unsustainable without resorting to crime. According to estimates, 56% of all UK street crime is committed by drug users, while between 80-95% of all street sex workers are drug addicts.
If governments were to mark up drugs at a much lower level it would still produce them a hefty profit whilst killing off the profit-making arms of some shady organisations, and probably reducing the amount of street crime committed by addicts to boot, whilst also making other industries, such as prostitution, safer to all parties.
Drugs and Tourism
Many LEDCs rely on tourist money to some extent to support local economies. These places are in danger of being 'collateral damage' as the war on drugs makes countries like Mexico infinitely more dangerous to both locals and tourists alike. This led to a 93% decrease in the number of American tourists visiting Acapulco over only one year.
This, of course is a smaller part of a larger problem. Because countries that are seen as dangerous or corrupt do lose significant outside investment.
'The magnitude of funds under criminal control poses special threats to governments, particularly in developing countries, where the domestic security markets and capital markets are far too small to absorb such funds without quickly becoming dependent on them.'
So speak the UN. Wealthy drug dealers from poorer nations can easily buy votes and support at every level of government, but they can also become pillars of their communities -- local boys made good who now invest significantly in their hometowns. The relationship between Pablo Escobar and his local football team is a good example of this.
And of course, Pablo Escobar was not averse to using extreme violence against figures who opposed him, making being on the side of the government in the war a suicide mission.
Of course, the more people who are between the producer and the consumer, the more likely it is that the drugs are cut. Various cuts can be used, including relatively harmless ones such as talcum powder, but also carcinogens and other drugs which can interact with the original drug in many different ways. There is also the issue of a user receiving a high purity package of drugs whilst being used to a much lower level of purity, causing overdoses.
The lack of government advice and support for drug users means that needle-sharing and poor injecting practices are also commonplace -- which would obviously not be eradicated by drug legalisation, but could at least ameliorated somewhat from the current situation where 10% of all HIV infections are caused by unsafe injection practices.
The war on drugs has also had an effect on non-users wishing to access medicines for the purposes of palliative care, with an estimated 5 billion people having little or no access to prescription opiates because of drug politics.
The Criminalisation of the Poor
In many areas the only crop that has been grown throughout history has been opium. The eradication of poppy fields on Afghanistan by foreign forces must have only spread resentment and driven the poor farmers into the arms of the Taliban.
The Effect on the Environment
In Colombia aerial fumigation is often used to eradicate drug farms from the air. This is the spraying of a herbicide that indiscriminately kills every plant that it comes into contact with. This has been compared to the use of Agent Orange by the USA in Vietnam in that it destroys entire ecosystems, and could possibly cause serious ailments for any people caught up in it.
This simply drives cartels further into the forests, where they engage in illegal clearing in order to make space for their drug crops. Thus continuing the vicious circle of crop destruction in some of the most delicate and diverse areas in the world.
Toxic waste is also a clear problem, as more than 370,000 tonnes of waste will be dumped in Colombia alone this year. This waste will probably find its way into rivers and streams eventually, causing yet more damage to ecosystems and habitats.
Unfair Criminal Penalties
32 countries have the death penalty on their statute for drugs offences, including economically advanced countries such as Singapore and the United States.
On a more general level, in the United States a conviction for a drug offence in certain states can leave you ineligible for food stamps and health benefits -- something which released rapists do not have to face in some cases. This is in spite of the fact that your crime has no involved causing any harm to another person.
4 million American citizens are currently disenfranchised because of their past drugs convictions, making them unable to vote even following their release. This means that over 1/8 of all African American men do not have a say in the running of their own country. This is also a function of the fact that minorities are disproportionately likely to be indicted for drug-related crimes (over 10x more likely in fact) in spite of the fact that they are not that much more likely to deal or use drug, simply due to the fact that it is much easier to makes drug arrests in poor areas.
I personally don't believe that the police's job should extend past their duty to protect people from others. Drug possession arrests are punishing people for what is a personal choice that does not affect the rights of others.
The first recorded instance of prohibition being ineffective is probably in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were told not to sonsume something but did it anyway. Religious or not (and I'm not) this story is a pretty powerful indicator of the power of free will...
In conclusion, the war on drugs is a waste of lives and money, and it is needlessly criminalising a large proportion of the world's population whilst restricting access to drugs that are potentially useful in medical and psychological contexts. A gradual shift towards legalisation would have countless economic and social benefits.