Western Standard
email print

Reassessing the war on drugs: Patrick Basham

While a policy analyst with the Fraser Institute, Patrick Basham presented the following speech at a conference in Edmonton in 2000 entitled “Reassessing the War on Drugs." Basham’s remarks are part of a growing body of intellectual work opposing the war on drugs from a conservative perspective.

Patrick Basham - September 30, 2009

In 1998, BC's chief coroner, Larry Campbell, recently issued this rhetorical challenge: "It's time someone stepped forward and said the war on drugs is lost." Commencing with conferences held in Vancouver and in Toronto in 1998, at The Fraser Institute we've stepped forward and said exactly that: the War on Drugs is lost.

Why is the “War on Drugs” such a failure? In my view, drug prohibition has all the characteristics of numerous other well-intentioned, yet expensive, counterproductive, Big Government programs that have outlived any possible usefulness. Why? Because the drug war reflects our failure to learn from history. Because it causes crime. Because it corrupts police officers. Because it violates civil liberties and individual rights. Because it throws good money after bad. And because it weakens -- at times, even destroys -- families, neighbourhoods, and communities.

Canadian governments -- federal and provincial -- have seldom given serious thought to drug policy, preferring instead to follow whatever variation on failure is being proposed during the latest 'crisis.' It's my contention that such conventional thinking has only served to empower organized crime, corrupt governments, distort the marketplace, hinder health care, and feed into an ever-growing law enforcement and penal industry. In sum, common sense and experience have been ignored, folly has been repeated, and the War on Drugs has become a war on reason, itself.

All of the evidence -- academic, scientific, and anecdotal -- confirms that most of the serious problems we associate with illegal drug use are caused directly or indirectly not by drug use, itself, but by drug prohibition. It's only by separating drug use from drug prohibition -- something that prohibitionists carefully don't do -- that one is able to assess whether or not the harmful side effects of prohibition overwhelm the benefits of alleged lower drug consumption and the resulting lower social costs.

American economist Thomas Sowell has suggested that "Crusades are judged by how good they make the crusaders feel, but policies are judged by their consequences." I agree. In that vein, through a series of observations about the health, legal, economic, and philosophical issues at stake here, I wish to outline for you my objections to the continuation of the drug war.

Let me first provide you with a very brief overview of the history of drug prohibition. At the turn of the 20th century, in Canada, in the US, and in England all currently illegal drugs -- for example, cocaine, opium, and morphine -- were legal. Not only were these drugs legal, but they were available for purchase both at drug stores and by direct-mail. Here's the really interesting part -- under these conditions of free supply, demand -- that is, public consumption -- rose, but then peaked, then plateaued out, and then fell away.

So, at a time when drug use was on the decline, the Canadian, British, and American governments decided to make such drug use illegal.

Was this action the result of new medical or scientific research on the dangers of drug use? No. Not at all. Why, then, in 1913, did Canada prohibit these drugs? And why did the Americans follow-suit a year later?