In the 42 years since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, we have spent over a trillion dollars and made more than 39 million arrests of nonviolent drug users. In 2009, the United States had 1.6 million people in prison for drug offenses, 80 percent of them for simple possession.
According to the 2008 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 46 percent of Americans have tried an illicit drug at some point in their lives. If 46 percent voluntarily admit to breaking the law, you can be sure the real number is much higher. This is Prohibition all over again.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported in 2011 that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” The commission included former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, Paul Volcker, George Shultz, and five prime ministers or former presidents. A telling indication of failure, from the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the number $177.26, the recent price of one gram of pure cocaine. That is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago, a sure sign that cocaine is more plentiful than ever.
Recently, prescription pain killers — obtained mostly from shady “pill-mills” — result in more fatal overdoses, 26,000, than all illicit drugs combined.
But long term, alcohol kills more people than recreational drugs and pain killers together — 85,000 deaths in 2000, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The most dangerous drug, however, is tobacco. Half of all lifelong smokers will die from their habit, victims of a pharmacological dependency on nicotine that is as strong as from opium or heroin. According to Robert Proctor (The Golden Holocaust) tobacco killed about 100 million people in the 20th century, and at present levels of smoking, could kill one billion in the 21st century.
What to do? For the biggest killer, tobacco, Proctor recommends that the FDA require cigarette manufacturers to lower the amount of nicotine and to require that no cigarette smoke have a pH less than 8, which would make the smoke too acidic to inhale. The FDA could also mandate the removal of some of the 30 poisons contained in cigarettes, including arsenic, cyanide, formaldehyde and ammonia.