The hidden costs of drug prohibition


or over 100 years, America’s drug war has been a part of our lives. For those, like me, who grew up consuming Reagan-era anti-drug propaganda, the drug war resembled a holy crusade of purification more than a criminal-justice problem. Murderers, robbers, and rapists were treated as criminals of opportunity and desire, but drug users were moralized in the language of sin and redemption. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I asked the most basic and fundamental question about the drug war: Why do heroin addicts get cages and alcoholics get treatment?

Only by asking that question was I able to cut through the pall of anti-drug propaganda that had been pulled over my eyes. It’s often observed that, during wartime, home-front propaganda focuses on dehumanizing the enemy. The Vietnamese became “Gooks,” Germans became “Huns,” and Japanese became “Japs.” Converting your enemy to a subhuman thing seems almost necessary if we’re going to ask soldiers to do something that is supposed to be morally prohibited — namely kill another human being.

Similarly, spending a day on the front lines of the drug war and then going out for drinks after work requires some form of mental gymnastics. Illicit drug users become “junkies,” while alcoholics are lovingly given the bucolic name “lushes.” The drug war, like so

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