A century-long attempt by the American government to suppress the recreational use of narcotics, based for the bulk of its history upon racial prejudice. The first major piece of federal legislation (the Harrison Act) was passed in 1914, chiefly justified by a fear of east-asian opium. In the subsequent years, marijuana became the primary focus of drug warriors as its use was increasingly associated with Mexican immigrants and the (black-dominated) jazz scene. Correlating drug use with inner-city crime, Richard Nixon (and later Ronald Reagan) explicitly declared war on drug use in the US, and allocated massive spending increases to the associated federal bureaus. While the rhetoric used by George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush was less harsh, no effort has been made in the past twenty years to rein in federal spending on the drug war; over that span the media spotlight was shifted from inner-city crack abuse to inner-city heroin abuse to youth ecstasy use to rural methamphetamine use in the hopes of maintaining hysteria.
The war on drugs has focused primarily upon two weakly-related goals: the reduction of domestic demand for drugs based upon punitive measures (that is, jail time) and the reduction of foreign supply through crop eradication and the interception of drug shipments (the end goal being to raise US prices by lowering supply). As is borne out by the US government's own data, both strategies are crippled by deep logical flaws.
The first flaw concerns the economics of black markets: rendering a product illegal does little to raise the cost of its production, but does much to raise its price. Profits soar, creating a massive incentive for new players to enter the business at all levels. Because drugs are cheap and easy to produce, farmers in poor areas can make better money and grow larger crops than they can with fruits and vegetables. Because drugs are cheap and easy to sell, dealers in poor areas can make more than they can working a minimum wage job. The profitability of the drug trade poses another problem as well: any time a major figure is arrested or killed, another person, or worse, several persons, are available to replace them, doing nothing to stem the trade but increasing its violence.
The second flaw is inherent to the logic of the drug warriors' attempts to restrict supply: In an ordinary market, prices vary consistently with supply, but the illegality of drugs creates a price floor: At high levels of supply prices are artificially held high by the mere fact that drugs are illegal. Until a certain threshold of drug interception is reached (roughly 70-80% of incoming shipments) prices will be more or less constant. The US currently estimates it finds 10% of the drugs entering the country.
The drug war does nothing to prevent addiction or lower prices: the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has shown an increase in addiction rates over the past thirty years, and a sharp drop in prices. The only success, such as it is, has been a drop in the casual (infrequent and non-dangerous) use of marijuana.
There are of course many disastrous social consequences to the War on Drugs, but they are too many and too depressing to discuss here.
"We do know this, that more people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing."
- William F. Buckley, Jr.
Prices shown in USD.