Breaking Glass

Shadow of Ecstasy

It's starting again. Almost 20 years ago, the federal government launched what became known as the "war on drugs," a radical experiment to suppress illegal drugs through harsh penal solutions. Among other things, this meant long prison sentences for the sale or possession of tiny quantities of controlled substances, sentences that are astonishingly severe by the standards of virtually all other advanced nations. Moreover, these sentences were imposed under strict federal and state guidelines that all but eliminated the discretion of individual judges. The drug war had other delightful features, including giving the Drug Enforcement Administration a major say over what medicines and anaesthetics could be prescribed by doctors or hospitals.

We now have more than enough perspective to declare the drug war an abject failure—nothing less than a catastrophe visited upon American society. The worst aspect of the whole affair is that there cannot literally be a war on drugs: Teams of agents do not take sharp sticks and punish rows of marijuana plants. Instead, the war is on people—American people—and overwhelmingly, the victims of anti-drug campaigns are quite ordinary and fairly harmless individuals. Nevertheless, millions of lives have been destroyed in the name of the unattainable principle of social purity. The main beneficiaries of the drug war have been criminal-justice bureaucrats, especially prison...

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