Forty years ago Friday, Richard Nixon announced that “we must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States, the problem of dangerous drugs.” It has not gone well. Illicit drugs are easily available and continue to be used by tens of millions of Americans. For this complete lack of results, we have wasted over a trillion dollars, imprisoned more people per capita than any nation on Earth, and fed wars and rebellions across the world that have done nothing but destroy people and property while further tarnishing our reputation. No wonder then that former Maryland State Police Officer Neil Franklin recently referred to the drug war as the “worst piece of public policy since slavery.”
Of course, the drug war has been the primary driver behind civil asset forfeiture in the United States since its inception. In fact, even before Nixon’s infamous speech, prohibitionist policies such as the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 revived the nearly extinct idea of civil forfeiture. In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act established equitable sharing, and forfeiture exploded. Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek calculated today that in inflation adjusted dollars, U.S. District Attorneys have seized nearly $14 billion in assets since 1989. Of course, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem as it excludes forfeitures made by both state and local agencies.
It also excludes the tremendous personal costs involved with the truly tragic cases–such as that of Donald Scott. Scott owned a sizable estate in Malibu, but the National Park Service coveted Scott’s land to complete a park. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attempted to oblige the Park Service by seizing Scott’s land through asset forfeiture, claiming rather implausibly that a helicopter spotted marijuana on the property. When the sheriff’s department raided the house on October 2, 1992, Scott’s wife screamed “Don’t shoot me! Don’t kill me!” and Scott naturally responded by rushing to her defense with a drawn gun. The police shot him dead. However, Scott’s ranch was not in L.A. County; it was just across the county line in Ventura County. Ventura County promptly launched an investigation of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. At a press conference after the release of the investigation’s findings, the Ventura County DA stated, “Clearly one of the primary purposes was a land grab by the Sheriff’s Department”.
The good news is that people finally seem to be realizing that drug prohibition is no more workable than alcohol prohibition. At the beginning of the month, I discussed a new report calling for an end to the drug war that has continued to spur discussion, but it appears that the report’s luminary authors are far from alone in their assessment. Over at Hit and Run, Jacob Sullum has helpfully rounded up a wide selection of the commentary on this unhappy anniversary, and from Time to The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune everyone seems to think that it might be time to start developing an exit strategy from this unwinnable quagmire. While visiting CBS’s News for a completely unrelated story, I stumbled upon this relatively critical piece on a policy that was unquestionable fifteen years ago.
And there’s good reason to think that this shift in opinion among pundits will (eventually) change policy. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan reports here on research that supports the idea that “intellectuals change their minds first, and activists, the rank-and-file, and politicians gradually get into line.” That process appears to take a decade or so–or at least it did in the early to mid twentieth century–but still it offers hope that we can change tragically bad policies…even after forty years of senseless repetition.