A key question for those who advocate for continued drug prohibition is this — Has the War on Drugs made our communities safer?

The question arises due to a recent conversation I had with one of my students at a local college.  She grew up in California, attending school in a drug and gang ridden neighborhood.  She described her experience as a fifth-grader where they had periodic “drive-by drills” at her school.  At the sound of a gunshot or school alarm, the students were taught to dive under their desks,  I was skeptical, hoping this was one of those famous urban myths, but unfortunately, it is truth.  (See an article on Drive-By Drills in Long Beach, CA)

In Chicago, plans for school system downsizing and consolidation have run up against the same drug gang issue.  Chicago Police and school officials have devised the Safe Passages Program to assist students run what the Chicago Tribune called a “gantlet” of drug and gang violence. (See article)  Perhaps the saddest aspect of the situation is the reporter’s finding that “Gangs, guns and drugs stir neighborhood violence so routine that many of the 116,000 high school students have grown numb to it.”  Unfortunately, so have our political leaders and much of the public.

As the War on Drugs nears its 50th year, this is its legacy — neighborhoods afflicted by so much crime kindergartners are cowering under their desks.  Are we so numb to the violence, so conditioned by decades of War on Drugs rhetoric that we somehow have grown to accept these situations as just a way of life in the big city?

It is fair to ask what the role of the drug war is in the violence picture.  Experts will cite a laundry list of causes — guns, gangs, poverty,dysfunctional families — just to name a few. All these things are elements in the overall picture, but it is the drug business that provides the financial structure and support for the violence.  Whether in Chicago, LA, New York or Cincinnati, gangs are largely organized around the business of drugs and the violence is a necessary tool to keep their business in operation.  The overwhelming share of drug violence is not the outcome of the pharmaceutical effects of the drugs, but the buying and selling of those drugs in an illegal, highly-profitable and violent market.

In the same way that the Capone Cartel in Chicago was undone by the end of alcohol prohibition, today’s cartels can be marginalized by the end of drug prohibition.   We can continue as we have for the last 40 years, living with a level of violence that has American school children hiding under their desks. Or we can learn from the past, moving away from a disastrous social policy with outcomes no reasonable American could support.