Americans have been lied to about the war on drugs. From cautionary tales about the dangers of marijuana to tough-on-crime laws designed to lock away drug offenders, anti-drug crusaders in politics and the media have been hard at work for decades ensuring that the only words about this that most citizens hear are "Just say no!" — or their sentencing statements.
But in reality, the war on drugs has little to do with public safety. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2013 shows that tobacco, alcohol and prescription painkillers were responsible for more direct deaths than any other drug. Even after you remove alcohol and tobacco from the equation, the majority of drug overdoses in 2013 came from "legal" pharmaceuticals rather than illegal narcotics like heroin and cocaine.
The data: The CDC reports that tobacco kills 480,000 Americans annually — more than combat service during World War II. Deaths linked to alcohol — excluding indirect deaths, like those resulting from drunken driving or booze-fueled murder — amounted to another 26,654 deaths. And of the 22,767 deaths from pharmaceutical overdoses in 2013, nearly 17,000 involved opioid-based prescription painkillers, while the remaining 6,973 involved benzodiazepines. This is part of a growing trend: Prescription painkiller overdoses have tripled since 1990.
Compared to the ravages of illegal narcotics, these numbers are fairly stark. According to CDC data, cocaine and heroin overdoses killed fewer than 5,000 people each in 2013, while marijuana overdoses killed zero; even in cases where marijuana was found in a person's system after death, alcohol or other drugs were usually detected as well. Come on: Even Five Hour Energy has been linked to more deaths than marijuana.
This obviously isn't a perfect comparison: As Vox's German Lopez notes, tobacco and alcohol deaths are disproportionately high "because both substances are legal and easily available." But the federal drug data does make one thing clear — legality does not necessarily mean safety. The two deadliest drugs in America can be found everywhere from convenience stores to drinking establishments, while the third requires a simple doctor's prescription. But a plant that's impossible to overdose on and, according to recent research, poses limited long-term dangers to adults can still net users and dealers decades in prison.
These numbers show just how screwed up our drug policy is: For some drugs where the risk of harm or addiction is extremely high, like heroin, it makes sense to impose basic restrictions on trafficking or sales. But the war on drugs imposes criminal penalties and shatters lives on an arbitrary basis. Despite the president's own admission that marijuana is probably less harmful to an individual consumer than alcohol, marijuana remains placed in the DEA's highly restrictive Schedule I category alongside much more potent substances like quaaludes and bath salts.
Other countries are catching on. A 2010 study published in The Lancet attempted to rank the relative harms of various substances to the U.K. Cannabis came in at eighth place, well behind alcohol, heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, cocaine, tobacco and other amphetamines. Notably, alcohol far outpaced cannabis' relative "harm to others":
Americans have accepted the legality of the alcohol industry, which makes most of its money from alcoholics, and pretty much no one thinks of banning cigarettes entirely despite tobacco causing 1 in 5 deaths. But they have also simultaneously accepted the hypocritical logic of the war on drugs, which has contributed to a 790% increase in America's prison population since 1980. Over half of federal inmates are there for drug crimes, and a solid 27.6% of those are there for marijuana-related offenses.
Despite efforts from state and federal law enforcement, the war on drugs doesn't seem to be helping the nation at all. The New York Times reported in 2012 that usage rates of soft drugs are actually up while use of hard drugs has remained stable, despite the trillion dollars the U.S. has spent on flashbang-tossing SWAT teams and ludicrously expensive interdiction operations. And since minorities are disproportionately likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses, America's current drug policy ends up looking extremely racist in practice. Almost 62% of the 225,242 prisoners in state custody for drug crimes in 2011 were black or Hispanic, according to the Department of Justice.
Even more alarming, data shows that anti-drug crusaders' view of the harms of marijuana (it makes you a zombie!) doesn't hold up to empirical scrutiny. Nor does it back the federal anti-drug strategy that has prevailed since President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971. Yet the justice system continues to routinely dispense hugely disproportionate punishment for drug offenses on both the state and federal level.
None of this makes Americans safer. In fact, considering that the U.S. now has the highest prison population on the planet, and the fact that drugs are more accessible than ever, it's probably made you objectively less safe.
There's an alternative: The feds could do what five Nobel Prize-winning economists and prominent statesmen (including Ronald Reagan's former Secretary of State George P. Shultz) recommended last year year: They could end the war on drugs.
In Portugal, which decriminalized personal possession of all drugs in 2001, drug use has pretty much plummeted. AsTime reported in 2009:
[A paper by the libertarian Cato Institute found] that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16- to 18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
The number of people receiving methadone or buprenorphine for opioid addiction more than doubled, from just over 6,000 to slightly short of 15,000. The government now prioritizes treatment and prevention programs instead of heavy-handed enforcement. Portugal's top drug official, Joao Castel-Branco Goualo, told Time, "The impact in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization."
There's also good news on the horizon for marijuana smokers in particular: Gallup polling has found that a majority (51%) of their fellow Americans thought that weed should be totally legal in 2014, up from just 12% in 1970. More than ever, pot is becoming mainstream. It's already totally legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, and it will soon be on the ballots of at least five other states. In D.C., an overwhelmingly popular legalization initiative was approved by voters last year but lost its funding thanks to congressional meddling. President Obama's new budget proposes reversing it and letting the voter's choice prevail. As of 2015, 14 other states have decriminalized pot. Perhaps the most telling sign is that even likely Republican presidential contenders seem reluctant to interfere with the states already experimenting with looser drug laws.
America's current system is arbitrary, harsh and ineffective all at the same time. Something else seems bound to replace it. Hopefully, the logic of preventing drug use by punishing users and their suppliers will give way to a more enlightened, evidence-based system that actually works. And yes, it should be one where you can legally smoke a joint.