Several times, I have written posts arguing for the decriminalization of marijuana and against imprisonment as an effective way to fight illegal drug use, e.g., Ethical Musings Ending the war on drugs, Some data about the war on drugs, and Gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. This graph from Harold Pollack, (Washington Post, May 29, 2013), underscores the abysmal failure of the war against illegal drugs:
(Graph published in the Washington Post courtesy of Peter Reuter, Jonathan Caulkins, and Sarah Chandler)
What the graph clearly shows is that putting dramatically more people in prison has done nothing to make illegal drugs less available. Indeed, just the opposite appears to have occurred. The street price of illegal drugs has plunged, indicating greater availability, as the number of people in prison for using or trafficking in drugs has skyrocketed, supposedly diminishing both demand and supply. A 15-fold increase in the number of people imprisoned for crack cocaine related offenses produced only a 5-15% increase in the street price of crack. Meanwhile, the percentage of the U.S. population that uses illegal drugs has remained relatively constant for decades.
Pollack's article reports that even politically conservative groups have begun to question the wisdom and cost effectiveness of imprisoning so many people.
Widely disregarded laws promote disrespect for the law in general. Imprisoning drug users and small-time dealers is costly, often alters the life trajectory of those individuals in unfortunate ways, costs exorbitant amounts of tax dollars to fund police, prosecutors, and prisons, and is ineffective. Conversely, decriminalizing marijuana and some other illegal drugs may increase respect for the law and law enforcement agencies, can generate a public revenue stream through taxation, and can free tax dollars for better uses such as funding drug rehab/prevention programs and deficit reduction.