The war on drugs will soon be over. It won't have been won or lost, and we certainly won't have wiped out illicit drug use. People will still pursue their personal pleasures and uncontrollable addictions. No, the war on drugs will end because drugs as we know them today will be gone.
The model drug of the future is already here in the form of crystal methamphetamine, a drug that is sweeping the United States and making inroads abroad. It's cheap and easy to make -- little more than Sudafed doctored up with plant fertilizer. One hundred percent of the profit goes to the manufacturer; no intermediary or army of couriers is required. Made of locally acquired materials in the garage or basement, the drug's production is nearly impossible to stop. Only the stupid and incompetent get caught.
Thirty-five years from now, the illicit professionals who remain in the business will be custom drug designers catering to the wealthy. Their concoctions will be fine-tuned to one's own body and neural chemistry. In time, the most destructive side effects will be designed out, perhaps even addiction itself. These custom drug dealers will design the perfect chemical experience for those who can afford it. The combination of cocaine with skiing, sex, or other intense physical activities is common today; likewise for pot and making music. In the future, there will be custom drugs for meals, golf, gardening, and more. Like crystal meth today, some drugs will reach the point of home manufacturing. And they will all be designed to make their use invisible to others -- no red eyes, nervous tics, or lethargy.
The shift to custom drugs that are locally produced will have some positive effects. Opium fields in Afghanistan and coca plantations in the mountains of Colombia will wither, creating new economic realities for those countries. The loss of cash crops will sting at first, but farmers and traders producing legal goods that are taxable and transparent will ultimately facilitate the building of healthy societies. Cocaine couriers won't sweat their way through customs, and human mules will stop smuggling bags of heroin in their guts. Drug lords will not need to launder billions of dollars or pay for private armies, and street corners won't have drug dealers waging gunfights for turf. The prison population in Western countries, and particularly the United States, will shrink.
But as the violence of the drug trade dies down and as drugs become safer, drug use will blossom. The boundary between legal performance enhancement (Viagra) and the illegal drugs of pleasure and creativity will blur. The political and social pressure against drug use will remain, but it will increasingly resemble the campaigns against performance-enhancing drugs for athletes. Widespread use will spark debates about fairness and authenticity: Is a drug-using musician better than one who composes and performs naturally? Is it fair for only the wealthy to have the richest sexual or culinary experiences?
Just as the legal system is struggling with new realities of intellectual property in a digital age, it will struggle to control innovation in the chemistry of pleasure. We may even wistfully look back at a time when there were smugglers to be chased and coca fields to be burned. The bad guys were brutes, largely foreign or inner-city hoodlums. The new drug sellers will be chemists, most likely caught on tax-evasion charges. Users, too, will be harder to hate. They'll look a lot like you and me.