Comment: US War on Drugs: Yes, it’s worth it!

8 May 2011

If a Martian sent a postcard home after being relieved from his interplanetary diplomatic affairs at Area 51, what would he have to say about the current state of the US’ War on Drugs?

Perhaps he would begin his account by saying the earthlings are fighting an unwinnable war. Almost 40 years down the road since Nixon first began this holy crusade; hundreds of billions of dollars worth of taxpayers’ money down the drain since Reagan first pledged to protect the children of America from the evils of this world, and there seems to be no end in sight.

The curious thing here is that the US themselves are the first to acknowledge the lack of success of their past and present anti-drug strategy on ink and paper.

With a persistent yearly increase of the amounts invested in anti-drug squads (it is expected that the government will spend at least US$23.44b on the War on Drugs in 2011, at a rate of US$1,716 per second), more effective border patrols (over 20,000 agents at the end of FY 2009) and having enough prisons to incarcerate the more than a million offenders for marijuana possession and trafficking (758,593 people were arrested in 2009 for marijuana possession alone, making up 45,6% of the drug arrests that year, an all time record) –  the ‘availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing’, with ‘higher purity’ and ‘lower prices’ (National Drug Threat Assessment 2010).

As this was not enough, the US continues to pursue its policy of direct intervention (e.g. through fumigation and military presence) in certain countries which produce drugs the Prozac-Tobacco-and-Whiskey-loving nation dislikes, especially in Latin-America. The actual effect of this on production is, by and large, far from optimistic, and less optimistic is the effect it has on the people that actually live there. Can you imagine England bombarding American fast food meat suppliers because its country has weight problems and arguable eating habits?

At first glance, this policy does not seem all that becoming of a nation that sees itself as ‘common sensed’ (as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it once) when it comes to government policies.

How is it that the birthplace of capitalism is at odds to understand that the success of an illicit drug, like any other product, lies not in how much stock is available for consumers but in how much the consumers themselves want it. The path should be prevention and treatment and not fumigation and supply extermination – that has been clear enough for the past decades.

Europe has arrived at that conclusion a long time ago. The fact remains that, like tobacco and alcohol, illicit drug consumption is not a social evil, but a simple reality, a symptom of more profound social and cultural circumstances. It’s no secret we live in a culture of addiction. Your average I-don’t-do-drugs person drops close to 14,000 ‘legal’ pills during his lifetime (British Museum drug exhibition estimate), smokes maybe a pack a day (7200 per year), and drinks a few gallons of alcohol per month. We live in a world floating in a sea of Jack Daniels, punctuated by bobbing capsules of Prozac, adrift on rafts in a catatonic sea, like Al Martin said. Illicit drugs are just another piece of this drug-addict puzzle of which all of us, to a lesser or greater extent, are part of.

And when it comes to present-day (illegal) drug production and consumption, it is no surprise that they are intact and thriving. According to a report from 2006, some 6,000 people smoked marijuana every day during that year within the United States. Therefore, if this problem is to be dealt with pragmatically, it needs to be tackled (if that is really the objective) through prevention and treatment. After all, that is the overall successful strategy used today with tobacco and alcohol addiction (which kills far more people than all the illegal drugs put together), rather than to stop the flow of cigarettes and whiskey bottles into a given country.

Which brings us to the question – why would the US stubbornly persist on this inefficient and hardly cost-effective strategy? I mean, are they back to believing in moral victories like they did with the Vietnam War? That if even if this war is not winnable, they must persist for the sake of some unfathomable high cause? Are they even serious about ending this war at all?

If we look back at Ronald Reagan – and there have been few presidents more serious about fighting this war – on the one hand he brought the War on Drugs to its first peak and pressed for stronger judicial punishment for marijuana consumers, which he secured.

On the other, however, he knowingly let the Nicaraguan Contras flood the US with Latin-American cocaine because Congress forbade him to finance the militia directly. That’s how dead serious he was about ending this war. Incidentally, the peak of cocaine consumption in the US was during his administration (7.1 million people were reported to consume it less often than monthly in 1985). Yes, a charming and puritan US President was involved in massive drug trafficking, but that should not be all that surprising.

It should not be surprising because the US have no serious intention of winning the War on Drugs. In maintaining its position on how to fight drug production and trafficking, they are not being stubborn, they are actually being ‘common sensed’. They understand very well how their economic structure works, knowing that using prevention and treatment to deal with the drug problem would entail radical repercussions, not only in their policy, but in their whole economy. And it is exactly with their economic interests in mind that every year the US publishes an international report ironically advising each nation on how to fight drug trafficking, in a nutshell – on how to fail as miserably as they have.

It is often suggested that the US supports democracy in the world if and only when it is in accordance with national security interests. Let us try to apply the same logic to illicit drugs. If the US is against illicit drugs if and only when in accordance with national security interests, then we must ask ourselves what these national security interests are. What does the US stand to gain from the War on Drugs?

If a merchant has profited all his life by selling flyswats, what would he gain from the absolute extermination of flies? That would put him out of business, and he would have to find something else to sell.

The same applies to the US’s War on Drugs. Massive investments are poured into anti-drug squads like DEA, which then profit from the high apprehensions they make, as well as freezing and seizing the 8-digit bank accounts of evil drug lords. Furthermore, they profit from selling their state of the art surveillance equipment – while the US government provides the weaponry – to countries (particularly in Latin-America) with other anti-drug squads which likewise are bent on stopping drug production in their own soil. It’s a business like any other.

Also, fighting drug production and so-called narco-terrorists in Latin-America has been one of the underlying justifications for US military presence there, and it has become part of a broader foreign policy. There are currently seven military bases in Colombia (still the world’s greatest cocaine producer), a few others in Mexico (still the world champion of marijuana production), and incidentally their governments are two of the US’ greatest allies in the entire region. Even with US military presence in these two countries, drug production is alive and well.

Legalizing marijuana is therefore not the best move if the US seek to maintain their presence in and dominance over Latin-America, a presence even more arguable if by legalizing it gang crimes would significantly decrease across the region; a major slice of narco-terrorists would cease to exist; poverty might not be so rampant among displaced peasants who have no other choice but to invade private property and grow marijuana; and Latin-American countries like Mexico and Paraguay (the second largest producer of marijuana in the world) would have no need to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on made-in-US anti-drugs logistics and surveillance equipment to arm their squads. This cycle would, if not vanish, at least soften.

Furthermore, the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries would certainly not take this legalization lightly. After all, it is also their private interests that the US is upholding, and billions of dollars worth of consumers shifting to a recently legalized competitor like marijuana may strike a blow on these market dinosaurs (unless of course they were the ones selling it as well). The tobacco and alcohol lobbies which finance political campaigns based on the candidates’ stark anti-drug agendas (quite popular among certain sectors of the electorate) would also suffer collateral damage. Therefore their marketing branches must continue to invest on propaganda advertisement (which Obama himself has encouraged), equating, as in one particular ad, marijuana smoking with predisposition to rape young women.

The only conceivable beneficiary of this legalization is certainly the electorate. And I do not mean simply the ones who are locked up in 2 by 3 cells next to murderers and rapists for smoking marijuana. All Americans would benefit from this, and they need not concern if legalizing marijuana encourages kids to smoke, no more than legalizing tobacco, alcohol and fast food encourages children to smoke, drink and eat obsessively. In addition, both North-American and South-American neighbourhoods would be safer, with less gang activity, robbery and homicides. Incidentally, since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his stalwart crackdown on drug cartels in 2006, over 34,612 people have been killed in drug related violence, 2010 reaping the title of bloodiest year of all time, with 15,273 people killed.

Again, legalization would always entail efforts – the effort to prevent drug abuse (like alcohol or tobacco abuse), and the effort on the part of the individual states to regulate consumption, level of purity and minimum age (just like with any other marketable drug).

In the long run, however, legalization would promote a major decrease in consumption due to cultural changes. The same happens today with tobacco in England, for instance. Fewer and fewer people smoke (especially among the well-to-do educated classes), not only because of institutional efforts to prevent smoking but because people want to lead a healthier lifestyle.

It is therefore up to the American electorate to end this unfruitful and damaging war. And it is up to the individual states to force the government to bring about a much needed change in policy.

A significant push towards reaching this change has already been underway in California in last November’s state-wide ballot of Proposition 19 (Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act). And while the Act was flumped by a majority, an astonishing 46.2% of the population voted for the legislation, which would make marijuana legal to buy and grow. What this basically means is that, if this referendum takes place once more in two or four years time, the majority of the population will most likely vote for it.

In the US there is an interesting structure of government that Alexis de Tocqueville heralded as perfect during his visit there in the early 19th century – each district mirrors the state, and each state mirrors the government in a massive mosaic where most of the time the individual pieces affect the whole, not the other way around.

And when this legislation is finally passed through continuous efforts on the part of the citizens, there will be no choice for the government but to yield to its electorate and change its world-wide anti-drug strategy.

As the first congresswoman in the US preceded the 19th Amendment (1921) which allowed women all over the US to vote, and the first African-American congressman preceded the executive 1964 Civil Rights Act, so too is Proposition 19 the necessary catalyst for a massive reform in the US’ stance on how to deal more efficiently with drug consumption and trafficking.

Sebastiao Martins

Photo Credit: