The Drug Wars: Is Half a Century of Bloody Futility Enough?

drug-wars1Drug wars in northern Mexico, fed by guns and money from the United States, and spilling over into this country, remind us that the trade in illegal drugs remains a huge problem.

We have been engaged since around 1970 in a succession of efforts by successive administrations to wage war on illegal drug trafficking, and there is widespread agreement across the ideological spectrum that we’ve made no headway. The numbers of Americans using illegal drugs have, if anything, increased. Drug-related crime is a huge portion of all crime, whether we refer to addicts staging robberies and burglaries, or to violence between participants in the trade. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and most of our prison population are there because of drug-related convictions.

Moreover, the war on drugs exacts a terrible price from other countries involved in feeding our ravening appetite for these drugs. Producer countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia (cocaine) or Afghanistan (heroin) have their whole societies and polities taken over and corrupted by the trade. Countries that are used for transit of drugs en route to the United States (like Mexico) are subject to similar corrosive tendencies.

Drug-related turmoil in supplier countries affects us directly. Afghanistan produces almost all of the world’s supply of heroin, and the Taliban are using most of the proceeds to support their war against the United States and its Afghani allies. Similarly, in Colombia and Peru, insurgents that the US has been trying to defeat are financing their resistance with cocaine. At the same time, many of our supposed allies in those countries also have a hand in the cocaine trade. Cocaine has corrupted virtually all sectors of Colombian society. Coca production on a scale far larger than legal use would justify provides the underpinning for Evo Morales in his aggressive challenge to the US in Bolivia.

In short, our war on drugs has boomeranged; we have promoted increased violence and incarceration at home, and subsidized challenges to our interests abroad.

Why not stop doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result? Why not try legalizing and regulating drugs, just as we do with alcohol and tobacco? It wouldn’t be necessary to abandon prohibition cold turkey; the fact is, we haven’t ever tried it. Having tried prohibition with active international enforcement for half a century, we know that it hasn’t worked. We don’t know how legalization would work, but it would be worth an experiment.

I propose that President Obama simply declare a de facto moratorium on drug enforcement for a specific period, such as one year, during which time we will be able to see whether the problems cited above actually improve, and whether other problems develop that might be worse.

It is predictable that most drug-related violence would diminish as the drug trade becomes less lucrative, though it’s also possible that rival cartels might battle each other for a shrinking market. It is predictable that we would see some increase in the use of these drugs as the risk of arrest is eliminated and the price drops. To the extent that drug use impairs the capacity of the user, that is a loss to them and to the larger society, but society might be better able to mitigate the damage when drug use doesn’t have to be underground. And with legal and affordable drugs available, we should see an end to crimes committed by users needing a fix.

As the tradjohn-peeler.gife become less lucrative, fewer farmers in Afghanistan or Bolivia will produce the raw materials, and cartels will turn elsewhere for quick profits. The Shining Path in Peru and the Taliban in Afghanistan will lose their main source of funds. The United States (and state governments as well) will be able to divert resources from the drug war to other priorities, and end the overcrowding of our prisons.

If the results of the experiment prove positive enough, then it would be time to make legislative changes that would regulate drug production and sale, as well as usage, much as alcohol is regulated now. Drugs could provide a potent new source of revenues for the federal and state governments, even as the costs of the drug war are eliminated.

It only took us 15 years to realize that prohibition of alcohol wouldn’t work. The learning curve on drugs has been a lot longer, but it’s time to try something different.

John Peeler

LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on March 30, 2009
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. Many good reasons, some noted in the article, call for ending anti-drug and like laws. These laws criminalize possession of readily hidden small bits of readily got substances. The laws' major effect, with their largely impossible and at most arbitrary selective enforcement, is to promote and display irrationality of governments and legal systems. Especially so when some of the substances are not especially harmful, or when their prohibition is based on outdated 'knowledge'. Anyhow, substance abuse – like many other behaviors – is a safety and health problem, and not inherently a legal problem except for the very criminalization laws themselves. Besides serving thus to discredit government and the legal system in general, in practice these laws and their enforcement serve mainly to promote three causes. First, a police state, with arbitrary searches and confiscations, and many prisons and prisoners. Second, lucrative support for criminal gangs as suppliers of outlawed substances (and not only addictive substances; for some wannabe machos, illegality of a substance is a come-on in itself). Third, obstructing discovery and use of actual benefits of the outlawed substances.

  2. Spud Demon says:

    I agree that drug prohibition is the cause of many problem and that legalization is the answer. However, I do not think a moratorium on drug enforcement would be useful. The President cannot control state and local law enforcement, only federal. So drug commerce would still be underground, where violence (against competitors and sometimes customers) is the way to a higher profit.

  3. So, would you ultimately support state sponsored "drug stamps", similar to the food stamp program, but for people who can't afford their heroin? Doesn't this raise a moral issue, knowing the destructive outcome of heroin use?

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