Observing Life Through Polarized Glasses
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MAY 3, 2011 2:32AM

The Institutionalization of the War on Drugs

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There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.  

– Sun Tsu, The Art of War


WAr on Drugs



First, some statistics: This year (2011) alone:

  • We have spent $15 billion dollars on the War on Drugs so far this year. (The U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $500 per second.) The Budgetary Impact of Drug Prohibition
  • We have arrested 560,000 people for drug offenses. (Arrests for drug law violations this year are expected to exceed the 1,663,582 arrests of 2009. Law enforcement made more arrests for drug abuse violations (an estimated 1.6 million arrests, or 13.0 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense in 2009.  Someone is arrested for violating a drug law every 19 seconds.) Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • We have arrested almost 290,000 for marijuana related offenses. (Police arrested an estimated 858,408 persons for cannabis violations in 2009. Of those charged with cannabis violations, approximately 89 percent were charged with possession only. An American is arrested for violating cannabis laws every 30 seconds.) Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • We have incarcerated more than 26,000 people for drug offenses. (Since December 31, 1995, the U.S. prison population has grown an average of 43,266 inmates per year. About 25 per cent are sentenced for drug law violations.) U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Last month, in the Zócalo of Mexico City, the country’s main square, thousands of Mexicans gathered to demand an end to the “war on drugs” which has taken the lives of over 35,000 of their countrymen. And even as they chanted, some 59 bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Tamaulipas state.

Yet, in the face of the above, the current American field marshal in the war of drugs, Michele Leonhart, was astonishingly quoted as saying this: “It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs.” In other words, 35,000 dead Mexicans is a sign of approaching victory because the narcotrafficantes are killing each other over their turf. (She failed to mention anything about the 994 Mexican children under the age of 18 killed in 2010.)

The numbers no one wants to know about

Well, then, let’s take a look at the consumption side of this grisly equation: According to the Center for Disease Control, the use of illicit drugs in the United States has stayed about the same, as a percentage of the population, between 2002 and 2008 – which is to say that in actual numbers, use of them has increased. These are the results after spending $15 billion last year and waging a continuous “war on drugs since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared it? Some war!

Alternately, cigarette smoking, (nicotine is among the most highly addictive of drugs) and which is entirely legal, has dropped from 50% of the U.S. population to around 25% today, among adults, thanks largely to a public campaign of education and restriction as to how and where cigarettes may be consumed. (The National Institutes of Health)

The bipolarity of the “War on Drugs” during the Cold War

Since the end of World War II, when the CIA enlisted the help of the Mafia in preventing leftists from taking control of Italy in exchange for allowing the illegal importation of heroin into the U.S., the war on drugs has been unevenly waged. When it has served official U.S. foreign policy objectives, the poor and  dispossessed in the US have been used as pawns. The CIA was complicit in helping the Nationalist Chinese in the late 40’s by helping Chiang Kai-Chek export opium from China; in helping the Nicaraguan “contras” export cocaine to the United States. While Hollywood was producing movies like “Reefer Madness,” the CIA was allowing heroin into the United States because it helped in their fight against communism.

The efficacy of suppression

In short, all attempts to reduce consumption of illicit drugs by  using interdiction in the importation of them into the U.S. have failed. As the Mexicans have stated to the U.S. repeatedly, the problem is not with supply; it is with demand. As long as the United States has a voracious appetite for illegal drugs, they will be available.

A basic understanding of economics tells us that reducing supply only increases the price; and increased prices lead to higher profits, which in turn lead to increased supply. Conversely, reducing demand leads to lower prices and reduced supply.  Regardless of this economic truth, the policy of federal, state and local governments has resulted in the continuous failure of the use of suppression, rather than a more enlightened approach to the realities of drug use in this country. This war is a losing proposition which, in this economic climate,  is made all the more stark, for we are conducting it on borrowed money now.

Will someone please pull the plug!

As in so many areas (such as the refusal to recognize of Cuba while recognizing, say, North Korea or Iran)  governmental policies tend to get ossified. Policies becomes institutionalized. They accumulate a kind of inertial momentum of their own which even succeeding presidential administrations cannot change. It’s no secret that the “warriors” in the War on Drugs constitute a huge constituency of voters, from local police agencies receiving federal money, to correctional officers overseeing drug offenders (most of whom are users rather than traffickers in drugs), to lawyers and judges and courts, to federal agencies of course. All of them have an interest in preserving the status quo. They are not bad people but they are convinced that what they do actually  works - or at least should continue uninterrupted - even in the face of statistics which belie those beliefs.

Furthermore, and just as importantly, our social, religious and cultural realities make it almost impossible to face the truth that legalizing drugs will lead to a reduction in their use. For most people, the notion is counterintuitive. However, during Prohibition, alcohol consumption didn’t decrease at all.  Rather, the quality of alcoholic beverages went down, and the very illegality of alcohol gave rise to the mob. With alcohol, its consumption was an ongoing practice since the birth of the nation. Repeal of  Prohibition through the constitutional amendment process was relatively easy to accomplish. This is not so with drugs and resistance to controlled use as a component of a therapy aimed at discontinuance, if not outright legalization, is very strong among conservatives.

What is missed, of course, is a consistent, uniform, and serious national effort to confront the demand for drugs. Rather than treat a drug abuser as having an illness, we declare them criminals and incarcerate them by the tens of thousands.

 In a most despicable example, we tell our children to “Just say ‘No’” to illegal drugs when in fact  they are confronted by them everywhere. They are easy to get and available anywhere, across all economic and social strata. (Even the abuse of prescription painkillers and other legal drugs is now on the rise.)

Finally, what are we to make of all those dead Mexicans? How are we to treat what is rapidly becoming a failed state in our neighbor to the south and with whom we share a 1200 mile border? In the Zócalo that day last month, people were shouting for the resignation of the president of the republic. They no longer believed the government can control the drug  cartels of the north, whose money has bought off politicians from Mexico City to chiefs of police in Chihuahua and Sonora.

It’s time to reassess. No doubt about it. Ms. Leonhart needs to come clean. This is one war which we’ll never win if we continue waging it as we have for 40 years.


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Is it also true that the "Drug Lords" invest their money in US banks & the banks don't want to lose their business, so a little lobbying is put to their use? Remember seeing that in a documentary or something...
It is completely wrong that drug addiction is treated as a criminal act rather than a medical condition. You've brought to light some important facts.
Agreed. There is just no excuse for incarcerating the amount of people that we do. The War on Drugs needs to end.
What we have is an industry based on apprehension, prosecution, and incarceration. This offsets the loss of industry jobs and allows the ruling class to exploit cheap labor in third world countries and those nations that exploit prison slave labor to increase their personal wealth. This also allows those few who reap so much reward from the situation s it is today to donate more money to pet politicians who in turn keep on refusing to even consider ending this war on freedom and that friends is what it is. The violence is fueled by the outrageous profits made from contraband. Legalize it, tax it and get the government involved in it and boom, there goes the money, no one getting arrested means no more prison guard jobs, no more construction contracts for the businesses that exist by building jails and prisons. No more seizure of property and there goes the new police cars, the auto jobs, the courts will not be so overcrowded and cells open up for the violent criminals (not to mention those white collar ones). The war on freedom can't be ended without those people having to account for what we got for our money. They will not face that since as you stated, there is no way to show any good from it.

I need to address the nicotine problem too. Nicotine is more powerful than heroin yet no one thinks that heroin addicts can break that addiction without medical help. Nicotine, which is a very profitable legal addiction, on the other hand is widely portrayed as not just a habit, but, one that anyone who wishes can break on their own. No one bats an eye when a narcotic addict, cocaine addict, or even a "marijuana addict" seeks a medical solution to break their habit. Yet there are few programs that help those individuals who were coerced into become a drug addict by advertising by people who used the profits to make sure that they could keep those pet politicians on their side while finding new ways to profit off of nicotine addicts. For example nicotine gum and nicotine patches. Those items are a bit like methadone for junkies. You still are addicted but you don't have to face the more serious aspects of the addiction since the chemicals in the tobacco smoke are more dangerous than the drug component.

Sorry for jumping up on my soap box here. You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the "war on drugs".
I agree that the War On Drugs should be ended. I don't see what is "despicable" about telling children to "Just say No" to drugs. Actually, that's the best advice there is whenever someone is trying to get you to do something that is not in your best interest, whether it is taking drugs you don't feel like taking or having sex with people you don't feel like having sex with or serving on committees you don't feel like serving on or buying life insurance policies you don't need. Just say No. What on earth is wrong with that advice?
Well said. Added to favorites.
@Patrick Hahn

Perhaps I should have been more careful in what I intended by that remark, so I will elaborate here:

What I was referring to was Nancy Reagan's totally pollyannish creation of the phrase way back when she was the first lady.

I took her to mean that simply telling our children to "Just say 'No!'" would cure the problem. It hasn't and it won't, no matter *what* we tell our kids. It was a hollow call. It was despicable in its lack of seriousness and its myopia, coming from someone who had a very powerful microphone.

One of my children went through the standard "Just say 'No'!" program in grammar school yet by high school got himself all messed up with various drugs easily available to him. (Thankfully, he is now clean, sober and a good, tax paying citizen.)
Not a war on drugs - It is internal state sponsored terrorism.(.) Is it Racist? Yes and no - becuase it is not as much racist as it is political -as in how do we destroy the gains made by the 60s social movements and the people who made them happen. I call the post King era " The Great Repression" - theis war against the poor is ongoing - and enabled Bush to acend to power in 2000.
I agree. Gotta run, but my expanded thought is on Neilpaul's blog on the same subject.
Here's the idea I had the other day. Legalize local. At the time I was just thinking about dispensaries of med MJ, but the concept could be expanded. The idea - you have to source your product, and it has to be fromt eh state in which the dispensary is located. It has to be cultivated in legal ag land or backyard garden (to eradicate the vast and growing problem of cultivation in national forests & parks). No trafficking to create supply. Quality, local product.
Nice doublespeaking by the lionhearted one - sweet, if the level of violence is higher, then our war is on fire. Great post, couldn't agree with you more. I sent this to a high-schooler preparing an argument on the regulation of drugs rather than a "war".
And think of how much drug abuse we have prevented from this effort! It's not about the "lost to drugs". It's just like the economy and the stimulus, all those jobs that were NOT lost because of it that don't get to come out in the stats. It's all the drug abuse and lives that have been saved from the effort that don't get to be in the stats.
as usual, many agree something should be done, not many agree on what should be done, and no one agrees to do anything.

it's the result of growing up in a society where politics is only done by professionals.
This is one of the most straightforward and convincing pieces I've read yet on what is wrong with "The War on Drugs," a lumbering ill-conceived, short-sighted approach to a problem that is costing obscene amounts of money while accomplishing absolutely nothing.

"As the Mexicans have stated to the U.S. repeatedly, the problem is not with supply; it is with demand. As long as the United States has a voracious appetite for illegal drugs, they will be available."

We really ought to heed the advice of our neighbor to the south. They know of what they speak. Mexico is imploding. It is horrifying what's happening in that country; even worse knowing the U.S. is helping it along.

Legalize them. All of them. As you noted, the rates of smoking dropped significantly after an education campaign was implemented.

How do we do this? I have no clue; I'm not that smart. But you can be sure where profit's involved, brilliant ideas will flow fast and furious.

It's not even a war, it's a losing battle. In some cases, whole communities are being ravaged by certain drugs and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Chasing drug dealers and users puts enormous strain on local law enforcement whose budgets have been cut severely; they don't have the time or manpower for this nonsense. And the DARE program is a joke, especially when kids go home and see their own parents using. I don't see it happening anytime soon but legalization could solve so many problems.
Drugs are big business, and not just for the ones who sell it. If you legalized drugs, thousands of people would be out of work in high paying jobs. The people who build prisons would freak out. Drugs are a money maker for everyone involved except the user. If you have to build planes and other weapons that the military doesn't want, because of jobs in congressional districts, imagine what they would do if you closed down the prisons. My son is a prison guard and it's the only job anywhere around. As long as they make coffee, drugs will be illegal.