The never-ending War on Drugs

Obama’s visit to Mexico this week has once again highlighted America’s interminable War on Drugs. The term was coined by Richard Nixon in 1969, in a clear allusion to Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous War on Poverty. We are now in 2009 and the war continues. The website has a drug war clock, which graphically shows the enormous costs of this war. So far this year the American federal government and the states have spent more than fifteen billion dollars on this war – that works out at over $600 a second. In the same period more than half a million people have been arrested for drug-related offences.

         This insane struggle goes back much further than Tricky Dicky. One of its first key players was HJ Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor of today’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). Anslinger personifies the punitive approach to drug use. I know it’s a bit unfair to judge a historical figure by contemporary mores but this quote will give you a flavour of the man:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” According to Anslinger marijuana had almost magical qualities, being responsible for inducing both violence and pacifism. He also claimed that it “makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger was at the FBN for more than 30 years. He is no longer around but these catastrophic policies continue to hold sway.

            My first objection to this war is based on individual freedom. As adults we should be free to ingest whatever we want. As long as we don’t harm others, we have the right to choose what we do with our lives. But this freedom comes with responsibility. If you abuse that responsibility, you have to face up to the consequences of your actions. I think we hear the word victim and illness too often in these cases. Freedom without responsibility is a recipe for disaster. I have always stayed away from the whole drug culture – I have little sympathy for this world.  But I think if I did become addicted to any substance, I would find it very tough to go straight. Therefore, the best option for me is to stay off them.

Economic analysis can also be used to analyse the efficacy of this war. The aim is to reduce the supply of illegal drugs, thus pushing prices up and as a consequence reducing the amount people want to consume.  A typical enforcement strategy is to pressurize countries like Colombia or Mexico to eradicate the production of coca. This has been going on for three decades now and the policy just hasn’t worked. For a little while supply did go down but the drug cartel were able to lie low a while or their organisations mutated and now the total number of hectares has actually gone up. So the U.S. government has wasted billions of dollars on Plan Colombia and seems unwilling to learn the lessons of the recent past in the drug war. Let’s just suppose for a minute that it were possible to completely eliminate all the coca – all you would do is shift production to whatever country is next best at producing it. You can grow coca in many different places and so the effect on cost is likely to be minimal.  The cost of producing drugs abroad and transporting them to the United States is said to represent only about 1 percent of their street price. The inescapable conclusion is that this will never be an effective way of reducing drug use.

Finally we need to look at the unintended consequences. The most prevalent one is crime. This occurs in our countries and in the producer countries. In Mexico almost 10,000 people have been killed in the last two years; 10% were law enforcement agents. This has had a destabilising effect on Mexican democracy. Prohibition of alcohol helped Al Capone get rich and now history is being repeated with the Mexican cartels. Will we never learn?

Politics is about making trade-offs not finding the perfect solution. Decriminalisation is most definitely not perfect and I do have a certain unease about what the consequences would be. But this perpetual war reminds me of the joke by British Tommies in the trenches during WWI – if we keep advancing at this rate, we’ll get to Berlin in 100 years. At least that war ended after four years; this one has been going on for decades and there is no is no sign of a victory parade.


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