What is the purpose of law? To promote justice and eliminate injustice, or to promote violence and corruption? US federal drug laws do the latter, domestically and around the world. This post is an assessment of the effects of the War on Drugs on the world. If you cannot stand the sight of blood, look away.
The criminalisation of drugs began with alcohol prohibition in the US. Dr Hamilton Wright was named a delegate to the US-initiated International Opium Commission of 1909 and soon started pushing for the prohibition of all drugs. To do so, he sought out evidence of enormous numbers of drug addicts in the US, which there were not, and made up figures where the real ones were unconvincing. At the time, narcotics were dealt by doctors. After a few maneuvers around the constitution (that annoying thing again), Wright had the federal government terrorise physicians into compliance with his ideals.
Meanwhile, Wright pronounced liberally on the “drug-crazed Nigger”, fanning the flames of racism with lies we would scoff at today. “Cocaine,” said Dr Wright, “is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes”. Because of the sea of propaganda, a country that in 1900 looked at drug addicts as unfortunate medical cases saw in 1920 a horde of “drug fiends”, twisted, immoral vampires.
The Anti-Saloon League lobbied for 30 years for prohibition. When they finally succeeded, they issued a statement saying that “an era of clean thinking and clean living” had begun. Unfortunately, the reverse was true. Crime rose 24% in US cities in the first year of Prohibition, and the courts were soon overwhelmed. (Sound familiar?) Historian Andrew Sinclair says “National prohibition transferred $2b a year from the hands of brewers, distillers and shareholders to the hands of murderers, crooks and illiterates.” Police killed gangsters, but they could not get them arrested, because witnesses were afraid to testify against them. Because criminalisation did not affect demand, prices did not change and more people entered the black market to replace those who were shot. Moreover, because the restrictions on, say, selling alcohol to minors, were removed, underage boys and girls could get liquor without being carded. The moral and logical arguments for criminalisation of hooch had already fallen on their faces.
After Prohibition ended, the people needed a new enemy, and in the 1930s, the lies began flooding the press about marijuana. For instance, marijuana was said to induce murder (perhaps the best known example being “Reefer Madness“), and children were said to be buying it in droves. The racism had not abated, of course, and charismatic spokespeople without consciences were now accusing Mexicans of bringing in marijuana and driving everyone crazy (though the N-s weren’t spared the groundless accusations either). Legislation got harsher. Jail times rose, police powers expanded and nothing changed on the street.
The War on Drugs is based on lies. If Reefer Madness were not enough, here are two more examples. Take Richard Nixon. When Nixon came into office, his opponents–in short, hippies–were of the cannabis culture, and Nixon’s reputation for petty vindictiveness can be seen in his approach to marijuana. In order to scare everyone, Nixon’s government fabricated numbers. According to their data, the number of drug addicts rose from some 70,000 in 1969 to 500,000 in 1971. Upon completing a survey, the Bureau of Narcotics thought the latter figure was off by about 800%. Second, remember “crack babies”, the 375,000 misshapen, ineducable freaks that were going to populate the US? They turned out to be as real as Negro Cocaine Rape. But they scared people into supporting the drug war, so the idea alone served its purpose. On the other hand, the lies have been counterproductive in other ways. By the 1990s, kids in the US were so used to grown-up scaremongering that they assumed all the tales about how bad heroin was for you were lies too. Next thing you knew, the rate of heroin addiction had jumped 20%, and the number of heroin-related emergencies doubled between 1990 and 1995.
The War on Drugs has been called racist, a claim that could easily be brushed aside if not for evidence. Today in the US, most drug users in all categories are white, yet blacks run a 500 percent greater risk of being arrested for drug offenses. By 1990, black men and women were 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to the authorities for drug charges.
The War on Drugs brings the US in constant conflict with the constitution meant to contain it. The US Constitution starting eroding long before the Patriot Act. Police seeing black teenagers walking on the street might throw them up against the wall and search their pockets without justification, which breaks the Fourth Amendment against arbitrary search and seizure. Even if they find drugs, the police cannot simply take it to a judge, tell the judge “this kid looked suspicious so I searched him” and expect a conviction. As a result, there are innumerable cases in which police claim that the suspect dropped a suspicious-looking bag on the pavement, which is perjury. (For more on police corruption, see here.)
The figures speak for themselves. The US murder rate peaked at the end of alcohol prohibition, shot up again at the end of the 1960s and has barely moved since then. The US federal drug war budget steadily increased by billions of dollars annually and has shown no results. The national prison population doubled between 1976 and 1986, and nearly quadrupled in the following decade. The numbers have not decreased since then. The facts are unequivocal: prohibition does not work.
What is the US government trying to achieve with its policy of tackling drugs at their source? It seems to be trying to eradicate the supply of drugs, but that is futile while demand is still high. Efforts must then be put into disrupting the supply of illicit drugs, driving up the retail price and reducing demand, right? But after three decades, billions of dollars of effort and many dead drug warriors, prices are down. The 2001 price of heroin is 20% of that of two decades earlier; the price of cocaine barely a third of its former price; and the price of marijuana way off its 1991 peak. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says “[u]ltimately, the prohibitionist approach is an attempt to repeal the economic law of supply and demand, and therefore it is doomed to fail.” The illegal drug trade, also despite all the effort expended (or perhaps even because of it), has gone global.
In 1969, Nixon commissioned a task force to recommend eradicating Mexico’s drug crops. The Mexican government said no, and Nixon took revenge. He deployed two thousand customs and border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border to conduct an enormous search-and-seizure operation. The desired effect–chaos–was reached.
Jimmy Carter’s presidency softened on drugs, and since then drug warriors have been seething, attempting to establish cause and effect relationships between Jimmy Carter’s supposedly lax drug policies and the rise in drug use during his presidency. Eleven states decriminalised private marijuana use without the federal government breathing down their necks. Nonetheless, during that time, the US government continued to put pressure on Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to end drug cultivation, a baton that Ronald Reagan could pick up when he assumed power. Reagan made it clear that the War on Drugs would be a big priority of both his domestic and foreign policy.
Conservatives held up drug use as the reason for the upsurge in crime in the US (though the real culprit was obviously drug law enforcement). Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL), for example, said drugs were “the single most threatening menace to civilization today.” But despite such alarmist rhetoric and poor sentence structure, drug consumption did not decrease. They decided instead to try to shut off the supply. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) blamed the administration for not waging a sufficiently serious War on Drugs. His criticism evinced the increasingly militant attitude of Democrats and Republicans alike toward drug-source countries in the mid-1980s. Drug laws got harsher, including instating the death penalty for major traffickers and life in prison for repeat offenders. Between fiscal years 1980 and 1987, US spending on countering the international narcotics trade tripled. Yet by 1989, the DEA earned more revenue from seizures than from its congressionally-allotted budget.
The government’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) on the drug trade said that, not only were drugs corrupting governments, insurgent and terrorist groups were cultivating them to finance their operations. Revelations that the Taliban, NATO’s latest insurgent enemy, have done the same should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the drug war. The same directive insisted on an escalation and further militarisation of the drug war. A CBS-New York Times poll of April 1988 found that half of respondents believed drug trafficking was the number one problem in the world. Washington had both the will and the popular mandate to ramp up the War on Drugs. Government spending on drug law enforcement went from $1.2b in 1981 to more than $5.7b in 1989 (the days of Reagan’s small government promises). Ironically, though not surprisingly, both usage rates of and violence connected to drugs rose during the same time.
The implementation of the directive effectively securitised drugs, which means that drugs officially became a threat to national security, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The military was enlisted to help even in domestic drug law enforcement. For instance, one law asked the navy to secure borders against all vessels containing narcotics. Such a suggestion was ludicrous, of course, as even attempting to do so would have destroyed trade and diverted drug smuggling to other routes. A lot of the billions of dollars sent to Latin America went to militaries, which Galen Carpenter calls “an extremely dubious strategy given the long history of military coups throughout the region.”
Much of Reagan and Bush’s efforts had centered on Peru. Peru is a natural haven for coca plants: they grow like grass in the vast jungles and even on the sides of cliffs. American officials encouraged Peruvian farmers to grow rice, tomatoes and beans. But such crops require time and money to cultivate, whereas the coca plant just needs air. Coca plants last forty years and are harvested every ninety days. Farmers in Bolivia planted various crops for cash incentives from the US, but by the end of the season they returned to coca because supply of fruit, nuts and ginger had far outstripped demand. Who needs tomatoes? Moreover, the buyer comes to you and does not bother with taxes, customs or paperwork. Smuggling is so easy because, according to a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, “[f]our Boeing 747 cargo planes or thirteen trailer trucks can supply American cocaine consumption for a year.”
As US officials put pressure on their Latin American counterparts, the latter tended to blame the US and suggest that the problem was on the demand side, rather than their side. They saw the US sense of urgency as self-serving, aiming to put Latin Americans in harm’s way to stop Americans from doing drugs. Moreover, many Latin American cultures differed from that of the US in terms of its taboo on the use of narcotics. Peasants in the Andes have been chewing and brewing tea from coca leaves for centuries. Jamaicans and various Latin American countries accept casual marijuana use as part of the culture. Why would they forcibly change their culture for a bunch of self-righteous Yanks?
Many officials were also colluding with drug cartels. Manuel Noriega is the obvious case; but before he was even indicted (and thousands of Panamanians killed), many high-level members of Panama’s government and Panamanian bankers were making money off drugs. The invasion of Panama in December of 1989 was portrayed as an anti-drug effort, to take out Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s friends in the State Department had looked the other way on his drug trafficking, but by 1989, because of the administration’s anti-drug rhetoric and the mounting evidence against Noriega, doing so had become politically untenable.
Ronald Reagan and the law-and-order promises he made were no better than Nixon, imposing yet stronger drug laws, killing and arresting people all over the place and taking the War on Drugs worldwide. George H.W. Bush had been Reagan’s point man for the anti-drug campaign, and after eight years of nothing to show for it, he told the American people, “Take my word, this scourge will stop.” Yet, how did Bush have the power or even the moral authority to stop it? Bush’s government had known for some time about contra drug smuggling and Noriega.
In November of 1989, the US Justice Department issued the alarming legal opinion that the US military had the authority to pursue and arrest drug traffickers overseas, even without the host government’s consent. Soon after its invasion of Panama, which the Bush administration touted as a victory over the drug scourge, the US stationed a fleet of aircraft carriers off the coast of Colombia, without the Colombian government’s permission, in order to apprehend Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious of the billionaire kingpins who have made their fortune from drugs. Violence in Colombia exploded as Escobar mounted a campaign of horrific terrorist violence to avoid extradition to the US. After a huge effort, Escobar was shot dead, and the flow of drugs did not change. He left behind a Colombia of crooked public officials and fearful citizens.
Where the US government considered the host government’s permission important (Article 173 of Colombia’s constitution states that foreign troops are not allowed to operate on Colombian soil), it applied pressure to obtain it. It became easy for left-wing guerrillas like the Sendero Luminoso to paint governments as American puppets. The FARC and ELN started because Colombian peasants were angered by their government. These are people whose legitimate trades were driven bankrupt by US taxpayer-subsidised agribusiness. Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that, given that the FARC and ELN do not have wide support, their base might have dried up if not for the violence and crop destruction of the War on Drugs. In spite of concerted crop spraying, coca continues to flourish in Colombia, just as it did in Peru in the 1980s. What have been the effects of spraying crops? Toxins emptying into the Amazon basin and increased cancer rates among the farmers. (Learn more here.)
Gustavo de Greiff, Colombia’s prosecutor general in the 1990s, was not afraid of US pressure. The War on Drugs
does not have victories, only failure. Despite spraying and manual eradication, the areas of cultivation have not diminished, only increased. Drug interdiction doesn’t even reach 10 percent of the drugs that reach international markets. We kill the big capos, we put them in jail, we extradite them to the US–and yet prices don’t even move…. We have to study legalisation…. Change frightens people. There are a lot of vested interests in the drug war. There are a lot of people who would lose their jobs with legalisation…. Legalisation is the worst thing that could happen to drug traffickers.
But Ernesto Samper, Colombia’s president at the time, was eager to continue to placate the Clinton administration and not budge on drugs. Outrage at his crop fumigation policies spilled into the streets when 50,000 peasants protested.
Samper was one of countless Colombian politicians who may have attained power partly through drug money. DEA agents in Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia witnessed a large percentage of police and military personnel making money off the drug trade, either by turning a blind eye or even directly aiding it. Prohibition and pressure were making some groups rich. As Americans pressured Latin American leaders to clamp down on drugs, those who did often ended up threatened by the now very powerful cartels.
Despite all efforts to eliminate the drug traffickers themselves, they tend to follow the “push down, pop up” effect: attack them in one place and they will leave for another. Eradication efforts have been useless for the same reason, as any success in destroying crops has simply pushed them to another part of the vast hinterland of the Andes. Interdiction of drugs en route, once again, does nothing, because as the authorities push down on one spot, say on what they believe is the traffickers’ current favourite spot on the US-Mexico border, the next traffickers move somewhere else.
The War on Drugs fills the cold void
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the slipping away of an enemy meant certain US government bureaus, such as State and Defense, would face major reductions in budgets. They needed a new enemy, and a new war. They had the creeping War on Drugs, and seized upon it. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, one Dick Cheney, was one of the high ups who seized on the NSDD’s securitisation of drug trafficking and set about reordering his department to tackle it. During the latter stages of the Cold War, the US’s strategy had been to engage in small wars that were easier to win to contain communism. As the threat from communism receded, the War on Drugs filled the void.
The public generally swallowed the tripe about drugs’ being the US’s biggest threat, and the need for increased military spending to stop it. Drug cartels were seen as evil in the same way as communists had been (and terrorists are today). The ideological elements of the Cold War provided a pretext for US military intervention anywhere there was a perceived communist threat. The equivalent today is, of course, the War on Terror. Also like the other two wars, drug warmongers framed their war as one that could last generations. Between the Cold War and War on Terror, the War on Drugs fit like a glove. It was the ideal justification for intervention.
Huge amounts of aid were handed out to the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru for signing on to the Andean Initiative and pledging to reduce drug traffic. Of course, US government drug war plans did not stretch very far into crop substitution (to the objection of governments on the ground that knew better) or other options beside violence. Since governments obtain their resources by force (taxation), it is natural that they might have a blind spot regarding alternatives to it.
Under Bill Clinton, the War on Drugs led to more Americans in jail on drug offenses, more military assistance to Latin American governments and more military interdiction on the US-Mexico border. Clinton demanded that assistance to Colombia be spent fighting narcotrafficking, as this was the US government’s big concern. However, Colombia has two major anti-government guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, and they are partly financed by the drug trade. (The other part is kidnapping.) These groups frequently work with whichever narcotraffickers are in the region they control. Supplying the Colombian military with hardware and telling it not to use it against groups it is at war with is futile. And after 9/11 of course, the distinction between narcotraffickers and “narcoterrorists” was erased.
Millions of Colombians have been displaced by the fighting, and middle and upper class Colombians have left Colombia in droves. A reporter described lines that “snake around the block near foreign consulates where people stand in line all night seeking visas.” Colombia has received $5b in aid since 2000. The “left-wing” FARC guerrillas have grown weaker but the military-linked paramilitaries have not. 35,000 civilians died during the 1990s, and though 2.5m Colombians have been forced from their homes in the past decade, only a couple of thousand have been killed. As anyone with a newspaper can tell us, the killing has moved to Mexico. Even before the recent escalation under Felipe Calderon, Mexico had had its share of rich drug barons, corrupt policemen and dead victims in the crossfire. Some 23,000 have died in the US government’s proxy drug war in Mexico. (See more here.)
Galen Carpenter explains the conservative attitude in Washington to bad policy. “The attitude of US officials about the progress of the international phase of the drug war has a dreary consistency. Setbacks are ignored or explained away; every sign of success is touted, often to the point of absurdity; and victory is said to be just around the corner–if the current policies continue awhile longer.” What Richard Cowan calls the iron law of prohibition is that, “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.” Marijuana has become more potent (and crack was invented) because traffickers want to reduce the bulk of their cargo. The situation was no different during alcohol prohibition, when bootleggers developed white lightning, the 190-proof crack of the 1920s. Even worse, industrial alcohol, of the sort used to make paint and plastic, was usually added to what was drunk. One can only imagine what today’s street drugs have in them.
At present, illegal drugs are taxed. However, instead of democratic governments collecting the tax, it is the drug traffickers who collect it. Gustavo de Greiff explains. “As long as the trade is illicit, the narcotraficantes will continue to receive these immense profits that allow them to corrupt everyone…. In 10, 15, 20 years, we will finally arrive at controlled legalization,” he predicts. “What makes me sad is that when this measure is finally adopted we will look back at all the deaths, all the corruption, and everything evil that drug trafficking brought us in the intervening 20 years.”
All kinds of people support legalisation: police, doctors, and if they are not convincing enough, celebrities. Former Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle said “During the past 30 years [the War on Drugs] has grown, grown, grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarisation. This has not gotten people off drugs. And what’s more, if you remove the economic incentive…it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate.” The presidents of both Mexico and Colombia–the countries hardest hit by the consequences of drug criminalisation–have called at least for debate on the issue. Some Americans are listening, hence the California legislature’s recent decriminalisation of marijuana. If more Americans begin to realise the trouble their government’s policies are causing, they will vote to change them. The legalisation of drugs will not make them disappear, as the millions of people hooked on prescription drugs attest to.
Britain and the Netherlands both experimented with decriminalisation. Like in the US in the 1920s, British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin and the government could do nothing about it. What were the results? When Dr John Marks made a survey of Liverpool in 1982, he expected to find AIDS rates of 15 to 20% among heroin users. Instead, he did not find a single case. Another surprise came from local police in Cheshire, who had tracked 100 users and found that after entering clinics, their tendency to crime fell by 94%. Fewer overdoses were reported, and fewer people were trying heroin. One would be correct to guess that all the same harm reduction was reported from the Netherlands. Portugal has had even more success. Can we learn nothing from them?
Winston Churchill once said that “without victory, there is no survival.” A century of failure with one obvious source can be reversed, and victory attained, but not before the end of the War on Drugs.
Galen Carpenter, Ted: Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s futile war on drugs in Latin America
Gray, Mike: Drug Crazy: how we got into this mess and how we can get out