Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Legalize it

The U.S.-led war on drugs has been a colossal failure, a senior U.S. official said last week. And while numerous administrations have sunk tens of billions of dollars into the effort to combat illegal drugs, “we have gotten nothing out of it, nothing.”

Refreshing honesty from the Obama administration’s newly appointed “drug czar”? If only. Rather, the words in question are those of Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was speaking more narrowly of the efforts to eradicate opium production in one of America’s colonial possessions (no, that one).

But while Holbrooke’s remarks were focused on solving the U.S.’s imperial dilemma in Afghanistan, they could just as easily apply to the entire model of the drug war -- a war which has led the land of the free to become the land of the incarcerated, with more than 7 million Americans either imprisoned or on parole, many because of the laws the current vice president helped enact during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But attempts to combat illegal drug production with law enforcement and military force have failed, Holbrooke noted, with efforts to crack down on opium cultivation in hopes of cutting a key source of funding for the Taliban having not hurt the fundamentalist militia “one iota, because whatever money they're getting from the drugs trade, they get whatever they need whether we reduce the acreage or not." In sum, “it is the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years." Indeed, the BBC points out that despite poppy cultivation allegedly being reduced 19% last year, Afghanistan is still the source of 90% of the world's heroin supply.

Meanwhile, here in the United States government officials are as oblivious as ever, plowing ahead with their efforts to ramp up the drug war, both within the U.S.’s borders but also in neighboring Mexico, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates promising increased military cooperation and joint exercises with the U.S.’s southern neighbor.

Just this week, the Obama administration announced a massive new effort (read: futile) to stem the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico, while also aiding the Calderón government in its militaristic and demonstratively counterproductive approach to taking on the drug trade. But any plan that seeks to curb the supply of illicit drugs is bound to fail so long as there remains demand, as any limits on supply will only increase the street costs of the drug -- and the profits to be made selling it -- thus ensuring there will be an endless supply of would-be dealers attracted by the prospect of astronomical earnings, whatever the risks.

To get a glimpse of the scope of the "new" plan -- which represents as much fresh thinking as a Jerry Bruckheimer production -- consider Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano's remarks at the press conference announcing it:
First, we are doubling the number of law-enforcement personnel that are working in border enforcement teams . . . . We are also strengthening Operation Armas Cruzadas. . . We are tripling the number of Department of Homeland Security intelligence analysts located on the southwest border. . . . We are increasing . . . . We will be increasing . . . . We are doubling . . . . We're quadrupling . . . We are bolstering technology and resources . . . . We are embarking on increased screening . . . . We are moving mobile x-ray units to the border . . . . We are moving today a hundred more CBP personnel to the border . . . We are moving three mobile response teams . . . . etc.
In late 2007, I wrote about the Bush administration’s proposed Mérida Initiative for Inter Press Service -- including the opposition to it from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, on the other hand, made clear that the new administration remains committed to the program, under which “we are investing $700 million this year to work in collaboration with Mexico on law enforcement and judicial capacity.”

With President Obama showing no signs of backing away from the U.S commitment to the war on drugs in Latin America and beyond (having openly campaigned on stepping up said war), he appears set to follow in the footsteps of every president since Richard Nixon in pursuing a militarized approach to combatting the use of substances not sanctioned by the U.S. government. He should expect the same results.


  1. Hi. I responded to your post on my blog. I am not a "war on drugs" person, and I passionately oppose the massive incarceration policies in this country. The US has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world - so much for land of the "free."

    This, however, does not excuse liberal arguments in support of decriminalization that rest on grounds outside of the merits of the drug itself. I agree that a lot of the debate on this subject is riddled in anti-drug rhetoric, rather than a sound discussion of science. But proponents of decriminalization often advance "thin" arguments as well, pointing to healthcare and (now) economics, rather than simply discussing factors related to pot itself (harm or danger relative to other drugs, like alcohol, etc.).

  2. Darren,

    With billions of dollars per year spent on the so-called war on drugs -- combined with the loss of tax revenue that could be realized under legalization and the costs incurred building new prisons to house drug offenders -- the issue of prohibition is most certainly one of economics. The California government, for example, is facing massive budget deficits but appears unable to cut a clear waste of resources – it's massive prison population of nonviolent drug offenders – because of the power of the state's prison guard union. In other words, the state is sacrificing its economic well-being to maintain a destructive social policy.

    While I would prefer to argue less on utilitarian grounds than on philosophic -- I'm more incensed that the government deems itself more capable of regulating what I put into my body than I am -– the issue of economics (that is, the tremendous drain of resources that is the drug war) is definitely at play here. As for health care: how many people die every year from preventable drug overdoses because people are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of arrest? How many people have contracted AIDS or Hepatitis from exchanging dirty needles thanks to our government's enlightened ban on needle-exchange programs?

    Also, if people are going to the black market to purchase pot because they don't want to pay taxes, then that means the taxes are too high. FDR, remember, did not outright ban marijuana (that was thought unconstitutional in such innocent times), but imposed major new taxes on it, creating a situation of de facto prohibition. If policymakers avoided onerous taxes while legalizing pot, it would cost substantially less than it does now, and users would not have to fear 1) arrest 2) getting ripped off and 3) having no legal recourse in the event of #2.

    By the way, I know you're no ardent prohibitionist, but Obama's smirking dismissal of the idea of legalization was offensive to me, particularly since he's endorsed the same militarized approach to the drug war -– and blocked the term “harm reduction” from being included in a recent UN document on drug policy -– that's destined to lead to the same results: a lot of wasted money and lives.