The Lost Cause of the War on Drugs

Based on the alleged goals of our government’s war on drugs and after examining all available evidence, this so-called “war” has been a colossal failure.

A March 2001 Pew Research Poll shows that “Nearly three-quarters of Americans say we are losing the drug war, and just as many say that insatiable demand will perpetuate the nation’s drug habit.”

Nine years later, an April 2010 Pew Research Poll revealed that “41% of the public thinks the use of marijuana should be made legal while 52% do not. In 2008, 35% said it should be legal and 57% said the use of marijuana should not be legal, according to data from the General Social Survey. Twenty years ago, only 16% of the public said the use of marijuana should be legal and 81% said it should not be legal.”

In this same poll, 73% of Americans think it’s okay for states to sell and regulated marijuana for medicinal purposes (i.e. doctors prescribing the drug to qualifying patients). The public’s perception of drugs revealed by recent poll numbers is merely scraping the bottom of the barrel. Although marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the world and physiologically safer than alcohol and tobacco, it would be a mistake to focus on this double standard since there are so many other problems created by prohibition policies.

So the real questions are: What is the stated objective of the U.S. war on drugs, is the objective being met successfully and what are other possible motives behind this failed war?

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s website, its mission is to,

Enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.

All signs indicate that the U.S. has failed to mitigate the demand for drugs among Americans despite spending $40 billion a year on narcotics’ policies.  Additionally, one-fourth of all Americans behind bars are serving time for non-violent drug offenses.  This is both costly and devastating to communities, especially African-American communities, which are disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

According to economist John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Shifting just half of the non-violent offenders from prison and jail to probation and parole could save state and local governments $15 billion per year.”

The scientific and medical community has also called for drug policy reform in the recent Vienna Declaration, a document “calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies.”

According to the declaration, the failure of the war on drugs (i.e. strict prohibition policy) creates a host of unintended consequences which “include but are not limited to” (source in verbatim and follows British grammar rules):

  1. HIV epidemics fuelled by the criminalisation of people who use illicit drugs and by prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles and opioid substitution treatment.
  2. HIV outbreaks among incarcerated and institutionalized drug users as a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings.
  3. The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.
  4. A crisis in criminal justice systems as a result of record incarceration rates in a number of nations. This has negatively affected the social functioning of entire communities. While racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offences are evident in countries all over the world, the impact has been particularly severe in the US, where approximately one in nine African-American males in the age group 20 to 34 is incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement.
  5. Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs, which reinforces the political popularity of criminalising drug users and undermines HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts.
  6. Severe human rights violations, including torture, forced labour, inhuman and degrading treatment, and execution of drug offenders in a number of countries.
  7. A massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of US$320 billion. These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilised entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.
  8. Billions of tax dollars wasted on a “War on Drugs” approach to drug control that does not achieve its stated objectives and, instead, directly or indirectly contributes to the above harms.

The current focus of the mainstream media is the rise of the Mexican drug cartels just south of the U.S.-Mexican border.  On Tuesday, August 24th, seventy-two bodies of Central and South American migrants were found roughly 100 miles from the U.S. border following a gunfight between Mexican marines and the suspected drug runners.  This massacre is the worst incident of drug-related violence during Mexico’s war on drugs.  How does this play into our government’s war on drugs, you may wonder?

As explained in the Christian Science Monitor, “Mexican drug lords exist to feed the US drug market. And they get their guns through the US weapons market. We give the bad guys their money by buying their drugs; we sell them the guns that enable their continued existence; and they threaten a nation of more than 100 million people at our border.”

The Mexican government’s spokesman on security matters, Alejandro Poire, dismissed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement of the Mexican drug cartel’s surge in violence resembling that of an insurgency, claiming the drug cartel has no political ambitions:

“There is a very important difference between what Colombia faced and what Mexico is facing now.  Perhaps the most important similarity … is the extent to which organized crime and narcotics-trafficking organizations in both countries are fed by the enormous and gigantic U.S. demand for drugs.”

Even though the evidence reveals the failure of our current prohibition policies, and regardless of the historical example of alcohol prohibition during the early 20th Century, the Los Angeles Times reports that, “administration officials have said in recent days that despite the financial burdens of two other wars, they are considering a sizable increase in spending on the anti-drug war, as well as other improvements to the U.S. counter-narcotics security program.”

With demand remaining steady throughout the U.S. and the violent drug cartels continuing to benefit from the black market, the Obama administration’s solution to throw more money at the problem is dangerously ignorant of reality.  History has proven this ineffective and thousands of law enforcement officials are beginning to voice their opposition through an organization called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).  What follows is part of LEAP’s mission statement:

The stated goals of current U.S. drug policy — reducing crime, drug addiction, and juvenile drug use — have not been achieved, even after four decades of a policy of “war on drugs”. This policy, fueled by over a trillion of our tax dollars has had little or no effect on the levels of drug addiction among our fellow citizens, but has instead resulted in a tremendous increase in crime and in the numbers of Americans in our prisons and jails. With 4.6% of the world’s population, America today has 22.5% of the world’s prisoners. But, after all that time, after all the destroyed lives and after all the wasted resources, prohibited drugs today are cheaper, stronger, and easier to get than they were thirty-five years ago at the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs”.

Finally, what “improvements” does the Obama administration aim to make?  Increasing surveillance on average Americans?  Throwing more non-violent citizens behind bars?  Attacking the suppliers while conveniently ignoring demand for such drugs?

As an increasing number of Americans begin coming to their senses about our failed drug policies, from health professionals and scientists to police officers and judges, how many more people must voice their opposition until this costly policy is reversed?

The absence of logic in our government’s excruciatingly slow response to circumstantial evidence and sound social science opens up the case that there are ulterior motives for continuing the war on drugs.  The situation in Colombia involving the U.S. government’s expensive counter-narcotic “Plan Colombia” has led to a decrease in Colombia’s homicide rate but has cost $6 billion since 2000 and has not successfully cut cocaine production (coca production has increased by 4% since 2000).  Two democratically-elected leaders in South America – Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales – refuse to help the U.S. government’s fight against the narcotic traffickers.  For anyone who knows the history of the U.S. government’s role in South America, this is not surprising.  The United States military/CIA has forcefully interfered in Latin American affairs at least fifteen times since 1954.

In 1996, investigative journalist Gary Webb uncovered an explosive story showing that the CIA and the U.S. government funded the Nicaraguan rebels’ fight against the socialist Sandinista government using drug money.  Here is an excerpt of the first article of Webb’s explosive, three-article report “Dark Alliance”, which was featured in the San Jose Mercury News and eventually made into a book:

It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the “gangstas” of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.

The army’s financiers – who met with CIA agents before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A. – delivered cut-rate cocaine to the gangs through a young South-Central crack dealer named Ricky Donnell Ross.

Unaware of his suppliers’ military and political connections, “Freeway Rick” turned the cocaine powder into crack and wholesaled it to gangs across the country.

How can any well-informed citizen not begin to wonder about the true goals of the U.S. war on drugs?  Such a “war” merely serves as a convenient scapegoat or “foot-in-the-door” for future interventions in both Mexico and South America (where there are several democratic-socialist governments).  The U.S. government has frequently backed the interests of multinational corporations in Latin America; one early example was in 1954 when the CIA planned the coup d’état that overthrew the democratically-elected Guatemalan government.  The president at the time, Jacobo Árbenz, nationalized public lands that were not being used by the United Fruit Company and redistributed this land to poor peasant farmers.  The CIA director at the time, Allen Dulles, was a shareholder in the United Fruit Company (along with other high-ranking U.S. government officials).

As political satirist P.J. O’Rourke put it, “Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society.  If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

Maybe we should take his advice and begin testing our own politicians and hold them accountable for their failed policies that, given all available evidence, only benefit multinational corporations, ulterior motives of U.S. foreign policy and our racist prison-industrial complex.  Within our supposed democracy, where the mainstream media conforms to the official government party line, why do we have the highest incarceration rate in the world?  These are questions that are not asked often enough and are largely ignored by both major political parties along with a majority of media outlets.


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