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 2600 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 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 a 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 the war on drugs
In short, all attempts to reduce consumption of illicit drugs by Americans 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 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 in using suppression rather than an 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 institutions. They accumulate a kind of momentum of their own which is so entrenched that even succeeding presidential administrations cannot change them. It’s no secret that the “warriors” in the war of 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 keeping the status quo. They are not bad people but they are convinced that what they do works - or at least should continue - 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. 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. Yet, with alcohol, consumption of it was an ongoing practice since the birth of the nation. Repeal of Prohibition was easy for the federal government to accomplish. This is not so with drugs and resistance to 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 its 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 use of 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 we're bound to continue losing.