Have we lost the war on drugs? I would say the answers is probably a strong ‘maybe’. Or maybe, the answer is that the war has been a draw, with the U.S. capturing and imprisoning more and more people every year, the drug cartels producing more drugs, and the overall percentage of users in society staying basically the same over the last quarter century.
I think the more interesting question is, where do we go from here?
It is not something we do very well: evaluating the success of our policies, and then adapting them to the realities of our world. Since the high flying times of the seventies, we have had massive antidrug programs in this country and the rest of the west, ranging from Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ to the completely useless United Nations General Assembly with promised a ‘drug free world’ back in 1998. And with the U.S.A. helping to fight the drug war in a military fashion in places such as Afghanistan (the biggest opium producer), Columbia (the biggest cocaine producer) and now with ever rising violence in Mexico (the biggest drug pusher in the world, because it is on our doorstep), we must realize that this policy is simply not working.
I think it is time to reexamine where we are in the drug war, and to really face some hard realities.
1. The Drug War may not be lost, but we are not winning either.
This is the classic definition of a stalemate: We have neither decrease production or use of elicit drugs over the past quarter century in this country, despite spending $40 Billion a year. That means in the last decade, we have spent about the same amount of money in Afghanistan and the war on drugs, an amazing fact.
The UN estimates that about 5% of the world’s population use illegal drugs on a regular basis, the same number as two decades ago. Of course, this is an educated guess…nobody really knows. But the gut feeling is that nothing has really changed in the U.S., although usage is probably lower than the 1960s and early 1970s by percentage.
Overseas, we have had relative victories in Columbia, where the government has made immense progress in ridding the country of the violent drug barons of the 1980s. In Afghanistan, we have seen a huge increase in opium production in the past few years (ironically, because the Taliban was better than we were at stopping the drug crop). In Mexico, we are clearly losing the war. Violence because of drugs have skyrocketed, bringing the country to its knees, almost to the point that you wonder if Mexicon can last a lawful democratic nation for much longer. That is a scary fact. And we have not even brought up smaller nations, such as Ginea Bissau, whose leader was assasinated last week with drug lords incriminated in the crime.
2. We are losing the war at home.
However, our legal system has not shown any improvement. Drug crimes are the largest reason for imprisonment in this country. 1.5 million people are arrested each year for drug crimes, a staggering number; half a million end up in jail, with a disproportionate number being African American. One in five African American men spend time in jail for drugs.
We have steadily reduced use of certain drugs, while others fill their place. For example, heroin has signficantly decreased over the past couple decades, while cocaine use has slightly increased. And marijuana use has stayed approximately the same.
Think of it this way: we in the U.S. have spent more than $1.5 Trillion on the Drug War in the last quarter century, and have not decreased drug use one iota.
SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
I honestly don’t think politicians anywhere are courageous enough to confront this problem. And the problem causes wider issues. In the eighties and nineties, it was Columbia. The past decade drugs in Afghanistan and other places have funded terrorism. And now Mexico, at our doorstep, is afire because of the drug epidemic.
There are few good solutions to this problem, and none are really palatable. But I think an honest accessment of the situation shows that there are only a few options.
And the main option surrounds the proposal of legalization.
I am far from a liberal on drugs. I have never taken drugs, and never really cared to. I don’t see the purpose. That said, I see no way to make drugs illegal and get rid of the drug problem.
Illegality causes many problems. For example, it is estimated that half of all the cocaine transported into the country has been confiscated by law enforcement. So, even with that massive prohibition, overall use has not decreased. The price of drugs actually increases, and the purity of the drugs has fallen, which risks greater health problems.
Prohibition also promotes mafia style violence. It did with prohibition in the 1920s in Chicago, and nothing is different today. It is $400 Billion business worldwide, and where there is that type of money, it is unlikely that the flow of drugs will stop.
Legalization has pluses and minuses.
The positives are that you could immediately regulate the flow and price of drugs. You can get rid of the underground transmission of drugs that causes so much violence here and elsewhere. And, you could potentially tax drug sales. But most importantly, I think legalization would change the discussion from a law-and-order argument to one about national health care policy. Clearly legal avenues have failed to answer the drug problem, and the only solution remaining is one of health care.
The negatives are, of course, you could potentially have increased drug use. There is mixed evidence to support this. For example, neighbors Sweden (with harsh drug laws) and Norway (with liberal drug laws) have the same addiction and drug use rates. But I for one believe that drug use would overall increase. The question is, whether this increase use of drugs would be offset by the decreased violence and danger from pushing drug use underground.
I think this is a debate that we as a country, and the world at large, should have. I have seen generation after generation of children devoured by the scourge of drugs, and it is never ending. Our current policy not only has failed on the homefront and on the health care front, but has also allowed those dollars to be spent on violence, mayhem and terrorism. Maybe the majority of people in this country won’t support legalization. But let us have a level headed, intellectual debate on the issue, because it is one of vital importance.
So that is what they are calling it these days…just kidding.