Fixing the Drug War (6/02)

Since President Ronald Reagan launched the modern War on Drugs 20 years ago, the US has spent billions in a largely unsuccessful attempt to put some of the world’s biggest criminal organizations out of business, while imprisoning thousands on drug-related offenses. Yet, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other illegal drugs still enter the US freely.

Can anything be done to change the course of this war? Yes, there are alternatives that can ameliorate the effects of illegal drugs Ñ if the country chooses realistic objectives and seeks to achieve them by practical means. Let’s consider 10 strategies.

Be Realistic

Policy objectives that try to achieve zero tolerance, along with attempts to seal borders against drug trafficking, have been counter-productive. History shows that the desire to change one’s consciousness is essential to the human species. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, fasting, medication, chanting, or whatever, humans have always felt, for a variety of reasons, a desire to transcend or transform themselves, at least temporarily. If this reality is accepted, then the US strategy should have as its objective not prohibition but rather the reduction of the harm to individuals and society caused by illegal drugs.

Holland, Switzerland, Great Britain, and other countries have, to varying degrees, accepted this analysis and implemented drug policies that reflect it; the US, and, following its lead, much of the world, has not. But as Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor and analyst of the War on Drugs, puts it, “It would be more prudent to establish objectives that appear to be reasonable than to raise expectations for a degree of control of the drug trade that are beyond the resources or capabilities of the United States or other nations.”

Change the Metaphor

Using the colorful phrase “War on Drugs” makes it seem like the US means business. But it actually leads to an “us against them” climate, and feeds the illusion that victory can be achieved, that the illegal trade and drug use itself can be stopped. Drugs and drug use have always been with us, and they won’t go away. The metaphor, moreover, makes the US treat victims as enemies and seduces it into policies against the real enemies (drug traffickers) that are counterproductive.

Seek Accountability

The US has pursued its anti-drug policy since the early 1980s without evaluating or re-assessing its objectives, analyzing the impacts, or examining various components of the strategy to see if they’re clear and consistent. What are the objectives? And, are the results being measured to see if they are successful? To be effective, the policy must have more substance than simply “waging war,”  getting drugs “off the streets,” or other clichŽs that define the current strategy.

The lack of accountability is evident in the huge bureaucracy that has developed in response to the thriving international drug trade. Poor management and infighting among the many government agencies responsible for drug policy have hampered anti-drug efforts. In 1995, for example, a US General Accounting Office report revealed that 19 anti-narcotics centers, operated by various federal agencies, duplicated much of each other’s drug intelligence work.

Meanwhile, the CIA has been allowed to operate without any accountability for its role in the drug war. Consequently, critics have repeatedly alleged that the agency’s operations during the past 50 years have actually fueled the international drug trade, doing much damage to US credibility and its leadership in the battle.

Have a Real Debate

Once anti-drug strategy is made accountable, its many tenuous assumptions and flaws will become much more evident, and a real debate about how the US should approach the issue can begin. So far, the “debate” has been artificial, framed in either/or terms. Either we take a tough law-and-order stance against illegal drugs, or we legalize them. As leading “drug war” analyst Rennsylaer Lee has said, “The options have to be discussed. People who oppose legalization talk to themselves and the people who support it talk to themselves. There has been no real dialogue so it’s hard to get accurate information.”

Implement an Honest and Fair Policy

Nowhere is the old adage that truth is the first casualty of war more evident. In the attack on medical marijuana, for instance, US officials have made many outlandish statements about how marijuana use supposedly leads to harder drugs, and how it harms the brain, lungs, and so on, all without providing evidence to back up these assertions.

Meanwhile, people from all walks of life smoke marijuana, lead normal lives, and are healthy, productive citizens. Many find it difficult to believe that a dying AIDS patient who uses grass to relieve his pain can spend more time in prison than a murderer. Such injustice can only lead to contempt for US anti-drug policy. Distortions and lies undermine the best of intentions. In short, anti-drug strategy needs to be both realistic and fair.

Think and Act Globally

Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has characterized the modern drug syndicates as “crime multinationals,” a term reflecting the fact that the drug issue is global problem requiring a concerted response from the international community. The challenge to the US and its allies is to break down the legal, political, economic, and bureaucratic barriers that keep them from cooperating in the fight against criminal drug organizations now spanning the globe. The US has often been characterized as an international “lone ranger,” especially in its prosecution of the drug war. Instead, it should make a stronger effort to concentrate more of its efforts within regional and international organizations, such as the UN and the European Community.

Strengthen Economies and Rebuild Institutions

The US should work to strengthen the economies and institutions of producing and transit countries by providing financial and technical assistance to combat drug trafficking more effectively and finding ways to build trade with those nations.

If it wants cooperation from countries it deems important for combating drug trafficking, more diplomacy will be required. One positive step would be to scrap the annual certification process, which has been unfairly applied in the past and is counter-productive to US foreign policy interests.

Study the Policies of Other Nations

Unlike the US, countries like Holland, Switzerland, and Great Britain have been willing to experiment with the kind of drug programs that work best for them. Instead of categorically attacking the policies of those countries, as the US has often done, they should be studied to see what could be learned and perhaps borrowed. Adopting Holland’s approach probably wouldn’t work in the US for a number of reasons, including differences in history, national character, and population. But adopting a policy that makes a distinction between soft drugs (hashish and marijuana) and hard drugs (heroine and cocaine), which Holland has done, might make sense after a thorough investigation and debate.

Promote Drug Research

US presidents since Reagan, as well as numerous congressional committees, have called for a deeper understanding of the structure and infrastructure of drug trafficking organizations and their allied enterprises. Thus, it’s remarkable how little is known about the international system, the products that are distributed and sold, and their effects on consumers. More money and resources should be provided to help law enforcement get a better picture of how sophisticated drug trafficking organizations work.

Money also should be spent on research that furthers the medical treatment of addiction. Fortune magazine estimates that treating every one of the country’s drug abusers would cost about $6.5 billion annually. That’s less than half the money spent annually by the federal government on the drug war.

Accept the Basic Principle of Economics

Law enforcement worldwide should continue to interdict drugs and try to put trafficking organizations out of business. But the ill effects of 20 years of failed anti-drug policy can be reversed only by changing priorities: moving from a punitive, anti-drug, law-and-order strategy to one that offers more flexibility and stresses harm reduction, not prohibition; treatment, not punishment. We must get at the economic and social roots of the problem.

With “waging war on drugs” as the number one priority, nothing has been accomplished except to create a thriving black market. Drug trafficking is a business, albeit an illegal one, dominated by the same fundamental market forces as any other. Virgilio Barco, Colombia’s former president, put it succinctly: “The only law the drug traffickers don’t break is the law of supply and demand.”

One of the many ironies of the War on Drugs is that conservative advocates of US anti-drug policy, who often champion the free market and its alleged ability to work best with minimal government intervention, fail to acknowledge the harm government policy has done to the market forces at work in international drug trafficking.

What the US needs is a strong dose of realism, a bold vision, and the political will to change course. Efforts to contain the ill effects of drug trafficking will only start producing results when policy-makers and the public begin looking at the issue in an entirely different way. Adopting these 10 practical strategies can lead to a new beginning.

Contributing writer Ron Chepesiuk is the author of Hard Target: The US’s War on International Drug Trafficking, 1982-1997, and The War on Drugs: An International Encyclopedia. His book on the history and impact of the Cali Cartel will be published in 2003.