The War on Drugs
It's not the drugs; It's the war
For the last 20 years, the United States has been waging a so-called "War on Drugs". This war has been, at best, ineffective; at worst, an unmitigated disaster.
- The direct cost of the War on Drugs is something like 40 or 50 billion dollars per year
- the federal government will spend 19 billion dollars this year
- state and local law enforcement will add another 10 billion
- we spend 10 or 20 billion dollars each year keeping drug users in prison
- Indirect costs are estimated at 200 to 400 billion dollars per year
- lost wages
- lost taxes
- And then there are the intangible costs
- The United States now has 2 million people in prison
- Drug laws are widely disregarded and erratically enforced, which diminishes respect for law and government
- Drug laws fund organized crime and corrupt law enforcement
- The War on Drugs is tearing apart foreign countries, like Columbia, and communities within our own country
War is Hell
OK, so war is hell, and expensive, besides. Perhaps this is the cost of victory.
This is the cost of defeat. We're losing the war on drugs. To see this, we only have to look at the drug business. Drugs are a business, and any business has two sides
One reason that we are losing the War on Drugs is that we don't want to win it. There is not, in this country, any broad-based, principled objection to the use of drugs. We have legal drugs
Demand for illegal drugs in this country is small and constant
These numbers go up and down from year to year, but they go up and down by 5, or 10, or 20%. They've never changed by 50, or 100, or 200%. And the variation that we do see is more plausibly attributed to changes in demographics and epidemiology, than to law enforcement and the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs simply has no effect on the demand for drugs.
- 10 million of us use marijuana
- 2 million use cocaine in some form
- 0.5 million use heroin
- On the supply side, the story is even simpler: supply is up. Over the last decade, street prices for drugs have fallen—dramatically—while the purity of the drugs has increased. Whatever else it's doing, the War on Drugs is not restricting the supply of drugs.
These drugs are widely used. They can cause health problems; they can be abused. We largely accept this. Even people who abstain from drugs, for personal, health, or religious reasons, generally regard that as—well—as a personal, health or religions matter. They don't seek to impose their abstention on the rest of society.
Neither is there any principled objection to the use of illegal drugs. They are illegal, but 100 million of us have used them. As a society, we've made these drugs illegal, but as individuals, we don't object to their use.
The use of illegal drugs, in and of itself, is not an issue for people in this country.
- Bill Clinton used marijuana, and we elected him president
- George W. Bush won't deny that he used cocaine, and we elected him president, too
In summary, the War on Drugs
and we don't even want it to achieve its stated goals
- costs a lot of money
- does a lot of damage
- doesn't achieve its stated goals
It's not the drugs; it's the war
What's going on? Why are we doing this?
- It's not the drugs
- It's the war
- Nothing about the War on Drugs makes any sense in the context of drugs
- Everything about the War on Drugs makes sense in the context of war
More specifically, we're running the War on Drugs because it serves the interests of people in this country.
- We aren't running the War on Drugs because we want to eradicate drugs
- We're running the War on Drugs because we want to have a war.
The United States is a democracy. Nothing
can go on in the United States—for decades—without broad-based political support. The War on Drugs has constituencies. It has groups of people who support it because it serves their interests.
- this big
- this expensive
- this destructive
These groups don't have to support the War on Drugs for the same reasons. They don't have to support it for good reasons. They don't even have to support it for coherent reasons. All that is necessary for the War on Drugs to continue is that enough people get something out of it, and that it doesn't seriously inconvenience the middle class, which it doesn't.
So who are these groups? Who are the constituents of the War on Drugs? Let's start with the obvious ones.
These are some of the obvious beneficiaries of the War on Drugs. There are also groups that benefit in more subtle ways.
- The War on Drugs is an employment program for law enforcement. The War on Drugs employs
The War on Drugs has a big payroll, and everyone on that payroll has some interest in seeing the war continue.
- everyone in the Drug Enforcement Administration
- people in the FBI, the INS, and the border patrol
- state and local police officers
- judges, and prosecuting attorneys, and defense attorneys
- prison wardens, and prison guards
- The War on Drugs supports the prison industry. Since we've put 2 million people behind bars, building, supplying, and running prisons has become big business. This alignment of government and business in running the prison system is sometimes called the prison-industrial complex.
- The War on Drugs serves the government. The government needs bogeymen. It needs threats that can be used to justify
For many years, the international communist conspiracy played this role, but that hasn't been so credible since communism collapsed 10 years ago. Today, the government invokes the specter of international drug cartels when it needs to generate support for some extra-legal, unconstitutional, or otherwise ill-advised use of force.
- military intervention
- foreign intelligence operations
- greater domestic police powers
The War on Drugs serves the military-industrial complex. Last year, President Clinton asked for, and received, 1.3 billion dollars to send to Columbia to help them fight our War on Drugs. Of course, we didn't send a billion three in cash to Columbia, or even something moderately useful, like food or medicine. We sent them weapons. Built, of course, by American companies.
The War on Drugs serves politicians. Politicians
- The War on Drugs is an instrument of racial oppression. You won't find the words black, white, Caucasian, or Negro written into the laws, but the way the government treats drug users depends on the color of their skin. People with dark skin are treated more harshly at every level
In a country that is mostly white, we have created a prison population that is mostly black.
- police make more arrests
- prosecutors file more charges
- juries return more convictions
- judges impose longer sentences
The War on Drugs serves those who maintain political control by disenfranchising minorities. Convicted criminals generally can't vote; the ACLU estimates that the War on Drugs has permanently disenfranchised 14% of African-American men. We used to use poll taxes and literacy tests to keep people from voting; now we have the War on Drugs.
- The War on Drugs serves those who fear racial minorities. The history of drug laws in this country is a history of racial fear. Drugs were never outlawed because European-Americans were using them. Drugs were outlawed because minorities were using them
There are, today, people who fear minorities; the War on Drugs preferentially imprisons minorities; therefore, these people perceive that the War on Drugs serves their interests.
- the '60s youth counter-culture
The War on Drugs serves a society in search of scapegoats. Historically, people who needed someone to blame—or hate—had their choice of racial, ethnic, and religious groups. As Tom Lehrer famously observed in the song National Brotherhood Week:
The Protestants hate the Catholics
And if you needed a less parochial target, there were always the Communists.
But the Communists have evaporated, and garden-variety ethnic bigotry has become mostly unacceptable in public discourse.
The Catholics hate the Protestants
The Hindus hate the Moslems
And everybody hates the Jews
Today, the War on Drugs provides us with scapegoats. We identify drug users as dangerous, and evil. We blame them for the troubles of our society, and herd them into prisons. And as our troubles persist, we imprison more and more drug users, for longer and longer terms, under harsher and harsher conditions, thinking that if we can only punish them enough, then surely our troubles will leave us.
So where do we go from here? How do we stop the madness?
To end the War on Drugs, all we have to do is stop fighting it
- We have to acknowledge the cost, destruction, failure, and ultimate futility of the War on Drugs. We have to commit ourselves to ending it.
- We have to confront those in power: those who currently benefit and profit from the War on Drugs. This won't be easy. Support for the War on Drugs in this country is broad and deep, and the interests that it serves overlap and interlock in complex ways. Furthermore, most of the people running the War on Drugs don't think they are doing something evil. Most of them think they are doing their jobs. And they think those jobs are important and necessary.
- We have to create a vision of an alternative. The War on Drugs has been going on for so long that most people can no longer imagine a world without it. And the rhetoric of war has been effective: there is a unspoken—and unquestioned—assumption that the alternative to fighting this war is defeat. But this is a war that we are fighting against ourselves. The alternative isn't defeat, the alternative is peace.
We'll still have drugs; we'll still have drug problems. We
just won't have the war. We have to create a vision that
makes this a credible alternative for people in this country. If we
can create the vision, then we can end this war.
- take the laws off the books
- release the prisoners
- leave the drug users alone
- 2 million people in prison
- giving us the highest incarceration rate on the planet
- 100 million of us have used them
A few years ago, I was at a party in an affluent suburb of Boston. Upstairs, the hosts were serving alcohol; downstairs, the guests were smoking marijuana. The next-door neighbor, who happens to be a police officer, was invited, and witnessed this; it wasn't a problem.
- extra-legal, unconstitutional, or otherwise ill-advised use of force
Manuel Noreiga was an agent of the United States in Panama. He was on the payroll of the U.S. army and the CIA for over 30 years. When he no longer served the United States—when he became an embarrassment—our government invaded Panama, captured Noreiga, brought him back to the U.S., tried, convicted, and imprisoned him on...drug charges.
- military-industrial complex
It's easy to talk about the prison-industrial complex, and the military-industrial complex, and imagine these big, faceless corporations using lobbyists and campaign contributions to get their way with congress. And doubtless, a certain amount of that goes on. But it's important to remember that corporations have employees, and employees live in congressional districts. Congressmen don't like to do things that put their own constituents out of work. The War on Drugs has political support on many levels.
- label their opponents weak, or naive, or evil
President Clinton didn't send all those weapons to Columbia because he's specially concerned about Columbia, or the War on Drugs, or even about employment in the defense industry. He did it to protect Democratic candidates in the 2000 elections from Republican charges that they are "soft on drugs". He knew the attacks were coming: George W. Bush made his name in Texas by locking up drug users.
- keep people from voting
- There doesn't have to be an explicit conspiracy to do this. You needn't imagine politicians in a smoke-filled room inventing the War on Drugs to get African-Americans off the voting rolls. All that is necessary is that the War on Drugs has that effect; therefore, it serves those who benefit from that effect. The political system is adaptive: it protects the interests of those in power.
- history of racial fear
- The movie Reefer Madness stands as a reminder of the hysteria that is the foundation of our drug laws
The War on Drugs by Steven W. McDougall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Steven W. McDougall /
2001 June 03