The U.S. war on drugs: ineffective, bloated, corrupt

The global war on drugs launched during U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1969-1974 administration has been an abysmal failure, and all nations should immediately de-criminalize currently illegal drugs. Of course, I’m not holding my breath. But at least I’m in good company. For the past six months, Mexico’s ex-president Vincente Fox has called for the same. He knows a thing or two about the destructive nature of the U.S. war on drugs because it has made life a living hell for his country. Nearly 50,000 people have died from Mexico’s drug war alone since current President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels in 2006. In June 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released its report on the War on Drugs. It concluded that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

The economics

President Nixon’s first drug fighting budget was a modest $100 million. President Obama’s budget for the war on drugs for fiscal year 2011 is projected to be $15.6 billion. Over the last 40 years, the United States has spent over $1 trillion to eradicate drugs and drug use, yet the United States remains the world’s largest consumer of cocaine, Columbian heroin, Mexican heroin and marijuana.

According to the website Visual Economics, some uses of that trillion were as follows:

121 billion to arrest non-violent drug offenders

450 billion to lock people up in federal prison, where half of all prisoners are serving sentences for drug offences.

49 billion for securing our borders from drug trafficking

33 billion for the “just say no” marketing campaign for America’s youth and other prevention programs

20 billion to fight gangs in their own countries such as Columbia and Mexico

215 billion for an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system and lost productivity because of drug abuse.

The social costs of prohibition

During the era of alcohol prohibition (1920 to 1933) the ban resulted in the growth of vast criminal organizations, including the American Mafia. It generated rampant corruption among politicians and the police force, and it made criminals out of otherwise normal, law-abiding citizens. The war on drugs has had similar effects. So far, it has cost taxpayers a trillion dollars, made drugs more dangerous, created powerful criminal syndicates, increased violent crime, and corrupted law enforcement at all levels. Like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, anti-drug laws have had a pernicious effect on everyday life, both here and in other countries.

American drug policies have failed to stem the tide of drugs coming into this country, or slow the use of drugs by American consumers. That’s because many people—criminals, bankers, advertisers, politicians and law enforcement—are being enriched by the ineffective war on drugs and have no desire to see it end.

Who is getting rich from the war on drugs?

First, drug dealers get very wealthy shipping and selling illegal drugs. Second, local law enforcement agencies receive billions of dollars per year in federal grants to fight the war on drugs. Law enforcement also subsidizes its budget with a portion of the cash, and other goods found during raids, that they can, in any way, link to narcotics trafficking. Because of the war on drugs, they can seize private property at will. Asset forfeitures—houses, cars, guns, computers—and federal grants are used for payroll, and the purchase of surveillance equipment, high-powered weapons and paramilitary gear. Local police departments are becoming militarized both through the federal war on drugs and Homeland Security grants to fight terrorism.

The growing legal-industrial-imprisonment complex feeds on the war on drugs, employing thousands of judges, prosecutors, criminal-defense attorneys, bail bondsmen, and prison guards who make their living from the prosecution of drug cases. For corporations operating privatized correctional facilities, the drug war is a cash cow providing a steady supply of non-violent drug users to fill prison cells. Half of all prisoners are drug offenders.

Banks, including Bank of America, Citibank, and other big players, take in hundreds of billions of dollars annually from narcotics traffickers. In effect, they money launder for drug cartels. Drug money not only provides banks with large commissions, but also provides much needed liquidity. According to a 2009 article in the Guardian,

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said he has seen evidence that the proceeds of organized crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse last year. He said that a majority of the $352bn (£216bn) of drug profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result. . . .

“In many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital. In the second half of 2008, liquidity was the banking system’s main problem and hence liquid capital became an important factor,” he said.

Credible journalists and scholars, such as Alfred C. McCoy and Peter Dale Scott have written extensively about the long involvement of the CIA in drug trafficking. And some of us may remember the now proven assertion (by an inspector general’s investigation of the CIA) that the CIA engaged in cocaine smuggling as part of its covert operations supporting the Nicaraguan Contras.

The war on drugs involves the world’s largest banks, drug cartels, and the U.S. intelligence community. Despite spending a trillion dollars, the drug trade continues to prosper because it is protected by powerful interests. The drug war is not about ending narcotics trafficking or protecting Americans from drug use. The truth is that it is one of America’s most lucrative industries. According to UNODC (The UN Office on Drugs and Crime), the global market for illicit drugs is worth more than $300 billion annually.

Lessons we can learn from Portugal

October 1, 2000, Portugal became the first Western nation to pass full-scale, nationwide decriminalization. Although use of drugs is still illegal, and dealing in drugs is still a criminal offense, it abolished criminal sanctions for personal use of all narcotics — including marijuana and “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine. If individuals are caught with drugs, they are sent to a group of health professionals, where they are given the opportunity, if they wish, to have government-provided treatment.

According to Glenn Greenwald writing in 2010, Portugal’s drug-decriminalization program has been a resounding success. Drug usage has decreased, including in key demographic groups, like 15-to-19-year-olds. Where usage rates have increased, the increases have been far less than in most other European Union nations, which continue to use a criminalization approach.

Portugal, whose drug problems were among the worst in Europe, now has the lowest usage rate for marijuana and one of the lowest for cocaine. Drug-related pathologies, including HIV transmission, hepatitis transmission and drug-related deaths, have declined significantly.

Challenging the U.S. war on drugs

While the United States is publically staying the course in Latin America with its failed “war on drugs” policy, other countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico—are open to exploring the idea of drug legalization. Even some liberal factions of the UK government have raised the idea. Back home, Colorado and Washington State have ballot initiatives this fall for legalizing marijuana. As sane and humane decriminalization and legalization polices begin to take hold at home and around the world, it may become harder and harder for the United States government to defend its bloated, ineffective, and corrupt drug policies.