According to The New York Times, America’s war on drugs has entered a new phase: It’s so successful that the CIA is planning to send retired military personnel and private contractors to Mexico to bring the battle to the doorstep of the organized crime cartels. Well, that’s not quite the story. The decision to deploy mercenaries in Mexico is definitely from the Times, but the part about the success of the drug war is pure Washington spin.
Indeed, the idea that the federal government is prepared to commit more money and more lives – and that Mexican officials are prepared to let Yanquis join the fight – is testament to desperation on both sides of the border. The war on drugs, now in its fifth decade, was never winnable. All that’s keeping it going is bureaucratic inertia, and a lot of politicians who would rather destroy civil government in Mexico than admit that it takes more than true grit to prevail.
President Nixon’s speechwriters, you won’t remember, coined the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971, and built a spanking new bureaucracy (the Drug Enforcement Administration) to fight it. The concept was simple enough: Stop illicit drugs at the border to make them scarce, and deter use at home by throwing more buyers and sellers in the clink. But it didn’t quite work out as planned.
Vast armies of enforcers roam the planet, and hundreds of thousands of drug offenders rot in prison, but the last time anybody took an honest look (2007), the street price of cocaine in the US had fallen by half since 1984. The Colombian cartels, which rode to power on the strength of their willingness to kill in the early 1980s, no longer control that beleaguered nation. But Mexico is a battleground on which some 45,000 people have already died—and democracy isn’t far behind. Let’s not forget Afghanistan (if only we could…), where heroin traffickers own the economy and the government.
The reason, on reflection, is obvious: Eliminating the supply of extraordinarily valuable drugs that can be made/grown almost anywhere without modern technology, is nearly impossible. Ironically, we may be lucky that prohibition is such a stretch. Since the demand for most drugs is inelastic with respect to price, the more you restrict supply, the greater the total revenue from sales and the more cash available to fuel the crime syndicates.
Ah, but there is no alternative, policymakers say. Yes, easing restrictions on the sale and production of drugs would dramatically reduce their price, denying the criminals both revenues and incentives to do violence. But an end (or easing) of prohibition is out of the question because more people would abuse drugs.
The part about abuse is true. But, in the end, the only sane drug policy is a balancing act that goes by the name “harm minimization.” Accepting war-as-usual means keeping hundreds of thousands of young (mostly black and Latino) men in prison at inconceivable expense. It means collateral damage (again, disproportionately to blacks and Latinos) in the form of street violence. And it means ruin for Mexico, Afghanistan and who-knows-where next.
A realistic policy means something between outright legalization and outright prohibition. And finding that middle ground—where teenagers have minimal access and adults have more, where some drugs are not as illegal as others, where enforcement efforts are calibrated according to priorities and the risk of collateral damage, where the lives of the citizens of other countries count as much as our own—would hardly be easy. But there are ideas out there, and not all of them amount to stop worrying and learn to live with drug abuse. Check out, for example, the rather hawkish approaches offered by UCLA’s Mark Kleiman.
But sanity, we are aware, is in short supply these days—especially in Washington. Probably the only reason for hope is the (local, state and federal) budget crunch. The war on drugs may be ineffectual, but it sure is expensive.
(This post was also published on Forbes.com.)