The Common Good
May-June 2003

The War at Home

by Sanho Tree | May-June 2003

Our jails overflow with nonviolent drug offenders. Have we reached the point where the drug war causes more harm than the drugs themselves?

In 1965, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy tried to promote an enlightened drug policy before our country declared war on its own citizens. He told Congress, "Now, more than at any other time in our history, the addict is a product of a society which has moved faster and further than it has allowed him to go, a society which in its complexity and its increasing material comfort has left him behind. In taking up the use of drugs the addict is merely exhibiting the outermost aspects of a deep-seated alienation from this society, of a combination of personal problems having both psychological and sociological aspects."

Kennedy continued, "The fact that addiction is bound up with the hard core of the worst problems confronting us socially makes it discouraging at the outset to talk about ‘solving' it. ‘Solving' it really means solving poverty and broken homes, racial discrimination and inadequate education, slums and unemployment...." Thirty-eight years later, the preconditions contributing to drug addiction have changed little, but our response to the problem has become overwhelmingly punitive.

When confronted with illegal behavior, legislators have traditionally responded by escalating law enforcement. Yet countries such as Iran and China that routinely use the death penalty for drug offenses still have serious drug problems. Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved through coercion. By treating this as a criminal justice problem, our range of solutions has been sharply limited: How much coercion do we need to make this problem go away? No country has yet found that level of repression, and it is unlikely many Americans would want to live in a society that did.

As the drug war escalated in the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing and other Draconian penalties boosted our prison population to unprecedented levels. With more than 2 million people behind bars (there are only 8 million prisoners in the entire world), the United States—with one-twenty-second of the world's population—has one-quarter of the planet's prisoners. We operate the largest penal system in the world, and approximately one quarter of all our prisoners (nearly half a million people) are there for nonviolent drug offenses—that's more drug prisoners than the entire European Union incarcerates for all offenses combined, and the EU has over 90 million more citizens than the United States. Put another way, the United States now has more nonviolent drug prisoners alone than we had in our entire prison population in 1980.

If the drug war were evaluated like most other government programs, we would have tried different strategies long ago. But our current policy seems to follow its own unique budgetary logic. A slight decline in drug use is used as evidence that our drug war is finally starting to work and therefore we should ramp up the funding. But a rise in drug use becomes proof that we are not doing enough to fight drugs and must therefore redouble our efforts and really ramp up the funding. Under this unsustainable dynamic, funding and incarceration rates can only ratchet upward. When Nixon won reelection in 1972, the annual federal drug war budget was approximately $100 million. Now it is approaching $20 billion. Our legislators have been paralyzed by the doctrine of "if at first you don't succeed, escalate."

Internationally, our drug war has done little more than push drug cultivation from one region to the next while drugs on our streets have become cheaper, purer, and more plentiful than ever. Meanwhile, the so-called collateral damage from our international drug war has caused incalculable suffering to peasant farmers caught between the crossfire of our eradication policies and the absolute lack of economic alternatives that force them to grow illicit drug crops to feed their families. Unable to control our own domestic demand, our politicians have lashed out at other peoples for daring to feed our seemingly insatiable craving for these substances. We have exported our failures and scapegoated others.

‘It's the Economy, Stupid'

Many legislators approve increased drug war funding because they are true believers that cracking down is the only way to deal with unlawful conduct. Others support it out of ignorance that alternative paradigms exist. But perhaps most go along with the drug war for fear of being depicted as "soft on drugs" in negative campaign ads at election time.

In recent years, there has been an increasingly lively debate on whether nonviolent drug offenders should receive treatment or incarceration. As legislators gradually drift toward funding more badly needed treatment slots, an important dynamic of the drug economy is still left out of the national debate: the economics of prohibition. Elected officials and much of the media have been loath to discuss this phenomenon at the risk of being discredited as a "legalizer," but until a solution is found concerning this central issue, many of the societal problems concerning illicit drugs will continue to plague us. Trying to find a sustainable solution to manage the drug problem without discussing the consequences of prohibition is like taking one's car to the mechanic for repair but not allowing the hood to be opened. The time has come to take a look under the hood of our unwinnable drug war.

Under a prohibition economy where there is high demand, escalating law enforcement often produces the opposite of the intended result. By attempting to constrict supply while demand remains high, our policies have made these relatively worthless commodities into substances of tremendous value. The alchemists of the Middle Ages tried in vain for centuries to find a formula to turn lead into gold, but it took our drug warriors to perfect the new alchemy of turning worthless weeds into virtual gold. Some varieties of the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana, are now worth their weight in solid gold (around $350 per ounce). Cocaine and heroin are worth many, many times their equivalent weight in gold. In a world filled with tremendous poverty, greed, and desire, we cannot make these substances disappear by making them more valuable.

Another factor we have failed to take into account is the virtually inexhaustible reservoir of impoverished peasants who will risk growing these crops in the vast regions of the world where these plants can flourish. According to the U.N Development Program and the World Bank, there are 1.2 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. Imagine paying for housing, food, clothing, education, transportation, fertilizer, and medicine on less than $1 a day. Now imagine the temptation of putting a worthless seed into the soil and coming up with an illicit crop that can mean the difference between simple poverty or slow starvation for you and your family. We cannot escalate the value of such commodities through prohibition and not expect desperately poor farmers to plant any crop necessary to ensure their survival.

A "Harm Reduction" Approach

Of all the laws that Congress can pass or repeal, the law of supply and demand is not one of them. Neither is the law of evolution nor the law of unintended consequences. The drug trade evolves under Darwinian principles—survival of the fittest. Our response of increasing law enforcement ensures that the clumsy and inefficient traffickers are weeded out while the smarter and more adaptable ones tend to escape. We cannot hope to win a war on drugs when our policies see to it that only the most efficient drug operations survive. Indeed, these survivors are richly rewarded because we have constricted just enough supply to increase prices and profits while "thinning out the herd" by eliminating their competition for them. Through this process of artificial selection, we have been unintentionally breeding "super traffickers" for decades. Our policy of attacking the weakest links has caused tremendous human suffering, wasted countless lives and resources, and produced highly evolved criminal operations.

Our policy of applying a "war" paradigm to fight drug abuse and addiction betrays a gross ignorance of the dimensions of this medical problem and its far-reaching social and economic consequences. Wars employ brute force to extract political concessions from rational state actors. Drugs are articles of commerce that do not respond to fear, pain, or congressional dictates. However, around these crops revolve hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of individuals responding to the artificially inflated value of these essentially worthless agricultural products. For every trafficker that our "war" manages to stop, a dozen others take his or her place because individuals—whether acting out of poverty, greed, or addiction—enter the drug economy on the assumption they won't get caught, and most never are. No "war" can elicit a unified political capitulation from actors in such diverse places as Southeast Asia, the Andes, suburbia, and the local street corner. Such a war can never be won, but a "harm reduction" approach offers ways to contain and manage the problem.

Guns and helicopters cannot solve the problems of poverty in the Andes or addiction in the United States. Moreover, our policies of employing more police, prosecutors, and prisons to deal with the drug problem is like digging more graves to solve the global AIDS pandemic—it solves nothing. As sociologist Craig Reinarman notes, our policies attack the symptoms but do little to address the underlying problems. "Drugs are richly functional scapegoats," Reinarman writes. "They provide elites with fig leafs to place over the unsightly social ills that are endemic to the social system over which they preside. They provide the public with a restricted aperture of attribution in which only the chemical bogey man or lone deviant come into view and the social causes of a cornucopia of complex problems are out of the picture."

Until we provide adequate resources for drug treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention, the United States will continue to consume billions of dollars worth of drugs and impoverished peasants around the world will continue to grow them. The enemy is not an illicit agricultural product that can be grown all over the world; rather, our policies should be directed against poverty, despair, and alienation. At home and abroad, these factors drive the demand for illicit drugs which is satisfied by an inexhaustible reservoir of impoverished peasant farmers who have few other economic options with which to sustain themselves and their families.

Some day, there will be a just peace in Colombia and a humane drug control policy in the United States. Until then, we are mortgaging the future, and the most powerless among us must pay most of the interest. That interest can be seen in the faces of the campesinos and indigenous peoples caught in the crossfire of our Andean drug war; it can be seen in the millions of addicts in the United States who cannot get treatment they need; it can be seen in the prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders; and it can be seen in the poverty, despair, and alienation around the world because we choose to squander our resources on harmful programs while ignoring the real needs of the dispossessed.

Because we have witnessed the damage illicit drugs can cause, we have allowed ourselves to fall prey to one of the great myths of the drug warriors: Keeping drugs illegal will protect us. But drug prohibition doesn't mean we control drugs, it means we give up the right to control them. Under prohibition, the people who control drugs are by definition criminals—and, very often, organized crime. We have made a deliberate choice not to regulate these drugs and have been paying the price for the anarchy that followed. These are lessons we failed to learn from our disastrous attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

On the other hand, the philosophy of "harm reduction" offers us a way to manage the problem. Briefly put, this means we accept the premise that mind altering substances have always been part of human society and will not disappear, but we must find ways to minimize the harm caused by these substances while simultaneously minimizing the harm caused by the drug war itself. We have reached the point where the drug war causes more harm than the drugs themselves—which is the definition of a bankrupt policy. Drug abuse and addiction are medical problems, not criminal justice problems, and we should act accordingly.

Some examples of harm reduction include comprehensive and holistic drug treatment for addicts who ask for it, overdose prevention education, clean needle exchange to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, methadone maintenance for heroin addicts, and honest prevention and education programs instead of the ineffective DARE program.

We already know what doesn't work—the current system doesn't work—but we are not allowed to discover what eventually will work. Our current policy of doing more of the same is doomed to failure because escalating a failed paradigm will not produce a different result. However, by approaching the problem as managers rather than moralizers, we can learn from our mistakes and make real progress. It is our current system of the drug war that is the obstacle to finding an eventual workable system of drug control.

Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Drug Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

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