Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Other Long War

In 1969 President Richard Nixon officially declared war on drugs. Ironically the war Nixon brought to a painful end and the war he embarked upon during his presidency seem to possess one common theme; Neither have resulted in victory.

Some 40 years later and the war on drugs consumes a massive $40 billion every year. Let's put that in some perspective, shall we? $40 billion US dollars would buy some 100 F-22 Raptors (more, really, but I've inflated the cost some for simplicity,) could meet the cost of rebuilding the World Trade Center four times over and is equal to the entire GDP of Ecuador.

Beyond the fiscal waste that this war has wrought, the social decay, specifically in the inner-cities at the hands of gangs whose economic basis is reliant on the illicit drug market is rampant. Drug pushers are lionized as beacons of social status. The fallacy is captured well by Reginald Alexander:

"I was born Reginald Alexander; the inner-city streets christened
me "Cash". A nickname that in my younger, misguided
years was flaunted and worn like a badge of honor, and one that
stood testimonial to my reputation as a big money maker in the
illegal drug trade. Now, years later and having been imprisoned
for the past 2,603 days in a cold, drab cell, my street moniker
is like an unwanted tattoo that covers my body and misrepresents
my true character. One that hints of monetary success, but belies
the hard facts - the many interconnected tragedies that dwell
Perhaps more accurately descriptive of my years in the drug
trade -- even more than my moniker -- are the gunshot wounds
that tatter by body, or the many surgical skin grafts that were
necessary to repair these wounds. These are permanent reminders
of near-brushes with instant death, that occurred while chasing
that elusive all-American dream to become rich. A dream delusionally
pursued, and encouraged by the almost indescribable lures of
drug-dealing; fast money, faster women, and inner-city street
Foolishly, like too many of my people before me and after,
I once thought it glamorous to be a drug dealer. A macabre philosophy
I estimate is shared by 75% of inner-city youths and the majority
of all the inner-city's residents. An astronomical percentage,
yes. But unerringly reflective of the social maladies that pervade
urban America."

But the ill effects of America's other Long War extend well beyond our own political borders and society. The ravages of narco-terrorism have been a blight on the political stability of countries south of the border like Colombia and Guatemala to say nothing of our neighbor Mexico. Hectorlo, in a guest post at New Yorker in DC captures the massive corruption that the illicit drug trade breeds:
"The drug mafia has been
introduced to all levels of society; its influence can be seen in the
government, business sector, worker rights movement, etc. Previous
administrations have expended little effort to prevent the
proliferation of the drug trade in the country, whether as a transit
point for drugs, or laundered money. In small towns in Guatemala, there
is at least one “cacique” or narco; he commands the territory and acts
with impunity. They embody the quintessential image of the narcos of
old; always heavily armed and accompanied with bodyguards referred to
as “matones” or “pistoleros”, they are immune to criminal prosecution
and have ready access to all the levers of state power."

Four decades of this war and the drug problem has metastasized from social degradation at home to an international socio-economic monolith that has shaken or held hostage entire governments. So extensive and intrusive that ex-Sandinista leader, now Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega has engaged the US and requested monetary support to combat drug trafficking throughout Central America.

Certainly the War on Drugs has been and continues to be an expensive and abject failure. It has been the fuel for a very lucrative illegal trade that has surpassed economic proportions and has needled its way into the global political infrastructure. So what's the answer?


I've said before that anytime a law is enacted to control or illegalize something more crime is effectively created. This seems almost imbecilic in it's simplicity and often the retort is along the lines of "So if we legalize murder we'll have less crime?" A fair enough retort to which I invite the person to consider the social ramifications of legalizing murder to the socio-economic burden to dealing with the crime induced by illegalizing murder. Most agree the burden is much more favorable. Society is willing to bear the cost of putting people who kill other people either behind bars or in the ground.

But what of drugs? We've seen the immense socio-economic burden that illegalization carries. What of the social ramifications of legalizing drugs? Well, if this Schaffer Library of Drug Policy study holds credence (and I believe it does) we'd see a rather massive inflation of addiction rates. Of course the report details a program in which doctors prescribe heroin to addicts and not the across the board legalization of all drugs. Very likely the addiction rate would be even more calamitous in a legalize scenario, at least in the initial years. Though one could argue that educating the young (in much the same fashion as anti-tobacco education) could, to some degree, control or lessen the addiction rate.

So, again, what's the answer? Are we essentially caught between two impossible scenarios? Either we continue to enable a socially destructive and internationally corrosive black market or we take the licking that a sudden increase in addiction (along with the residual crime, I suppose) brings and end this fallacy once and for all. Is there a middle ground here or are we caught between two extremes?

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Steve said...

The reported addiction rates would certainly rise, as that would be much more open.

However, it's an open question as to what drugs people get addicted to. The current prohibition scheme encourages hard drugs, as well as more dangerous methods of ingesting them, similar to the rise of liquor during prohibition. Failing prohibition, the harder drugs and ingestion methods lose much of their advantages in terms of cost.

subadei said...

Certainly, Steve. Hard drugs are where the money is at.

So what's the end game? Is the prospect of legalizing drugs advantageous or even feasible?

Steve said...

If it were up to me, certainly. Drug addiction is a sin, not a crime.

We take much of the money away from crime, stabilize a sizable chunk of the gap and remove most of the justifications for encrouchments on the constitutions, in one fell swoop.

subadei said...

Agreed, Steve. Your mention of the gap brings me to wonder why T. Barnett makes no mention of the war on drugs in his "Shrink the Gap" ideology.

Anonymous said...

Greetings -
Actually, I commented at Tom's site some time ago about this - and he responded favorably and explicitly. No time to find a link... Imagine if we'd reallocated the resources (like, all of them!) of just the DEA to Baghdad shortly after the fall. Their skillsets lend to sysadmin quite well. If that's a stretch for anyone, they'd be better at COIN than average infantry more than likely... This is, of course, not to mention all the other reasons why ending the 'war on drugs' is a good idea - some of which you point out - that I don't have time (or location!!) to talk about. I will say that it is positively CRIMINAL and IMMORAL that marijuana is not able to be used as medicine. But, that's another crusade.

subadei said...

thanks for the comment (and the additional fuel for the ideological fire, so to speak.) I'll have to comb through Tom's blog and find this commentary.

I like your analysis of the DEA transcription to a sysadmin element. As you say their experience is right up the counter insurgency alley. Same goes for vice (or counter-drug) elements of local police who would serve quite well in identifying and infiltrating "home grown" ops should they (and I suspect they will) follow the European trait. This seems very much in line with Robbs decentralized vision of homeland security as well.

Ymarsakar said...

Put some people in Mexico to watch out for ephedrine as well.

Ymarsakar said...

A real war is fought with court martials, martial law, executions, Marine assault teams used to level entire city blocks, and Main battle tanks plus Apache attack helicopters.

The War on Drugs ain't no war.

Ymarsakar said...

War on Drugs is what the War on Terror would have become, had Afghanistan and Iraq occured on a lower intensity or didn't occur at all.