War on Drugs a Bust
Posted on Jan 7, 2008
How will we know if the war on drugs is ever won? When all the kingpins are locked up or dead? That was once the prevailing idea among those on the front lines of the much-ballyhooed “war,” which Rolling Stone scribe Ben Wallace notes has now gone on for over three decades and, in his view, is an utter failure.
But after Escobar was killed in 1993 - and after U.S. drug agents began systematically busting up the Colombian cartels - doubt was replaced with hard data. Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded. We continue to treat marijuana as a major threat to public health, even though we know it isn’t. We continue to lock up generations of teenage drug dealers, even though we know imprisonment does little to reduce the amount of drugs sold on the street. And we continue to spend billions to fight drugs abroad, even though we know that military efforts are an ineffective way to cut the supply of narcotics in America or raise the price.
All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs - with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes - a twelvefold increase since 1980 - with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana - and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.