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The Drug War Finds New Ways to Fail

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Drug Warby Ivan Eland

The federal government’s effort to battle drug abuse has been a tragic and expensive failure. But of course, admitting that would make politicians, who regularly endorse it to sound tough, seem foolish and careless with taxpayer dollars. So the War on Drugs continues, while of necessity it slowly morphs into new forms of federal waste and unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives.

Militarized federal law enforcement just can’t cope with trendiness in recreational drug use. Cocaine use is so yesterday (the 1980s, to be exact) and is a declining problem. Even at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s, only 5.8 million people in a population of about 240 million were using the drug; the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that only 1.5 million in a population of 313 million use cocaine. In recent years, methamphetamine use has also declined. Lately, heroin use is up slightly but still affects a minuscule portion (less than .08%) of the American population.

Even if these numbers were higher, the federal War on Drugs, which regularly wastes 60% of its budget trying to interdict elusive supplies of drugs, has failed miserably. And nostalgically, the government continues to emphasize cocaine interdiction. The New York Times recently quoted Mark L. Schneider, a special adviser on Latin America at the International Crisis Group, who disparaged such anti-cocaine efforts:

It just hasn’t worked. All interdiction and law enforcement did was shift cultivation from Colombia to Peru, and the increase in interdiction in the Caribbean drove trafficking to Mexico, and now with the increase in violence there it has driven trafficking to Central America as the first stop. So it is all virtually unchanged.

Except for all the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted since the drug war began during the early 1970s and all of the people killed by police and drug lords alike because high profits can be made trafficking illegal substances that should be legal.

There has been talk of drug legalization in war-weary Latin America but not in the Obama administration. Instead of noticing that cocaine use has become passé and prescription painkiller and stimulant abuse is the new rage—according to the Times, there are 7 million prescription-drug abusers versus the 1.5 million cocaine users and 20,044 annual prescription-drug overdose deaths out of 36,450 total, more than all illegal drugs combined—some parts of the U.S. government, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), continue their emphasis on interdiction and securing the borders against the entry of illegal drugs. Of course, the niggling problem is that the prescription drugs are already within the borders. That has not deterred the DEA, which has moved to create new “tactical diversion squads” to do prescription drug investigations.

The more progressive State Department, also ignoring the changed “threat environment,” has merely decided to deal with the old problem in new ways. In Mexico, the department’s anti-drug budget has shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on border security and providing foreign countries with hardware—for example, helicopters—for interdiction to funding nation-building programs, such as the training of judges, prosecutors, and prison guards and programs to build stronger communities there. Perhaps this shift will result in fewer people—drug lords and innocents alike—dying in Mexico at the hands of the U.S.-equipped security forces, but it still will be wasting U.S. taxpayers’ dollars fighting a problem that could best be countered by drug legalization.

However, at least one unlikely politician recently reached a public conclusion that may indicate a ray of hope in the United States. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and now governor of New Jersey, argued that the War on Drugs was a failure because it imprisons people who really need to be medically treated. Drug legalization would recognize that people stupidly abuse a variety of substances—including alcohol, tobacco, and fatty foods—but it would acquiesce to the reality that the government can do very little about it and really has no right to tell us what we should put into our bodies, no matter how unhealthy it may be.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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