Drugs and Thugs


Shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that he had put together a special advisory panel: the Speaker's Task Force for a Drug Free America.

"The illegal drug trade is the financial engine that fuels many terrorist organizations around the world, including Osama bin Laden," he explained. "By going after the illegal drug trade, we reduce the ability of these terrorists to launch attacks against the United States and other democracies."

Actually, "going after the illegal drug trade" is what allows terrorists to fund their operations with the artificial profits created by prohibition. In that sense, the $40 billion or so the United States spends on drug law enforcement each year represents a subsidy for murderers.

Banning a product that people want to buy creates an opportunity for criminals, who can earn big profits because they are willing to run the risk of producing, transporting, and selling contraband. This "risk premium" can be huge, with cocaine and heroin selling for 20 to 40 times as much as they otherwise would.

Prohibition thus delivers to armed thugs around the world a handy stream of revenue, which they can dip into by selling drugs or by taxing producers and traffickers who operate in areas they control. Bin Laden's organization seems to have benefited from the drug trade indirectly, by way of the opium money supporting his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

Stronger enforcement, the solution favored by Hastert, would tend to increase the risks of drug trafficking, eliminate competitors, and raise profits. It hardly makes sense, then, to fight terrorism by cracking down on drugs. To the contrary, the events of September 11 highlighted how seriously the war on drugs has skewed the government's priorities and compromised our security.

It's embarrassing to recall that not long ago the Taliban were currying favor with Western governments by enforcing a ban on the cultivation of opium poppies. They were on our side then, keeping foreign aid flowing by joining the international crusade against heroin. (That didn't stop them from maintaining opium stockpiles, which they now appear to be selling off in anticipation of a U.S. attack.)

The cost of focusing on traffickers instead of terrorists was illustrated by the announcement that federal drug agents would be trained to protect travelers because there aren't enough air marshals. Given the government's failure to stop hijacked airliners from slamming into the World Trade Center, can it really afford to have so many personnel trying to stop smuggled chemicals from entering American noses, lungs, and veins?

It will not do simply to say that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism must be waged simultaneously. Aside from the problem that one war generates the black-market profits that help support our enemies in the other, we have to face the fact that our resources are finite.

Every dollar spent intercepting cocaine, heroin, or marijuana is a dollar that could be spent intercepting bombs. Every agent who infiltrates a drug cartel is an agent who could be infiltrating a terrorist organization.

We have to ask ourselves which is scarier: a drug dealer who sells an intoxicant to a willing buyer or a terrorist who murders people at random. Confronting that question does not necessarily mean repealing prohibition (the approach I'd prefer), but it does mean taking into account the tradeoffs associated with the war on drugs.

That is something John P. Walters, President Bush's choice to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has shown little inclination to do. As the Senate considers his nomination this month, it should ask whether an unreconstructed hawk is the right man for this job, especially in the current circumstances.

Walters criticized the Clinton administration, under which drug arrests and anti-drug spending hit record levels, for being soft on drugs. Even as other conservatives concluded that prison cells were better used to incapacitate predatory criminals, he continued to support harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Although the effort to "stop the flow of drugs" into the country is plainly futile, Walters apparently remains an interdiction enthusiast. He has praised Peru's policy of shooting down suspected drug traffickers, a practice that took the lives of an American missionary and her baby last spring.

Perhaps recent events have tempered Walters' views by bringing home the point that America faces threats worse than drugs. The Senate should find out.