Drugs and Thugs

The U.S. Subsidy for Terrorists


Shortly after the September terrorist attacks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) unveiled a new 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. "

Actually, "going after the illegal drug trade" is what allows terrorists to fund their operations with profits inflated by prohibition. In that sense, the $40 billion or so the U.S. spends on drug law enforcement each year represents a subsidy for murderers. Banning a product that people want creates an opportunity for criminals, who can earn big profits because they are willing to risk producing, transporting, and selling contraband.

This "risk premium" means cocaine and heroin sell for 20 to 40 times as much as they otherwise would. Prohibition thus delivers to armed thugs a handy stream of revenue, which they can dip into by selling drugs or by taxing producers and traffickers. Bin Laden's organization seems to have benefited from the drug trade indirectly: Opium money supports his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

Stronger enforcement, Hastert's favored solution, would tend to increase the risks of drug trafficking, eliminate competitors, and raise profits. So it hardly makes sense to fight terrorism by cracking down on drugs.

In fact, the events of September 11 highlighted how the War on Drugs has skewed the government's priorities and compromised our security. 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 sky 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 illegal drugs from entering the U.S.?

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 drugs is a dollar that could be spent intercepting bombs. Every agent infiltrating a drug cartel is an agent who could be infiltrating a terrorist cell.

We have to ask ourselves which is scarier: a 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 trade-offs associated with the drug war.

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. Walters, awaiting an all-but-certain Senate confirmation as of this writing, seems to be an unreconstructed drug war hawk. He has 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 mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Although the effort to "stop the flow of drugs" is plainly futile—managing, at best, to shift around smuggling routes and sources of supply—Walters apparently remains an interdiction enthusiast. He has even praised Peru's policy of shooting down suspected 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. Former DEA chief Robert C. Bonner, now the customs commissioner, seems to have seen the light. "Terrorism is our highest priority," he says, "bar none."