The International War on Drugs Hits Close to Home

Celebrating 100 years of failure and futility


The United Nations is currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the "international war on drugs." Yes, it was in 1909 that 13 countries joined together in the "International Opium Commission" to halt the Chinese opium trade. And how did that go? According to the Associated Press, although strongman Mao Zedong managed (or so his government claims) to make significant inroads in the 1950s, nowadays "Government statistics put the number of known addicts in China at 1.2 million, including 700,000 heroin users, more than two-thirds of them under the age of 35."

Strangely, after a century's worth of attempts to forcefully stamp out two perfectly legitimate and useful human urges—to make a decent living, and to pleasurably alter our consciousness—drug warriors are no closer to victory. The chief of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, even confesses to feeling "somewhat frustrated" that his impossible job is so darn impossible.

While international despair over drug war failure raises its—utterly valid and appropriate—head, folks in the United States, which is the undisputed kingpin of this losing war, have begun noticing some of the horrible side-effects of drug war enforcement coming home to roost. In Arizona, legislators are alarmed at the growing importation of Mexican drug gang-style kidnappings (already happening at a rate of around one a day in Phoenix), and fear that military-level street violence will cross the border soon as well.

Showing the ultimate in political frustration, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard actually agreed with a CNN reporter that when it comes to marijuana legalization, there's "a strong argument for getting that debate front and center and finding whatever options we might have to cut off the devastation in Mexico. What we fear here on the Arizona border is the cartel on cartel battle is going to end up spreading across the border."

Sure, the U.S. has already suffered great fiscal drain and hideous human costs in terms of lives wasted in prison from its drug war, but the chaotic and hideous violence it engenders in Mexico has been mostly a matter for tourists to worry about. A recent study from the Cato Institute noted 131 U.S. citizens killed from 2005-2008, explaining that police in many border states besides Arizona (and border patrol agents) increasingly find themselves up against the violence of the Mexican drug trade.

Nor is it only libertarian think tanks taking notice. In just the past couple of weeks, sources from international news and analysis mavens ranging from Stratfor to Foreign Policy have reported on something that is not news to most Mexicans: The violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, almost all of it attributable to the fact that drugs are illegal, is reaching absurd levels, including endemic kidnappings, beheadings, and the use of military weapons like rocket-propelled grenades in public battles. Nearly 6,300 murders in Mexico can be laid at the feet of the drug trade for 2008; and so far 2009 has already seen over 1,000.

Politicians might not see it, but just about anyone else with a moment's thought will acknowledge that we don't usually see that sort of rampant bloody murder associated with the trade in legal items—however good or bad for you they might be.

This past week, however, has shown some signs of drug war sanity from unlikely places. Foremost among them was a report issued by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, where three former Latin American leaders, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (former president of Brazil), César Gaviria (former president of Colombia), and Ernesto Zedillo (former president of Mexico), admit, as they wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that ends by considering the decriminalization of pot possession, that:

Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. Latin America remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis, and is fast becoming a major supplier of opium and heroin. Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.

The reactions of U.S. drug policy makers, including former drug czar John Walters and another unnamed official, were more interesting and more depressing. They insisted that spiraling Mexican drug violence is in fact a sign of desperation, and that turf wars indicate that the good guys are actually getting closer to winning.

They aren't. They really aren't. Drug control efforts have little effect on the price and availability of cocaine. Afghanistan continues to pump out opium, with any success in some areas overwhelmed by failures in others. Total production went up to a record high in 2007, followed by a very small decline in 2008, which even U.N. drug eradication officials stress can't be credited to government eradication efforts. The vaunted U.S.-funded "Plan Colombia" has failed to seriously limit coca production while harming small Colombian farmers—and at great expense. West Africa has a growing cocaine "problem." And international interdiction efforts in general have never made a permanent or significant dent in worldwide production or use of drugs. The War on Drugs isn't working, and never has. And there's no reason it ought to even if it could.

The Drug War tends to be a quiet public policy matter, of interest only to what more sophisticated and jaded policy folk can write off as boring fanatics and aggrieved family members. It is rarely at the top of any politician's concerns—neither major party, after all, can score points against the other on the matter. It remains a quiet and mostly unquestioned fact of reality, even as it is now widely understood and accepted that even the president of the United States sometimes must have to get high. Almost everyone knows that all sorts of normal, effective human beings occasionally choose to violate existing drug laws. (Nearly half of U.S. citizens have tried pot in their life, for example.) Medical marijuana tends to be quite popular when voters get a chance to consider it, and the executive branch is finally ready to let states go their own way on that issue.

Still, no one seriously expects anything significant to change. The international drug war ought to be of enormous meta-interest to students of policy, political science, and philosophy because it reveals better than almost any other issue the essentially unreasonable nature of our rulers—and our populace. There are few other huge policy matters in which the reason for pursuing a goal is more obviously ludicrous, archaic, and disconnected from any reasonable conception of a larger public good (and yet never questioned), and where the effort is more obviously utterly futile and wasted.

And yet the vast majority of documents studying, chronicling, and counting what's countable about the drug war, even supposedly ameliorist ones that suggest a switch from, say, military means to medical ones in fighting the drug scourge, refuse to question the root of the absurdity. It is generally assumed (without even an attempt at proof) that stopping people from using the drugs they choose to use is as unquestioned a good as increasing human wealth or preserving human life.

In this era of stunning government debt, of the alleged need for domestic stimulus, and with frequent lip-service dedication paid to spending cuts, the U.S. is still planning to spend $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2009 on international drug war efforts (and those figures from the State Department don't seem to include the full costs of the multi-year $1.4 billion "Merida Initiative" for drug war waging in Mexico). Those efforts include violent interdiction, corrupting the courts and police departments of our allies, and destroying small farmers' livelihoods (while also throwing in some development aid to allegedly help them). Our 1986 "Anti-Drug Abuse Act" makes everything from trade to aid policy dependent on how well we think our allies are helping us destroy themselves in the name of our drug war. The U.N.'s dispirited drug warrior Costa even talks of how, "We must have the courage to look at the dramatic, unintended consequences of drug control: the emergence of a criminal market of staggering proportions." But he won't take that next, short, simple mental step towards abolishing his own job.

One might think that the first place a reasonable politician would look to save a billion or so bucks a year is the category of efforts clearly marked "utterly ridiculous and proven completely futile"—such as the international drug war. But that will almost certainly not happen. If anything should make one hopeless about the future of sensible governance, it's the ongoing, apparently never-ending international war on drugs.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).