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July 28, 2008

End the War (on Drugs)

America's war on drugs is much older than either the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan; it long predates the war on terror. We have spent a fortune on it; obviously in money; not so obviously in lives. We are losing this war. Worse, the war on drugs is a substantial obstacle to victory in Afghanistan and a bonanza to bad guys almost everywhere including the both the mean and affluent streets of almost every city in the US.

A surge isn't going to win the war on drugs.

We can't declare victory and go home.

It's time (way past time) to simply declare defeat and concentrate on mitigation for chronic drug users.

The Taliban (which WAS religiously ant-drug) has morphed into the protector of illegal poppy growers in Afghanistan. The "hearts and souls" they may be winning pale in significance to the money they earn from this "protection". NATO troops who threaten the cash crops or actually burn fields don't win any friends; most of our European allies simply ignore poppy hunts as part of their mission in Afghanistan. I don't know to what extent on the ground, the US simply pay lips service to the idea of poppy control; but any attempt at poppy-control is contrary to the mission of Taliban elimination.

Corruption in the Afghani central government is one of the problems most cited in that country. Ending the prohibition on poppy growing won't eliminate corruption – but it'll sure help. BTW, we shouldn't be surprised at this corruption. Drug money is the source of much reported police corruption in this country as well. Prohibition of private pleasures leads not only to disrespect for the law but also to opportunities for unscrupulous law enforcement officials to profit.

In Bolivia a US consular official once proudly told me that he had been instrumental in getting the government of that country to agree to a coca-eradication program. "What will the coca-growers grow now?" I asked.

"Not my problem," the official said. That government of Bolivia is now the former government; Evo Morales, whose victory was partially fueled by resentment of the coca-eradication program, is no friend of the US. Turns out it WAS our problem.

FARC in Colombia – fortunately somewhat in disarray – has pretty much abandoned revolution for coca protection. The pay is better.

Gang wars in American cities are as much about drug turf as anything else. There are parts of the island of Kauai in the American state of Hawaii that tourists are well-advised to stay away from lest they stumble on marijuana growing areas.

Point is that the drug business wouldn't be any more lucrative than any other kind of agriculture if it were legal. Poppies and coca and marijuana aren't hard to grow. Might be, given today's prices, that part of the land now devoted to "drugs" would be used instead for food crops at today's prices IF we didn't drive up the value of the drug crops by destroying a lot of it in the pipeline. There wouldn't be any more money in poppy-protection than there is in wheat-protection if poppies weren't illegal. There wouldn't be a chain of violence and protection and corruption from farm to processing plant to buyers' home counties if drugs were legal.

Would more people have drug problems if drugs were legal and cheaper? Maybe; I don't know. They do seem readily available in all open and many closed societies. Prohibition didn't prevent alcoholism; we live with the very real price of alcoholism because prohibition was both ineffectual and terribly expensive in the same ways that the war on drugs is expensive today.

Should there be regulation of drugs? Sure, reasonable regulation to keep them as safe as other agricultural products AND to keep them away from children. Incidentally, I think enforcement of draconian laws against supplying drugs to minors (under eighteen) would be easier than keeping drugs away from minors today. Bar tenders, on the whole, have a stake in preventing teenage drinkers because they don't want to lose their licenses. You can't take away the license of an illegal drug dealer.

We know that no major party political candidate can or will take a position in favor of ending the war on drugs, no matter how he might have experimented "in his youth". This isn't going to be a campaign issue. Hopefully, somehow, a national consensus on legalization can develop between campaign seasons.

The war on drugs isn't one we're going to win. It's making it harder to win other wars where defeat is not an option – including the war for control of our own city streets and schools.


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