Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On the Failure of the War on Drugs, or How to Spend $6,000,000,000 And End Up With Cheaper, Purer Cocaine...

Above, the largest maritime drug seizure on record, a.k.a. Not Really Shit in the Big Picture of Things...

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, commissioned by VP-Elect Joe Biden, has reinforced the widely-held belief that the war on drugs has been a massive failure. The report focuses mainly on Plan Colombia, in which about $6 billion was spent trying to stem the flow of cocaine from South America to the U.S. via eradiacation and the training of anti-narcotics police/military units.

The GAO reports that between 2000 and 2006 - during which the stated goal was to cut cocaine production/supply by 50 percent - production in Colombia rose 4 percent, and in nearby Peru and Bolivia, it rose 12 percent. Additionally, in 1999, it cost about $142 to buy a gram of U.S. street coke (UN Office on Drugs & Crime, adjusted for inflation); by '06, it cost less than $95.

In a Dec. 1 syndicated column by Duncan Smith-Rohrberg Maru (a pretentious name if ever there was one), Maru says the primary lesson to take from Plan Colombia's failure "is something that many economists have been saying for years: efforts to decrease the supply of drugs without major efforts to curb demand for them will only increase drug-dealer profits and the associated crime rate." Basically, that if all you do is make it harder to grow and ship drugs, you're going to end up increasing the demand (since they'll be, theoretically, tougher to get) and subsequently allowing dealers to increase their profits.

And what have Plan Colombia administrators been doing with their $6 bil? Naturally, spending 65 PERCENT on supply-side enforcement and 35 PERCENT on demand programs (drug treatment, prevention education, etc.), "the exact opposite of what Richard Nixon intended when his administration initiated the war on drugs," according to Maru.

I hate to keep referencing The Shield (there's no denying, I am obsessed with it... what can I say, it's the best cop show, period), but Andre 3000's guest appearance in its final episode ties neatly into my argument here. His character, Robert Huggins, was running a third-party candidacy for mayor based on creating a new paradigm in Los Angeles that was independent from what he called the "police-prison-industrial complex" that had choked his neighborhood to death. 

"The police NEED us out there bein' dope dealers and criminals, or else they will go BROKE," Huggins said. It's a relatively simplistic view, but consider that it costs $34,000 , on average, to house a U.S. prisoner for one year (versus $3,300 to provide an average year of substance-abuse treatment). Add to that all of the mandatory minimums out there where regular-ass people are getting locked up for months and years for having less than an ounce of pot on them. Consider all of the now-privately-run prisons and the administrators making mad cash while cutting prisoner care to "save the government some money."

A large part of the failure of the war on drugs can be chalked up to the U.S.'s longstanding policy of, for lack of a better term, meddling in other countries' shit. Instead of focusing on treating American drug addicts and curbing demand, we wanna go burn down all the coca plants in Colombia. Meanwhile, now U.S. cokeheads can't find a bump as easily, demand goes up and the whole problem starts all over again.

There is too much profit in the illegal drug trade to simply address it from the supply side. There's always more coca and poppy and pot seeds, and there are far too many economically-disadvantaged farmers and out-and-out criminals willing to take advantage of them to realistically make a dent. Consider that Traffic was made nearly five or six years ago, and Steven Soderburgh was already talking about criminal syndicates outspending the government in countersurveillance by millions of dollars. 

A lot of the harsher drug laws that came into effect in the U.S. during the Bush I/Clinton years were a knee-jerk response to the outbreak of coke-related violence in Miami in the '80s and the burgeoning crack epidemic, in my opinion. But again, if you look over the budgets from that era, the 65/35 supply/demand spending ratio largely holds up.

My unrealistic solution to this is marijuana legalization.

Now, before you start with the "hippie pothead" talk, gimme a minute to explain. Slowly, throughout the U.S., pot-related referendums are starting to win more and more support. In Massachusetts, California and Colorado, I believe, it's now merely a ticketable offense to be in possession of up to 1 ounce of pot. By targeting people carrying more than an ounce at a time, you're largely targeting folks pretty much guaranteed to be drug dealers and, consequently, more violent (the white-boy dreadie you're buying cuts from probably doesn't even have a gun; by contrast, the guy rolling incognito and moving pounds is probably strapped, and probably into other shit as well. On a side note, I've always thought that this was the only real valid part of the "gateway" theory... there's no chemical evidence that pot leads to other drugs. But if you're buying pot off a kid, chances are that if you wanted coke, you could probably find it, and so on and so forth. I've yet to see the dealer that just rolls around, Hunter S. Thompson-style, with a briefcase full of different drugs).

So what happens to the kid that gets busted with an ounce and finds himself stuck with a mandatory minimum sentence? Well, now he's stuck in prison for a couple years, where there's really not a lot to do except make criminal connections and maybe better yourself if you have the drive. He's costing the state about $30,000 a year, and for what? 'Cause he liked to smoke blunts? 

Here is where I usually catch a lot of flak: for suggesting that alcohol should really be treated the same way as other illicit drugs. Look up the DUI stats for your state. I guarantee they're higher than you think. But alcohol is somehow a "socially acceptable" drug. (if that's true, why have I seen some of the most socially UNacceptable acts performed primarily by drunk people?) In fact, social acceptance of alcohol was being pounded into your head from elementary school on, if you're older than about 22. It was right there in the DARE acronym: "Drugs AND Alcohol" ... as if alcohol were somehow NOT a drug? Are you fuckin' serious? (full disclosure: I don't know how they do drug education in school nowadays... hopefully not like that)

So let's say you legalize and regulate pot just like cigarettes and alcohol: licensed growers and dealers and so on. You have your regular weed (your Parliaments or Jacks, if you will) and your diggidy dank (your Bacardi 151, to continue the analogy), and you do DUI checks the same as they do for drunk drivers now (some police departments have a strip that can detect, via your saliva, if you've consumed THC within the past 48 hours or some such thing... they would need something a little more exact than that, but...). You eliminate a large number of what I would consider to be unnecessary arrests, and you give people a reasonable alternative to (again, what I would consider to be) hard drugs like coke and heroin, freeing up law enforcement to concentrate on large-scale narcotics dealers. Because let's face it, the serious profit is not in the marijuana trade (Katt Williams: "All I'm sayin' is that if you been dealin' weed for like ten years and ain't stepped up to the cocaine game yet, n*gga? The drug game might not be for you."), it's probably more like the icing on the cake for big-time drug dealers.

There's less of an argument for legalizing cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other hard drugs, primarily because of the higher potential for both chemical and physical dependency. They do serious physical damage to heavy users, unlike pot, which is probably about as dangerous as cigarettes. Maybe less so, because it is not processed and chemmed up the same way cigarettes are. You can't overdose on pot. You shouldn't drive high, but it's sure a lot easier than trying to drive drunk. You don't read a lot of news stories about a fatal DUI accident where the impaired driver was high on pot. (also, you don't hear a lot of good stories that start with, "So we were doin' crank this one time, and...")

Additionally, people don't go into treatment for marijuana addiction, so you can focus on treating serious drug abusers, and there's plenty of proof that demand-side efforts can work. Referring back to the Maru article.

"Of the first 100,000 drug users benefiting from President Bush's primary demand-side initiative - the $300 million Access to Recovery Program - 71 percent successfully completed therapy and abstained  from illicit drugs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Of those with criminal histories, 85 percent remained out of the criminal justice system. Other research has shown that drug treatment programs can reduce drug use by over 70 percent and criminal activity by 50 percent."

I never thought I'd endorse something Richard Nixon proposed, but I would encourage the Obama administration to reverse the current supply-side spending trend and restore Nixon's original 65/35 split in favor of addressing the demand.

Let Alvaro Uribe worry about how to deal with FARC and the cartels. If demand-side programs could cut drug use even by 10 percent over five years, just imagine the huge dent it would put in dealer profits.

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