Who wins in the war on drugs?

Is the war on drugs working? The answer to that question will vary depending on whom you ask, but by nearly every objective, measurable standard the answer is a resounding “no.” Drugs are winning the war. Narcotics are cheaper and stronger than they were before the United States government declared an all out war on illegal drug production, trafficking, sale and use. Drug use is as common, or more common, now than it was in the 1970s. The war on drugs has failed to either stem the flow of drugs (the supply) or reduce drug use in the United States (the demand). The failed effort costs the United States government about $40 billion per year. (By contrast, the requested FY 2013 budget for the entire federal Department of Transportation is $74 billion.)

Sounds like a colossal waste of money and resources, right? But it’s not all bad – depending on whom you ask.

The drug war has been a boon to state power, broadly speaking, and to a number of private industries that thrive off of our reliance on criminal justice “solutions” to public health problems.

The private prison industry is the most obvious beneficiary of our obsession with throwing drug dealers and users behind bars, and is an influential supporter of the mandatory minimum and three strikes statutes that take sentencing decisions out of judges' hands and require draconian punishments for even the pettiest of crimes. Those laws help to fill prisons with bodies, enriching the incarceration industry -- but that industry is far from alone in reaping power through unjust drug prohibition and enforcement.

A new military-industrial-complex to service the drug wars at home has cropped up in the shadows of the United States’ large overseas expeditions. Radley Balko is an expert on the subject and, through painstaking research, has traced the militarization of our domestic police forces to the ever-expanding war on drugs. He writes:

The mass increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last 30 years is unquestionably a product of the war on drugs. The Pentagon giveaway programs, which have turned millions of pieces of military equipment over to domestic police departments; the Byrne and other federal law enforcement grants tied exclusively to drug policing; the federally-funded multi-jurisdictional drug task forces that are almost always paramilitary in nature, civil asset forfeiture laws; the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s the federal government sent members of elite military units like the Navy SEALS and Army Rangers out to train police departments in drug interdiction—all of these policies contributed to the militarization of America’s police departments, and nearly all were enacted because politicians decided the war on drugs ought to be fought more like an actual war.

It’s hard to believe it could get worse, but with the 9/11 attacks came a fresh round of funding and new excuses for the militarization and now federalization of our local and state police forces.

The markets for surveillance systems, advanced weapons and military grade information sharing programs have exploded over the past ten years, having lodged themselves firmly in a comfortable niche at the intersection of the decades long war on drugs and the comparatively new and robust war on terror. Those state powers and technological capabilities that weren’t yet aggressively marshaled to fight the former (at the state and local level, at least) have increasingly become fair game under the guise of hunting the New Enemy: terrorists.

Fusion centers; hundreds of billions of dollars of federal aid to state and local police to beef up weapons, surveillance and tactical systems; the expansion of prosecutorial and police power at every level: these are among the gifts the war on terror gave and keeps on giving to state and local law enforcement. A recent report by Senator Tom Coburn tells us that the metropolitan Boston region alone has reaped over $173 million in DHS funds since 2004. Those monies have bought Boston military-style, urban warfare exercises for our police departments and ubiquitous surveillance cameras in our public transportation and on our street corners, among many other things.

In short, the militarization and federalization of our local police departments that began with the war on drugs has exploded with new growth thanks to the war on terror.

Interestingly, the war on drugs specifically has had the inverse effect on the US military, which for the past twenty-three years has been engaged in fighting the war on drugs not only abroad, but also at home. The military’s training of and assistance to local police in the context of the war on drugs has led to two problematic processes: the police are increasingly militarized on the one hand, and on the other, the military has been acting like a domestic police force.

How did this latter process happen? Does the military even want to be engaged in fighting the failed war on drugs?

The US military and the war on drugs: an unhappy marriage

The first deployment of US military resources towards the drug war occurred in 1989, under the direction of President George H.W. Bush. During his state of the union address that year, he told the country:

Let this be recorded as the time when America rose up and said no to drugs. The scourge of drugs must be stopped. And I am asking tonight for an increase of almost a billion dollars in budget outlays to escalate the war against drugs. The war must be waged on all fronts. Our new drug czar, Bill Bennett, and I will be shoulder to shoulder in the executive branch leading the charge…. And much of [the money] will be used to protect our borders, with help from the Coast Guard and the Customs Service, the Departments of State and Justice, and, yes, the US military.

As Beth Wald of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) observes in a must-read paper for the US Army War College, “Ending the Military’s Counternarcotics Mission,” President Bush’s 1989 announcement “marked a shift that would lead to billions of taxpayer dollars being spent by the Department of Defense in its counternarcotics mission, named a national priority by then-President Bush and every US President since then.” [Emphasis mine.] This shift in military affairs occurred in the face of objections at the highest levels of the brass. No matter about that resistance; Bush simply appointed new people to run his militarized drug war.

Wald writes:

Under new leadership, the Department of Defense (DoD) was forced to comply when the new President George H.W. Bush introduced the National Drug Control Strategy which brought the US military into the forefront of what was then called the “War on Drugs” in 1989.

“As the perceived threat of communism faded and eventually collapsed in the 1980s, the drug war replaced the Cold War as the military’s central mission in the Western Hemisphere. Few in the military establishment, however, embraced the counternarcotics mission enthusiastically.”

National Security Directive (NSD) 18 identified “reducing the flow of illegal narcotic substances to the United States,” as a principal foreign policy objective of the Bush Administration. The Directive stated that narcotics abuse is devastating to our society, has had a “destabilizing effect on friendly governments,” and should be “dealt with aggressively.” The corresponding National Defense Authorization Act designated DoD as the lead agency for the “detection and monitoring of aerial and maritime transit of illegal drugs into the United States.” It directed Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to revise DoD policy guidance to expand military support of US counternarcotics efforts and provide counternarcotics training to the governments of the Andean region, under what became the Andean Initiative. The military’s focus was and remains on illicit narcotics eradication and interdiction. Initial DoD guidance approved by Cheney included, “(1) Assistance for nation-building, (2) Operational support to host-country forces, and (3) Cooperation with host-country forces to prevent drug exports.” On September 18, 1989 Cheney called on the leaders of the armed forces to develop plans to counter the flow of illegal drugs from entering the US. He also called for plans to deploy military forces in support of US and allied law enforcement agencies, especially along the US’ southwestern border.

Since then, DoD has spent billions of dollars combating the illicit drug trade, with little to show for it. According to one British correspondent, “Four decades on, in a world (and an America) accursed by poverty and drugs, there is almost universal agreement that the war on drugs has failed as thoroughly as that on poverty.” There are several possible reasons for the low return on investment of the US military’s counternarcotics efforts. One reason for this apparent failure is that the armed forces are not appropriately trained to combat criminals and criminal organizations. Another reason is that focusing on the supply side of the problem by combating the narcotics production and trafficking has proven ineffective over the decades DoD has been engaged in the effort. A third reason for the apparent failure of the military’s counternarcotics program is a lack of viable metrics. Finally, a far more controversial reason relates to the nature of the illicit drug problem. If illegal drugs and the narcotics production and trafficking organizations are actually social welfare and law enforcement challenges, rather than threats to national security, the military is arguably the wrong tool to counter them.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) should begin to wind down its role in combating drug trafficking.

But that’s not happening.

In the intervening years between President Bush’s 1989 war on drugs announcement and today, the National Guard has played a significant role in drug trafficking interdiction, marijuana destruction and even the demolishing of homes and other structures said to be implicated in drug use or the drug trade. The Guard’s CounterDrug program cost about $1.16 billion in 2012 – a fraction of the DoD’s overall budget but a large sum of money, nonetheless. The program boasts on its website that it aims to “Detect. Interdict. Disrupt. Curtail.” But as the DIA’s Wald observes in her paper, the military's drug war crusade has (like federal, state and local law enforcement efforts) failed to meaningfully interfere with either the drug trade or drug use.

Wald explains the reasons for these failures: the profit paradox and the hydra effect.

The US Government effort has been predicated on the belief that a successful counternarcotics strategy should attack the supply side of the problem. A drop in supply would lead to higher narcotics prices which would drive many users out of the market. However, according to Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial, “the attempt to suppress the drug trade through a war on supply generates two self-defeating effects – the profit paradox and the hydra effect – which together doom the effort.” The profit paradox is created by cartels’ raising prices to compensate for depleted supply. The higher prices mean higher profits, encouraging more suppliers to enter the market. More suppliers maintain or even raise the supply of drugs available, countering any pressure to raise prices. Therefore, law enforcement and military efforts to attack the supply side of the illicit narcotics problem has no noticeable effect on the price of product. The hydra effect simply asserts that if one source of an illegal drug is shut down another will take its place.

Those two factors help explain why, even as the United States leads the world in drug war spending and incarceration rates, we have seen no decline in drug availability or use. Perhaps because the program operated for the first twenty years without applying any metrics to judge its success or failure, the National Guard nevertheless continues to spend money and staff resources providing logistical and training support to federal, state and local law enforcement to fight a war its own adherents admit they will never win.

The latest issue of the Guard counternarcotics program’s newsletter, “Catalyst,” gives us a few examples of just what the DoD is doing domestically, including:

·      Assisting Virginia officials in destroying buildings the authorities allege are related to drug use or the drug trade (similar operations in Texas have resulted in the demolition of over 1,200 structures since 1993, according to another issue);

·      Locating and destroying marijuana grow operations in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (and many other places nationwide); and

·      Executing paramilitary training of all levels of law enforcement at a National Guard drug war education center in Pennsylvania.

The drug war and the war on terror have turned our police forces into quasi military organizations, and have in different yet similarly troubling ways changed the character of our armed forces. Our leaders tell us that both of these wars will go on for a long time, perhaps for eternity. After all, how can you kill an ideology? How can the government stop people from using drugs, which human beings have done for thousands of years? When we kill the top drug cartel leaders, others step in immediately to fill their (very expensive) shoes. When our drones decapitate al Qaeda's leadership abroad, the same thing happens; there's always another "Number 2." In the drug war context they call it the "hydra effect;" in the war on terror we've come to know it as "whack a mole." It's the same problem.

Where to go from here?

Two US states just voted to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana, but the Obama administration is reportedly exploring avenues for how best to go over the voters’ heads to enforce federal drug law, which classifies the substance as an illegal narcotic.

Mexico’s former President Vincente Fox has begged the United States – the largest consumer of cocaine in the world – to decriminalize or legalize drugs, to spare his country from the horrific violence the drug war has wrought. (Instead, the US is doubling down on the war against cartels in Mexico – a war it cannot and will not win through attrition.) Passionate defenders of civil rights like Michelle Alexander have pointed out that drug war enforcement is disproportionately targeted at black and Latino people in the United States. We incarcerate more people now than Stalin ever did in his infamous gulags. Civil liberties and privacy advocates warn about the long-term, devastating effects the militarization of the police will have on our personal liberty and our capacity for democracy.

As Defense Intelligence Agency employee Beth Wald observes, the war on drugs has been a massive, costly failure – and she wants the military out. Instead of deploying military resources and personnel in this Sisyphean struggle, she advocates for directing needed resources towards federal and local law enforcement. Those domestic law enforcement agencies should get their own drones and planes with which to fight drug wars, she argues, and leave the military out of it.

While it certainly doesn’t make sense to keep asking our armed forces to fight futile domestic drug wars, it makes little more sense to ask that of our police departments or federal law enforcement agencies.

We've previously called for pushing DHS off the fiscal cliff. Let's send the drug war with it.

The war on drugs costs too much in lives and treasure, and it has fundamentally corrupted what should be our most prized values in a democracy. It’s past time to end it once and for all.

Sign up for email alerts // Contact us

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer