Fight the war, not the drugs
September 1, 2011 12:54 pm by John Paul Rathbone
The “drugs war” is stuck in an expensive and gory rut. The 40-year old
policy o*f p*rohi*bitio*n *ha*s failed. Production of illegal drugs has
increased, so too consumption, and the violence associated with trafficking
has only got worse – last week’s massacre of 53 people at a Monterrey casino
in Mexico is just the latest grotesque incident.
The conventional alternative is legalisation. It argues that prohibition
creates illicit markets worth billions of dollars a year. If cocaine,
heroin, methamphetamine and cannabis were instead handled in the same way as
alcohol – available for taxed sale across the counter to any adult – the
illicit markets would disappear and so would their attendant problems,
This approach is theoretically neat but no panacea. What would be the effect
of greater drugs availability on addiction rates? Impossible to know,
although alcohol’s example is discouraging: it already accounts for far more
prison incarcerations and substance abuse in the US than all illicit drugs
combined. The taxes required to bring legalised drugs anywhere close to
their current illicit prices would also have to be extremely high. That
would prompt tax evasion – and subsequent enforcement problems comparable to
that created by prohibition in itself. Finally, there is no will to legalise
hard drugs, anywhere. Thinking about legalisation as a politically viable
alternative is mere onanism.
So what’s the alternative, indeed is there one?
Over the past year, I’ve asked senior Pentagon, Mexican and Colombian
officials what their definition of “success” in the drugs war might be.
Their responses were the same. “To reduce violence to levels so that the
military is no longer required and it becomes a police problem.” “To reduce
violence so that citizens can lead otherwise normal lives.” “The
legalisation debate is interesting, but in the meantime governments must act
to reduce violence.” In short, the mindset of people who live the problem
every day is more focused on reducing the “war” element of “the drugs war”
rather than reducing the “drugs”.
This has the merit of realism. Reducing violence is feasible. Human
experience – recent and ancient – shows that reducing drug demand and supply
is not. When the Psalmist sang of “wine that maketh glad the heart of man”,
the truth he recorded was already old. But how to reduce violence? A
strategic approach would need to use market incentives to penalise or
discourage violent behaviour.
Mark Kleiman, UCLA professor of Public Policy and author of “Drugs and Drug
policy: what everyone needs to know” elaborates on the idea in Foreign
Among his suggestions:
Switch the focus away from casual drug users. Instead, focus on the hard
core users of heavy drugs who constitute the bulk of drug demand.
Legalisation of cannabis should be considered: it is already so ubiquitous
that its use can hardly rise further. In any event, eliminating the $10bn
of illicit revenue the cannabis trade currently generates, and approximately
10 per cent of US drug-related incarcerations, might well outweigh the
damage from any increase in abuse.
Stop heavy users of hard drugs from re-offending. This hard core segment
accounts for much of the violence associated with drugs. Drug-substitution
programs have worked well for heroin addicts; expanding them could cut the
20 per cent of US-Mexican drugs trade made up of heroine. Other approaches,
with track records of success, can be used for methamphetamine and cocaine.
Break-up violent drug retail networks. One project in North Carolina did
just that by prosecuting the most violent pushers in an active dealing area,
and publicly warning the rest they faced the same if they continued. The
street market disappeared almost overnight, and affected neighbourhoods
became fit places to live once again.
For producers countries, the task is different: to create market
disincentives for violence by attacking hardest the most violent cartels.
For example, the US Drug Enforcement Agency could announce a crackdown on
those US distributors supplied by Mexico’s designated “most violent
organisation”. It has the intelligence to do so. The result would be a
scramble for new sources and the suppression of violence.
To this list, I would add: curb the illegal flow south of US arms, which
account for as much as 70 per cent of the weapons used in Mexico. A serious
effort at reducing drug-related violence could also enhance, perhaps
incomparably, the US’s standing in Latin America – and at a time when many
in Washington and US business circles bemoan its relative decline in the
face of China’s rise.
But could such a strategy actually work? Unlike conventional approaches,
targeting violence at least has logic behind it. It recognises that there is
a spectrum of drugs and behaviours associated with them. Unlike full-scale
legalisation, it would not cause a huge increase in drug abuse. It
economises on scarce budgetary resources, and squares with what those in the
front line of the drug war believe is achievable. It even has a political
chance of being adopted. “In the absence of another plausible way out of the
current situation,” writes Kleiman, “it might be worth trying.” Indeed.