The War on Drugs

It's not the drugs; It's the war

For the last 20 years, the United States has been waging a so-called "War on Drugs". This war has been, at best, ineffective; at worst, an unmitigated disaster.

War is Hell

OK, so war is hell, and expensive, besides. Perhaps this is the cost of victory.


This is the cost of defeat. We're losing the war on drugs. To see this, we only have to look at the drug business. Drugs are a business, and any business has two sides

Demand for illegal drugs in this country is small and constant These numbers go up and down from year to year, but they go up and down by 5, or 10, or 20%. They've never changed by 50, or 100, or 200%. And the variation that we do see is more plausibly attributed to changes in demographics and epidemiology, than to law enforcement and the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs simply has no effect on the demand for drugs.
On the supply side, the story is even simpler: supply is up. Over the last decade, street prices for drugs have fallen—dramatically—while the purity of the drugs has increased. Whatever else it's doing, the War on Drugs is not restricting the supply of drugs.
One reason that we are losing the War on Drugs is that we don't want to win it. There is not, in this country, any broad-based, principled objection to the use of drugs. We have legal drugs These drugs are widely used. They can cause health problems; they can be abused. We largely accept this. Even people who abstain from drugs, for personal, health, or religious reasons, generally regard that as—well—as a personal, health or religions matter. They don't seek to impose their abstention on the rest of society.

Neither is there any principled objection to the use of illegal drugs. They are illegal, but 100 million of us have used them. As a society, we've made these drugs illegal, but as individuals, we don't object to their use.

The use of illegal drugs, in and of itself, is not an issue for people in this country.

In summary, the War on Drugs

and we don't even want it to achieve its stated goals

It's not the drugs; it's the war

What's going on? Why are we doing this? More specifically, we're running the War on Drugs because it serves the interests of people in this country.

The United States is a democracy. Nothing

can go on in the United States—for decades—without broad-based political support. The War on Drugs has constituencies. It has groups of people who support it because it serves their interests.

These groups don't have to support the War on Drugs for the same reasons. They don't have to support it for good reasons. They don't even have to support it for coherent reasons. All that is necessary for the War on Drugs to continue is that enough people get something out of it, and that it doesn't seriously inconvenience the middle class, which it doesn't.


So who are these groups? Who are the constituents of the War on Drugs? Let's start with the obvious ones. These are some of the obvious beneficiaries of the War on Drugs. There are also groups that benefit in more subtle ways.

Now what?

So where do we go from here? How do we stop the madness?
  1. We have to acknowledge the cost, destruction, failure, and ultimate futility of the War on Drugs. We have to commit ourselves to ending it.
  2. We have to confront those in power: those who currently benefit and profit from the War on Drugs. This won't be easy. Support for the War on Drugs in this country is broad and deep, and the interests that it serves overlap and interlock in complex ways. Furthermore, most of the people running the War on Drugs don't think they are doing something evil. Most of them think they are doing their jobs. And they think those jobs are important and necessary.
  3. We have to create a vision of an alternative. The War on Drugs has been going on for so long that most people can no longer imagine a world without it. And the rhetoric of war has been effective: there is a unspoken—and unquestioned—assumption that the alternative to fighting this war is defeat. But this is a war that we are fighting against ourselves. The alternative isn't defeat, the alternative is peace.
To end the War on Drugs, all we have to do is stop fighting it We'll still have drugs; we'll still have drug problems. We just won't have the war. We have to create a vision that makes this a credible alternative for people in this country. If we can create the vision, then we can end this war.


2 million people in prison
giving us the highest incarceration rate on the planet
100 million of us have used them
A few years ago, I was at a party in an affluent suburb of Boston. Upstairs, the hosts were serving alcohol; downstairs, the guests were smoking marijuana. The next-door neighbor, who happens to be a police officer, was invited, and witnessed this; it wasn't a problem.
extra-legal, unconstitutional, or otherwise ill-advised use of force
Manuel Noreiga was an agent of the United States in Panama. He was on the payroll of the U.S. army and the CIA for over 30 years. When he no longer served the United States—when he became an embarrassment—our government invaded Panama, captured Noreiga, brought him back to the U.S., tried, convicted, and imprisoned him on...drug charges.
military-industrial complex
It's easy to talk about the prison-industrial complex, and the military-industrial complex, and imagine these big, faceless corporations using lobbyists and campaign contributions to get their way with congress. And doubtless, a certain amount of that goes on. But it's important to remember that corporations have employees, and employees live in congressional districts. Congressmen don't like to do things that put their own constituents out of work. The War on Drugs has political support on many levels.
label their opponents weak, or naive, or evil
President Clinton didn't send all those weapons to Columbia because he's specially concerned about Columbia, or the War on Drugs, or even about employment in the defense industry. He did it to protect Democratic candidates in the 2000 elections from Republican charges that they are "soft on drugs". He knew the attacks were coming: George W. Bush made his name in Texas by locking up drug users.
keep people from voting
There doesn't have to be an explicit conspiracy to do this. You needn't imagine politicians in a smoke-filled room inventing the War on Drugs to get African-Americans off the voting rolls. All that is necessary is that the War on Drugs has that effect; therefore, it serves those who benefit from that effect. The political system is adaptive: it protects the interests of those in power.
history of racial fear
The movie Reefer Madness stands as a reminder of the hysteria that is the foundation of our drug laws

Creative Commons License
The War on Drugs by Steven W. McDougall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Steven W. McDougall / resume / / 2001 June 03