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The Collective
Monday, August 20, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

What do you call a policy that spends billions of dollars, makes the problem that the policy is designed to address worse, and yet everyone involved in making that policy wants to expand? You call it the “War on Drugs.”

Misha Glenny, writing in WaPo has the latest in a long line of attempts to explain the failure that is the war on drugs: The Lost War:

Thirty-six years and hundreds of billions of dollars after President Richard M. Nixon launched the war on drugs, consumers worldwide are taking more narcotics and criminals are making fatter profits than ever before. The syndicates that control narcotics production and distribution reap the profits from an annual turnover of $400 billion to $500 billion. And terrorist organizations such as the Taliban are using this money to expand their operations and buy ever more sophisticated weapons, threatening Western security.

That is exactly right.

There isn’t an easy alternative, I will grant, but the continuation of our current policy is as wrongheaded as it can be, if what one wants out of public policy is return on investment (i.e., for the money spent to actually accomplish something). We spend billions, and the problem only gets worse and the very metrics employed to measure the efficacy of the policies tell us that this is true. If we look at the availability of product, the street price and the hectares under cultivation, it is clear that the policies are utter failures. Yet, as one article put it, we are “addicted to failure” it would seem.

Not only are the current set of policies ineffective, but they make the situation worse by increasing the profits on these business radically. It is the very fact of prohibition that makes leaves, flowers and weeds into multi-billion dollar industries.

The answer that is always given in Washington is: just a little more money and we’ll get it right. However, this is objectively not true.

Of course, to make such suggestions usually results in scorn, because one is assumed to be pro-drugs if one takes this stance. Or, one is accused of wanting to expose the children of America to heroin usage. Indeed, as I have studied this policy over the years, it is clear that the main motivator seems to be protecting children and this is what has made, as Glenny notes, the war on drugs a “third rail” (the one that electrocutes you if you touch it) in America politics.

In Washington, the war on drugs has been a third-rail issue since its inauguration. It’s obvious why — telling people that their kids can do drugs is the kiss of death at the ballot box. But that was before 9/11. Now the drug war is undermining Western security throughout the world. In one particularly revealing conversation, a senior official at the British Foreign Office told me, “I often think we will look back at the War on Drugs in a hundred years’ time and tell the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ This is so stupid.”

How right he is.


The references to international terrorism in this case are far from gratuitous. The fact of the matter is that drugs are an excellent source of funding that can easily arm a large number of persons, and arm them well. There is no doubt, for example, that the Taliban pre-9/11 was able to accrue cash via taxing poppy sales and the FARC in Colombia have been making tremendous profits off of the cocaine industry for over two decades. As a set of Marxist guerrillas one would have expected the end of the Cold War to have damaged their ability to continue fighting, yet instead they have grown and flourished since that time.

In regards to Afghanistan, I have argued for some time that the drug war was counter-productive to counter-terrorism policies and further recently noted a story about how the US government’s anti-drug zeal is seriously damaging our ability to make political progress in Afghanistan. Glenny makes a similar observation:

Docherty was quick to realize that the military push into northern Helmand province was going to run into serious trouble. The rumor was “that we were there to eradicate the poppy,” he said. “The Taliban aren’t stupid and so they said, ‘These guys are here to destroy your livelihood, so let’s take up arms against them.’ And it’s been a downward spiral since then.”

This is not a good situation, yet no one in Washington even wants to even discuss it (as Dan Drezner also notes).

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1 Comment

  1. […] involved in making that policy wants to expand it? You call it the “War on Drugs.” Posted at 4:05 pm in Category: War on Drugs, Quotes | postCount(’2534′); | postCountTB(’2534′); Poweredby WordPress | RSS Feeds: RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, Atom | Design by John Norris Brown […]

    Pingback by Appalachian Scribe » Quote of the Day — Monday, August 20, 2007 @ 3:06 pm

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