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A Losing War on Drugs
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 3/7/08

By most accepted definitions, a war involves conflict between the armed forces of two nations or within a nation, as in civil war. In American society, we have broadened the use of the term and applied it to various social and domestic causes as, for example the war on poverty and the war on drugs. I have argued in the past that such metaphorical use of the term is unhelpful and trivializes the meaning of war. Wars are meant to won, preferably unconditionally and as quickly as possible. We cannot possibly “win” the war on poverty. Overpopulation and diminishing natural resources ensure an endless war.

The same, sadly, is true with regard to the so-called war on drugs. We talk incessantly about the dangers of drug usage and delude ourselves into thinking that we are actually participating in a fight toward eventual victory. But after decades of battling this scourge, we have little actual progress in which to take satisfaction. In spite of record drug seizures and high profile arrests, we really haven’t put a dent in U.S. demand and very little in the way of supply. When we do manage to temporarily reduce supply, we succeed mainly in driving up the price. Demand among U.S. addicts and “recreational” users being relatively inelastic, the principal effect is an increase in crimes committed by those so desperate for drugs that they will resort to any means to obtain them.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Victims of this war are the innocent bystanders caught up in the violence. I don’t include among the victims the addicts or other users. With few exceptions, no one forced them to experiment with addictive drugs. The real victims are those caught in the crossfire of rival drugs gangs battling over turf, those whose neighborhoods are trashed by drug-dealing gangs, those who are robbed, assaulted and burglarized by druggies committing crimes to feed their habits and U.S. taxpayers who foot the bill for this hugely-expensive faux war.

If we were really serious about winning this war, we would do more to control our porous southern border through which most of the drug traffic flows to service the insatiable U.S. demand. Mexico’s border regions have become the biggest and most violent battlegrounds with gang violence at an unprecedented level and corruption impeding the ability of local government and law enforcement to stop it. There is little reason to expect that it will not continue to spill over the border.

Meanwhile, we spend billions and devote scarce Coast Guard, Border Patrol and other federal resources to fighting this losing war. Reminiscent of the use of body counts and other statistics to measure success in the Vietnam Conflict, we celebrate yet another record seizure or arrest as evidence of progress. We are deluding ourselves.

Just as prohibition was finally acknowledged as a costly failure, driving up crime and violence while actually fueling demand, the war on drugs must be recognized as a failure. Criminalizing drugs has simply created more criminals as well as extensive career opportunities for suppliers and distributors on the one hand and the armies of law enforcement agents, investigators and bureaucrats to fight them on the other. And it has created a major mission for the Coast Guard and Border Patrol, draining resources that should be focused on controlling illegal immigration. It has also given an apparently under-worked U.S. Congress something else to do by investigating the use of performing enhancing drugs by professional athletes while real domestic problem go unresolved.

Decriminalizing drugs would, of course, devaluate the market for them, hopefully put some criminals out of work and divert scarce resources used in this futile effort to more productive use. As did the end of prohibition, it would probably lead to more drug usage. That’s a social issue that Americans must somehow learn to deal with. Harsh penalties need to be enforced, including seizure of vehicles, termination of employment and arrest for anyone endangering the public through drug-induced impairment just as in dealing with alcohol-induced impairment. As for the possibility of more addicts to deal with, I care less about them than I do the innocent victims of the drug wars.

Decriminalizing drugs is not an endorsement of drug use. It is, rather, overdue recognition of the fact that the war on drugs has caused, in aggregate, more harm than good and that a new approach is needed; one that demands that individuals be held strictly accountable for the consequences of their actions and behavior, whether or not under the influence of chemicals. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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