In a recent statement, Antonio Maria Costa the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drug Control, announced that they are winning the War on Drugs which we’ve been fighting for 100 years, saying:
“Compared to a century ago, drug demand and supply have been brought under control…adherence to the international drug control regime [based on three UN treaties] is universal…This achievement has been a century in the making. Let’s not unravel it by loosening controls on drug use.”
I’m sure this news is comforting to the dozens of people executed in China every year in celebration of Anti-Drug Day, or the 2 million people imprisoned world-wide for drug related crimes, or the 6000 people to die in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. I bet they’d be dancing in the streets about this glorious victory — if they weren’t dead or imprisoned, of course.
“The international war on drugs began in 1909 with a multi-nation treaty against the opium trade. The United States joined in with its first drug ban in 1914. Since that time more and more drugs have been interdicted and the violence which plagued the opium trade in China has spread to every corner of the world. The UN Office on Drug Control’s efforts to promote worldwide prohibition have resulted in a small reduction in drug use at the cost of a massive increase in drug related violence and human rights abuses. In the process the profitability of the drug trade has increased, funding private armies, violent gangs, criminal warlords and terrorism. And with all of this, even the most dangerous and addictive drugs are still easily available on the streets of any city in the world.
If you put aside the human cost, the monetary cost of the War on Drugs is staggering by itself. 21% of all state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners in the United States are in jail on drug charges. That’s over 600,000 prisoners taking up space which could be occupied by violent criminals and sex offenders who are too often released early because of prison overcrowding. The total cost just to house these drug prisoners is more than $20 billion a year when most could be dealt with more effectively and more humanely through treatment programs and halfway houses at a fraction of the cost.
The estimated cost of the War on Drugs within the United States was $69 billion in 2008 alone. In 2009 the average cost of a legal pack of cigarettes will be close to $6, with more than half of that cost made up of state and federal taxes. If we legalized and taxed the most popular drugs like marijuana and heroin at a similar rate, we could raise as much as $100 billion in additional revenue every year. That, plus the $20 billion a year saved by taking drug prisoners our of our jails could pay for out patient rehabilitation treatment for every arrested drug user in America for a year, with over $100 billion left to spend on other projects.
President Obama has made some small steps towards a more rational drug policy. He has promised not to oppose medical marijuana laws or continue federal raids on marijuana users and state sanctioned distributors. Many states are now considering legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes or decriminalizing marijuana possession. But this is still all just a very hesitant beginning when we need a complete and nationwide end to drug prohibition. Obama’s small positive steps are offset by his appointment of an Attorney General and a Drug Czar who have both been enthusiastic participants in the Drug War in the past.
As the UN celebrates 100 years of a covert war which has had dark and devastating results, a much more serious drug war is taking place in the border regions of Mexico where drug cartels fueled by the high risk and high profit character of the illicit drug trade are freely murdering each other, law enforcement officials and innocent civilians in struggles for power and riches, all of which are created by the illegal nature of the drug trade. It’s Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s all over again, but the gangs are Mexican and Colombian ans Salvadoran instead of Italian and Irish. As in the 1920s, prohibition increases profit and forces the drug business underground where it cannot be regulated or controlled effectively by the government. When the entire business is illegal then all bets are off. If you’re a criminal just for transporting and selling the drugs, what difference does it make if you kill your competitors and anyone else who gets in your way?
Drug related crime and violence are at their highest level ever, even though the overall consumption of drugs worldwide and in the US is down. A shrinking market means more competition and in an illegal business that means more crime. It’s clearer than ever that the drug war is not working and has not been working for 100 years. One definition of madness is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. For 100 years the result of of the drug war has been violence, misery and death. Isn’t 100 years of madness enough?