Have We Lost The War on Drugs?

Courtesy of BBC News Online/Reuters

A ‘peace caravan’ that has been winding through Mexico cross over the border last week to attend a rally in El Paso, Texas to criticise the United States’ Drug Policy and its effect on Central America.

The USA’s ‘War on Drugs’ has a long history, its first use was by President Nixon in 1971 as a hardline reaction to a report on Vietnam War which suggested that 10-15% of troops were addicted to heroin. It has undergone many different guises through harsh punishment of convicted drug users to the patronising ‘Just Say No’ campaign launched by Nancy Reagan in the late eighties and early nineties. However, the current ‘Merida Initiative’ launched in 2007 and led by the US along with Mexico, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic is fiercely condemned by critics as it has led to an exponential rise in the level of violent crime and instability across Central America.

The aim of the $400m scheme is to eradicate the illegal smuggling of drugs such as cannabis and cocaine through Mexico with the agreement and support of Mexican President, Felipe Calderón. So far it seems however, all the scheme has done is push the trade southward into the harder to govern countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as well as cost the lives of thousands of people (an estimated 35,000 have died since Calderón deployed the army to the streets in 2006).

The caravan, led by poet Javier Sicilia whose grandson was killed in the violence, crisscrossed Mexico in a 1550 mile journey with a retinue of 20 coaches arriving at the border city of Ciudad Juarez, which has become the frontline of the drugs war with 3100 deaths alone in 2010, on Friday 10th June before crossing the border into Texas on Saturday.

At the rally in El Paso, Mr Sicilia claimed that the US government had ‘a grave responsibility for failing to tackle the drugs crisis’ and partially blamed American drug takers.

Stephen Muller's Graph Comparing The Death Rate in the Iraq War to the Drugs War

He said ‘Americans have to realise that behind every puff of pot, every line of coke, there is death, there are shattered families’.

This month, a UN Global Commission on Drugs Policy published a report declaring that the ‘The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.’

The War on Drugs is designed as a relentless battering of the drugs cartels that operate across Mexico and its southern neighbours. In some ways it has been successful as it drove the drug smugglers out of Florida and the Caribbean ten or so years ago but instead of eradicating them completely, they have simply moved base to Mexico.

The Commission called for a more complex drugs policy based on education, prevention and understanding instead of the current battering ram approach. The USA’s policy on tackling drug abuse within their borders is no more sophisticated than an IT technician whose idea of fixing a computer is repeatedly kicking the hardrive.

Parallels between the current drug prohibition policies and the 18th Amendment passed against alcohol in 1919 have not gone unnoticed by the world’s media. The Act was inspired by the efforts of the Temperance Movements that sprang up at the end of the nineteenth century to cure what they thought was a moral depravity throughout America. However despite widespread seizures of liquor and an initial decline in the level of alcohol consumption, by 1929 there were more ‘speakeasies’ than there had been saloons in 1918. In New York City alone, they had between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasies by 1925. It also led to an almost uncontrollable rise in gang control, particularly in Chicago. Breweries in Mexico and Canada and the other border countries flourished as gang leaders like Al Capone controlled thousands of speakeasies and a bootleg operation from Canada to Florida.

This is why their current approach will never work. It’s a guerrilla war that cannot be won by bloodletting. Similarly the ‘Just Say No’ campaign would never work either. True, the figures of teenagers taking soft drugs did fall but was this due to greater education rather than teenagers suddenly blindly following what the First Lady says. You cannot tell a person what to do, especially with something that is fundamentally their choice, without explaining why they should do it.

The answer to solving the drugs crisis coming from solving the problems within America rather than hammering the supply routes on its borders. Instead of exacerbating the problems of other countries it should face up to its own. There has been a lot of argument about legalising the use of drugs in America and whether this would lead to more or less dependency. An argument for legalisation of ‘softer drugs’ would be the downgrading of Cannabis from a class B to a class C drug in Britain in 2004 led to a fall in consumption despite the reclassification in 2009. On the other hand, against it is the legalisation of personal drug use in Portugal which has no led to any decline in consumption.

However, this is perhaps because the legislation does not go far enough; economists like Milton Friedman, George Akerlof and Vernon L.Smith suggest that the supply of marijuana without reducing the demand causes the price, and hence the profits of marijuana. Therefore it does nothing to stem the flow of narcotics across the border. Legalising the drugs trade is a controversial one even amongst the most liberal groups in America and it is not going to solve the problems of drug dependency over night but it should alleviate the suffering of Central America which doesn’t deserve to take all the backlash of American domestic policy.

Furthermore, Jeffrey A. Miron estimated in a 2008 study that legalising drugs would inject $76.8 billion in America’s indebted economy; $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings and $32.7 billion in tax revenue. Now these figures do seem a little generous but it is worth noting the bankrupt California’s illegal marijuana trade generates $1 billion a year.

Maybe, its time America admitted defeat. It cannot control the domestic habits of its citizens so instead of laying down the harsh hand of the law they should educate and inform their citizens to take better care of themselves.