The Indefensible War on Drugs

In his latest post, James Roberts once again has an opportunity to defend the four-decade track record of the war on drugs. Once again, he neglects or declines to do so. Instead, he presents yet another installment in his entirely speculative case that ending prohibition would be a policy disaster. Presumably, he means that it would be a disaster in marked contrast to the impressive success of our current policy.

His failure or refusal to defend the performance record of the war on drugs leads to the suspicion that he is unable to present a credible defense. I sympathize with his plight, because he is being challenged to defend an indefensible policy.

The drug war has been a debacle both domestically and internationally. In the United States, it has overwhelmed our prisons (indeed, the entire criminal justice system) caused many urban neighborhoods to become combat zones, and eviscerated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the drug-source countries of South America, it has created a bonanza of corruption and helped bring to power such populist demagogues as Bolivia’s Evo Morales. In Afghanistan, the counter-narcotics mission has alienated tens of thousands of Afghan opium farmers and, even worse, tribal leaders and other important political players — key U.S. allies who rely on the drug trade to fund their power bases. The war on drugs there, in short, has undermined our far more crucial mission to defeat al Qaeda.

And Washington’s war on drugs has plunged our neighbor Mexico into agony. The soaring violence and corruption in that country now poses a threat to the stability and integrity of the Mexican state — and increasingly creates a troubling security problem for the United States as well.

The harsh reality that Mr. Roberts and other drug warriors refuse to face is that prohibition is a godsend to the criminal syndicates that now dominate the drug trade. Invoking the specter of horrible outcomes if legalization were adopted fails on two counts. First, the United States had a legalized regime regarding drugs before the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 (one of the many authoritarian “achievements” of the Progressive Era). While that system was not without its flaws, American society did not descend into the abyss.

Second, and more important, proponents of legalization do not have to create ethereal specters about the tragic consequences of drug prohibition. The horrors of that policy are all too real and indisputable.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs — and for prohibition — are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Response Essays

  • Stephanie Hanson suggests that decriminalizing drugs, and possibly legalizing marijuana, is a promising strategy for reducing drug-related violence. Yet she acknowledges that coordination problems exist between the United States and Mexico on this issue, and she suggests that a second-best option may be to enforce stricter controls on guns leaving the United States and heading to Mexico.

  • James Roberts faults Prof. Castañeda for taking the easy way out: Drug legalization might not be much work for the elites, but it will ruin lives and degrade regional democracies. It won’t stop violence and may even increase it. The United States and Mexico should work together to fight Mexican drug cartels because the survival of the Mexican state is at stake, along with American lives and American morals. Mexico in particular needs to step forward, reform its corrupt government and enforcement agencies, and get its own house in order, rather than seeking U.S.-based solutions.

  • Ted Galen Carpenter commends Jorge Castañeda for recognizing the nature of the problem that besets his country, but he suggests a more radical solution: As long as U.S. prohibition remains in place, he writes, violent criminals will dominate the trade in narcotics. Only ending prohibition can solve the international problems of the drug trade. Militarization of enforcement simply escalates the violence and corruption, because the cartels have enough money to bribe and/or fight their way through any escalation we’d be prepared to mount.