Fight the War on Drugs By Suppressing Demand
Every year we jail more people - and drug use increases
A piece of ancient folk wisdom says, "If you're in a hole, stop digging." The United States war on drugs is a classic example of ignoring that sound advice.
In the first place, every year we spend more money, hire more agents, seize more drugs, throw more people in jail - and see drug use increase. And every year the people in charge of the war on drugs urge us to intensify our efforts - in other words, to keep digging the hole deeper.
In the second place, the corollary effects are worse than the drug abuse the war is designed to prevent.
The most important of these effects is the pervasively malign influence of the money that is generated by making the drug trade illegal.
This is what has spawned the street violence that is tearing the social fabric of so many American cities and leaving so many people (mainly young black men) dead.
This is what is corrupting the politics of Colombia and Mexico. The tide is spreading across the US-Mexican border to infect United States law enforcement officers.
Through campaign contributions, drug money destroyed the president of Colombia and we do not know how many other Colombian politicians. So far as we know, drug money has not reached into Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, but for months Mexicans have been buffeted by almost daily scandals of drug money in other places.
Given the fact that drug lords have had almost as much experience as the CIA in laundering money and concealing paper trails, it would not be surprising if some of their money turned up as bipartisan political contributions in Washington.
In the face of these baleful side effects, antidrug crusaders in Congress, including some who ought to know better, become more, not less, insistent on making drugs the litmus test of United States Latin American policy, especially with Mexico.
This ignores the extraordinary historical sensitivity of Mexicans to any hint of United States interference. Attempts to coerce Mexico are not only doomed to failure but guaranteed to be counterproductive.
The first step in getting out of a hole is to analyze why we started digging to begin with. In the case of the war on drugs, it was because drugs are bad. They destroy individuals and families and lead to crime and other social evils. We can deal with drugs by suppressing supply or demand or both.
We have tried to do both, but the major emphasis of drug policy has been on interdicting supplies, and this has been its spectacular failure. It has also been the source of the policy's counterproductive mischief through generating the oceans of cash that pay for such widespread corruption. We would be much better off if we concentrated on suppressing demand.
There are several helpful precedents for dealing with the current problem.
In 1919 the United States banned "intoxicating liquors." This was in response to a prolonged campaign against the undeniable social evils linked to alcohol. What happened was the growth of other social evils represented by the rise of gangsterism as a forerunner of the Mafia. For every speak-easy broken up by federal alcohol agents, two more seemed to arise, while alcoholism continued unabated. In 1933 the United States abandoned Prohibition as a national policy (though it remained in some states and local jurisdictions) and instituted a system of regulation that on the whole has worked well. We still have alcoholism, but we do not have the pernicious side effects we had under Prohibition.
Our experience in Vietnam offers another useful lesson. Voices urging intensified efforts in the war on drugs are eerily reminiscent of what we were hearing from the White House about Vietnam 30 years ago. If we sent more troops and dropped more bombs, the strategists of the Vietnam disaster told us, victory would assuredly be ours. Instead, things only got worse.
Congress at last pulled the plug, and today we have normal diplomatic relations and the beginning of commerce with Vietnam.
Finally, there is the example of nicotine. This is surely as addictive, and over the long term as destructive, as the main targets of the drug war. Nobody has suggested that cigarettes be made illegal. Instead, the government has mounted a vigorous propaganda campaign, which has resulted in a marked decline in smoking.
The most telling commentary on the war on drugs is not that it has failed to control drugs but that it has created so many related social problems. These will endure even when and if the drug policy is changed. They are a high price to pay for pigheadedness.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.