A War of Attrition

Posted By Austin Cho , Apr 8, 2013

In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” effectively cemented an orthodoxy that has permeated most aspects of modern society.[1] What was once considered a matter of public health has become a militarized and profit-driven industry, formidable enough to shape the global environment in its own image. While originally expected to quickly and significantly reduce drug trafficking in the US, to this day the war surges on— enormous, bloated, and hungrier still. After 42 years, we are no closer to ending this war, despite the millions of lives and the trillions of dollars that have been lost on the front line.

The war on drugs has been waged on anyone who comes into contact with scheduled substances in any form. From coca farmers in Colombia and poppy growers in Afghanistan, to meth labs in New Mexico, recreational marijuana smokers in California, and everyone in between—the war is being fought on all fronts simultaneously. In 2010, about 200 million people used illegal drugs which, along with the estimated volume of drugs produced worldwide, has stayed relatively constant for years.[2] The cost of maintaining the war, however, has only increased. While the Nixon administration’s war called for $100 million a year, Federal Drug Control spending for 2012 under President Obama was over $25 billion.[3] 

Domestic drug prohibition is responsible for the incarceration of roughly 2.25 million Americans, which accounts to almost one-in-four of the world’s entire prison population.[4] Half of federal prisoners, and 1-in-5 state prisoners, are non-violent drug offenders, while more still are serving sentences for violent crimes related to the drug trade.[5] As mass incarceration becomes normalized, minorities and the poor are disproportionately affected, despite a comparable ratio of drug use and selling rates among all races.[6] 

The drug war transcends national borders, which makes its administration and application particularly difficult. It an attempt to compel Latin American countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Bolivia to crack down on drug cultivation, American drug policies have resulted in an escalation of drug-related violence and an increase in the going rates of banned substances.[7] The inherent flaw in a prohibitionist policy is that illegality of the trade only creates a greater black-market premium, which increases the incentive to get into the business and lines the coffers of the largest and most dangerous cartels and complicit financial institutions like HSBC— which was able to avoid federal prosecution this year with a $1.9 billion settlement.[8]

According to an exhaustive report by the U.N., the worldwide drug trade is estimated to be the third largest industry in the world behind oil and weapons, worth over $320 billion a year.[9] Yet, as evinced by a recent UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, advocates for global prohibition are seeking to expand. Yuri Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, believes prohibition is the only viable method to combat the dangers of drug use. “Alcohol, a legal drug, kills about 2.3 million people worldwide each year. Tobacco kills 5.1 million. With illegal drugs, on the other hand, the numbers are much lower, with 200,000 people a year falling victim to heroin, cocaine or crack.”[10] Fedotov views these statistics as evidence of prohibition’s success. Similarly, President Obama, who initially called for a change in the current draconian drug policy,[11] has continued to seek billions of dollars from Congress for international drug war programs that have thus far, proven unsuccessful.[12]

Though the paradigmatic trend of an ever-increasing prison-industrial complex and burgeoning fervor for universal prohibitionist policies are in full swing, public polling indicates that a vast majority of Americans (82%), believe the war on drugs is failing.[13] There are two liberalizing positions that have emerged in the drug debate: legalization and decriminalization. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voters decided to legalize recreational marijuana in defiance of federal laws that prohibit use even for medicinal purposes. Though it is unclear how the Obama administration will approach this conflict of laws, more states are introducing legislation and ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana. In any case, as marijuana becomes more readily available in the US, it becomes much more difficult for the government to rationalize the expenditures and the toll taken by the drug war in its efforts to keep drugs out.

Full legalization, however, is generally more extreme than most countries are willing to consider. The long-lived ban on illegal narcotics has shaped our collective morality for decades, and thus restricts the breadth of action many countries might feel comfortable taking. Still, many are moving toward change. In recent years, Latin American governments have started to contest the institutionalized drug war and decry its ineffectiveness. 12 years ago, facing one of the highest HIV rates in Europe, Portugal effectively decriminalized all drug use and began targeting intravenous users with therapy and clean needles rather than punishment.[14] While possession of drugs is still technically illegal, it is generally treated more like a parking infraction and criminal proceedings are only initiated in instances where the drug user has more than a 10-day supply. After over a decade, the results indicate that this strategy may be working, as the number of documented “hard” drug users has fallen by half and new instances of HIV have fallen significantly.[15]

While alternative approaches to prohibition are still new and experimental, relative to the dominant policy, it is important to note that the world largely recognizes that the “War on Drugs” is a war of attrition. Those countries most ravaged by the armed violence associated with the drug trade are beginning to reconsider the harsh global prohibitionist policies implemented at the behest of the United States. This will allow for a more expansive and constructive dialog to form that will, in turn, facilitate greater experimentation in alternative approaches. In a press conference before the 2013 United Nations Development Report, Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Program, commented, “To deal with drugs as a one-dimensional, law-and-order issue is to miss the point.”[16] Indeed, the point seems to be that the first step to winning this war is to stop treating it like one.



[1] Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy, Have We Lost the War on Drugs?, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324374004578217682305605070.html.

[2] Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno, Our Right to Poison: Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs, Spiegel Online, Feb. 22, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/global-support-grows-for-legalizing-drugs-a-884750.html.

[3] "FY 2013 Budget and Performance Summary," Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, April 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/fy2013_drug_control_budget_and_performance_sumary.pdf

[4] David Case, America’s Drug War of Attrition, Salon, Mar. 14, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/03/14/americas_drug_war_of_attrition_partner/

[5] Id.

[6] Leonard Birdsong, The War on Drug is Already Lost, Drug Decrminalization and Felony Disenfranchisement: The New Civil Rights Causes, Summer 2001, http://academic.udayton.edu/health/01status/drugs02.htm

[7] Bill Weinberg, Plan Colombia: Exporting the Model, North American Congress on Latin America, 2009, https://nacla.org/weinberg_colombia.

[8] Aruna Viswanatha and Brett Wolf, HSBC to Pay $1.9 Billion U.S. Fine in Money-Laundering Case, Reuters, Dec. 11, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/11/us-hsbc-probe-idUSBRE8BA05M20121211

[9] Michael Shields, U.N. Drug Czar Seeks Help to Stem Narcotics Flow, Reuters, Mar. 21, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/global-support-grows-for-legalizing-drugs-a-884750-4.html.

[10] Supra 2

[11] Natalia Cote-Munoz, Obama’s Drug Policy: Yet Another Broken Promise, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2011, http://www.coha.org/obamas-drug-policy-yet-another-broken-promise.

[12] Supra 3

[13] 7% Think U.S. Is Winning War on Drugs, Rasmussen Reports, Nov. 13, 2012, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/november_2012/7_think_u_s_is_winning_war_on_drugs.

[14] Wiebke Hollerson, ‘This Is Working’: Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs, Spiegel Online, Mar. 27, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/evaluating-drug-decriminalization-in-portugal-12-years-later-a-891060-2.html.

[15] Id.

[16] Gabriel Stargardter, U.N. Development Chief Flags Failings of “War on Drugs”, Reuters, Mar. 14, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/15/us-un-drugs-idUSBRE92E01W20130315.