Columns / Discourse / October 19, 2011

Voice of Reason: Back to the war on drugs

Those of you who read this column consistently might remember that I promised you the second part of my War on Drugs column two weeks ago, but then I went and wrote about Occupy Wall Street instead. To rectify my broken promise I return back to the topic this week, switching from the demand-side focus to the supply-side.

If one wants to go about affecting the drug supply, one has two real options. The drugs can either be intercepted in the United States, either at the border or inside the country, or they can be destroyed while they are growing outside our borders. Let’s look at these two options.

As anyone who knows anything about immigration policy knows, sealing down a border is devilishly hard work, and that goes doubly true for sealing it for drugs. They, after all, can be hidden in all sorts of places that people can’t go.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that for drug interdiction policies to seriously make a dent in supply about 75 percent of the drugs going into a nation must be stopped. U.N. member nations are currently getting at best 40 percent, a number that is likely inflated, as all numbers are self-reported, showing that interdiction is failing on a worldwide scale.

As impressive as it looks when authorities make a big bust, for every pack of cocaine you see on camera, there are far more that you will never see. These numbers show that they are nowhere near seriously affecting the supply. Interceptions are nothing more than an overhead cost for cartels. They are not a serious threat to revenue.

If you think it is even realistic to keep drugs out of the U.S., consider how badly penetrated our prisons are with drugs. If a prison cannot be hermetically sealed from drugs, what hope does the country have as a whole?

The other option would be to take out the drugs at the source. To this end, the United States has been intensely spraying coca fields (the plant that is refined to make cocaine) in Columbia for over a decade, but U.N. statistics show output rising by a staggering 27 percent in a single year. As former Columbian president César Gaviria said in an interview with the BCC, “We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

Not only is this spraying program ineffective, to say nothing of the environmental catastrophe inherent in spraying the rainforest with massive quantities of herbicide, a RAND corporation study found that to drop American cocaine usage by one percent would require either $782 million in increased coca spraying in Columbia, or one twenty-third of that in increased spending on treatment according to Tom Feiling’s “Cocaine Nation.” But where are the dollars currently being spent?

So if supply-side policies are as ineffective as those from the demand side, what is left for us to do? The only thing we can: admit defeat. America in the 1930s was able to be mature about Prohibition and realize it had done nothing more than create revenue for organized crime. The status quo is an abject failure and it is high time we seriously discussed legalization as a remedy.

Most of us are familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer (“Lord, grant me the strength to change those things I can, the serenity to accept those I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”) We would be in a much better place as a society if we could start to take that advice.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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