Why America Can’t Quit the Drug War
Watch “The War on Drugs: By the Numbers.”
The blinkered drug-warrior culture in the ranks of the departments of Justice, State and Defense remains similarly entrenched. The acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration calls medical marijuana “a joke.” The State Department’s top drug official insists, “Our objective remains … eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States.” With pot, such knee-jerk commitment to prohibition might be amusing. With harder drugs, it has deadly ramifications. At home, the administration’s early crackdown on prescription opioids helped drive the current spike in heroin deaths. South of the border, cartel violence rages unabated, despite the recapture of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord; the country’s homicide rate in February spiked to 55 murders a day.
The futility of the greater Drug War was laid bare in recent Senate testimony by top admirals charged with combating global narcotraffic. They confessed they had no solution to halt the flow of heroin from Mexico; admitted global drug suppliers would invariably service U.S. demand; and pressed the government to steel itself for a 30-year nation-building effort in drug-ravaged Mexico and Central America.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), the senior member of the Armed Services Committee, sought to put a rosy spin on proceedings. “At least we got El Chapo,” he said. “So that was a step in the right direction.”
Forty-five years on, America is still grappling with the dark origins of the Drug War, launched in 1971 by President Richard Nixon – for political purposes.
Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, in an interview published posthumously in Harper’s this year, revealed the true aim of the Drug War was to criminalize the administration’s “two enemies: the anti-war left and black people.” As Ehrlichman explained, “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Nixon himself wove anti-Semitism into the mix. “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon groused to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, in a conversation recorded in the Oval Office in May 1971. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?” Nixon asked. “By God, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss.”
More than $1 trillion later, Nixon’s war has hollowed out urban black communities, visited death upon downtrodden whites in rural America and unleashed horrific violence from Bogotá to Ciudad Juarez. In Mexico, since 2007, as many as 80,000 civilians have been murdered in drug violence. Despite the carnage, prohibitionist policies enforced through military interdiction and domestic incarceration have done little to curb the American drug habit – which fuels $64 billion a year in cartel profits, according to an estimate by the Treasury Department.
America remains the world’s top consumer of illicit drugs. The government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2015 found nearly one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 had used an illicit drug in the previous month. The surge in Drug War spending notwithstanding, American drug use is up modestly – the highest since 2002.
By the government’s own metrics, the Drug War is failing. In December, the Government Accountability Office published a report titled “Office of National Drug Control Policy: Lack of Progress on Achieving National Strategy Goals.” GAO found that “none of the goals” of the Obama drug strategy have been met, and significant progress can be seen only in a slight reduction in drug use among teens.