We say Afghanistan is America’s longest war, but it’s not. That would be the war on drugs, a magisterial mashup of idiocy and malevolence.
As it happens, 2021 is the 50th anniversary of the war, declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
On the demand side of the war, drugs had already won, of course.
The vast majority of people use some form of drug to alter consciousness, including caffeine, alcohol, antidepressants, anxiolytics and myriad illegal substances, both plant-based and synthetic.
Dr. Ronald K. Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at UCLA, posited that the drive to alter consciousness via drugs is the “fourth drive,” after those for food, sleep and sex. Anthropology seems to agree — evidence suggests that humans have used drugs for at least 30,000 years, probably more.
Global drug consumption has increased year after year. The idea that we’re going to change what is clearly a fundamental impulse is farcical.
On the supply side, they’d already won, too. We learned nothing from Prohibition.
A 175-page study from the RAND Corporation, published in 1988 and funded by the Department of Defense, concluded that military interdiction would have almost zero effect on drug supply. The study also noted that seven prior studies in the previous nine years had reached similar conclusions.
Another RAND study, from the Clinton years, concluded that $3 billion should be diverted from federal and local law enforcement to drug abuse treatment, since treatment was estimated to be 23 times more effective than waging war on the supply side.
Waging war on the demand for drugs is impossible, and war on the supply side has had virtually no effect. Indeed, reducing supply without changing demand simply boosts drug dealers’ profits, as 300 economists, including several Nobel laureates, noted in a 2012 open letter.
One might wonder, then, what are the casualties of this war? Not what, but who.
The war on drugs is a failure, but America has done quite well waging war on the poor, the uneducated and Black and brown communities.
John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s counsel and assistant to the president on domestic affairs (who was later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in the Watergate scandal), told Harper’s in a 1994 interview:
“[T]he Nixon White House ... had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. ... We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This approach pervaded, and bore rotten fruit. Today, one out of every five people incarcerated is locked up for a drug offense. Indeed, 450,000 people are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses at any given time (in fact, according to FBI data, only 5% of all arrests in the United States are for serious, violent offenses).
As the ACLU notes, although whites outnumber Blacks five to one, and both groups use and sell drugs at very similar rates, Blacks comprise 35% of drug possession arrestees, 55% of possession convicts and 74% of those imprisoned for possession.
An April 2020 report from the ACLU states that, despite whites using cannabis at a slightly higher lifetime rate, Blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. This disparity was found in every state, including West Virginia, where police arrest nearly eight times more Black than white residents for cannabis possession — in a state where Blacks make up 3.7% of the population, as of 2019.
And don’t forget, we pay for this, literally and figuratively. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that we’ve now spent $1 trillion on this 50-year war.
We do this while promoting and, in fact, venerating alcohol. Hell, this newspaper has no less than two regular columns devoted to alcohol consumption, and we regularly cover, with great fanfare, the opening of businesses centered around this drug that is deadly in quantity, carcinogenic even in small amounts, damages the brain and nearly every other major bodily organ, and is highly addictive.
Alcohol is now believed to be as destructive as any illegal drug, per the landmark 2010 study “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis.” Other data suggest alcohol is responsible for vastly more violence than any other drug. As noted in the 2020 U.N. World Drug Report, “On the basis of data from 17 countries, it is estimated that 37% of homicide perpetrators were under the influence of a psychoactive substance when committing the homicide, and the vast majority [90%] tended to be under the influence of alcohol.” (italics added)
One trillion dollars over 50 years. It comes out to $20 billion a year. And a huge chunk of that is spent still waging war on a relatively safe (far safer than alcohol, at least) plant that 60% of Americans now believe should be legal for both medical and recreational use.
According to Pew Research, as recently as 2018, four in 10 drug arrests were for cannabis. Of those, 92% were for simple possession. According to an ACLU report, “In 2018 alone, there were an estimated 692,965 marijuana arrests — the vast majority of which (89.6%) were for possession.” This is despite the fact that cannabis is legal for recreational use in 18 states; decriminalized in 13 states; and legal for medical use in 36 states.
None of this is to say that the war on “hard drugs” has been any more successful. Just the opposite.
If the drug war is such a success, ask yourself why overdose rates — for everything from synthetic opioids to heroin to meth to cocaine — have risen dramatically over the past 20 years.
Or why, despite the global quantity of cocaine seized in 2019 being a record high of 1,436 tons, prices in the United States have fallen from around $750 a gram in 1981 to about $120 a gram today (an 84% drop). In much of Europe, prices are about half that, and yet, the purity has increased by 40% over the past decade.
Or why the United States is one of the highest-ranking countries in both absolute and per-capita drug consumption, and has, by far, the world’s highest per-capita incarceration rate.
Or why, each year since the United States first invaded Afghanistan, both production and value of opium poppies have increased, or why the total global percentage of land devoted to opium production has increased over the past 20 years.
Or why, over the past 10 years, the global population increased by 10%, yet the number of drug users increased by 22%, as noted in the 2021 U.N. World Drug Report.
No matter; our valiant drug warriors march on.
It is, in a word, insanity — doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.
It all brings to mind a scene from “The Wire.” Early in the series, Baltimore police narcotics detectives Herc and Carver are discussing their recent arrest of a low-level dealer.
“You can’t even call this s--t a war,” Carver says.
“Why not?” Herc asks.