January 24, 2010

Whatever happened to the War on Drugs?

Can you believe that the War on Drugs has been raging for more than 40 years, ever since President Richard M. Nixon launched it way back in 1969? Talk about a war without end! And talk about casualties -- a massive prison industry that shoulders at least some of the blame for the current economic crisis here, where 46 out of 50 U.S. states are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Now, says Hugh O'Shaughnessy in an insightful article in the Independent of UK, the War on Drugs is quietly "being buried in the same fashion as it was born -- amid bloodshed, confusion, corruption and scandal."

The article, entitled, US waves white flag in disastrous 'war on drugs,' focuses on the disastrous consequences to Latin America of this long-running and unwinnable war, but it also points out the war's devastating economic impacts and suggests some positive uses for the billions of dollars currently being wasted on fruitless drug control efforts.
... US agents are being pulled from South America; Washington is putting its narcotics policy under review, and a newly confident region is no longer prepared to swallow its fatal Prohibition error. Indeed, after the expenditure of billions of dollars and the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people, a suitable epitaph for America's longest "war" may well be the plan, in Bolivia, for every family to be given the right to grow coca in its own backyard….

Prospects in the new decade are thus opening up for vast amounts of useless government expenditure being reassigned to the treatment of addicts instead of their capture and imprisonment. And, no less important, the ever-expanding balloon of corruption that the "war" has brought to heads of government, armies and police forces wherever it has been waged may slowly start to deflate.

Prepare to shed a tear over the loss of revenue that eventual decriminalisation of narcotics could bring to the traffickers, large and small, and to the contractors who have been making good money building and running the new prisons that help to bankrupt governments -- in the US in particular, where drug offenders – principally small retailers and seldom the rich and important wholesalers -- have helped to push the prison population to 1,600,000.….

Part of the reason for the slow US retreat from the "war" is that the strategy of fighting it in foreign lands and not at home has proved valueless. Along the already sensitive frontier with Mexico the effect of US attempts to enforce a hard line by blasting drug dealers away has been bloody.... In the areas of Mexico closest to the US frontier the toll of deaths in drug-related violence exceeded 7,000 people in 2009.... This takes the death toll over three years to above 16,000, figures far in excess of US fatalities in Afghanistan.….

As far back as last May, Gil Kerlikowske, the former police chief of Seattle who was named head of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy and thus boss of the campaign, announced he would not be using the term "war on drugs" any more. A few weeks earlier, former Latin American presidents of the centre and right … had told the new US President that the "war" had failed and appealed for greater emphasis on cutting drug consumption and the decriminalisation of cannabis.

For the lives and sanity of millions, the seeing of the light is decidedly late. The conditions of the 1920s, when the US Congress outlawed alcohol and allowed Al Capone and his kin to make massive fortunes, have been re-created up and down Latin America….

This year should be the year that common sense vanquishes the mailed fist in an unwinnable war against an invisible enemy.
Now, my main question is, Why am I reading about this in a British newspaper? Why isn't it front-page news here at home?

The entire Independent article, well worth reading, is online HERE. A 2008 Independent article, "Mexico’s war on drugs: Journey into a lawless land," is also online, excerpted from Richard Grant's book, Bandit Roads.

Photo credit: The Independent (2008)