Le Québécois Libre, June 15, 2011, No 290.
In response to the release early this month of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which opens with the phrase “The global war on drugs has failed,” the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy quickly sent out a press release saying, in essence, “Nuh-uh!” The press release, however, was far too timid in its defence of the drug war, citing dubious claims of reductions in the demand for and supply of illegal narcotics. A more robust defence, which I have gone to the trouble of compiling below, shows beyond the shadow of a flashback that the war on drugs has been a smashing success.
Most measures of the success of the war on drugs mistakenly focus on its questionable benefits in reducing the harm caused by the consumption of illegal narcotics. Refocusing our lens a little, it is clear that the drug war is a huge boon to police forces, thanks to asset forfeiture laws.
In late 2009, Shukree Simmons was pulled over on a Georgia highway for a DWB (driving while black) after having just sold his old Chevy pickup truck for $3,700, which he received in cash. Although the police officers found no evidence of illegal activity, they nonetheless confiscated the money “on the suspicion that the funds were derived from illegal activity, pursuant to their authority under Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture law.” The illegal activity most commonly “suspected” by police is, of course, drug crime.
Unfortunately in this case, those meddling kids at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) interfered, and Simmons got his money back, and without having to shell out thousands of dollars in legal fees to prove that the money was not obtained illegally, either. But many other cases are more profitable. According to the ACLU, the state of Georgia seized over $38 million in 2003 alone thanks to asset forfeitures. That’s quite the haul! And although Georgia law only allows police to keep 1/3 of the proceeds from such seizures—which would be incentive enough—if they hand over the proceeds from “drug-related seizures” to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), they get fully 4/5 of it back in a process known as “equitable sharing.” Everybody wins!
Militarization of the Police
Another benefit of the drug war for local law enforcement is that it provides the perfect excuse for coppers to play soldier. If a potentially violent drug dealer is holed up in a house somewhere, police get to dress up in full SWAT gear, complete with Kevlar helmets and vests, and use awesome equipment ranging from sniper rifles to submachine guns, from night vision goggles to flash-bang grenades. They also get to break down the door and charge in unannounced in order to catch the possibly violent drug dealers by surprise. It’s not my kind of thrill, but you’ve got to imagine that for people who like that sort of thing, it’s quite a rush.
Of course, sometimes the occupant is just a small-time perp, and sometimes police get the wrong guy, but these mistakes should not be blown out of proportion. With 100 to 150 such raids each and every day in America, mistakes are gonna happen, and just like in any war, there’s bound to be some collateral damage. The real crime is that these videos get released to the public, tarnishing the images of our brave drug warriors.
State prisons in the United States house over 250,000 inmates for drug offenses, with another 100,000 or so held in federal prisons. These prisoners represent a huge boon to the economy in the form of job creation. It’s not just the hours clocked by police officers to arrest these drug fiends and by lawyers and judges to try them and convict them. It’s also all of those extra prisons that have to be built, and then have to be manned with guards, cooks, cleaning staff, and so on. What would all of those people do for work if we ended the drug war, as the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s Report suggests? The war on drugs is the mother of all stimulus programs, baby.
As an added bonus for white racists, people arrested and thrown in jail for drug crimes in the United States are overwhelmingly members of visible minorities. To take just one metric, black children are over seven times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison, in large part due to the uneven prosecution of the war on drugs. The country’s first black president has done little to change the status quo in this regard.
Finally, the drug war has been great for organized criminal gangs and terrorists, whose inflated profits from dealing in banned substances would evaporate if not for prohibition. It takes someone with a strong stomach to assume the risks associated with producing or selling illegal drugs. Enter the criminal or terrorist, willing to use violence to achieve his ends and seduced by the lure of strong demand and government-restricted supply. Simply put, outlaws have cashed in since drugs were outlawed.
If you think this is a bad thing, you're probably still focused on the whole harm-reduction angle. But by helping outlaws, the drug war indirectly helps society as a whole by ensuring that the paramilitary police fighting on America’s city streets, and the military soldiers fighting in the hills of Afghanistan, will never lack for work. The never-ending quest to stop people from seeking out altered states of consciousness—beyond what they can achieve with alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and the like—guarantees that the war will never be won. But that in itself is the ultimate victory for police, prison guards, soldiers, defence contractors, and military commanders, who fear nothing more than a world that realizes it doesn’t need them as much as they think it does.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.