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November 30, 2008 -- Minnesota Daily (MN)

Column: Losing The War

By Johnathan Sharkey

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


This Friday, we celebrate the anniversary of one of the finest days in the history of our republic: the end of Prohibition. Seventy-five years ago, with the passage of the 21st Amendment, we put a stop to a failed experiment in making a substance go away by banning it. So raise a glass to that when you're out this weekend.

But another even more destructive Prohibition continues to this day. Our unfortunately-named war on drugs persists, filling our prisons and emptying our coffers to little if any positive effect. It's time to re-evaluate how we deal with the narcotics trade, focusing on strategies that actually work -- not just ones that make us look tough.

Simply banning something isn't enough to make it go away. A stroll through the Superblock on a weekend (or, for that matter, weekday) evening is enough to show how effective our ban on underage drinking is. Freshmen just get their Natty Ice from a business-minded elder, probably paying a hefty finder's fee in the process. Prohibition brought about the same responses: speakeasies, bootlegging and a rise in organized crime. One way or another, people were going to get their hands on some sweet moonshine.

Our modern war on drugs has been just as big a failure -- we just haven't admitted it yet. And, of course, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Just before Thanksgiving, a group called the Partnership for the Americas Commission released a new report on Western Hemisphere relations. Members of the commission include former presidents of Bolivia and Chile, the former prime minister of Peru, various U.S. diplomats and scholars, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. The report itself blasts U.S. drug policy, with an entire section devoted to "the failed war on drugs." Speaking to the press in concert with the report's release, Zedillo has been even blunter. Our short-sighted focus on simply arresting more people and locking them up for longer doesn't address the underlying issues, and if we continue down our current path, says Zedillo, "the problem will never be resolved."

Our main strategy throughout the last few decades has been to destroy crops (cutting down on production) and trying to keep shipments out of the country (cutting down on the supply that reaches the streets). Neither tactic has succeeded. Whenever we burn down one field, a new one pops up in another region or country. Drug cartels have proven able to adapt to each new law enforcement strategy put in place, still managing to get billions of dollars worth of drugs into the U.S.

Our failures affect not just our countries, but also the rest of the region. The commission's report chronicles the massive arms trade over the U.S./Mexico border (with 2,000 new guns into Mexico each day) and the violent cost of those firearms: 4,000 dead in Mexico in 2008, in what the report calls "open war" between the cartels and the government. We're often concerned about the drug-related violence in our own streets, but as of now, we don't seem to much care about what's going on south of the border.

Our policies haven't made many real dents in the levels of consumption or the price of illegal drugs in the United States. We have about as many cocaine and heroin users today as we did during the Reagan administration, and meth use has jumped dramatically, according to the report. At the same time, the report states that drug prices continue to fall, showing how ineffectual our efforts to limit supply have been. The cost of cocaine has been cut in half since 1990 -- without even accounting for inflation.

We need to shift focus from the supply of illicit drugs to the demand for them. Instead of throwing offenders of our draconian drug laws behind bars and kicking off a vicious cycle of release-and-arrest, we need to focus on breaking addiction. The Partnership report points to the success of separate drug courts that focus on supervision and treatment, but these programs currently can't handle even half of those eligible. We also need to work with the drug-producing countries to develop alternate forms of employment; in many areas, the drug trade is the only reliable industry. And, while the report does not mention it specifically, we need to dramatically reduce the hard, mandatory prison sentences we currently hand out to nonviolent drug offenders.

None of this is possible, though, without some serious political will. No one currently holding a political post took part in the commission's study -- Zedillo left office in 2000 -- and with good reason. As it stands now, any actions other than harsher penalties and more money to eradicate supply are attacked as being "soft on crime." That's a dangerous but widespread attitude. It affects policy from our relations with Cuba (where we cling to a failed policy of isolation) to the drug problem (where we throw money and lives away to no effect). Indeed, we ignore sensibility so that politicians can look tough to voters. Nobody wants to be the one who lowers prison sentences.

We've got to break that cycle now by working on policies that actually produce positive effects. I realize that's a novel idea; we've been clinging to our war on drugs for decades, like we're fighting some grand struggle for the forces of good. Thinking of it as a war is a big part of our problem. This isn't a problem we can burn or bomb our way out of. Instead, we have to take a hard look at how we're spending our resources and put them to better use. Better that than emulating an experiment that we ended during the Roosevelt administration.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at

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