Drug War’s March of Folly

Exclusive: Four decades ago, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” setting in motion one of the most destructive exercises in prohibition in American history. Legal rights of citizens were trampled, countless billions of dollars were expended, violence spread and the prisons filled, but little progress was made. And, Richard L. Fricker notes that the destructive folly continues.

By Richard L. Fricker

June 22, 2011

When U.S. presidents label some national challenge a “war,” watch out. It rarely ends well and that’s not just for military conflicts like the wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. It goes for the decade-long “war on terror” and the four-decade-long “war on drugs.”

That’s partly because once the word “war” is attached, many Americans expect “victory” and any flagging of support is deemed “weak” or “defeatist” or even “disloyal.”

So, in Campaign 2004, when Sen. John Kerry said the U.S. should try to reduce terrorism to a “nuisance” that law enforcement could handle rather than wage “war” to eradicate a tactic used throughout human history his reasonable comment was seized upon as a “gaffe” that highlighted his supposed lack of manhood, compared to tough-guy George W. Bush.

Similarly, most politicians have been afraid to question the “war on drugs” that was declared by President Richard Nixon 40 years ago on June 17, 1971. There had been anti-drug laws before that, but Nixon chose to cast the struggle not as a social problem to be managed but as a “war” to be fought and won, for a “drug-free America.”

Ever since, politicians have been afraid to challenge the preposterous premise of the “war on drugs” that “zero tolerance” and aggressive law enforcement can eliminate illegal drug use. To express doubt opened them to 30-second attack ads as “soft on drugs.”

It was far easier, politically, to adopt the posture of doing everything possible to protect America’s children from predatory drug dealers. This attitude has endured despite the growing realization that the “war on drugs” has been a stunning failure by nearly every objective measure.

And that is not just the view of some pot-smoking hippies or some lefty sociologists. It is the studied opinion of senior statesmen, who no longer fear political retribution, and police officers who witnessed the human consequences of this “war” up close.

For instance, a recent report by the United Nations’ Global Commission on Drug Policy acknowledged what the last six U.S. administrations have refused to admit, that the aggressive suppression of drug use doesn’t work and, indeed, has made matters much worse.

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” the commission’s report declared. “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.”

A New Way

And rather than doubling down on a failed strategy, the commission recommended a dramatically different course:

“End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

Rather than expanding paramilitary police forces and further curtailing civil liberties, the report recommended, “Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation.”

The report deemed the “war on drugs” not only a failure in curbing the volume and usage of illegal drugs but a contributor to a costly social upheaval that has left untold thousands either imprisoned or deeply alienated from government and society.

And the report’s authors were far from anti-establishment radicals. They included former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz; former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker; and Maria Cattaui, former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce as well as four former heads of state from countries directly affected by the drug war.

A similar view was expressed by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of U.S. officials involved in enforcing the “war on drugs,” which often translated into breaking down the doors of people’s homes in nighttime raids, arresting minor players in the drug trade, prosecuting young citizens for simple drug possession, and incarcerating many thousands of individuals convicted on non-violent drug charges.

The LEAP report cited “the ongoing carnage resulting from our failed prohibition policy” and took direct aim at the Obama administration for its continued commitment to the drug war.

“Perversely, high-ranking Obama administration officials like DEA head Michele Leonhart have even described the increase in these [Mexican] killings as a sign of the success of prohibition,” the report said. “The Obama administration continues to fund Mexico’s war on drugs even as the killings increase faster each year (e.g. a 40% rise in killings from 2008 to 2009 and a nearly 60% rise from 2009 to 2010).”

Still, LEAP was encouraged by progress in some 14 states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and the expansion of legally prescribed medical marijuana, now available in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Other states are expected to vote on measures to legalize and regulate marijuana in 2012, LEAP said.

LEAP describes itself as “made up of current and former police, prosecutors, judges, FBI/DEA agents, corrections officials, military officers and others who fought on the front lines of the ‘war on drugs’ and who know firsthand that prohibition only worsens drug addiction and illicit drug market violence. Including our civilian supporters, LEAP represents more than 40,000 people in more than 80 countries.”

The ‘War’ Begins

But how did the United States get to this point, pouring billions and billions of dollars into an endless failed “war” that has blighted the lives of so many young Americans and destroyed so many families, while simultaneously strengthening ruthless organized-crime gangs?

The “war on drugs” began during some very dark days for the Nixon administration, as the Vietnam War dragged on and opposition mounted across the country. Over 200,000 war protesters converged on Washington in April 1971 and another 12,000 were arrested during May anti-war demonstrations in the capital.

Nixon’s hatred of the youthful protesters was well known. He had referred to some of them as “bums” a year earlier and he understood the value of galvanizing his “silent majority” against his domestic enemies. Many middle-class Americans were alarmed at the prospect of dope-smoking hippies luring innocent youth into a rejection of the old more obedient ways.

With his drug initiative, Nixon could achieve two goals at once. He could rally Americans against drugs (as the new internal threat) and he could turn loose the police on the young generation which was at the heart of the anti-war protests and known to experiment with marijuana and other drugs. He could crack down on protesters without seeming to stifle dissent.

Another bonus was the millions of dollars which Nixon could funnel to local law enforcement and to prosecutors, groups that were generally conservative and also had no use for the war protesters. Nixon could strengthen his political base for the long haul by building a powerful new interest group, the prison-industrial complex.

In a 1972 interview in New York, Nixon boasted how his administration had boosted spending for this battle against drugs “sevenfold” and promised much more money to combat what he called “public enemy number one in the United States.”

By August of 1974, the Watergate political spying scandal had driven Nixon from office but his drug war was just beginning. The money that Nixon promised flowed into police departments, federal agencies, and prisons.

Tough anti-drug prosecutors built political reputations that helped when they ran for higher office; police officers were armed with new arsenals of weapons and new laws that short-circuited civil rights; lucrative contracts were let for new prisons; and judges handed down tough, draconian sentences to win re-election.

Pushing Back

It took years for a strong public pushback to develop with questions finally emerging about how the “war on drugs” was deforming America. Beyond the blighted lives of imprisoned young people and the gun violence of rival gangs, drug money also lured police and other government officials into scandals.

Narcotics officers sometimes pocketed wads of cash during raids or sold the confiscated drugs themselves. Globally, the CIA and other federal agencies found themselves working with paramilitary groups implicated in the drug trade, from Central America to Afghanistan, even as U.S. propagandists tried to discredit Washington’s enemies by linking them to the drug trade.

Fighting the drug war also drew the U.S. military and law-enforcement agencies into new counterinsurgency campaigns in drug-producing countries, such as Colombia. American forces often ended up on the side of right-wing human rights violators who themselves earned money from smuggling drugs.

In 1989, drug enforcement even became the excuse to invade the sovereign nation of Panama and arrest an erstwhile American ally, Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was dragged back to the United States and prosecuted on drug-conspiracy charges.

In Colombia, the drug trade and the U.S. “war on drugs” combined to fuel a bloody civil war, tearing the society apart. Many Colombians blamed the eruption of violence on the American appetite for cocaine combined with U.S.-demanded repression of coca production.

The rule of law was often cast aside when the United States labeled someone a “drug kingpin” and demanded the person’s delivery to U.S. law enforcement. One such “extraditable” was Jose Abello Silva, who was snatched off the Bogotá streets and spirited to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for trial on drug charges.

He had never been to Oklahoma, knew no one in the state, nor had he ever dealt drugs to an Oklahoman. But he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison in 1989. [For details of this curious drug prosecution, see Richard Fricker’s article, “The Abello Conspiracy,” in the ABA Journal, December 1990]

Dissenters Speak

By the early 1990s, more voices of dissent were rising. Steven Wisotsky, author of Beyond the War on Drugs, raised questions that were given more credence by the mainstream news media because they were coming from his platform at the conservative Cato Institute.

Wisotsky began an Oct. 2, 1992, policy statement with a quote from right-wing economic icon Milton Friedman, “Every friend of freedom . . . must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the U.S. into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.”

Wisotsky then said, “With the War on Drugs, however, the wisdom of the Founders has been cast aside. In [a] shortsighted zeal to create a ‘Drug-Free America’ by 1995, our political leaders state and federal, elected and appointed have acted as though the end justifies the means, repudiating our heritage of limited government and individual freedoms while endowing the bureaucratic state with unprecedented powers.”

Wisotsky also cited two Supreme Court justices who raised concerns about aggressive drug prosecutions. He noted that Justice John Paul Stevens lamented that “this Court has become a loyal foot soldier” in the “war on drugs,” while Justice Thurgood Marshall reminded the Court that there was “no drug exception” to the Constitution.

With each passing year more reports, books and essays appeared, stripping off layer after layer of the myths surrounding the drug war. Even judges began to fret that law enforcement and U.S. society in general had gone too far in their efforts to eradicate drug use.

In 1996, Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors debunked much of what America had been told about the drug issue, including the oft-repeated mantra that smoking marijuana was the gateway to heroin addiction.

Baum also detailed the antics of drug enforcement agencies and how little they understood American culture beyond their own bureaucracies. While his book laid bare the fact that the “war on drugs” was made up of smoke and mirrors, nothing in national policy changed.

The “war” dragged on though remainder of the 1990s. Each drug bust was “the biggest” ever. DEA agents were heroes of Hollywood movies. Each state, city, county and metro area had its own drug task force, often awash in money with little oversight.

Prosecutors who had stepped into the public spotlight years earlier as tough anti-drug crusaders were becoming judges, bringing with them their pro-police no-questions-asked culture. Politicians remained skittish about voicing strong criticism of the drug war and getting pilloried as a “pro-drug” candidate.

Two ‘Wars’ Merge

About the only thing that diverted the nation’s attention from the “war on drugs” was al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and George W. Bush’s launching of the “war on terror.” But the two “wars” often merged with more money with even fewer rules flowing to fight “narco-terrorists” in places like Colombia.

A Senate subcommittee hearing on contracting oversight chaired by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D- Missouri, provided a unique insight into this drug war funding.

According to the resulting Senate report, “The analysis finds that from 2005 to 2009, the federal government’s annual spending on counternarcotics contracts in Latin America rose by 32%, from $482 million in 2005 to $635.8 million in 2009. In total, the government spent more than $3.1 billion on counternarcotics contracts during this period.”

The bulk of this funding went to five private contractors with no operational oversight, the report said, noting that:

“From 2005 to 2009, the majority of counternarcotics contracts in Latin America went to only five contractors: DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC, who collectively received contracts worth over $1.8 billion. The State Department and the Defense Department spent nearly $2 billion on counternarcotics contracts in Colombia alone from 2005 to 2009. The federal government does not have any uniform systems in place to track or evaluate whether counternarcotics contracts are achieving their goals.”

This contracting was only one small slice of the vast sums spent on the drug war. It is almost impossible to get a good estimate of the many more billions of dollars were spent by local, state, regional task forces and federal agencies. Equally elusive is the amount of money required to incarcerate the thousands and thousands of drug offenders locked up in U.S. prisons.

Yet, if the “war” has been the expensive failure that the data from both conservatives and liberals indicates, how has it been able to continue through six administrations?

“There is no news on the war on drugs,” said Steve Wisotsky when I asked his thoughts as Nixon’s policy heads into its fifth decade. He noted that the collateral damage from the “war” also continued, including the corruption of public officials, the subversion of legal principles and the loss of privacy among Americans who get targeted by authorities.

“Nothing has changed,” he said.

Wisotsky explained that the current policy is supported by two emotions, the fear of drugs and the belief that drug use is immoral.

Author Dan Baum said, “I am surprised we’re having this conversation over ten years after my book came out and nothing’s changed. I thought things might have changed.”

Baum saw the reasons for the government’s stubborn refusal to reverse course on drug policy as driven by powerful social attitudes. “We are in an era of ‘personal responsibility’ and not concerned about social justice,” he said. “If you use drugs and it’s illegal, then it’s your fault.”

The fact that the drug war is not succeeding in achieving its “drug-free” goal has curiously had little impact on the debate, Baum said.

“We all know the drug war is a failure,” he said, “But, we’re hooked on it. It keeps us from having to talk about class disparity in America or how one percent of the population owns forty percent of the wealth. Those are the things we’re not allowed to talk about, are afraid to talk about, the real problems.”

Like Wisotsky’s concern about the collateral damage, Baum pointed to the proliferation of gangs in America.

Gang Violence

According to LEAP spokesman Tony Angell, there is a direct link between drug prohibition and the rise of gangs, just as occurred during the Prohibition era when the U.S. government outlawed alcoholic beverages and created an economic climate for the emergence of powerful Mafia organizations in the 1920s and 1930s.

The simple equation is that once the government’s prohibition drives the price of an illegal drug high enough, criminal elements will enter the “market” and begin distributing the product. Organized gangs, such as the Crips, Bloods, Hell’s Angels, Banditos and others, will begin fighting turf wars for control of lucrative drug territory.

The violence becomes another challenge to law enforcement with police officers and ordinary citizens finding themselves in the line of fire.

Angell said his group has a speaker’s bureaus of no less than 125 former police officers willing to “educate” people about the real costs of drug enforcement. LEAP also helped write the marijuana legalization referendum, which failed in California. The group is actively supporting the upcoming Colorado ballot issue.

Police officers, according to Angell, are tired of risking their lives in a failed drug war and want to go back to fighting real crime. “There is never a shortage of crime,” he said, noting that legalization of marijuana and treating present drug-use crimes as a health issue would reduce crime and cost tremendously.

Asked why the policy has survived its widely perceived failure, he said, “That’s perplexing. Most of our speakers are retired. It is very difficult for an active duty officer to speak out on this without getting in trouble with his department or other officers.”

After all, Angell noted, “drugs are a cash cow” for many police departments. But he noted that the drug war has undermined the reputation of police because it has given rise to public awareness that some officers have engaged in corruption. “There is a lot of cash floating around in the drug business,” he said.

The drug corruption also has infected countries like Mexico where competing cartels wage real war with each other and with the police. Angell noted that in Mexico, authorities are confronted with the saying, “take the bribe or take the bullet.”

Thus, legalization of marijuana in the United States could go a long way toward saving lives in Mexico and along the U.S. border.

Hard Truth

The hard truth is that drugs and the drug war are big businesses in America. Not only do underworld figures make fortunes from the transport and sale of drugs for the U.S. market, but private contractors and law enforcement agencies extract large sums from taxpayers to carry on the never-ending “war on drugs” and to build more prisons.  

Meanwhile, the pro-drug war politicians get to look tough on crime and pose with smiling police chiefs while handing over the latest government check for a new SWAT unit. Conversely, any politician who protests this wasteful “war” can expect a flurry of “soft on crime” attack ads.

After 40 years, the pattern has been firmly set. Most Republicans continue to push Nixon’s “war on drugs” as a way “to protect law-abiding Americans.” Democrats may employ more nuanced rhetoric, but they don’t dare run the political risks from pushing real change.

So, the wheel keeps turning, and the “war” rolls on.

Arguably, the “war on drugs” has been Nixon’s most enduring legacy for America, one that has destroyed countless lives, has cost probably into the trillions of dollars, and has accomplished very little. The drug trade continues, along with the arrests, the trials and the incarcerations.

If there has been a sea change at all, it is that more Americans are finally seeing through the fog of government propaganda and giving fresh support to initiatives that would at least relax the criminalization of marijuana and recognize that drugs are a problem better addressed through medical treatment than through the criminal justice system.

But Nixon’s legacy seems certain to endure until the public makes clear to the politicians that it is time for the failed “war on drugs” to end.

Richard L. Fricker is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based investigative reporter who has covered the “war on drugs” for the ABA Journal and other publications. 

Reporters note: Timeline history of the War on Drugs