Will Obama End the War on Drugs' Undermining of the War on Terror?

Over the last two years, I have repeatedly blogged about how the War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror in Afghanistan (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). Recently, the Boston Globe had a good editorial summarizing the issue, and holding out a small ray of hope that the Obama Administration might change things:

The Obama administration is committing 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Yet as the United States works to stabilize that country, the most important decisions don't just involve troop and funding levels. Also vital is ending the prohibition on growing opium poppies - for the policy is a key factor in Afghanistan's economic and security crisis.

Since the US invasion in 2001, the American and Afghan governments have made the poppy-growing areas of Afghanistan, which produce 90 percent of the world's opium, a major front in the war on drugs. Yet despite eight years of efforts to eliminate the crop, farmers keep growing poppies, and the crop still reaches the black market....

Eradication is not just an ineffective strategy, but also hurts the security interests of Afghanistan and Western governments. While the United States invests $1 billion in eradication efforts each year, the Taliban profits by purchasing poppy from farmers who have no one else to sell to, and selling it to the black market. Also, the eradication policy fuels anti-Western hatred when farmers become sympathetic to insurgent groups after the US and Afghan governments burn or spray their only source of income.

The eradication policy remains in place even though it is widely recognized as a failure. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, last year called the eradication program "the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy."

Holbrooke is the Admnistration's point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I'm not holding my breath on this. But maybe, just maybe, he can persuade the President to finally end "the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy" and get on with winning the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The administration has often emphasized that winning the War on Terror in Afghanistan will be its highest foreign policy priority. If it really is, Obama should be willing to prioritize it ahead of poppy eradication. As the Globe points out, a strategy of partial legalization has successfully deprived terrorists of income from illegal drugs in Turkey, a policy enacted with US and NATO support.

Perhaps Obama can get the War on Drugs out of the way of the War on Terror in Afghanistan as well. That would be a good example of real change we can believe in.


And Then Maybe He Can Save Mexico: I have heard the expression, "I will believe there is a global warming crisis when the people who tell me there is a crisis start acting like there is a crisis." The same could be said about the global War on Terror. I once asked former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff if he would be willing to reconsider the War on Drugs since it was obviously providing the financial resources for terrorist organizations. Naturally, he rejected this option as a false choice, and voiced his support for the War on Drugs as the way to reduce drug abuse. But can one be truly serious about the dangers of terrorism if they continue to support the prohibitionist policies that fund the terrorists? If drug prohibition were funding the German or Japanese regimes in WWII, do we really think that it would not have been suspended "for the duration"? Case in point is Mexico where the government there may be on the verge of collapse and needs to deny it is a failed state. I don't think I will be returning to Cancun or Cabo anytime soon. If the President will consider ending the War on Poppies in Afghanistan in the interest of fighting the war against the Taliban, then perhaps he would also consider preventing the establishment of a narco-terrorist regime directly adjacent to the United States by ending the War on Drugs that makes the Mexican narco-gangsters possible. Whenever someone complains that libertarians are just pie-in-the-sky utopian (or distopian) intellectuals, just ask them again about the real world consequences of the War on Drugs, and see who gets all pie-in-the-sky right quick.


Can Pragmatists Be Practical About the Drug War? It should be HUGE news when the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil jointly announce that The War on Drugs Is a Failure. In their Wall Street Journal column today, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo summarize the conclusions in their report for The Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. Here is the executive summary of their report:
Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade are critical problems in Latin America today. Confronted with a situation that is growing worse by the day, it is imperative to rectify the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past 30 years.

Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.

A realistic evaluation indicates that:

  • Latin America remains the major global exporter of cocaine and cannabis, has become a growing producer of opium and heroin, and is developing the capacity to produce synthetic drugs;
  • The levels of drug consumption continue to grow in Latin America while there is a tendency toward stabilization in North America and Europe.
The in-depth revision of current drug policies is even more urgent in Latin America in light of their enormous human and social costs and threats to democratic institutions. Over the past decades we have witnessed:

  • A rise in organized crime caused both by the international narcotics trade and by the growing control exercised by criminal groups over domestic markets and territories;
  • A growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence affecting the whole of society and, in particular, the poor and the young;
  • The criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime, as well as the proliferation of the linkages between them, as reflected in the infiltration of democratic institutions by organized crime;
  • The corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, the political system and, especially the police forces in charge of enforcing law and order.
In their Wall Street Journal column they offer the following alternative strategy:
The first step in the search for alternative solutions is to acknowledge the disastrous consequences of current policies. Next, we must shatter the taboos that inhibit public debate about drugs in our societies. Antinarcotic policies are firmly rooted in prejudices and fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality. The association of drugs with crime segregates addicts in closed circles where they become even more exposed to organized crime.

In order to drastically reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries. To move in this direction, it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people's health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric.

In this spirit, we propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime. To translate this new paradigm into action we must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system.

We also propose the careful evaluation, from a public-health standpoint, of the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. Cannabis is by far the most widely used drug in Latin America, and we acknowledge that its consumption has an adverse impact on health. But the available empirical evidence shows that the hazards caused by cannabis are similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco.

If we want to effectively curb drug use, we should look to the campaign against tobacco consumption. The success of this campaign illustrates the effectiveness of prevention campaigns based on clear language and arguments consistent with individual experience. Likewise, statements by former addicts about the dangers of drugs will be far more compelling to current users than threats of repression or virtuous exhortations against drug use.
Why can't pragmatists be practical for a change?

Public Policy and the Role of Principles: Libertarians hear a lot about pragmatism and the pitfalls of being an ideologue. While conservatives love to poke fun at libertarians' preoccupation with the War in Drugs by suggesting we just want to get high, some of us have never even smoked marijuana. (Yes, it is true.) The argument from pragmatists is just to do "what works." But to know "what works" we need to "experiment." But what happens when your experiment fails miserably? Will it ever be undone? If not, is pragmatic social experimentation a truly practical approach towards social policy?

I have been repeatedly forthright in my cautions to libertarians about the limits of first principles. But first principles that have evolved over time in response to experience--and theorizing about that experience--have an important role to play in avoiding costly "social experimentation" before it is implemented. I fear we are about to be given a new crash course on the perils of pragmatism and "what works" in a variety of policy areas. But the failure of the War on Drugs highlights the importance of first principles in avoiding disastrous social experimentation than cannot easily, if ever, be declared a failure by the political establishment.

In 1987, my article "Curing the Drug Law Addiction: The Hidden Side-Effects of Legal Prohibition" was published in the book Dealing With Drugs. (It is slated to be republished in the Utah Law Review this year.) There I explained why first principles make it perfectly predictable THAT drug prohibition will fail and WHY drug prohibition will fail, along with the steep price that will be paid for this failure in terms of (a) harms to drug users themselves about whose welfare prohibitionists profess to be concerned, (b) harms to nondrug users who pay a steep price for prohibition along with drug users, and (c) harms to law enforcement and the legal system that stem from corruption and the weakening of civil liberties that inevitably accompany the enforcement of consensual possessory "crimes."

So who are the practical ones? The "ideologues" whose views are guided by first principles, or the "pragmatists" whose views are guided by "practicalities"? Here is how my article begins (only partially tongue in cheek):
Some drugs make people feel good. That is why some people use them. Some of these drugs are alleged to have side effects so destructive that many advise against their use. The same may be said about statutes that attempt to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of drugs. Using statutes in this way makes some people feel good because they think they are "doing something" about what they believe to be a serious social problem. Others who support these laws are not so altruistically motivated. Employees of law enforcement bureaus and academics who receive government grants to study drug use, for example, may gain financially from drug prohibition. But as with using drugs, using drug laws can have moral and practical side-effects so destructive that they argue against ever using legal institutions in this manner.

One might even say--and not altogether metaphorically--that some people become psychologically or economically addicted to drug laws.

[Footnote: For those who would object to my use of the word addiction here because drug laws cause no physiological dependence, it should be pointed out that, for example, the Illinois statute specifying the criteria to be used to pass upon the legality of a drug nowhere requires that a drug be physiologically addictive. The tendency to induce physiological dependence is just one factor to be used to assess the legality of a drug. Drugs with an accepted medical use may be controlled if they have a potential for abuse, and abuse will lead to "psychological or physiological dependence" Illinois Revised Statutes, ch. 56/2, § 1205 (emphasis added). Thus, applying the same standard to drug-law users as they apply to drug users permits us to characterize them as addicts if they are psychologically "dependent" on such laws.]

That is, some people continue to support these statutes despite the massive and unavoidable ill-effects that result. The psychologically addicted ignore these harms so that they can attain the "good"--their "high"--they perceive that drug laws produce. Other drug-law users ignore the costs of prohibition because of their "economic dependence" on drug laws; these people profit financially from drug laws and are unwilling to undergo the economic "withdrawal" that would be caused by their repeal.

Both kinds of drug-law addicts may "deny" their addiction by asserting that the side effects are not really so terrible or that they can be kept "under control." The economically dependent drug-law users may also deny their addiction by asserting that (1) noble motivations, rather than economic gain, lead them to support these statutes; (2) they are not unwilling to withstand the painful financial readjustment that ending prohibition would force them to undergo; and (3) they can "quit" their support any time they want to (provided, of course, that they are rationally convinced of its wrongness).

Their denials notwithstanding, both kinds of addicts are detectable by their adamant resistance to rational persuasion. While they eagerly await and devour any new evidence of the destructiveness of drug use, they are almost completely uninterested in any practical or theoretical knowledge of the ill effects of illegalizing such conduct.

Yet in a free society governed by democratic principles, these addicts cannot be compelled to give up their desire to control the consumption patterns of others. Nor can they be forced to support legalization in spite of their desires. In a democratic system, they may voice and vote their opinions about such matters no matter how destructive the consequences of their desires are to themselves, or more importantly--to others. Only rational persuasion may be employed to wean them from this habit. As part of this process of persuasion, drug-law addicts must be exposed to the destruction their addiction wreaks on drug users, law enforcement, and on the general public. They must be made to understand the inherent limits of using law to accomplish social objectives.
If you are interested in the principled reasons for these adverse social consequences, you can read the whole the article here. I expanded on this analysis in the Yale Law Review in my 1994 review essay Bad Trip: Drug Prohibition and the Weakness of Public Policy & in my 1984 review essay in Criminal Justice Ethics: Public Decisions and Private Rights. In each of these pieces, I examine the role that properly-defined individual rights should play in crafting social policy.

So can we finally get practical about drugs? And can we finally admit that principles have a role to play in avoiding the costs of bad social policy before it is adopted? And can we maybe admit that libertarians are trying in good faith to be practical when they offer their analysis of proposals for social experimentation, even when they are talking about drugs--or "bail outs"?