The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy: Part I

suziriot.jpgThis was originally going to be one post. It kept getting longer and longer and I realized that I have a lot to say on this subject. Keeping in mind that Jonestown is probably not the only blog you read, I have decided to turn it into several posts and hopefully retain your attention. I’d like to preface this first installment by stating that I’ve never used drugs: they’ve just never been my thing. (Yes, I use OTC and prescriptions, but you know that’s not what I’m referring to!) I also don’t support the decriminalization of all drugs. Drugs can and do destroy people’s lives. However, the war on drugs also destroys people’s lives and I am simply advocating for drug policy reform. Using meth and using marijuana are not the same, but under our current federal drug policies they are similarly punished. (Moreover, medical marijuana use and recreational marijuana use are not the same.)

Sometimes I wish that I had chosen public policy as my career field. I have a love/hate relationship with public policy. I deeply believe that smart public policy is the best path toward a healthy society and good government. Unfortunately, bad public policy is the best path toward human misery and systemic social collapse. If I had become a policy wonk, I probably would have spent my days at some think tank in a frenzied state of frustration. That or teaching. Nobody really listens to the good policy experts, mostly because very few of us like what they have to say. Americans are reactionary: we like fear-based policies that preserve the status quo. (The terrorists are gonna get us! Quick, let’s give up our civil liberties!) The US is a representative republic. Politicians and lobbyists have the greatest influence on public policy, so the rest of us get fucked because we allow Congress to legislate based on mass public hysteria and we allow The Corporations to hire the lobbyists. When individuals get fucked by bad public policy, their only option is the legal system. Sometimes it works, as in the case of Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, etc. Sometimes it destroys innocent peoples’ lives.

While at UCLA, I took several public policy classes. My favorite, and by far the most eye-opening, was a graduate level course on drug policy with Dr. Mark Kleiman. US drug policy is perhaps the best example of how bad policy can have disastrous effects on both individuals and societies. And it doesn’t even produce the desired results. Drug policy in this country is based on completely irrational and false theories about drugs, drug use, drug users, and drug markets. Substance control, more often than not, is a moral endeavor. Those who work in enforcement and interdiction are very often fanatic zealots on a personal crusade to hunt down and punish anybody associated with drug trade or use. The problem is that prohibition and interdiction do not work, and for a very simple reason based on a very basic economic principle: even in illicit markets, high enough demand will eventually produce supply. A 2003 joint study from the Drug Policy Alliance and Boston University claims the following:

  • Prohibition enforcement cost roughly $33 billion in 2002.
  • Prohibition is likely to have numerous auxiliary consequences, including increased violence and corruption, diminished civil liberties, heightened racial tensions, distorted foreign relations, added restrictions on medicinal drug use, the transfer of wealth to criminals, and civil unrest within drug-producing countries.
  • Prohibition potentially increases the harms from drug abuse—even if it reduces the overall quantity of drug use—because drug users under prohibition face elevated prices, reduced product quality, and the threat of arrest and incarceration.

It’s almost impossible to exert enough control in the macro drug market to result in costs that are so prohibitive that they decrease the demand. Enforcement can eliminate micro drug markets, but this has little effect on drug use. There is little to no evidence to suggest that interdiction and source-country control programs effectively reduce drug abuse. The primary problems are replacement and adaptation. Illicit crop eradication typically results in farmers adapting by moving their planting to another location. Crop substitution efforts, in which the US government gives funds to farmers to plant legal crops, build roads for crop transport to markets, and improve irrigation for the legal crops does not typically succeed in convincing the farmers to change crops. Rather, these changes make illicit crop transport and production easier and less expensive, lowering the price of the drug and therefore potentially increasing consumption. The farmers are going to grow it again anyway as soon as the DEA agents leave and now they have infrastructure to help them. The same principle applies in the case of manufactured drugs. As soon as one lab is shut down, another one will pop up somewhere else. Interdiction efforts such as seizure are also thwarted by replacement and adaptation. Seized supplies of smuggled drugs into the US are easily and quickly replaced. Suppliers adapt very easily to enforcement efforts; if a 150ft wall is erected around the US, smugglers will simply build a 151ft. wall and climb over it. If enforcement concentrates interdiction in the Caribbean, for example, suppliers will adapt by moving their operations to Mexico. The extremely high volume of traffic coming into the country makes interdiction efforts akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

So what hath we wrought in the source-countries where we pursue our misguided war on drugs? Let’s examine the consequences in South America:

  • Destruction of legal income crops alongside the eradication of illicit crops.
  • Prosecution of farmers without crops substitution or economic alternatives.
  • Exclusion of poorer strata of society from legal economy.
  • Prevents drug users from seeking help.
  • Criminalization of large sectors of society.
  • Social and economic destabilization.
  • Erosion of legitimacy of local and national authorities.
  • Creation of paramilitaries.
  • Militarization of police.
  • Corruption within and human rights abuses by police and military authorities.

These are just general consequences. There are thousands of individuals around the globe who represent the real-life tragedy of the US war on drugs. In Colombia, for example, US drug policy has exacerbated what began as an internal conflict between the right and the left. The war on drugs has provided both the FARC and the government sponsored paramilitaries with the financial means to continue their civil war. The current government sponsored paramilitaries were created – with US approval – with the idea that they would combat the Colombian cartels. But both the FARC and the paramilitaries traffic in drugs, the only difference being that the paramilitary groups kick back a sizable portion of the profits to the Colombian government. Many of the paramilitary leaders are drug lords themselves. Both sides have been accused of terrible human rights atrocities. (For more in-depth analysis and a look into the Colombian drug conflict, check out Wide Angle’s presentation of the 2004 documentary An Honest Citizen.)

All of this for no real gain. None of these policies really work. Depending on the substance, the rate of use and production have either increased or been sustained over the past 20 years.

I hope you’ll stay tuned to Jonestown for The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy: Part II, where I’ll discuss how the US justice system has totally fucked drug users and small-time drug sellers.


~ by Suzi Riot on January 7, 2008.

12 Responses to “The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy: Part I”

  1. I guess you’ll eventually discuss the inequity in the justice system relative to this topic as well. The first thing that comes to mind is the recent debate over the disparity in jail sentences for those convicted of possessing crack versus cocaine in its powder form.

    Good idea for a series of posts. This is an important subject that interests me, as well.

  2. you are so right….but i do disagree on one point
    i think all drugs should be made legal. (no not because i want to use them) — because making drugs legal would end a lot of crime in this country — of course it wouldnt stop it — but it sure would make a dent in it. i wish i had empirical evidence to back that up.

    also why is alcohol legal but not pot or cocaine or heroin? it is a drug that destroys brain cells and lives just like any of the others…

    oh could it be (partly) because the liquor companies were able to squash any competition to them and somehow were able to demonize cocaine but leave alcohol as socially acceptable — just my 2 cents

  3. I left a comment at your blog, but I will simply say here… feckin’ brilliant sista!

  4. Scarlett: I will most definitely be discussing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and racism, specific to crack vs powder cocaine. I’m very glad that you’re interested in the subject. Drug policy is like social security: everybody loves to bitch, but nobody wants to try to do anything about it. Politicians certainly don’t want to touch it, because then they’ll be accused of being “soft on crime” and of trying to corrupt America’s children with the marijuana cigarettes. (Ok, gotta save it for my next post!)

    DCNY: I can respect that position. From a policy perspective, analytical models demonstrate that the costs (i.e., damage) from the use of certain drugs make prohibition the best option. But I’m really on the fence on this because analytical models also show that prohibition doesn’t really work that well. I am all for harm reduction, though. In a future post I’m going to discuss mandatory treatment programs and recidivism rates vs incarceration. There is some evidence that mandatory treatment programs can work, so maybe this is an alternative option to complete decriminalization of the most harmful illicit substances. I 100% agree with you on the alcohol/tobacco thing: alcohol and tobacco use cause much more aggregate damage in this country than marijuana, LSD, or psychoactive mushrooms. So why the disparity in legality? It’s absolutely the money. The social acceptability of drinking and smoking was actively cultivated in the early 20th century and has become part of the culture; there may be health concerns, but most people won’t think you’re an awful piece of trash for doing it.

    Fran: I saw your comment over at my place. You’re wrong, but thank you very, very much for your kind words!

  5. I’m so glad you covered this topic. A great post! I have to second what your other commenters said here. Sometimes I wish the “illegal” drug industry could form its own PAC or lobby and do what the alcohol, tobacco and pharma lobbies have done.

  6. “I wish the “illegal” drug industry could form its own PAC or lobby and do what the alcohol, tobacco and pharma lobbies have done.”

    d-cup, seriously? 😉

    but no, seriously, you wish that? like the Poppy Growers Organization of Afghanistan (PGOA)? they’ve had bumper crops over the past few years, i hear …

  7. The drug trade in America has replaced welfare as a source of income for lower classes.
    The demand fluctuates but never goes away.
    Drugs are readily available rain or shine.
    There are several generations who have witnessed the evolution, the transformation of the inner city in the wake of a devestating epidemic of use.e always been a part of American lifestyles, in the 50’s it was amphtemines( they have made a comeback).
    Now, today, most users don’t even live in ‘the hood’.
    Drugs have taken the fuck over.
    Do you have restless leg syndrome?
    Check out the Pharmacy.
    Oxy this Oxy that metha-what?
    Pump drugs into the hood, drug test for all living wage jobs, demonize marijuana. It is pretty simple to understand how entire swaths of society were suddenly
    on the ‘fringes’.
    Drugs do not harm people, people abuse drugs.

  8. i think the word “drug” means a lot of things to different people, and has a vast array of connotations,

    “street” drugs (crack, heroin, meth)
    “lifestyle” drugs (cocaine, ectasy)
    “anti” drugs (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, social phobia minimizers, etc.)
    “pain” medications (for the terminally and chronically ill)

    and they are all interchangable at any point in time, for the most part.

    that’s why the entire premise of a “war on drugs” is ludicrous. the drug trade is a multi-faceted, massive, global industry, and more so today than it was in the past.

    and definitions matter.

  9. I hate this blog because all you fuckers write long ass quality political rants and then you hire new people who also write long ass quality political rants. Assholes. Keep it up, damn you! I’m off to find a funny picture of Homer Simpson to caption!

  10. Suzi, I have but one question. Did we not learn anything from the Prohibition Era. After all, it was the “illicit and illegal” alcohol trade that gave us Al Capone and what made the Kennedy clan their fortune. I’m just sayin….

  11. As a general principle, you can always count on a UCLA-n to THINK. I’ve never been a great one for “school spirit” but SuziRiot makes me proud to have received a degree from the same institutional learning facility!

    That two of my favorite bloggers, SR and D-CAPny, felt the NEED to put disclaimers about their own drug use into a very comprehensive and persuasive post and wholly appropriate comment, respectively, shows just how — um — toxic the War On Drugs has been. Why do they feel the need to prove their “clean” bona fides before expressing themselves with viewpoints contrary to US policy? Furthermore, I’ve noticed that there is often a tendency among Drug War skeptics to cite things like marijuana, mushrooms and peyote as somehow “good” and cocaine and opitates as “bad,” as if this were somehow supportive of their argument.

    I tend to agree with some of Massing’s arguments (as well as the controversial Anne Marlowe’s) that everyone’s brain chemistry is different and psychoactive agents are psychoactive agents are psychoactive agents. Neither cigarettes nor marijuana nor alcohol nor heroin know morality! I am perfectly willing to discuss my own chemistry publicly. I am a depressive, have extremely low seratonin and dopamine levels, and a tendency to low blood sugar. Thus, my body can tolerate neither marijuana nor copious amounts of alcohol. I am also allergic to wine and to pseudo-ephedrine. So, I don’t smoke pot and I don’t drink much alcohol. And I would not DARE touch Meth. I have found cocaine to provide me with a temporary sense of euphoria but it neither affects my sleep nor my sexual function nor appetite. I have found opiates pleasurable but the constipation and dehydration are not worth the pleasure! I credit responsible use of benzodiazipines and SSRIs under the care of a physician with saving my ability to enjoy life, perhaps even saving my life itself. X I can take or leave. I find tobacco repulsive, but have no desire to take away YOUR right to smoke. Down here in Panama where smoking is more common than in the United States, I find that if I’m going to be playing cards for a long session, I’ll use Vicks-coated cotton balls to filter out the smoke and the smell.

    Ah, yes, Panama. It’s time to square the circle with SuziRiot’s excellent post. As an ex-pat who speaks unaccented Spanish fluently, has a “non-American” physical appearance, and thus “passes” I’ve had a worm’s eye view of a lot of the politics of the region. It’s definitely worth clicking on SuziRiot’s link to AN HONEST CITIZEN. Lots of truth there. Human Rights Watch’s annual reports are always on point as well.

    Basically, the “War On Drugs” comes down to the the USA’s (except for the notable exception of parts of Bill Clinton’s Latin policy) constant befuddlement at “Why are our coca leaves growing on their soil?” The “Drug War” brought Panama the assassination of Omar Torrijos, the installation of Manuel Noriega, and when he wanted too big a cut, OPERATION JUST CAUSE. They have left the area devastated by US Forces just as it was as a living memorial and let me tell you, it’s a harrowing thing to see.

    Though OJC allowed for the seating of the legitimately elected Guillermo Endara to the Presidency a quid pro quo was that a constitution a la Paul Bremer’s Iraq was imposed which contained much of the harshest elements of US Law, enforced by both the CIA and the US military. President Clinton wisely honored the Carter-Torrijos pact, withdrew the CIA, closed the bases and allowed for Panama to write it’s own constitution. Such things as capital punishment, encarceration of juveniles with adults, strict abortion and contraception laws, and a US stranglehold on the Panamanian banking system have all been scrapped. As modern Panama finds itself looking South and East for examples as it moves into first-world status, it has adopted a kind of agnosticism about the “War On Terror” as well, something now shared by most developed capitalist democratic republics. Ironically, it was by leaving Panama alone that some balance between economics and rights/liberties has been struck.

    What’s been happening in Colombia is as tragic, though for some reason not as “sexy,” as Iraq, and it is only because of drug policy. And ONLY because of the kinds of misguided and craven efforts by outside forces which SuziRiot cites. Were cocaine to be legalized in Colombia there would be neither FARC nor paramilitaries nor much of the violence that characterizes the life there and a very sophisticated and well-educated populace would be able to guide Colombia like Argentina, Chile and Panama toward first-world status. Such thinking, however, is more “magical” than anything that Garcia Marquez could ever dream of.

    The poltics there are not only tragic but also terribly complicated and you observe some of the Red-State/Blue-State paradigm there, albeit with horrific knock-on effects. In recent elections, finding coalitions of students, workers, left-wing campesinos and urban “elites” in the finaincial community (read: Jews and Arabs) backing Gaviria with the church, military, largest businesses and right-wing campesinos backing Uribe. Naturally, the FARC and paramilitaries are always in the background or foreground, respectively, because IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE DRUGS. Each side of the center accuses with some accuracy the other of being complicit with either the left or right extreme.

    I have seen rays of hope at least for some ebbing of the violence if not solution of Colombia’s essential problems in Uribe’s willingness to talk to Hugo Chavez and to the FARC as well, with the full knowledge that he’s risking the rancor of the paras and the US which backed him. We’ll see. And we’ll continue to hope for a completion of the promised POW exchange and exchanged of “secuestrados.”

    But why would I know about any of this? I only live here. Ask Barack Obama about it. He knows everything.

  12. Just a couple of observations:

    1. Because of the fall of coffee prices, many farmers have resorted to planting illegal crops such as Coca in South America and Khat in Africa.

    2. The US presence in Afghanistan has actually led to an increased production of opium. As a result, the street price on heroin continues to drop.

    In this article, the government glosses over the dramatic increase in opium production in Afghanistan while neglecting to mention the falling price of heroin.

    Here, Mark Kleinman documents the price collapse of heroin.

    (sorry the URLs aren’t in link form)

    *They are now, no worries.

    However, next time make sure to put them as a link. You can break up someone’s template posting the entire URL.

    Here’s a link to Wikipedia that will tell you how.


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