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Losing the War on Drugs, Part I: The Supply Side

The Supply Side of Drugs: Immediate, Positive Effects Wanted

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In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon (R) declared a War on Drugs and created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been killed thanks to drug use over 40 years, many more have become addicted to drugs, and still more have been imprisoned because of their drug use or selling of drugs. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States declared a War on Drugs. And, forty years on, the war has been a dismal failure. It was a conflict aimed at…well…warring against illicit substances, apparently. But what are illicit substances and why should the government care about its citizenry consuming them? Ask any Libertarian (and most Leftists) and they will tell you that drugs–particularly marijuana–are mostly harmless. They will tell you that this is about choice. They will argue that the government is wantonly exercising its power over the people by preventing them from engaging in something that they enjoy.

But, I say that it is more than that. I say that the War on Drugs is endemic of something larger at play: moral relativism. The War on Drugs, like the amorphous War on Terror, is convoluted and lacks purpose. The government and anti-drug activists say one thing and pro-drug advocates claim another.

What’s lost in this debate is the purpose of this so-called war. It isn’t about being a bunch of buzzkills. It isn’t about control either, as the pro-drug (aka the “Legalize It”) crowd would argue. It’s about security in the truest form. Drugs, or rather, their pernicious effects and the destabilizing impact that transnational criminal organizations have on America and the rest of the world, make us less secure.

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While it may seem trite, this advertisement is a truism. Most counterterrorism experts believe that the illicit narcotics, human trafficking, and illegal arms trade are key funders of global terrorism (i.e. Jihad). Image courtesy of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Drugs, like terror, is not what the U.S. government should be warring against. The U.S. government should be warring against those who seek to use drugs as a means of empowering themselves financially and politically, by preying on the weaknesses of many of our fellow citizens. It should be a War on (Transnational) Crime, in much the same way that the Global War on Terror should really be about fighting transnational Jihad networks. That war should be waged by going after the cartels that produce and distribute illicit substances in foreign states.

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A drug cartel in Mexico hired professional soldiers to protect its operations in the ongoing Mexican Drug War. Such operators have been known to cut into the U.S. side of the border and to engage U.S. Border Patrol guards in select instances. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

A war on criminality, unlike drugs–particularly those criminals who deal in illegal substances–makes perfect sense. Drug cartels, street gangs, and petty criminals are all public health hazards. Plus, the deleterious effects of drugs on those who routinely consume them make drug users public health hazards.

Drugs are mind-altering substances that can have effects that last for hours or even days. Used over years, they can have effects that last a lifetime. That, in-and-of-itself would be irrelevant, if not for the fact that drug users are not left in a self-imposed solitary confinement when they are using drugs. The problem is when those people who are under the influence of illicit substances partake in public activities (i.e. driving) that begin to endanger my family and I. As a Libertarian friend once told me, “your freedom ends when it starts to unduly interfere with mine!” While that calculation is somewhat reductionist in nature, I wholeheartedly agree with the basic premise. Well, without life there can be no freedom (unless you want to start talking about the Afterlife, but let’s not get metaphysical–yet). As such, the War on Drugs is a worthy cause (albeit an improperly named one), so long as the focus is on fighting the global criminal elements that produce and distribute those drugs to Americans.

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Anti-Narcotics police seize a drug production facility in San Salvador. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times.

Drugs are a public health hazard that must be stopped. However, current (and even past) efforts to curtail drug use (on the demand side) and the proliferation of drugs (on the supply side) have been ineffectual. Yet, it is on the supply side where the U.S. will have any kind of positive, immediate effects on curbing the drug trade.

I believe that the U.S. not only needs to get more serious about waging the War on Drugs properly, but that it must do so by refocusing its efforts on the supply side. We shouldn’t ignore the demand side, but that’s going to take far longer and be far harder to curb. Therefore, priority number one should be stemming the supply side. One of the biggest issues is that illicit drugs are becoming increasingly inexpensive, which has only increased their prevalence in the U.S.

Therefore, ratcheting up the pressure on drug cartels producing and gangs distributing this poison must be a major objective. While imperfect, this remains the best way at curbing the flow of drugs into the country. Once the flow is stemmed, then American officials and local communities can focus on reducing the demand for such substances.

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Photo courtesy of Rosecrance.org.

Everyone today wants to talk about “Legalizing It.” Yet, legalization will not lend itself to a reduction in usage of illicit drugs. Indeed, as the National Institute of Health has proven with ending Prohibition, legalizing a previously banned substance merely normalizes (e.g. increases) the usage of that substance.

This is something that many scholars in favor of legalization worry about, such as Peter H. Reuter. Legalization would be the worst possible thing. In fact, legalization would not even get the cartels out of the picture, as many advocates of legalization believe. What is more likely to happen is that the legalization of drugs will merely legitimize several drug cartels (or, at least, the drug part of their criminal enterprises).

Right now, illicit drugs are cheap which is leading to an explosion in their usage and prevalence. By restraining the supply of these substances, America can restrict the access that people–mainly children–will have for these substances, by increasing their cost to consumers.

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Here is a graph of the number of heroin overdoses from 2001-14, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control. While just one drug of many, heroin has become a predominant killer of Americans since 2014, when the U.S. Government cracked down painkillers. According to the DEA, most heroin products are being brought into the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels. http://www.businessinsider.com/us-heroin-coming-from-mexican-cartels

As I will document in a forthcoming article, the Drug War has destabilized several important countries along America’s southern periphery (notably Mexico). This has led to serious instability along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as increases in crime and an influx of easily accessible illegal drugs. Corruption, criminality, and death have been the result of this. The fact is that, despite having spent $50 billion this last fiscal year on the War on Drugs, the focus on busting apart major drug cartels overseas has been minimal.

The U.S. must take more seriously the threat that Mexican Drug Cartels pose to American national security. It must do for the Mexican government what it did for the Colombians in the 1980s and 90s (if not on a larger scale) to prevent that country’s slide into the morass of ethnic and regional civil war, with drugs being at the epicenter of that conflict. Over the next few days, I will release articles detailing the destabilizing effects that the War on Drugs is having on the international system and what’s occurring on the demand side of the war.

A Supply-Side Strategy

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The killing of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was the penultimate example of winning in the supply side of the War on Drugs.

The U.S. has a successful model for curbing the supply of drugs. All it need do is look at the Colombian war against drugs throughout 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. was a key ally for the Colombian government, supplying arms and support in their anti-drug endeavors.

As time progressed and the military and police were able to crack down significantly on drug cartels in the country, the drug lords found it increasingly difficult to operate. Indeed, over time, as the economy and country’s infrastructure improved, soon drug production in the country was curtailed and limited to the countryside, where mostly disenfranchised Marxist rebel groups (i.e. FARC and ELN) engaged in the trade. The Colombians were successful because of unflappable American support in their war.

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U.S. soldiers training Colombian anti-narcotics soldiers. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

Countries like Mexico and other states in Latin America need a replication of that strategy, only on a larger scale. Mexico in particular has all of the makings of a successful country. It has a vibrant population, natural resources (i.e. oil), and geographic size. There is no reason that it needs to be a Failed State, as Foreign Policy Magazine dubbed it in 2009. The U.S. also needs to get more serious about its own border protection. American forces should be unafraid to interdict Mexican drug cartels, even if it means sending our forces across the border at the drop-of-a-hat. Why was it necessary to send American covert forces and drones over from Afghanistan and into Pakistan but not necessarily so from Texas into Tijuana? America needs to get serious about this public health crisis that is being visited upon us by transnational criminals.

Therefore, increased military, diplomatic, and law enforcement cooperation is key between the U.S. and its Latin American partners. What’s more, certain states, like Bolivia or Ecuador, that are boldly anti-American and may, in fact, be suborning the international illicit narcotics trade, need to be punished. They must be sanctioned and, if necessary, suffer military reprisals for their continued insistence on harming the American people. The war will be won only if America successfully leads the fight against the supply side of the international drug trade. As the next article on this issue will detail, Mexico will be the epicenter of the next (and hopefully final) phase of the War on Drugs.

Conclusion

One thing is certain, however, the U.S. must get more serious about fighting Drug Cartels abroad and criminal gangs trafficking in these substances at home, if it is to have any chance of successfully ending this terrible killer of Americans. The key aspect of this war will be a successful fight on the supply side. If America cannot stem the production of these substances then no amount of drug prevention education and drug rehabilitation will matter.

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A Mexican soldiers fighting the Mexican Drug War. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

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