The “war on drugs” will ultimately go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived, unjust, and plainly stupid set of policies ever enacted. It is a failure on every level and a black hole for tens billions of dollars every year (here's what Walter Cronkite has to say about it). While most of its failings are well known (e.g., absurdly high incarceration rates for non-violent offenses and the diversion of law enforcement from serious threats), there is increasing evidence that this misguided war is undermining democracy around the world.
From Columbia to Guatemala, from Mexico to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the war on drugs is creating political chaos and empowering criminal elements that are literally ripping apart the democratic fabric of these nations.
Take Mexico for example, to which President Bush has just pledged $500 million for drug enforcement efforts. Ever since the U.S. began cracking down on Miami as a port of entry for drugs from Latin America, traffickers have switched to Mexico as the preferred entry point. This has led to the growth of drugs gangs that have unleashed a massive wave of violence and killed thousands of people over the last few years, including policemen, army personnel, and innocent civilians. As a result entire states in Mexico are now essentially under military occupation.
Much the same can be said for Guatemala and Columbia, where drug gangs routinely assassinate political leaders and have created such a culture of fear that the countries can aptly be described as “narco-states”.
But what is happening on the other side of the world in Afghanistan is particularly troubling. Not only did we unwisely divert resources from rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan to the war in Iraq, we now seem intent on doing everything we can to disrupt the booming poppy trade even if it enrages the Afghan farmers and drives them into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
There is no doubt that the poppy trade is fueling these terrorist organizations, but the best way to dampen their influence is not to turn the farmers against us by destroying their livelihood. Instead we should buy the poppy directly from them at high prices. We could use the crops to help supply morphine to developing world nations which desperately need the drug for legitimate medical purposes; doing this would produce goodwill for the U.S. at a time when we could certainly use it.
Instead we are stubbornly maintaining our ideological opposition to illegal drugs and are preparing to spray the Afghan fields with herbicides, which will kill the plants and poison wildlife and humans alike. This is insane; it’s hard to imagine a better way to alienate the Afghan farmers and force them into the arms of our enemies. Unfortunately, this insanity is totally consistent with our irrational decades-long “war on drugs” policy.
Still there may be a glimmer of hope.
With national security concerns seeming to trump all else these days, maybe the glaring contradiction between pursuing the war on drugs and our stated aim of global democracy will lead to a reevaluation of the policy (at least in Afghanistan).
I’m not holding my breath.
P.S. Get a taste for how brutal Mexican drug cartels are and how the U.S. supplies them with their firepower here.