Glen Olives Thompson Opinion
Heroin's price decline, 1981-2012. Heroin's price decline, 1981-2012.

Gearing up for the new drug war

A trillion dollars spent and illegal drugs cheaper and more readily available than ever

Since 1973, U.S. taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars on drug interdiction and enforcement efforts. Adjusted for inflation, illegal drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever before in the course of human history, while opioid overdoses in the U.S. are rising dramatically.

For its part, Mexico has suffered the loss of more than 120,000 lives since 2006 as result of its war on the drug cartels, with some 26,000 “disappeared” – presumed dead.

Enter FBI Director James Comey, who announced last month, in response to the heroin overdose epidemic in the U.S. (most of which comes from Mexico), that “our job is to try to crack down on the supply, literally, to be very blunt, to drive up the price to make it less and less attractive for people who are addicted to pills to move to heroin.”

That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard in a long time, even taking into account that it’s been raining dumb ideas in Washington for the last seven weeks – a virtual deluge. The idea that we ought to double down on the drug war is every bit as dumb as then-Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s supply side solution in 2006 of starting a war against the Mexican cartels.

The United States blames Mexico for the supply. Mexico blames the U.S. for the demand. And around and around we go.

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history” is one of my favorite, albeit apocryphal, quotations of all time. Georg Hegel is said to have said those words back in the early 19th century; others attribute them to George Bernard Shaw. No matter, this aphorism has proven to be increasingly prescient in the early 21st century.

Prior to the late 19th century there were basically no drug laws on the books. Drugs like cannabis, cocaine and heroin were widely available on the open, legal market, often in pharmacies. There was no need for a black market, cartels or criminal gangs. The rate of drug use represented a tiny fraction of the population, and an even tinier fraction abused these drugs.

The war on drugs has never been about drugs.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The above excerpt is from Dan Baum’s 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s chief domestic advisor. The modern war on drugs – Nixon’s brainchild – followed a history of social and political control of perceived enemies of the government that began in the 19th century: marijuana prohibition targeting Mexicans and Sikhs in California, heroin and cocaine prohibitions targeting blacks in the south, opium prohibition targeting Chinese immigrants throughout the west, and of course alcohol prohibition targeted against southern European immigrant-imbibers (mostly the Irish and Italians).

The historical evidence is so clear and convincing on this matter that it has become almost banal to talk about it.

But it is what it is.

A trillion dollars spent, and heroin’s price per gram dropped from US $3,260 in 1981 to just $465 in 2012.

Other illegal drugs mirror this precipitous decline in prices. Ironically, prescription drug prices are increasing almost as fast as illegal drug prices are declining. (That’s one reason opioid users are forced into the unregulated illegal market for heroin.)

According to the Drug Policy Institute, the yearly supply of heroin to the U.S. could fit into a single shipping container, and there’s basically no limit to the supply. This makes drug interdiction as a method of reducing supply a purblind pipe dream, the ultimate in naiveté.

Yet that’s this administration’s ostensible strategy. It’s a palliative, giving us comfort that we’re fighting “bad hombres,” but it is no cure.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Comey’s and Donald Trump’s animus for resuscitating the dying drug war with a crash cart of taxpayer money has anything to do with racism or control of political enemies. I’m not a mind reader and don’t like to impute motives that, absent a smoking gun admission, are impossible to prove.

But surely the private prison industry and its lobbyists like the noises they’re hearing from Washington on this issue. And it’s doubtful one would have to twist the arms of the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to take a funding increase.

If the Trump administration is serious about reducing drug use and abuse, and saving $15 billion a year in drug enforcement spending, it would simply get out of the drug enforcement business altogether, and not pump more money into a war that is impossible to win. The same goes for Mexico.

Republicans are big fans of reducing the size of the federal government, cutting spending, cutting regulation, and increasing states’ rights, at least in theory. So let’s treat drug abuse as a public health problem and not a criminal problem, and let the states decide their own drug policies.

The smart states would be free to legalize, regulate and control currently illicit drugs, using the increased tax revenue to fund drug treatment and education instead of prisons and bloated law enforcement bureaucracies. Dumb states (Brownback’s Kansas comes to mind) could continue prohibition and bankrupt themselves at their pleasure.

Of course I’m kidding. That would be the kind of policy shift requiring ideological consistency.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com

Reader forum