the war on drugs

May 21, 2001

Today, I am devoting time to my war on the people who claim that they are fighting a war on drugs. I suspect my war against this insanity will be one of attrition, and one that I will return to regularly.

A number of weeks ago, a small prop plan was flying a family of Christian missionaries in Peru. A Peruvian fighter jet shot the plane down, killing a woman and her young child. Another plane, controlled by the CIA, had identified this small plane as a drug courier — and so these people were killed. My point here is that there is no such thing as a war against drugs; this is really a massive fight against human beings.

In 1998, the U.S. government spent $18 billion on this “war.” This is more money than we spent in any given year during the war in Vietnam.

And there’s a parallel there, because the war in Vietnam, ostensibly against communism, was a lot like the war against drugs. What our elected officials don’t tell us is that it is very hard to fight behavior or beliefs with war. Be it drug use or communism, it’s all about getting people to do (or not do) what we want them to.

My other problem with this war is the massive amount of waste that goes with it. $18 billion a year is more than enough to provide nearly $2 million to drug rehabilitation programs for 10,000 different American communities. Or, given the way that money is being used now, it’s just enough to shoot down God knows how many young mothers and their babies in a civilian plane over Peru.

Either way, what I know with absolute certainty is that something has to change. Our political leadership seems to be as addicted to this war as they were to the war in Vietnam, which also stimulated the American economy.

According to the United Nations, which monitors this sort of stuff, the international drug trade accounts for nearly $500 billion a year — or $0.5 trillion— in international commerce each year. We trade more dope than oil — and you wonder why we have an energy crisis. With this kind of money changing hands, it also becomes clear why our elected officials are loathe to stop it.

The war on drugs allows representatives in districts all over this country to get funding for the building of more prisons, and more money goes to their state and local police. That used to be called “pork projects.” We should call them “dope projects,” since that’s where the money is coming from.

Fighting the drug war also allows our representatives and senators to travel to the most exotic places in the world to “get a feel for the situation on the ground.” Some war!

The real addiction here is our political leaders’ devotion to this war. And they can afford it — like the war in Vietnam, the people who are fighting it and suffering due to it are disproportionately the poor and minorities.

The way we fight this war is also out of whack. The rate of drug abuse among white middle-class teenagers is exactly the same as that among poor black teenagers — but, at the same time, our prisons are filled to bursting with young men from minority groups.

Eighty percent of all women in prison are non-violent drug offenders, and eighty percent of them are mothers. Is it really essential to lock people like this up?

Twenty-five percent of all male prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, and more than seventy percent are behind bars due to some drug-related crime. We pay more than $21,000 per year to house and feed each and every one of these prisoners.

Back to Peru. Do you know who shot down that young woman and baby? The orders came not from an actual CIA plane, as initially reported, but rather from a plane owned by a company under contract to the CIA. The CIA has what it calls “contract operators” that perform these missions all over the world. (Again, more double talk — we used to refer to folks like these as “mercenaries.”) So where does the ultimate responsibility for this act lie? By using a third party, the CIA can claim to Congress that it was a mistake made by their contractor — and most of Congress goes, “Well, we won’t worry about it then.”

The CIA says it uses contractors because it is cheaper than using its own staff. But the contractor pilot of this particular plane makes $110,000 a year. It’s our tax dollars at work.

But maybe some of our lawmakers are starting to get it. A bill has just been introduced into Congress by Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, that would effectively ban the use of private contractors for narcotics sting operations. She says, “I think the American taxpayers are funding a secret war that could suck us into a Vietnam-like conflict.” I say we should elect more people like Schakowsky to Congress.

And, by the way, the CIA has refused to even talk to Congress about this incident in Peru.

The bottom line is that this whole drug war is making a lot of people a lot of money. Even a venerable institution like Merrill Lynch is in on the action, floating loans for prison building. We need to take a hard look at who is profiting off this war and why.

What did Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Segal and Lucky Luciano know during Prohibition that the rest didn’t seem to know? They knew that as long as alcohol was illegal, they could make exorbitant amounts of money and keep the gravy train going by bribing cops and lawmakers. And it would have kept on doing so if not for the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

I have been a consultant in organizational development to many police departments during my career. A number of years ago, I decided to conduct a personal poll of police chiefs to ask their opinion regarding the decriminalization of drugs. Exactly half were in favor of it. While the other half was not, they still admitted that our current policies were nuts.

One of those chiefs I polled became a good friend. He was among the most decorated chiefs in the country, and when I knew him he was chief of a large city in California. He retired to Florida, but got bored and soon took a job as special deputy to the sheriff of Broward County. His job was to look for ways to diminish the corruption among the various anti-drug agencies. My friend left fairly quickly in disgust because, as he put it, there was no way to stop corruption when people could easily make a million dollars in bribes simply for looking the other way.

The real hypocrisy of the war on drugs is that it’s only a war on some drugs. If you are like most Americans, your medicine cabinet has drugs falling out of it — cold pills, allergy pills, antacids, sleeping medications, Ritalin, Prozac, etc. But over-the-counter drugs, and more importantly the pharmaceutical companies, get a pass.

The real fact is that cocaine, heroin, marijuana — by and large, these “street drugs” do not kill people. Okay, yes, there are overdoses and heroin, in particular, can be some nasty stuff. But it is possible to use these drugs and not die immediately.

The bottom line is that drugs did not kill that young woman and her baby in Peru. We did.

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