The other night I experienced a rare event. An epiphany. A bunch of us were sitting around discussing the War On Drugs. The money spent, resources employed, the current impact and its long term chance of success. A normal, discursive sort of an evening, with ordinary Americans exercising their right to contribute their two bits about a major campaign that has outlasted several administrations.
It was in the midst of this that I had my epiphany.
To tell the truth, at first I didn’t recognize it for what it was. Something just popped into my head and rolled out of my mouth (as has been known to happen on other occasions) without a great deal of digestion in between.
Later, though, it came back. And it came back again. It kept coming back with that small voice that says, “Look at me, I am new, I deserve it.”
Finally I did look. And I was forced to agree. For the logical conclusion of my small inspiration is very simple:
There is no War On Drugs. And there never has been.
Now given the billions we have spent and the hundreds of thousands we have prosecuted and put in jail, this seems ludicrous. You have only to watch the evening news or one of those reality cop shows to see officers with their yellow stenciled blue windbreakers smashing in some pusher’s door and throwing the inhabitants onto the floor.
Change the channel and you might see some gritty movie showing undercover cops trying to work their way up the hierarchy of some cartel’s organization.
So how can I say there is no War On Drugs?
To answer that, you have to look at the nature of warfare. Warfare consists, at its essence, in the coordinated efforts of masses of soldiers to achieve strategic goals. The combat soldiers are fighting, the officers are directing them, the generals are coordinating the efforts of the different units and the government is both supplying them with the tools and giving them overall political guidance.
What, then, would one say about a war in which the vast majority of the money, resources and soldiers were spent on busy work that was absolutely guaranteed to have no impact on the outcome of the war?
We were talking, that night, about why the police do the sort of street busts we have seen so often when they know that there is almost literally a line of eager hustlers waiting to take each pusher’s place. I mentioned something a friend of mine, who is in the business, once told me: They do it because it is easy.
You can hardly drive down the streets of some inner city neighborhoods without seeing the pushers doing deals on the corners. A few shots with a video camera, a chase and — Wham! — you have another iron-clad bust.
If you are feeling ambitious, or the political pressure is high, you can follow the pusher back to his (or her) supplier, break down the door and — Wham! — you’re on national TV.
Nice thing about it is with the “get tough” policies, Federal mandatory sentencing laws and such, your felon is likely to get something like a solid five years in prison.
This effort eats up something over ninety per cent of all the funds directed towards the War On Drugs. In addition, it is the single most important cause of our burgeoning prison population (currently over 1.5 million, the largest per capita in the world, and rising fast).
What is weird about all this is that everyone knows that these arrests have absolutely no impact on the availability nor even the price of drugs. The only things that can have any impact are busts further up the line: major distributors, suppliers and importers.
From the military point of view, these would be considered sideshows: Distractions that eat up resources without any possible impact on the war as a whole. Generals are taught to avoid these like the plague.
The fact that these busts occur in inner city/poor neighborhoods guarantees that: 1) The majority of those prosecuted will be minorities, and, 2) The hole created will be the equivalent of a job opening.
If these street busts and the threat of a mandatory five year sentence were used to turn the pushers on their bosses and to start nibbling up the supply chain, all this effort might have some use. But due primarily to turf wars and lack of cooperation, local cops make local busts. Drug cops and major crime police are very much the upper crust of law enforcement. As a rule, they do not talk to, cooperate or coordinate with local police. Period.
The result is that all of the street work and all of the busts end up being a sort of Brownian motion: Lots of local motion with no overall movement.
Without any real link between all this effort and any plan to use it to work up the delivery chain, it becomes, with all its expense and all its casualties, an authentic waste of effort.
In military terms, it is as if, in World War Two, we had taken ninety five per cent of the soldiers, complete with weapons, supply lines and all the rest, and sent them out west to control the jack rabbit population. Then we told the remaining five per cent to go off and fight the Nazis.
I suspect if we had applied that wonderful strategy to Hitler, we would now be speaking German.
Call me a purist, but I decline to call any program that wastes over ninety percent of its resources on sideshows a war.