The Worst Bad Solution

To some problems there are no good solutions, only less-bad solutions.

The so-called "War on Drugs" is the worst bad solution.

I say the "so-called 'War on Drugs'" because, of course, there is no war on the substances that are by far the biggest killers: tobacco and alcohol. Addiction to legal opiate-based prescription pills is rapidly becoming America's worst drug problem.

But since 1973 we've been "at war" against "illicit drugs" such as heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. We've spent billions of dollars (by some estimates over $1 trillion) attempting to stop the importation of these drugs from Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere. This war has not only cost money. Worse, it has cost lives: Over 50,000 people in Mexico alone have been killed over the past six years in drug-related violence.

To what result?

Drugs are more available and more potent than ever. Our prisons and jails are overcrowded with men and women convicted on drug-related charges, at a tremendous financial and social cost. The Mexican cartels have attained wealth and power that rival their national government's, and the horrific violence -- including hangings, beheadings, and torture -- spirals ever upward as the cartels fight each other for control of the lucrative drug trade.

We have created a gigantic and self-perpetuating anti-drug bureaucracy of federal, state, and local law enforcement (in addition to the corrections system) that has a vested interest in the continuation of this endless war -- at 39 years, by far America's longest.

And, in doing so, we have spawned a far bigger monster than we originally started out to fight.

The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), in a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, virtually created the cartels back in the 1970s, when it destroyed the poppy fields of Sinaloan opium growers. In response, these growers soon reformed into a single, powerful organization, La Federación, that divided Mexico into drug-smuggling plazas, or territories. What had once been a local phenomenon became a national one. We sought to remove the cancer; instead, we metastasized it.

Worse, we help to perpetuate it.

Make no mistake: The anti-drug establishment and the cartels have a symbiotic relationship -- they rely on each other for their very existence and survival. They are simultaneously each other's worst enemy and best friend.

The cycle is truly vicious.

The more intense our interdiction efforts become, the higher the price of drugs rises. The higher the price, the greater the profits to the cartels. The greater the profits, the greater the inducement to violence.

It is the very prohibition of drugs that funds the cartels, and this is the fatal paradox of the "War on Drugs." We lose the war by the very act of fighting it.

Our victories are fleeting and ultimately futile. True, we have arrested and/or killed cartels leaders. The disruption to the flow of drugs is temporary, and all we have done is to create a job vacancy worth killing for.

Even when we have succeeded in denigrating the power of entire cartels, the result is ultimately self-defeating, as rival cartels quickly swoop in to pick up the pieces -- violently. The Mexican people pay for our "victories" with their blood. (And let's not delude ourselves that these are only gangsters killing other gangsters. Police, soldiers, judges, mayors, journalists, and other innocent people -- women and children -- whose only crime was to live in the wrong neighborhood have been tortured and murdered.)

The hard truth is that as long as there are buyers, there will be sellers.

The United States makes up about 5 percent of the world's population, but we consume about 25 percent of the world's illicit drugs. And yet, with hypocrisy that is almost breathtaking in its audacity, we blame the "producer" countries and demand that they take action on their drug problem.

There is no "Mexican drug problem"; it's the "American drug problem." While the American government spends money that it can't afford to prevent drugs from entering the country, a significant portion of the American populace spends money (that it often can't afford) to do the exact opposite. The Mexican people must feel as if they're living next door to a gigantic -- and demanding -- schizophrenic.

No question: America has a drug problem.

But the solution isn't the military model, a "War on Drugs" that has no clear definition of victory, no exit strategy, no coherent strategy at all except the fatalistic acceptance of a seemingly endless stalemate. It hasn't worked, it cannot work, and it will not work.

We are trapped in a cycle of arrests, raids, and jailings to the extent that now several generations in the same families have done time in prison on drug charges.

It is time to end this war. Time to recognize the drug problem as the social health issue that it is and treat it accordingly.

Legalization and decriminalization might be distasteful and frightening, but they are far better alternatives to what we are doing now.

In 1970 Richard Nixon's first "drug war" budget was $100 million. This year the "War on Drugs" is budgeted at $15.1 billion, 31 times Nixon's amount, even when adjusted for inflation.

To some problems there are no good solutions, only less-bad solutions.

The "War on Drugs" is the worst bad solution.

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