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The Failed War on Drugs
Legalize It, Don’t Demonize It
by Andre Achong

This last February, SuperBowl fans were exposed to $3.5 million dollars’ worth of public advocacy commercials courtesy of the Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The message was simple: if you buy drugs, you fund terrorists. It is amazing that the ONDCP would find it useful to promote that idea when the link between drug money and terrorism has been obvious for the last twenty years. This one-dimensional logic represents the latest salvo in the War on Drugs, and one more piece of evidence that suggests the United States government has no clue as to how to solve the drug problem.

At worst, the commercials are a cynical attempt on the part of the Administration to repackage the War on Drugs as the War on Terrorism, hoping that by winning one it can declare victory on the other.

President Bush’s goal is to reduce drug use in America by 25 percent over the next five years. As laudable an objective as that is, the President should understand that he has no realistic chance of meeting it unless he changes his focus.

The government plans to allocate $2.3 billion this year alone towards interdiction efforts, but earmark only $1.6 billion for treatment over the next five years. That funding disparity is sure to produce unsatisfactory results. Unless the government addresses the reasons that cause drug use, and comes up with measures to counteract those reasons, we will gain no ground in the Drug War.

Locking up half-ounce marijuana users and half-baked incentive programs designed to persuade farmers to grow flowers and vegetables instead of coca have not been effective. Even interdiction efforts are mocked now and again by the sheer creativity of drug smugglers.

Case in point: Federal agents in Tierra del Sol, California (which sits on the <U.S.-Mexico> border) discovered the entrance to an underground tunnel that stretched 1,200 feet into Mexico. DEA agents maintain that the Arellano Felix drug cartel of Mexico smuggled "billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States" through the tunnel, according to the Washington Post.

While the discovery of the tunnel is a coup for the DEA, it also serves to underscore the difficulty of impeding the flow of drugs into the United States. This reinforces the idea that the audacity of drug traffickers has only increased in the wake of increased security since September 11. Only one tunnel has been found, but how many more are there, and what is to stop the Arellano Felixes or any other cartel from building another?

The irony is large-scale drug smugglers like the Arellano Felixes have a scant representation in the American prison system. Instead, more than two million people – most of them guilty of minor drug offences – languish in jails across America.

The only place in the world that seems to have the right idea about how to handle the drug problem is the Netherlands. There is no "War on Drugs" there, because the Dutch do not see the need to wage war against a sector of their own population. Rather, drugs are a social problem, and the focus there is on humanizing drug addicts, not demonizing them as we do in America.

The Dutch way seems to be working. The famous coffeeshops that pepper many Dutch towns hold the secret. In the coffeeshops you can buy literally dozens of kinds of marijuana. The police do not see these shops or their customers as a threat, and they let the cannabis trade take its course. The police can shut down a coffeeshop cannabis operation at any time if the coffeeshop sells more than a few grams per customer, and if cannabis is sold to underage clients.

Harder drugs like cocaine and heroin are not huge problems because the Dutch have been effective in educating their citizens on the perils of hard drug addiction. The price of Dutch heroin is half of what it costs in England, yet, according to the Observer, the Netherlands does not have as many heroin addicts per head of the population compared to England. And in spite of its liberal bent concerning cannabis, the Netherlands has fewer smokers per head of the population than England or the United States.

In Utrecht, there is an addict center that is neat and clean. There, the Observer reports, addicts can inject drugs with clean state-provided needles in efforts to wean them off their dangerous addiction. Providing clean needles to addicts was an idea ex-President Bill Clinton and his drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey refused to entertain, despite the obvious benefits.

Both Clinton and McCaffrey stated that they did not want to support state-provided needles because that would "send the wrong message." That implied that the right message was to let addicts continue to use dirty needles amongst themselves and perhaps help spread HIV.

The Dutch addict centers not only provide needles, but they provide rehabilitation programs and employment training. The theory is treat addicts like human beings and they will react that way. Treat addicts like criminals and they will act like criminals.

But do not think for a minute that places like Utrecht and Amsterdam are bright and shiny utopias where drug addicts roam the streets with joyful abandon. The liberal marijuana culture in these cities means an influx of millions of tourists from all over the world clamoring to take advantage of the coffeeshop cannabis trade and the prostitutes.

There is still drug-related crime, but the Dutch mostly deal with bicycle theft and shoplifting. Here in America we are subjected to carjackings and drive-by shootings.

Why do the Dutch have a handle on the drug problem while, according to the National Post, the United States, who spent 35 billion dollars on the War on Drugs in 2000, is losing ground daily?

The answer is simple: prohibition is not working.

The United States government tried prohibition with alcohol in the 1920s, and the result was gangsters, murder, mayhem, and corruption. In the 1920s, alcoholism was not treated like a disease, but as a vice that demanded a criminal solution.

In the year 2002, the government uses the same rationale with drugs, and expects it to work. There is no evidence, however, to think that drug prohibition will work when alcohol prohibition failed so spectacularly.

There is even more bad news ahead. Much of the resources that have been earmarked for fighting the War on Drugs will certainly be diverted to the War on Terrorism. There is already evidence of that happening. According to a New York Times article in late October of last year, "The recent terrorist attacks are placing an intense burden on police departments around the country as officers juggle urgent new demands: responding to hundreds of reports of spilled powder, bolstering security in public places and even leaving their departments to serve in the military reserves. Senior police officials worry that as a result, departments will become slower in responding to crimes and may not be able to close as many cases."

And according to an Associated Press report in that same month, "Illegal drug trafficking in the Caribbean is up 25 percent, probably because traffickers see an opportunity with U.S. law enforcement focused on terrorism . . . Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson said that like other enforcement agencies, DEA has been stretched thin since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Ironically, the DEA is still finding time to pursue AIDS and cancer patients in California who use marijuana to ease their pain.

All of this adds up to the Drug War being an enormous waste of time and resources. On one side Americans are being squeezed by the War on Terror. On the other side we are being squeezed by a large section of the population who is determined to get high, and who thinks the government does not care about their addictions but just wants to lock them up.

The bottom line is if America ever wants to get a handle on its drug problem, it needs to do more than waste millions of dollars on commercials that state the obvious, and it needs to look to the Dutch for more than just Gouda and Heineken.

Andre Achong is a columnist for YellowTimes. He encourages your comments: aachong@YellowTimes.org