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An Assessment of Defeat

Big Government Breaks Bad in Drug War

by TOM BARRY

Rick Perry and the other Republican presidential candidates are right. Americans are fed up, as Perry writes in his book Fed Up!, with “old guard politicians” dedicated to protecting the “establishment” and the federal government’s “culture of waste.”

That description of big government is right on target with respect to the Obama administration’s continuing support for the wasteful drug-war bureaucracy.

The Obama administration and the Democratic Party have been stalwart supporters of drug-war agencies such as the National Drug Intelligence Center and the White House’s own Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). At first glance, these agencies, which have monumentally failed at their founding mission to create a “drug-free America” might well be regarded as poster children for the Republican critique of wasteful federal spending and misguided big government.

Although the Obama administration announced during its year that it would no longer use the “war on drugs” terminology, it did not initially request any reduction in the drug war budget – keeping the requested budgets at more than $15 billion for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

In early September the National Drug Intelligence Center released its annual “National Drug Threat Assessment,” which warns:

The illicit trafficking and abuse of drugs present a challenging, dynamic threat to the United States. Overall demand is rising, largely supplied by illicit drugs smuggled to U.S. markets by major transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

Forty years after President Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs,” the Obama administration now warns that illegal drugs continue to constitute a threat to our national security.

What is more, according to this new intelligence assessment, the expanding U.S. demand for illegal drugs is being readily met by a new array of TCOs based in Mexico.  These TCOs have emerged to meet the rising demand for illegal drugs in the United States — this despite the new drug war aid to Mexico and the dramatic increases in U.S. border security operations, including an major expansion of border counternarcotics operations of the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense.

Nowhere in this new threat assessment – or that can be found anywhere else in the federal drug war bureaucracy — is there any hint of any admission of failure or any recommendation that drug prohibition policies be reexamined.

Despite the proclamations of the leading Republican presidential candidates about balancing the budget and shrinking federal government, it is highly unlikely that a Republican administration would act any differently. Support for the drug war and drug prohibition is strongly bipartisan.

Drug War as a National Security Imperative

Rick Perry says he would exempt the quarter of the federal budget dedicated to national security from any budget slashing.

The federal government’s “war on drugs” is firmly embedded in the country’s ever-expanding security apparatus, spanning the Department of Defense, the drug war agencies of the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and the “intelligence community.”

Like the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, the National Drug Intelligence Center emerged as part of the new drug-war bureaucracy created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and put into place by President George H.W. Bush.

The NIDC’s main champion was Cong. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who included a measure authorizing the creation of the drug intelligence center in the 1993 Defense Appropriations Bill. Infamous for his military earmarks, Murtha, who served alternately as chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, died last year.

An Assessment of Defeat

The NIDC, which not coincidentally is located in Murtha’s old congressional district in Pennsylvania, paints a picture of defeat in latest drug intelligence assessment.

According to the NDIC threat assessment, the drug war isn’t going well. It says:

Drug consumption

  • Overall drug availability is increasing. 
  • The abuse of several major illicit drugs, including heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, appears to be increasing, especially among the young.
  • Marijuana use among adolescent students has begun to increase after a decade of gradual decline.
  • An estimated 8 .7 percent of Americans aged 12 or older—or 21 .8 million individuals—were current illicit drug users in 2009, a statistically significant increase from 8.0 percent in 2008.
  • The increase in heroin availability has resulted in an increase in heroin-related overdoses (HROs) in several locations throughout theUnited States. Increased HROs have been reported in cities and in more than 60 U.S. counties spanning at least 30 states across the nation.

Drug production and trafficking

  • Across our southwestern border, drug-related violence has left more than 50,000 Mexicans dead since 2007.
  • Increased heroin production in Mexico and increased involvement of Mexican transnational criminal organizations in the distribution of South American heroin have contributed to wider heroin availability in many U.S. markets, including some where the drug was previously unavailable.
  • Cannabis cultivation in Mexico, combined with high levels of domestic cultivation, has resulted in high marijuana availability.
  • The level of illicit poppy cultivation in Mexico was second only to that in Afghanistan in 2009, potentially producing an estimated 50 metric tons of heroin.

Threat projection

  • The threat posed by the trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs will not abate in the near term and may increase.
  • Mexican-based TCOs’ proficiency in the production and distribution of marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin will ensure that the drugs remain readily available in markets throughout the United States.
  • Major Mexican-based TCOs will continue to dominate wholesale drug trafficking in the United States for the foreseeable future and will further solidify their positions through collaboration with U.S. gangs.

Responding to U.S. counternarcotics operations, drug trafficking organizations “continue to alter patterns in drug production, trafficking, and abuse,” says NDIC. “Traffickers are modifying their interrelationships, altering drug production levels, and adjusting their trafficking routes and methods. Major Mexican-based TCOs continue to solidify their dominance over the wholesale illicit drug trade as they control the movement of most of the foreign-produced drug supply across the southwest border.”

The adaptive capacity of the drug trafficking organizations contributes to NDIC’s glum threat assessment.  Noting that most illegal drugs are smuggled overland into the country, NDIC warns that “increased border security appears to be forcing traffickers to increase their use of alternative methods such as noncommercial vessels and ultralight aircraft.”

Stepped up border security operations and the U.S.-supported drug war in Mexico apparently have had little impact on the U.S. drug market and the crossborder drug trade.

According to NDIC, “The Mexican-based organizations’ preeminence derives from a competitive advantage based on several factors, including access to and control of smuggling routes across the U.S. southwest border and the capacity to produce (or obtain), transport, and distribute nearly every major illicit drug of abuse in the United States.”

The prospects of turning around the drug war, either at home or abroad, appear low, according to the drug intelligence assessment, which predicts that the above-stated “advantages are unlikely to change significantly in the short term, ensuring the dominance of Mexican-based TCOs for at least the next several years.”

There’s also bad news on the return side of the drug market.  The Obama administration has dramatically stepped up operations to check southbound traffic at the southwestern border, monitoring for cash and gun smuggling into Mexico.

Getting drugs across the border into U.S. distribution networks must be matched, if the illegal drug market is to fucntion successfully, by pathways to ensure that drug profits return to drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. The NDIC calls bulk cash smuggling “a tactical vulnerability” for the illegal drug trade. Yet new “bulk cash interdiction efforts have not impacted overall TCO operations to a significant extent.”

Obama Keeps Drug War Budget but Changes Terminology

NIDC has a new term for the organizations that traffic illegal drugs.

Like it counterparts in the drug war bureaucracy, NIDC has adopted the new terminology of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to substitute for the old lexicon of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). This change responds to the Obama administration’s new Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime.

Attempting to explain the new terminology, NIDC says its new usage of TCOs is “in reference to those TCOs that engage in drug trafficking activity,” while acknowledging that “some members of the intelligence community continue to use the term ‘drug trafficking organizations.’”

NDIC doesn’t directly address the implied assertion of the TCO thesis and strategy that the TCOs have a crossborder or transnational presence. But the intelligence assessment does address the issue indirectly by pointing to the role of U.S.-based gangs in distributing the drugs from the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

According to NDIC, “With gangs already the dominant retail drug suppliers in major and midsized cities, some gang members are solidifying their ties to Mexican TCOs to bolster their involvement in wholesale smuggling, internal distribution, and control of the retail trade.”

Rather than having a direct presence, then, Mexican drug traffickers rely on gangs and other distribution networks to market the drugs. “Criminal gangs —that is street, prison, and outlaw motorcycle gangs—remain in control of most of the retail distribution of drugs throughout much of the United States, particularly in major and midsize cities,” reports NDIC.

No Evidence of Spillover Violence

The NDIC’s new threat assessment doesn’t support the claims by many border hawks, such as Texas Governor Rick Perry, that the drug war in Mexico in spilling into the United States. But its assessment of spillover violence is vague and seems purposefully intended to keep the intelligence center out of the political tensions about spillover violence and border security.

According to the drug intelligence assessment:

  • Violent infighting among rival Mexican TCOs, at least partially attributable to competition over control of lucrative crossing points along the Southwest Border, is occurring mainly on the Mexico side of the border.
  • Criminal activity such as kidnappings and home invasion robberies directed against individuals involved in drug trafficking has been reported in some U .S. border communities. But limitations on the data make it difficult to assess whether such activity is increasing.
  • The available data are insufficient to support trend analysis—particularly an analysis of whether such crime is increasing.
  • FBI data show that overall violent crime rates in the southwestern states trended downward between 2007 and mid-2010, while overall property crime rates generally remained stable.

According to the National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) 2010, crack cocaine, and ice methamphetamine are the drugs that most often contribute to crime. Heroin was reported as a significant contributor to property crime (18 .6% of respondents). There is little relation to widespread marijuana consumption to violent or property crime.

The Marijuana Threat

Border security is largely conceived as the effort to seal the border between the ports of entry (POEs).  But what exactly is the threat? Border hawks correctly say the long stretches of isolated border are the main entry points for most of the drugs entering the United States.

But what the border hawks don’t say is the drug loads smuggled across the border outside the POEs are almost exclusively bundles of marijuana.  The administration asserts that its border security operations are “risk-based.”  But the administration doesn’t attempt to explain how it can rightly claim a risk-based enforcement strategy on the border when the “threat” along the border is largely marijuana, which has no serious side effects, is increasing regarded as medically beneficially, and is not physically addictive.

Increasingly, as the number of illegal immigrants decreases, the border security buildup is focused on the marijuana trade. As NDIC reports:

More than 99 percent of illicit drug seizures made between POEs in Arizona and New Mexico involve marijuana; more than 91 percent of the marijuana seized in these incidents is seized from smugglers on foot.

One of the fascinating developments in the drug war is the emergence of Florida-based Cuban traffickers. It is not that, as the U.S. government has long charged, the Cuban government is a player in the transnational drug trade, but rather recent Cuban immigrants have started producing and distributing “high-potency marijuana” in Florida, whose role “contributed to the state’s ranking as first in the nation for the number of indoor cannabis grow sites seized (863) and second for the number of cannabis plants eradicated at indoor grow sites in 2009 (55,378).”

Designer Drugs Skirt Drug Prohibition

Drug prohition enforcement has sparked the creation of a rapidly expanding market for synthetic drugs that are not yet classified as illegal by the federal government.

Such natural substances as marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote are prohibited as Schedule 1 substances under the provisions of the the Controlled Substances Act. Seeking drug experiences that avoid entering the criminal illegal drug market, many U.S. consumers are finding a expanded offering of synthetic cannabinoids (chemical compounds found in marijuana) and stimulants.

Across the country, even in some of the smallest towns, these synthetics are on sale at local convenience stores, tobacco (now called smoke) shops, gas stations, and sex merchandise stores, as well on the Internet.  Over the past fews, the synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants have emerged as “serious problems,” says NIDC.

The synthetic cannabinoids – marketed as an “legal alternative to marijuana” – and stimulants –marketed as an “legal alternative to cocaine” or Ecstasy – have resulted in a spike in calls to poison control centers.

The synthetics market mocks drug prohibition, galling law enforcement officials and befuddling concerned parents of young users.  Marketed as Spice and K2, among other labels, the marijuana substitutes are generically sold as plant food or incense, while the synthetic stimulants are widely sold as “bath salts.”

Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug. Its top ranking may soon be disputed by the total number of nonmedical users of controlled prescription drugs (CPDs).

Since 2008 there has been a 12 percent increased in the use of medication that that, according to NDIC, have “abuse potential, mainly pain relievers and depressants.  This abuse of CPDs involves at least 7 million individuals aged 12 or older.

If the main concern of the drug warrior bureaucracy is the public health impact, the NDIC’s conclusions about the expansion of nonmedical CPD use also points to the need for a rethinking of the drug problem.

According to NDIC, “the number of prescription overdose deaths exceeds the number of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine deaths combined.”  There is no overdose threat for marijuana users, yet the marijuana trade and marijuana consumption are the main targets of U.S. drug prohibition, border security, and Mexico drug-war operations.

Republicans Take the Lead

The Obama administration did request less funding for some divisions of the drug war bureaucracy in the 2012 budget request, including a $19.3 billion decrease for NDIC.

But is has been House Republicans that have led the fight to cut some drug war agencies like NDIC, which has long been championed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. The Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to end NDIC funding, which has long counted on unwavering support from Democrats.

Cong. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) insists that the NDIC budget should be zeroed out given the inability of agency to demonstrate its impact or even to show that its “intelligence” is not duplicated by other agencies.  He characterizes NDIC funding as typical pork barrel funding by Democrats.

But few Republicans, except for libertarian ideologues like Ron Paul, have been unwilling to take on the drug war as part of their challenge to big government and their campaign to balance the budget.

President Obama has not demonstrated any inclination to end the drug wars and drug prohibition. To the contrary, the president has either increased or redirected federal funding for counternarcotics operations, especially along the border.

The federal government’s commitment to the drug war – redesignated by Obama as the “combat against transnational crime” – is a telling case of how big government can break bad.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/