The Cost of the War on Drugs

Quotations below from a story in the The Telegraph in the UK, a very conservative newspaper not sympathetic to liberalisation of drugs, and generally  more interested in pictures of Catherine Windsor (née Middleton) than the cost of the war on drugs, headlined ‘Mexico drug gangs force gladiator style death-marches‘.  


The new vicious trend in the country’s brutal drug war follows beheadings, hangings, mutilations and even the skinning of rivals.

He described how some of those taken in a recent spate of kidnappings from buses had been forced to fight in coliseum-style battles.

Around 200 bodies have been found buried in mass graves near the city of San Fernando, just south of Texas, in recent months and many of the victims had suffered head injuries.

According to the trafficker survivors of the gruesome battles were then forced to act as unwilling hit men for the Zetas drug cartel, embarking on suicide missions to kill members of rival gangs.


These stories of systematic sadism and murder are the product of the ‘War on Drugs’, in which the inherently  bad idea that potential self-harm can be dealt with through criminalising substances and those who use them, is intensified a hundred times by the idea the state should be at war with drugs.  An activity that is already criminalised, is given a battle field context by treating anyone who makes money from selling those substances as the equivalent of a terrorist.  This is not about saying that use of banned drugs is a good thing, because even from a very anti-drugs point of view, the war on drugs is  a failed and self-destructive strategy.  In the USA it has led to an increasing militarisation of the police, who uses guns and armoured cars to break into the homes of people suspected of selling cannabis.  Cannabis.  A substance that many of the privileged politicians who make the laws and enforce the policies of the war on drug certainly consumed at university, and in some cases still do.  The victims of the War on Drugs are disproportionately socially marginal, they are low income, they are African-American, and so on.

The consequence of the War on Drugs in Latin America is to put already weak state structures under impossible pressure.  Criminalisation of drugs ensures that criminals distribute drugs, and make profits of a kind that no one could make if drugs were at least decriminalised (that is to make individuals taking drugs in private legal, though not open consumption or sale).  The War on Drugs makes it inevitable that those criminals form paramilitary gangs, and use all the methods used by armed groups outside legal control.

Even from a prohibitionist point of view, the War should be replaced by legally enforceable measures to treat addicts, and drug dealing should be dealt with like any other black market by normal police, not robocops smashing down the doors of the already miserable.  I would like to see further liberalisation, but since any attempt at any kind of mainstream political discussion of this issue is just extraordinarily difficult, and also given existing international agreements that are very difficult to change, all that can be hoped for in the short term is a discussion how to implement prohibition in a way which succeeds in reducing drug use and does not succeed in generating organised sadism by criminal gangs.  Even this is just extraordinarily difficult.

The mainstream political and media discourse is so dominated by an association of drugs with Evil, and liberalisation with Insanity.  And there is so much hypocrisy.  We can be sure that there are journalists maintaining these clichés who take cocaine at parties, and consume other illegal substances in various contexts.  And oh yes, alcohol does the most harm of all drugs.  And wasn’t the prohibition of alcohol in twenties America a great success?  Well, a great success for crime lords and their sadistic enforcers.  


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