iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Johann Hari

Johann Hari

Posted: February 10, 2009 06:17 PM

Obama Must End the War on Drugs -- or Mexico and Afghanistan Will Collapse

What's Your Reaction:

With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs. But if he doesn't -- and fast -- he may well have two collapsed and hemorrhaging countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Here's a starter-for-ten about where this war has led us. Where in the world are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues: "This is so that you learn respect"? Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a "rapid and sudden collapse"?

Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death toll in Tijuana today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the story of this war -- and why it will have to end, soon.

When you criminalize a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't disappear. The trade is simply transferred from pharmacists and doctors to armed criminal gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up -- and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teenage gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3,000 percent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process on a countrywide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan today.

Drugs syndicates control eight percent of global GDP -- which means they have greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through poor countries, right to the top.

Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the U.S. has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect": press down in one place, and the air rushes to another. When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to skyrocket- - but I didn't imagine it would reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2,000 people were killed. In 2008, it was more than 5,400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing her car to a four year-old child to a family in the "wrong" house watching television. Today, 70 percent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.

The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o ploma. Silver or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. The Interior Secretary, Juan Camilo Mourino, admits that the cartels have so corrupted the police they can't guarantee the safety of informers or the general public any more. The former U.S. drug agency director Barry McCaffrey says Mexico is "not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorists." Within five years, he said, it will be a narco-state controlled by the cartels.

So the U.S. is trying to militarize the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters and hard cash.

The same process has occurred in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, the country's bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50 percent of the country's GDP. The drug cartels have a far bigger budget than the elected government, so they have left the young democracy, police force and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless.

The U.S. reacted by declaring "war on opium." The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO Commander has ordered his troops to "kill all opium dealers." Seeing their main crop destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in rage. The drug war has brought the Taliban back to life.

What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of the America's leading federal agents tackling drug cartels for over thirty years. He discovered the hard way that the current tactics are useless. "Busting top traffickers doesn't work, since others just do battle to replace them," he explains. A crackdown simply produces more violence, as an endless pool of young men hungry for the profits step into the vacuum and fight off their rivals. Nelson concluded there is an alternative: "Legalizing and regulating drugs will stop drug market crime and violence by putting major cartels and gangs out of business. It's the one surefire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?"

Of course, the day after legalization, a majority of gangsters will not suddenly open organic food shops and join the Hare Krishnas. But their profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licenses and chemists rather than to them. The incentives for going into crime and staying there will be decimated. Norm Stamper, the former head of the Seattle Police Department, says plainly: "Regulated legalization of all drugs will drive drug dealers out of business: no product, no profit, no incentive."

We don't have to speculate about these effects; we can look at the last time prohibition ended. When alcohol was criminalized in the US, the murder rate soared. The year it was legalized, the number of murders fell off a cliff -- and continued to drop for the next ten years. (Rates of alcoholism remained the same; deaths from alcohol poisoning declined dramatically as beer replaced moonshine.) Just as Al Capone was bankrupted by legalizing alcohol, we now have a chance to bankrupt the Mexican cartels, the Taliban, the Bloods and the Crips, and the gangs that are shooting their way across world -- before they cause the collapse of two countries.

Mexicans and Afghans are the first to demand this solution. In 2006, the last Mexican President proposed legalization, and the country's Congress voted for it -- but the Bush administration went crazy. They applied so much pressure that, at the last minute, the president vetoed his own proposal. Today, comfortably out of office, he says that "someday" the U.S. will see that "this is the only way." Meanwhile, the Bush administration admitted to drawing up plans for a "surge" of troops to the border if Mexico collapses, to prevent a vast inflow of refugees.

No, Obama doesn't want to spend his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive U.S. President to have used recreational drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where he could be tarred by his opponents as "soft on crime." It's true that where drugs are decriminalized, like the Netherlands, levels of addiction are much lower than in the U.S. It's true that when several U.S. states decriminalized marijuana in the seventies, there was no increase in use. But would this message get across?

Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a Depression. At the birth of the last great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years, it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that drug prohibition costs the U.S. government $44.1bn per year in wasted cash -- and legalization would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs were subject to the same rates as cigarettes and alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted to drug treatment.) Can the U.S. afford to force its failing policy on the world -- especially when it guarantees the collapse of the country it is occupying and its own neighbour?

Legalization would also be the single biggest blow for civil rights in the U.S. since Lyndon Johnson. Today, 13 percent of American drug users are black, yet they make up 74 percent of the drug offenders in prison. A whole generation of black men has been destroyed by prohibition: Barack Obama could easily have become one of them if the police had walked into the wrong party at the wrong time.

Senator Jim Webb has pointed out what would have happened to the young Obama: "Even as I write these words, it is virtually certain that somewhere on the streets of Washington D.C. an eighteen year-old white kid from the Maryland or North Virginia suburbs is buying a stash of drugs from an eighteen year-old black kid. The white kid is going to take that stash back to the suburbs and make some quick money by selling it to other kids." He will grow up and grow out of it, and one day -- as a wealthy professional -- he will "look back on his drug use just as recreational and joke about it ... just one more little rebellion on the way to adulthood."

But the black kid "will enter a hell from which he may never recover." He is likely to be arrested, and to go to prison. "Prison life will change the black kid, harden him, mess up his mind, and redefine his self-image. And after he is released from prison, the black kid will be dragging an invisible ball and chain behind him for the rest of his life... By the time the white kid reaches fifty years of age, he may well be a judge. By the time the black kid reaches fifty, he will likely be permanently unemployable, will be ineligible for many government assistance programs, and will not even be able to vote." Obama wouldn't be President. He wouldn't even be able to vote.

Drug addiction is a always tragedy for the addict and his family -- but drug prohibition spreads the tragedy across the globe. The gangs will only grow from here -- and take whole cities and countries down with them. We still have a chance to take them back into the legal regulated economy, before it's too late for Mexico and Afghanistan and graveyards full of more shot kids on the streets of America. Obama -- and the rest of us -- has to choose: controlled regulation, or violent prohibition? Healthcare, or warfare?

As it stands, the President seems -- by default, and by distraction -- willing to keep singing that old ditty written by the columnist Franklin Adams in 1931, in the dry days of the last futile prohibition. He hummed: "Prohibition is an awful flop./ We like it./ It can't stop what it's meant to stop./ We like it./ It left a trail of graft and slime,/ It don't prohibit worth a dime,/ It's filled our land with vice and crime,/ Nevertheless, we're for it."


Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here.

To join the fight to legalize drugs, good organizations to join are Transform or Stop the Drug War.

 

Follow Johann Hari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johannhari101