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Drugs: Losing the Longest War

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On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs ... again. There have been one or two conflicts in human history that lasted longer -- though we'd better win this before 2012, or we'll find ourselves alone in a league with the Hundred Years' War.

So, how have we done in this marathon, world-straddling conflict? There have been signal victories: the French Connection was shut down, the Medellin cartel is out of business, shipments of marijuana, cocaine and heroin worth billions of dollars have been intercepted and destroyed -- which means pretty much nothing at all.

Plan Colombia, in which the U.S. spent $4.7 billion dollars to eradicate coca production in that notorious source of marching powder, saw the acreage devoted to filling America's nostrils actually increase over the five years of the program. Moreover, regular spraying of the fields from the air with glyphosate helped isolate a herbicide-resistant strain of the coca plant, cuttings of which have been distributed throughout the growing region. Our training of specialist anti-drug police forces has resulted, in the case of Los Zetas in Mexico, in the creation of the most efficient and well-organized drug gang in the country: traffickers on steroids. Removing pseudoephidrine from pharmacy shelves, condemning countless Americans to a summer of sneezing, did indeed put a dent in the illegal methamphetamine trade -- for about four months, after which all statistics returned to normal.

We may seize between 15 and 30% of illegal drug imports, but with profit margins between 300 and 1,000% on this stage of the journey alone, such losses count as mere leakage. Brave and selfless agents of government justice are daily putting themselves in the way of very unpleasant deaths in what is bound to be a losing cause. Facts like these are what make a war last a hundred years.

Wars go better when the enemy and the goal are clearly defined, something the War on Drugs has never accomplished. The fact is, most Americans don't know any drug dealers, just as most know no fundamentalist Muslims or Communists. The enemy we fear is essentially fictional, made up of vivid but two dimensional snapshots from movies and television: stone-faced Mexican cartel lords with gold-plated Kalashnikovs; glowering, tattooed gang members in droopy pants; crazed trailer-dwelling meth-heads with rotting teeth. Of course, you'd want to make these bogeymen go away, and doing so seems a straightforward matter. But what if you knew that in attempting this you were also trying to eradicate America's biggest cash crop? To block the most profitable export of several countries? To dismantle an economic system on which millions of people, including armies and governments, depend for their livelihoods? A purely law-enforcement approach seems as feeble as just saying "no."

The topic leads ineluctably on from muddle to muddle: we spend billions combating amphetamines, yet we spend billions developing better amphetamines for the the military. College students who scorn cocaine will beg for Ritalin to improve their grades. Athletes who may not use marijuana, steroids, or even decongestants are allowed energy drinks, dietary supplements, and artificial atmospheres. Meanwhile, our prisons groan and creak; during the war on drugs, the US population grew by a quarter and the number of prisoners increased four-fold -- and more than half of Federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses. A nation composed of intelligent, clear-sighted individuals is behaving collectively in a way that seems senseless, humiliating, and bound to fail.

It's not as if we don't know about the experience of intoxication or addiction: look at how we eat, drink, and smoke. In the supposedly drug-free past, children were put to bed with paregoric, old folks beatified themselves with Hadacol, and teetotal housewives contentedly glugged 80-proof women's trouble remedies. Even cookies can be dangerously addictive (which is why the Girl Scouts push them). The difference is that these drugs are known, familiar, and we can use the informal structures of manners and social contact to regulate their use. Because we drive more, we drink less than our grandparents; because we are health-conscious, we are gradually giving up tobacco. Only by putting a substance into licit social use can we determine how to use it in a civilized way. Surely it is not beyond the ingenuity of a nation that has managed more than two hundred years of revolutionary social and technological change to find an acceptable role for weed, blow, and uppers.

If you enjoy such sketches of human fallibility, you can find a new one every day at Bozo Sapiens. See you there.