4 Ways the Drug War Harms National Security

Teenage boy (16-17) getting handcuffed, rear view, mid section
Teenage boy (16-17) getting handcuffed, rear view, mid section

This week, politicians are debating funding for the Department of Homeland Security. This is a good opportunity to explain to lawmakers why so-called "counternarcotics operations," and the incarceration, violence and misappropriation of resources involved, should be excluded now from any approved DHS budget, and from any future defense spending bill that comes across their desks.

The war on drugs (a term by which I mean the criminalization of drugs, drug use, drug possession, addiction and nonviolent voluntary drug transactions) threatens national security for the following reasons:

1. The drug war causes Americans to lose trust in their domestic security forces and systems.

As John Oliver succinctly put it last October: "Public trust in the police is one of the most vital elements in a civilized society." A country whose citizens do not trust its police is a country at increased risk of instability and civil disorder, with a decreased ability to contain it. Stable, healthy countries should possess a sense of pride for their internal security forces (ISFs) in order for them to be legitimate. In the United States, this term simply refers to local and state police, sheriffs and, in some cases, certain (but not all) divisions of the FBI, ATF and Department of Homeland Security. It is in these organizations' interests to have a positive public reputation, and the war on drugs undoubtedly harms that.

2. The drug war harms America's soft power credibility.

Soft power is the idea that countries can use their reputation and influence as a means of achieving their goals in the international arena, instead of just relying on coercive threats of military force (which is called hard power). Soft power is a critical element to gentlemanly relationships in foreign affairs, and without it, the world would be a much scarier place.

When countries like North Korea echo your own organization's points in its own report to the United Nations on American human rights abuses, that's a problem that needs to be fixed. For America to have less than five percent of the world's population, but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners, how can the United States possibly negotiate in good faith to other countries on matters of human rights? The war on drugs hurts America's soft power credibility, diminishing our negotiating position, influence and world standing at a time when we need it more than ever.

3. The drug war hinders American economic growth and productive capacity.

Those prisoners mentioned above equal a huge productive force that is prevented from being productive. The drug war has famously cost as much as $2.5 trillion in upfront enforcement costs, but the hidden costs of lost productivity, lost creative capital and lost morale almost certainly cost much more than that. Just think of where we could be as a nation if some of the people spending years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense could have, instead, studied sustainable architecture or climate change adaptation?

There is a huge workforce sitting behind bars that could be put to better use retrofitting naval ports for sea level rise or hardwiring our telecoms to safeguard against an electromagnetic attack. To have such great numbers of intelligent minds and work-capable bodies rotting uselessly behind prison bars will surely be one of the great crimes by the state against its own future.

4. The drug war empowers and enriches non-state actors, those who do not operate within the rule of law, and those who explicitly seek to do us harm.

When people purchase illegal drugs, they are taking dollars out of the system run by laws and putting them into a system that does not care about laws. The amount of capital loss to extra-legal groups (as much as $320 billion) has become so great, that cartels and terrorists now often possess more money than the governments that are supposed to be fighting them. This has exacerbated conflict and significantly increased the risk of state failure in places with already weak governance, like in West Africa and parts of the Middle East. It is also now threatening to destabilize larger, more institutionalized nations like Mexico.

As has been clearly illustrated by the annals of history and medical science, the urge to experience altered perception is as natural as sex or hunger, so the answer is not simply :"Well, don't buy drugs." People are going to buy drugs, so a pragmatic way to stop their dollars from flowing outside of the rule of law is to bring all drugs under the rule of law. As long as any drug remains criminalized in any country, terrorists will retain a steady, stable source of funding.

Within the U.S. defense and intelligence apparatus, there are four broad operational cones: counterterrorism (CT), counterintelligence (CI), counterproliferation (CP) and counternarcotics (CN). The first three of these are, arguably, important and appropriate roles for government, and the fourth is counterproductive, taking resources from and exacerbating problems for the others. Indeed, counternarcotics operations are the very core of the actual "War" on Drugs, and ending the drug war would require defunding CN ops. Because the ship of state is slow to turn, the engines of the drug war must be shut down immediately to halt any further threat and destruction to our stability, security, and credibility on the domestic and international stages.

James Carli is a Development Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. He has a master's degree in diplomacy and international relations specializing in international security.