The drug war is spinning out of control. At home, the office of the White House anti-drug czar was caught expanding its wire-tapping powers, tracing our Web site visitations, rewarding magazine editors and televisions producers for ideologically acceptable content. Inequities in our legal system result in vast numbers of young black men being given longer jail terms than white offenders. And in Colombia, as we once did in Vietnam, we’re using armaments and chemicals to take aim at an elusive enemy.
WE’RE UPPPING the ante of our involvement in Colombia’s narco-terrorism war with more than $1 billion in military aid, training and weapons. And now Colombian citizens will suffer not only the violence of being caught between right and left-wing guerrillas, narco-traffickers, and brutal right-wing military, but also unsafe chemical sprays funded by the U.S. government.
Two reports have been issued in recent weeks, one by the monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, and one by a Citizens’ Commission organized by the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) that together demonstrate just how costly the drug war has become to the fabric of our nation.
HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?
One of the most surprising aspects of the IPS report is the case it makes for how minor America’s drug problem is, independent of the scare tactics of the drug warriors and the disastrous effects of their counterproductive strategy. Based on expert medical and criminal law testimony, they estimate that marijuana is used by roughly 10.5 million people, and drugs like cocaine or heroin, just 2 million to 3 million. The marijuana users are nobody’s problem, save those teenagers who abuse it the way they abuse far more common and legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Cocaine and heroin users are obviously taking a much larger risk with their lives, but in the main, harm themselves more than they do others. To the degree that drugs beget violence in society, it is generally a product of the fact that we turn drug users — or at least users of drugs of which we do not approve — into criminals. And criminals often use violent tactics to protect their profits and intimidate their enemies.
Yet our strategies for dealing with drugs — scare tactics for teenagers, jail for dealers and users, and weapons and military training for poor societies from which the drugs are grown and transported — continue to make the problem worse. The fact is drug scares have been a part of our culture since the passage of the San Francisco Anti-Opium Den Law of 1875, followed by the federal Harrison Act of 1914 that made drug use a crime. Yet in 1997, a U.N. study estimated that worldwide trade in illicit drugs amounted to $400 billion per year, or 8 percent of the global economy. This is not a problem that can be scared away.
Yet we keep throwing money at it anyway. To fight this scourge, we have increased the budget of the National Drug Control Policy office to $17.1 billion, up from a mere billion in 1981. State spending constitutes another $5 billion. Add to this the figure of roughly $8.6 billion we devote each year to imprison drug users.
Unfortunately, owing to the way drugs are marketed and distributed in this country, we have set up a dual system of justice whose harsh penalties seem to fall almost exclusively on people of color.
The prosecution of drugs has always been associated with forms of racist hysteria. Back in 1875, Opium was referred to as the “Mongolian vice.” Today it is young, poor, and most often black Americans who pay the price for our blindness and ignorance. The statistics are chilling. According to Human Rights Watch, African Americans accounted for 62 percent of the drug offenders sent to state prisons nationwide in 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, although they constitute just 12 percent of the U.S. population. The chances, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, that a drug offense by a black American juvenile with no prior jail time resulting in imprisonment is 48 times higher than it is for a white juvenile with no record. Overall, black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. This is true even though Department of Health and Human Services figures demonstrate that in 1991, 1992 and 1993, about five times as many whites had used cocaine than blacks.
The reasons for this are complex and intertwined. The buying and selling of drugs by poor people is easier for police to target because they more often occur in public than do drug transactions among whites. Police racism is also a continuing issue. Under New Jersey’s Operation Pipeline drug interdiction program, for instance, 80 percent of the motorists were black, just 13 percent were white. Then there are the sentencing laws, which fall unfairly on blacks relative to whites. Getting caught with 400 grams of cocaine requires no mandatory prison term, but 400 grams of crack and you can spend the rest of your life in prison.
It would be one thing to argue that yes, the racist results of the drug war are unfortunate, but necessary if we are ever to conquer the scourge of our society. But remember this is a failed policy. The United States, with fewer than five percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of its prisoners. Again, this takes the form of a racist war on our own people. In California, five blacks are in prison for every one in a state university. Could there be a more telling indictment?
Now add to this the costs, financial and otherwise, of the Pentagon’s burgeoning Colombian drug war in Colombia, which from a distance, has many of the markings of another quagmire of political quicksand and strategic quackery. (“If we lose in Colombia, then we lose everywhere,” said Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, introducing a new version of the Domino Theory.)
Imprisoned in a labyrinth of machismo myth-making, Lyndon Johnson never had the courage to question the fundamental assumptions that led him into Vietnam. To defend our “honor” as a nation, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took even further in before finally getting us out. The Clinton drug war — at home and abroad — is based on untested theories that are hardly any sturdier than those that led us down the garden path in Indochina. And this time the enemy is us.
Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and a regular contributor to MSNBC.
© 2000 MSNBC