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The Toll of Drug Prohibition

Video speaks louder than words. Welcome to Mexico's war on drugs.

That was just a few ´highlights´. There are lots of Mexican videos like these around.

Anyhow, the idea of prohibition is, you go to war with the drug dealers, defeat them, and then the problem is over. People die and a great deal of money is spent, but it's worth it, right?

Let's look at the goals on the drug prohibition list:

The idea of eliminating the dangers of drugs by eliminating drugs doesn't seem so crazy at first. Once you think about it for a bit though, it is absolutely bonkers. Wacko. As in, what were they smoking when they thought of that?

Still, the argument goes, we must struggle on, no matter the odds, because so much is at stake. If we don't endlessly attack the illegal drug industry, drug use will increase, addiction will balloon and death and chaos will follow.

Well, we looked at that in the last section. It won't happen. If drugs are all legal, drug abuse levels will remain the same because your level of drug use depends mostly on your stress level and coping skills, and not at all on drug laws. Besides, despite all the expense, and all the pain and death caused by prohibition, illegal drugs have become cheaper and easier to obtain, year after year after year.

What drug prohibition achieves - if it can be called an achievement - is this: it prevents a lot of people from occasionally taking drugs. It doesn't stop people who take a lot of drugs - those people overcome the rather small obstacles presented by the law. It stops people from taking drugs every now and then, recreationally. Those people weren't going to become addicted, they weren't going to use drugs heavily, they weren't going to overdose or suffer any health consequences at all, unless you count hangovers, which happen anyhow. They were just going to get a different kind of buzz. If you believe it is healthy to let your mind go a little on occasion, then even that is a bad thing.

But drug prohibition does many bad things. Let's look at them, one tragedy at a time:

Prohibition funds organized crime

When was the last time you heard of rival liquor stores trying to knock off each other's staff? That doesn't happen because alcohol is legal, so there is no point in fighting over it. Organized crime makes most of its money from illegal drugs because the drugs are illegal. Illegal can be translated here as ´tax-free and expensive´. Remember that Al Capone guy? Remember how he made it big? Same thing.

The UNODC estimated the global retail market in illegal drugs at $394 billion in 2008, and growing. People just don't pass up money like that. But prohibition means that the meaner you are, the better you do in the drug business. Since the whole business is illegal, nobody in the business can get any protection from the authorities if they have problems. So, the best way to grow your business is to physically attack your rivals, and anyone else who annoys you. Brutality is your best business model.

Also, small operations don't survive. It takes a lot of money and people to combat the law and rival gangs. Small outfits with less resources get picked off by the cops or knocked off by the big boys. Besides, the people who live in the midst of all this quickly learn it is better there be one big boss. If there is more than one boss, there is fighting, which means killing. So whoever manages to be that big boss gets to settle in, and do pretty much aaaanything they want. The women of Juarez are an excellent example of this phenomenon.

500 economists, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, tried to wake the world up to these facts when they issued a petition that marijuana be legalized. Illegal markets work this way, economists know that. Jefferey Miron, an economics professor currently at Harvard, puts it like this:

"Violence is the norm in illicit gambling markets but not in legal ones. Violence is routine when prostitution is banned but not when it's permitted. Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question."

If you are going to outlaw an economic activity, it has to be something so heinous that the vast majority of people won't tolerate it in their midst, like trafficking in weapons or people. Drug dealing doesn't meet this standard. Lots of people think it is perfectly okay, and they are right, except that things get nasty when it is illegal.

Do you know what's great about that fact? Legalize drugs, and you take a big chunk out of arms dealing and slavery, too. The same mafias and cartels control all of these things. Legalize drugs, and you not only eliminate most of the mafias' income, you also remove the whole reason why communities will tolerate these &*^%$%$# people. They manage to do the really scummy stuff because they can hide and finance their uglier deeds within their drug operations. Take the drugs out of the picture, and they have no place to hide that stuff anymore. Kids in rough neighbourhoods might sign up with a gang to make a little money selling dope, but they won't be so keen to help a gang that just bullies their community to pay protection money. Cops might take a cut of drug proceeds, but they won't want a cut of a gun peddling operation. Judges can maybe be bribed to throw a case of drug dealing, but if you are dealing in teenage girls, they will prefer to put you away.

Unfortunately, once people in authority are corrupted by drug money, they can't back out, and they are forced to turn a blind eye to the other gang activities they would otherwise have put a stop to. Which brings us to the next section...

Prohibition causes corruption

How much collusion do you think you can buy with a couple hundred billion dollars? Why, that's right! Lots.

Oh, there are just so many juicy examples to choose from. It's a feast for the mind. Let's start with Alvaro Uribe, the President of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. He's a drug trafficker. Okay, he doesn't actually do it himself, he just worked for the Medellin cartel in the 80's and 90's, and was a close friend of Pablo Escobar when he was Colombia's biggest cocaine kingpin. He has just been a staunch ally of the paramilitaries that terrorize rural Colombia, and control 75% of the cocaine industry there. For that matter, most of his government was buddy-buddy with the paramilitaries, and a lot of them wouldn´t even have been elected without paramilitary help.

Alvaro Uribe also has a Medal of Freedom from President Bush, which brings us to the duplicity department. Plan Colombia, the $7.3 billion American anti-narcotics aid package to Colombia, was never about narcotics. It was about FARC. It was spent almost entirely to expand the Colombian military so that it could better attack FARC, the leftist insurgency that has been waging a guerrilla war from the countryside for the last 40 years. The claim is that they are behind the Colombian cocaine trade, but there is no way the American military doesn't know better. The US military doesn't like those lefties, and they certainly don't like insurgencies, and the real purpose of Plan Colombia was to attack FARC all along. That's how the CIA has rolled for generations. They are totally fine with using drugs and drug money to make a conflict go a certain way. They made sure opium got out of Laos and got sold in the States, so that Laotians would help the US fight the North Vietnamese. They sold cocaine in the States for the Nicaraguan Contras, so that they would have money to continue their war against the Sandanista government. They protected Gen. Manuel Noriega for years so that he could continue trafficking cocaine and helping the Contras. The American military hasn't been against drugs if they served their larger aims. That's why when the US Southern Command reported on drug trafficking in Latin America in March 2010, they mentioned FARC 7 times, but didn't say a word about the paramilitaries. Perhaps the word ´paramilitary´sticks in the throat of the American military. After all, they invented the paramilitary movement in Colombia.

So, the Colombian army (who are closely tied to the paramilitaries, who are the important cocaine producers) happily launched a major campaign against FARC with American money and military advice, and was generally successful. Then they followed up with coca bush eradication campaigns. For $7.3 billion, they didn't mind destroying some coca bush to give the Americans the cocaine reduction images and figures they needed to take back home. Heck, you want cocaine reduction figures? They can give you any figure you want. The UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) reports every year on the Colombia coca crop for the international community. If you read their reports carefully, you know that they know it´s a load of bull (there are images here of the pages in their most recent report that really show that up). Truth is, the UN crew does very little field work, for security reasons. They stay in their offices looking at satellite photos that have a resolution of 1 pixel equals 15 to 30 meters. It is too dangerous for them to actually go out and examine real fields of coca bush in real coca production areas. All the important ´monitoring´ is done by Colombian forces, as is all the ´eradicating´ done for Plan Colombia. Which is to say, almost total contol of these activities is in the hands of agencies that are known to have collaborated with drug lords for decades.

Once FARC was vastly weakened, the American government declared mission accomplished. Watch the big drop in American aid money and activity in Colombia. Then watch the revival of FARC, the return of the paramilitaries, and the return of all the violence that Colombia is famous for. The new President Juan Santos talks of the kind of justice for the poor that would reduce the violence. Time will tell if he is serious, and if he has the power. I hope so. But that won´t stop the flow of cocaine. President Santos showed he knows that when he called recently for a discussion of legalization. Until cocaine is legal, there will still be plenty of violence in Colombia.

Corruption in Colombia has been a huge problem for its entire history. It has a lot of poverty and huge social disparity, and countries like that have ruling elites. It's just how it works. There are powerful families that have had all the money and power for a long time, and they aren't interested in sharing. Cocaine makes big money, so the ruling elite is all for it. Many powerful families from rural areas own coca plantations, and many from the city participate in international trafficking, and the benefit to the ones that don't are the generous bribes that get paid far and wide to keep the drugs flowing.

Mexico is much the same. During the drug war Mexico has suffered since December 2006, entire police departments have sometimes been relieved of duty in an effort to combat corruption. A new federal police force was specially created to go after the 'narcos', because it was recognized that existing police forces are simply too involved with the drug industry to be of any use. And the bulk of the job has been given to the army anyhow, because police forces of any kind simply don't have the firepower to take on the cartels.

Many high-level officials have been arrested for colluding with the cartels: Cancun Mayor and candidate for Governor Gregorio Sanchez, Federal Police Commissioner Victor Garay, and Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Morato to name a few. Rest assured, many more have avoided this fate because they are just too powerful. Take, for instance, the governor of Michoacan, a state in central Mexico that is an important drug trafficking hub. His half-brother and brand-new Congressman Julio Godoy is on the run, wanted as a major cartel player, but the governor is unscathed. Do you think he didn't know? Do you think he wasn´t getting cartel cash? Maybe that's why the army decided not to tell him before doing a sweep of town halls throughout Michoacan, in which they arrested the mayors of 10 towns, and a bunch of other elected officials, and didn't manage to nab his brother. The governor was quite incensed about this 'violation of jurisdiction'.

This isn't to say that the authorities help the cartels just out of greed, though. Not doing so is hazardous to your health. The PRI party candidate for governor of Tamaulipas found that out. The cartels killed him 6 days before the election, which he certainly would have won. Do you think the new governor will be more inclined to cooperate now?

Then there is the case of Afghanistan.... Where do you even begin...

We could go on and on like this, outlining the vein of corruption that keeps drugs flowing in every country on earth. It isn´t just that corruption goes to the very top levels in drug-producing countries. The example of the behaviour of the USA in Colombia shows that when corruption is out of sight, it is out of mind. Drug-related corruption in Europe and North America can be conducted quietly and smoothly, and never be exposed. Here is a short list of some of the people caught on the take in recent years... but please don´t think this is a case of a few bad apples. The money involved, the moral questionability of drug laws, and the impossibility of preventing drug use ensure a steady supply of corrupt government officials. Feel free to follow the links until the repeating pattern bores you.

But even all the corruption that has been discussed so far doesn't compare to the most insidious corruption of all - the hypocrisy and denial that makes neighbourhoods into ghettoes, and keeps them that way. Gangstas become pop icons looked up to by millions who know the realities of growing up in those ghettoes. Hip-hop icons boast of gang activity, their contempt for the law, and the piles of drug cash they are rolling in. It´s anger, it´s defiance, it´s what´s left to them.

Prohibition kills

Drugs are outlawed so that people don't die from overdoses and the health damage from long-term addiction, right? But that doesn't work so well. First, as was discussed in the use and abuse section, illegal drugs are highly concentrated and cut with god knows what. That makes them a lot more damaging, and overdose much more likely. Legal drugs like alcohol and caffeine are regulated, inspected, and have to maintain standards in order to compete with other drug brands. They are often sold in dilute forms, which doesn't happen with illegal drugs because that would make them far bulkier and harder to conceal. Users of illegal drugs don't get any warning labels about proper use and risks, they can only guess how strong the drugs are, and they fear to seek medical help in case there are legal or social repercussions. Since legalizing drugs wouldn't increase substance abuse overall, it would save many lives by vastly reducing overdose, untreated addiction, and health damage from adulterated, concentrated products.

But prohibition causes even more deaths from drug war violence than it causes from poor drug use. The war against the narcos in Mexico is the textbook case of this. President Calderon declared an all-out campaign against the cartels in December 2006. As of August 2010, the resulting death toll stood at over 28,000. That´s the official toll - it doesn´t count people killed by drug gangs during other gang activity, like kidnapping, extortion, or when they get ticked off over a song and kill the players. Each year the conflict has become more violent than the last, to the point where it can justly be called a war. Not an abstract ideological war like the American concept of a war on drugs, but a real war. In this war, the public has been intentionally terrorized by the cartels. Grenades have been thrown at the public, execution videos have been uploaded to YouTube, bodies have been hung from bridges with messages attached, teens in addiction treatment centres have been lined up against walls and shot.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban funds itself largely through the trafficking of opium. Before, when they were in power, they used to behead people for growing opium poppy. Ah, the irony. One of the reasons (although there are many) why NATO has had so much trouble in Afghanistan is that for years they went around burning the fields of farmers who grew opium poppy. Look at this from the farmers' perspective. I mean really, there is a war in your country, all kinds of infrastructure like roads and water pipes and power lines have been destroyed, all kinds of supplies are hard to get, there is a very real chance that someone in your family could get shot at some point - don't you think you'd be inclined to try to make some extra cash selling opium poppy? It isn't like anything else is going to make you money. Wheat is your next best option, and it is much harder to grow, and you can only sell it for 5% of the price, anyhow. And then the NATO-backed government comes along and burns your crop. Well, that's just great. Thankfully, now they've decided to leave the farmers alone and go after the traffickers. But it is too late to win over Afghans, and very likely the war will be lost. Whatever Afghans feel about opium, this is a purely economic question. If the Taliban helps them sell their crop, they will support them, however grudgingly. They are a war-hardened people. If opium had been legal during all this, the Taliban could only have sold their supplies for a fraction of the price, and the farmers would have had no particular incentive to sell to them. They could have sold to NATO-supported agents instead. For that matter, the price of opium poppy might well have been so much lower, far fewer farmers would have grown it in the first place. We'll never know how different that war might have been if people could have gotten over the fantasies of prohibition politics before it started.

In Colombia, drug money has gone a long way towards funding, and motivating, both sides of an interminable conflict for 25 years. The links on Colombia in the Corruption section above establish that well. The official death toll of Plan Colombia is 21,000 soldiers and 14,000 civilians. The Plan´s backers claim the reduction in violent crime is worth that price. A vastly expanded military showed its face in places normally run by paramilitaries and FARC, and that helped. But no longer. Paramilitaries are returning. Corruption is sinking in to the new faces in town. There is too much money on the table, it is inevitable. FARC will surely return too, or something just like them. FARC represented the poor, the paramilitaries and the government represent the rich. When the poor get screwed like they do in Colombia, an organization like FARC can count on support. In paramilitary areas, if they make trouble they are shot. In other cases, people in rural areas of conflict are simply driven off their land, it is handed over to whoever has power in the area, and then, often, it is used to grow coca. There are between 3 and 5 million internal refugees in Colombia. Not only that, the government of Colombia also takes international aid - mostly American - for coca crop eradication and uses it to spray pesticides, supposedly on coca crops. What really happens is they spray willy-nilly, and most of the pesticides fall on rural farmers, who lose their food crops and are poisoned in droves, sometimes to death.

And of course, there are mafias fighting over territory all over the world all the time. The reason why those turf wars happen everywhere is because drugs are sold everywhere, so the mafias want their tendrils in every little corner. Pretty much anywhere in the world, if you live in a city of at least a million people, you have an opportunity to die in a drug gang turf war.

Prohibition means poverty

The situation of farmers in Colombia is mentioned just above. In other drug growing areas, illegal crops bring in much-needed money, like in Afghanistan, also mentioned above. Some Mexican cartels buy public complicity in rural Mexico by supporting community causes. Even if government forces come along and destroy his crops, a farmer growing drugs is often better off in the long run than if he grew legal crops - unless things turn ugly and people start shooting. Drug production can be a blessing or a curse.

Drug selling, though, keeps poverty going. Gangs set up in impoverished areas, bringing violence and intimidation. People from more fortunate areas stay away, including professionals they need. Their schools are low-quality, so are their hospitals and clinics. They are far more in need of protection from the police and emergency services, and are far less likely to receive it. They are stigmitized because of where they live, and their employment opportunities sharply decline. In ghettos all over the world, it's the same thing. Take drug revenue away from those gangs, and they will shrivel. Hey, maybe we could even take some of the money from taxing drugs and build some community centres and clinics and stuff. God knows ghetto residents deserve to get a lot of that money. And that brings us to the next point.

Prohibition means wasted resources

Economist Jefferey Morin recently estimated that drug prohibition currently costs the United States $44 billion a year in enforcement, and $32 billion a year in lost taxes, for a grand total of $76 billion a year. If drugs had been legalized in 2004, the resulting savings and taxes could have paid for the entire bailout package for the financial crisis in 2008. If the annual revenue from legalization was divvied up and handed out to the American population, it would be $246 a year for every man, woman, and child.

Police spend a lot of their time on drug cases. All of that would be unnecessary if drugs were legal. That would give the cops a lot more time to go after serious crime, the courts a lot more time to prosecute it, and prisons more space to contain it.


Here ends the list of of what drug prohibition has done for us. It is an impressive list indeed. Perhaps you are saying, 'but if we just legalize all drugs, how are we going to protect people from their dangers?'

I'm so glad you asked. Read on...

Next: Safe Legal Drugs