The most expensive war in U.S. history is not Afghan-istan or any other Mideast conflict. Neither is it Viet-nam or even World War II. Alas, not adjusted for inflation, our most costly war – more than a trillion dollars – is our war on drugs.
This battle was initiated by President Nixon in 1971. As a direct result of this “declaration of war,” our prison incarceration rate has become the highest in the world – higher even than Russia, China, or Iran – which, in turn, has ruined millions of young lives.
And yet, despite our crowded prisons and the big bucks we’ve exhausted, according to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, between 1971 and 2003 casual drug use in America has increased by 2,300 percent. That’s not a misprint. By 2,300 percent.
The war has proven to be very discriminatory. Though two-thirds of regular crack users are white or Latino, 82 percent of those sentenced in federal court are black. In general, there are more than four times as many white drug users as black, but half of those in state prisons on drug charges are black.
Furthermore, despite our best enforcement efforts, drug traffickers are raking in unfathomable amounts of money, just as they did during Prohibition in the 1920s. Today, the gangs and cartels in this country and the rest of the world rake in an estimated $600 billion a year, which gives them enough money and power to rule entire nations. On the Forbes magazine index of the wealthiest people in the world, one of the cartel leaders had been ranked seventh on the list.
Financed and encouraged mostly by America, countries like Mexico, Columbia, Guatemala and El Salvador have all inaugurated their own drug wars. As you’re surely aware, their efforts have not only failed to curb the drug trade, but have resulted in a intense spike in horrific, ghastly violence. The savagery of the murders in Mexico is well-covered on the evening news, but places like Guatemala and Honduras, among the world’s poorest nations, have murder rates more than double that in Mexico. The Mexican people are sick of it and recently thousands have taken to the streets to protest.
Of course, the most important market for the gangs’ products is America. If the U.S. would simply legalize marijuana as I suggested in last week’s column, this by itself would put a serious dent in the cartels’ incomes because, believe it or not, pot remains the leading source of their profits. However, if drugs in general – whether heroin, coke, methamphetamine or whatever – were legalized, it would seriously cripple what’s left of the American Mafia and would seriously injure, if not completely eliminate, other gangs and drug cartels.
General legalization is not solely promoted by half-baked liberals like myself. Some pretty conservative icons have recently begun to take up the cause. No lesser figure than conservative William F. Buckley Jr., has called the drug war a failure and he suggests some type of legalization as an alternative. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper and the White House Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, also a former Seattle police chief, have both advocated some form of legalization. Kerlikowske has flatly declared, “We cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of this problem.” Even President Obama has called legalization “an entirely legitimate topic for debate.” He and Kerlikowske have compared illegal drug use to the legal drug use of cigarettes and alcohol. If we can successfully manage booze and tobacco, we can do the same with other drugs. Furthermore, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates legalization and taxation would create $77 billion dollars in new revenue.
But perhaps syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., a frequent contributor to the Seattle Times, put it best. When considering the war on drugs, he said one thing becomes obvious: drugs won.