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Friday, March 27, 2009

What the Drug Warriors Have Given Us

Violence among Mexico’s drug cartels and government has spilled over the U.S. border and beyond.  The New York Times reports,

In the past few years, the cartels and other drug trafficking organizations have extended their reach across the United States and into Canada. Law enforcement authorities say they believe traffickers distributing the cartels’ marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs are responsible for a rash of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix, brutal assaults in Birmingham, Ala., and much more.

United States law enforcement officials have identified 230 cities, including Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston and Billings, Mont., where Mexican cartels and their affiliates “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors,” as a Justice Department report put it in December.

In response the Obama administration says it will send nearly 500 additional agents to reinforce the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  Millions of dollars and military equipment, including three Black Hawk helicopters, will be given to the Mexican government. “If anything, this is really the first wave of things that will be happening,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She’s also considering requests by the governors of Texas and Arizona to deploy the National Guard.

These events are also fueling sentiment for new control of guns, especially so-called “assault weapons” (a bogus category dreamed up by gun controllers) since it has been reported that the cartels are entering the United States to buy guns to take back to Mexico.

Does anyone still think the “war on drugs” is a good idea?

That may strike some people as an odd question under the circumstances, so let’s take it from another direction. Have you seen the news stories about the violence on the border being perpetrated by the Mexican whiskey and cigarette cartels?

No? That’s probably because there was no such violence and are no such cartels.

So why are there violent cartels in the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin trades but not in the whiskey and cigarette trades?

All together now: prohibition.

Of course the politicians blame everything and everyone but themselves for this spreading violence. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “Our”? Including hers? “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.” Her answer, in addition to sending the Mexican government taxpayer money, is to go after consumers of drugs and manufacturers and dealers of guns she doesn’t like.

Excuse me? Drug users and gun dealers are to blame for drug-cartel violence? That makes no sense. If it did, then drinkers and smokers, along with gun dealers, would be creating violence, too. What’s missing?

Once again in unison: prohibition. Who brought us prohibition?  Politicians. Every politician, bureaucrat, and agent who facilitates or enforces prohibition is an accomplice in the violence because he or she helps to create the conditions in which thugs have a comparative advantage in dealing drugs.

Variety of Evils

For years advocates of free trade in drugs—that is, basic rights to life, liberty, and property for drug consumers, producers, and merchants—have pointed out that prohibition, in addition to being an immoral invasion of liberty by the State, sets in motion a variety of concrete evils that harm innocent people. (No one has been more consistent and rigorous in this than Thomas Szasz). These evils include the corruption of law enforcement, violent crime, and the expansion of intrusive government. Besides these domestic evils, the U.S. government has alienated farmers in foreign lands by helping to destroy their crops and livelihoods. If that’s not terrorism, nothing is. Crop destruction has been a recruiting tool for guerilla organizations, while black-market profits finance them and others with malign intent.

Few listened to these Cassandras against the anti-drug crusade. Maybe they will listen now.

While violent gangs that make their money selling drugs in the black market are murdering and kidnapping people, invading homes, and committing other atrocities, the politicians have nothing to say but the same bromides they’ve been repeating for years. Thinking we’re either simpletons or amnesiacs, they expect us to be comforted by their words. (Will they be right?) They promise to defeat the cartels, crack down on drug use, and disrupt the gun trade. It won’t work. It’s never worked. It can’t work. Black-market operators are always steps ahead of the plodding bureaucrats. Break up one gang and another emerges. The drugs keep flowing (there’s plenty of bribe money), and consumers will have what they want when they want it. The profits made possible by the black market are powerful incentives to keep the industry going. Government is impotent.

Out of Business

Yet the gangs could be put out of business overnight. How? By removing the criminal penalties for the production, trade, and consumption of all drugs; by bringing the black market into the open, so disagreements can be resolved through civil channels and the talent for violence is no longer an advantage; by dissolving the extraordinary profits that illegal industries always reap.

Yes, it is that easy.

People will recoil. We can’t do that! No? Then accept as normal the unspeakable violence that is starting to spread from city to city, because that is the alternative to the stubborn refusal to end the “war on drugs,” which is really a war on people. Even full police-state tactics will not be able to control it, though that won’t stop demagogic politicians from giving them a try. (They can’t keep drugs out of prisons!)

I don’t expect the multitude of officials who depend on the drug war for their livelihoods and power to endorse an end to prohibition. They have shown themselves more than willing to accept the violence (against others) as the price of their ambition. The new threat to us is an opportunity for them to amass more power, bigger budgets, and higher salaries.

But the rest of us have no reason to support the complex of government and “private” tax-financed agencies that grow fat prosecuting this detestable war. The worn-out rationalizations can’t stand examination. Prohibition keeps no one from getting any drug he wants at an affordable price. On the contrary, it encourages the creation of cheaper, more potent drugs, just as alcohol prohibition replaced wine and beer with hard liquor. (More bang in a more compact form.) Prohibition doesn’t keep our children safe. It makes drugs into enticing forbidden fruits and pushes the trade into less visible channels. Drugs aren’t “dangerous,” though people are capable of doing harmful things with drugs and many other things. (Jacob Sullum’s  Saying Yes is an eye-opening book that I highly recommend.) Addiction is not a disease; it’s a choice.

Everything the drug warriors have said is wrong—and often a conscious lie.

Drugs are to our society what Eurasia and East Asia were to Oceania in Orwell’s 1984: a convenient conjured-up demon to justify expansion of power and the usurping of liberty—in the name of keeping us safe.

What will it take, if not the current violence from Mexico, to make people see through the scam?

Look around. It’s our self-proclaimed protectors from whom need we protection most.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.