Posted by: Kevin | February 9, 2007

The Other War We’re Losing


I first heard of the War on Drugs growing up during the Reagan Presidency.  I remember thinking what a funny name the “Drug Czar” was for a government position.  I haven’t put much thought into it since then.  After all, I don’t use drugs.  So what do I have to worry about?

Turns out, I need to worry about it a lot.  In addition to not working, the war on drugs is quietly, slowly and inexorably doing more damage to this country than terrorist, communists, George Bush and Liberals combined.  The war on drugs has played a leading role in militarizing our police force, overfilling our prisons and eroding our civil rights.  What has our return been on that investment? 

Over the past 15 years, use of Marijuana is roughly stable (about 20% of high school seniors1).  Over the past 15 years the use of other “hard” drugs has also remained stable as a percentage of the population.  Clearly, the war on drugs has, at least, reached a point of diminished returns with regards to decreasing demand.  In terms of enforcement, the DEA seized roughly $477 million worth of drugs in 20052, which is less than 1% of the estimated $64 billion3 in drugs sold in the US annually.  So we have done nothing to discourage demand and nothing to decrease supply.

What we have accomplished is the raise the profit margin for drug traffickers.  This is in large part due to the addictive nature of most illegal drugs.  Addicts will buy at any price, so the strategy of increasing price to smother demand, only forces addicts to more desperate measures to afford the drug.  One common measure is crime.  In 1997, 19% of state inmates and 16% percent of federal inmates reported committing their crimes to pay for their drug use4.

Demand that strong, will create supply, that’s economics 101.  Therefore, any effort to increase the price more will further increase supply.  The current markup for cocaine is estimated to be 1000%5.  Even with the significant expenses of smuggling, distributing, security, etc.  There is no way not to make a profit, short of getting killed. 

The economic theory behind the War on Drugs is without merit, but what about social concerns.  What about the societal damage I mentioned at the top of this post?  Here are some raw numbers.  Since 1980, the rate of incarceration has nearly quadrupled from 139 per 100K to 468 per 100K6.  Since 1980, the rate of drug arrests has tripled, from 288 to 661 per 100K7.  The vast majority of those arrest and subsequent incarcerations (for those convicted) where users or “bit players” in the drug trade, mules or easily replaced street corner dealers. 

The community most affected by this is the African American community.  Roughly 2/3rds of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons in the US in 1996 were black8.  African Americans make up roughly 15% of the total US population.  So either they are 11 times more likely to use drugs or be involved in the drug trade, a sign of a deeper problem, or they are being unfairly targeted by law enforcement.  Either way, the War on Drugs is deepening the racial divide in the United States.

The problem goes beyond simple incarceration.  The War on Drugs has had a profound effect on our police force. 

“In recent years American police forces have called out SWAT teams 40,000 or more times annually.”

“75-80% of SWAT deployments are for warrant service” 9 

In addition to the increased reliance on SWAT teams, local police forces are increasingly being supplied with equipment formerly reserved for the military10.  Some increase in force has no doubt been needed due to increase force used by criminals.  However, the increase in the use of military tactics has also coincided with an increase in innocent deaths at the hands of the police. 


Map link 11


The war on drugs has proven to be lucrative to local police departments.  In addition to military surplus weapons and increased funding, local law enforcement benefits from seized property.  In August of 2006, a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court upheld the right of law enforcement to seize cash even when there is no evidence of a crime being committed 12.  In that case $124,700 was seized from motorist Gomez Gonzolez after being pulled over in Nebraska for speeding.  The bark of a trained sniffing dog was enough to warrant the seizure despite the fact that Gonzolez was driving a rental car and a significant portion of the currency in circulation contains trace amounts of narcotics13.


A more in depth reading of that verdict shows that this is not an isolated instance.  The verdict builds upon a series of judicial opinions dating back to 1992 and the problem goes back further.  By 1993, 80% of people whose property was seized were never charged with a crime.  Seizure laws aimed at drug “kingpins” have missed the mark dramatically.  They have also created a situation where police forces have incentive to “manufacture” drug arrests14 or at least rely on the testimony of suspect informants because it will result in the seizure of property. 

This has spilled over into other aspects of law enforcement, as several states now allow for the seizure of automobiles for non-crimes.  This includes a law in Orlando, Fl. which resulted in a man’s motorcycle being confiscated after his brother (who was riding the bike) was pulled over for a bent tag15.  New Mexico has a law on the books allowing for the seizure of a vehicle if the driver has been accused of DUI three times.  No actual convictions are necessary.  The city council cynically expects to make $300,000 annually from this seized property 16. 

The War on Drugs is worse than a failed policy.  By establishing the precedent that the seizure of property is not only an acceptable tactic of the law, but an acceptable goal of the law, the War on Drugs has become a War on Americans.  At the same time, it has failed in any measurable way to decrease the usage of drugs in the United States.  Lastly it widens the gap between minorities who are often victimized by these policies, and whites, who often enforce them.  We, as a nation, can do better than this.



A link to the referenced material is available at each underlined number.



  1. Kevin,

    Sad, but true… I agree with you. We can indeed do better than this. Thank you for speaking out on this subject. I found your post be very well worded and I was pleased that you backed your opinions with facts. This is only the second post of yours I have read (the other being “De-constructing the annoying blue October song, “Hate Me””). You will be bookmarked and checked often by this reader! Great job!

  2. Thanks for the kind words Ellen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: