President Trump thinks he can win the drug war – he’s wrong

by Paul Thomas / 18 May, 2017
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

Donald Trump is the latest in a long line of misguided leaders to think they can beat the forces of illicit drug supply and demand. 

If the War on Drugs has been successful enough to be worth persisting with, one can only wonder: what would failure look like? Arms were taken up by President Richard Nixon in 1971, and successive US administrations and many other states have carried on the fight.

For starters, it hasn’t achieved the narrow, basic objective of making it really hard to get hold of drugs. It’s estimated that the US spends more than $70 billion a year on interdiction, eradication and drug-related incarceration, yet the American appetite for narcotics keeps growing and the suppliers keep getting their product to the market.

Drug seizures are trumpeted as decisive victories and proof the war is succeeding, yet these PR exercises gloss over the obvious reality that such seizures are the exception rather than the rule. In 2008, Julian Critchley quit as head of the UK Cabinet Office’s anti-drug co-ordination unit because he realised “enforcement and supply-side interventions were largely pointless: they have no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability or use of drugs”.

Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a drug abuse briefing in March. Photo/Getty Images

That same year, David Caldicott, a Canberra-based emergency doctor and lecturer with a special interest in illegal drugs, reminded politicians revelling in a major drug haul, “What you’re looking at is a truly phenomenal demand for these sorts of drugs. As long as demand exists, it doesn’t matter what interdiction does.”

Nothing has changed.

Furthermore, the policy has effectively gifted a vast, untaxed and therefore wildly profitable industry to organised crime. Estimates of how much the Mexican drug cartels make each year from their American operations range as high as $70 billion. And as the cartels conduct a savage turf war while endeavouring to terrify society into compliance, and the military is deployed to bring them to heel, Mexico bleeds: according to a Los Angeles Times report, 175,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since 2006. As with the War on Terror, conflict rages in foreign fields in order to prevent the scourge reaching the American homeland.

Despite the evidence that the campaign has had the effect of increasing drug use and violent crime and led to widespread corruption, the militarisation of police forces and the weakening of state institutions, all at vast cost to the taxpayer, President Donald Trump intends to ramp it up rather than wind it down. His signature policy is building a wall along the Mexican border. He has appointed as Attorney General 70-year-old Jeff Sessions, who last year told a Senate drug policy hearing, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” That doesn’t bode well for the US given the American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates 55 million Americans do so on a regular basis.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo/Getty Images

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo/Getty Images

Duterte fan

Trump has praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose approach to the problem involves unleashing death squads and encouraging citizens to take the law into their own hands. The US President told a gathering of police chiefs: “We’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth. We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice.”

Let’s break this declaration down.

We’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in. On one side of the border you have the consumers, a huge, affluent society with the highest rate of illegal drug consumption in the world; on the other are the suppliers, massively resourced and resourceful criminal cartels. The notion that a wall will nullify the economic forces at work, the sheer weight of money, is a fantasy. The cartels will go under it, around it and over it. And if volumes are reduced, that will simply push up the price. It’s called the law of supply and demand.

We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth. By portraying drugs as something akin to bird flu, a virus that strikes almost at random, Trump, like many politicians before him, is ignoring the inconvenient truth at the heart of the issue: an enormous number of people choose to take drugs. As with tobacco, the way to reduce the damage done is to reduce the appeal and appetite.

We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. The US isn’t the Philippines. Trump may see himself as a Duterte-style “maximum leader”, but as the courts have already reminded him, he cannot rule by diktat.

We have no choice. Yes, you do. And back in 1990, when Trump was a live-and-let-live liberal, he identified it: “We’re losing badly the War on Drugs. You have to legalise drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” The reason this wasn’t happening, he added, was that politicians “don’t have any guts”.

A cocaine haul in Peru. Photo/Getty Images

A cocaine haul in Peru. Photo/Getty Images

Understandably, to an extent. As newspaper and magazine columnist Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, once pointed out, the biggest barrier to legalisation is that middle-class parents, who determine the outcome of most elections, don’t invest love, time and money in their children only for them to be exposed to life-threatening temptation in every shopping mall.

In part, this mindset reflects the Reefer Madness ignorance, sometimes wilful, alluded to earlier. It also assumes that, if drugs weren’t illegal, their children would take them, an assumption that fancifully overestimates the deterrent effect of prohibition, ignores the blind eye police now generally turn to private, discreet drug use and shows little faith in their children’s ability to recognise that oblivion hasn’t got a lot going for it.

In fairness, Trump isn’t the only leader who can’t or won’t see that the so-called war is a folly over which future generations will shake their heads in appalled disbelief. The 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (Ungass) concluded that the war “must continue until we have a society free of drug abuse”.

No serious person believes society will ever be free of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, white-collar crime or any of the other bad stuff we want to wish away. Human nature will see to that. Why should drug abuse be any different?

The Ungass statement is a call to war without end.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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