The War on Drugs is undermining America’s War on Terror by:
- creating an adversarial relationship with a large portion of the country;
- calling into question the legitimacy of the rule of law and law enforcement;
- competing for law enforcement resources; and
- revealing the measures we take to track money being laundered and to stop smuggling.
The threat of terrorism is real, if often exaggerated for political purposes; and the consequences of a low probability, high impact attack could be catastrophic. If terrorism is our most immediate national security threat, then we must rearrange our priorities and end the failing Drug War.
The prosecution of Tommy Chong (half of the perpetually baked comedy duo Cheech and Chong) illustrates some of these points.
The state of Pennsylvania prohibits the shipping of drug paraphernalia – such as bongs – into it’s state. In 2003, a man from Beaver Falls, PA began calling a store in California run by the family of Tommy Chong asking them to ship him a large order of bongs and assorted other glassware. A manager at the store claimed that man called at least 20 times – and each time a representative of the store told him they could not ship to his state, citing the Pennsylvania law. This very determined man traveled to California to order the items – but he was not determined enough to stay around until his order was packed up. He returned to Pennsylvania. The store still refused to ship him the items – but after a few weeks, they gave in to his repeated demands.
That was the excuse a SWAT team needed to raid the store and arrest Tommy Chong. The entire operation was set up by a U. S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan. The net cost to the taxpayer to put Tommy Chong in jail for 9 months (Chong was convinced to take the fall although he didn’t run the business and had nothing to do with this incident) was $12 million. Tommy Chong, reflecting on the lessons of his experience pointed to “the absurdity of the War on Drugs when we have a much more pressing – and wholly unrelated – war on terrorism to worry about.”
I only disagree with the sage Tommy Chong in that the two wars are wholly unrelated. They are related intimately – and the war against Tommy Chong is making the war against Al Qaeda harder.
The most profound way the War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror is how it calls into question the legitimacy of the rule of law and of law enforcement. Tommy Chong’s case is not atypical in how disproportionate the resources used to take him down were to his threat to society – from the millions of dollars spent to the SWAT team to the sting operation – you would expect him to be some kind of violent drug lord. Chong’s case is exceptional only due to his celebrity. The number of hours dedicated to fighting the Drug War against American citizens is incalculable. Each arrest for possession, for possession with intent to distribute, or any other of a long list minor offenses involves the time and attention of police officers, as well as judges and attorneys. Yet with all this effort, this War on Drugs has been fruitless. As Ben Wallace-Wells subtitled his summary of the War on Drugs: “After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and Plentiful as Ever.”
Excessive force is often used in the Drug War – and not just against isolated individuals. The libertarian CATO Institute has documented the enormous number of paramilitary raids – mainly involved in the War on Drugs. They cite an estimate of 40,000 paramilitary raids a year – including many which kill innocent bystanders or are raids on the wrong address. In an example from just a few months ago, police raided the home of the mayor of a small suburb outside of Baltimore and shot his dogs in search of marijuana. The mayor and his family were innocent, as were the dogs. One of the mayors neighbors said to him after the police raid: “If the police shot your dogs dead and did this to you, how can I trust them?”
At the same time, the Drug War has alienated a large segment of its population from its law enforcement and national security agencies. At times – especially as in the case of Tommy Chong – it seems to have become a surrogate for a culture war. Largely as a result of the War on Drugs, America has the largest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. Yet most offenders of drug laws are never imprisoned – as it is estimated that nearly 7% of Americans use illegal drugs every month. Among the Americans to cross into enemy lines in the War on Drugs include our last, current, and future presidents. The War on Drugs has created an adversarial relationship between the government and a large portion of Americans.
The failures of the Drug War haven’t yet affected the War on Terror because it has largely been seen as something “different,” something which unites all Americans, which transcends boundaries. Mobsters, drug dealers, smugglers, and even governors of Illinois may be threats to the rule of law and targets of law enforcement, but they, with law enforcement, see terrorists as enemies of civilization. The Sopranos illustrated this with a storyline in which a mobster is asked by the FBI to keep a lookout for suspicious activity – and he is eager to. But the War on Drugs keeps threatening to undermine this essential distinction, as law enforcement uses powers designated to it in order to fight terrorism for other ends.
The War on Drugs also competes with the War on Terror for government resources and attention. This refers not only to the degree to which the FBI, Customs, and local police forces must split their attention between the two Wars – thus shortchanging both, but also to the more formal war in Afghanistan. Our anti-drug policy is driving the poor farmers of Afghanistan to seek the protection of the Taliban according to President Hamid Karzai. At the same time, even as additional resources have been allocated at the federal level to combat terrorism, local police forces must now split their attention – and their efforts in the Drug War often undermine the trust they need to prevent a potential terrorist attack.
More insidious though is how the intersection of the War on Drugs and the incentives of drug trafficking create an infrastructure that can be used for terrorism as a Congressional report from 2004 explained. The enormous profits involved in drug trafficking have incentivized an industry dedicated to undermining our national security infrastructure – it has created experts in smuggling to get contraband through or around Customs and into America; it supports an industry of money laundering and of illegal weapons and false identifications. All of these are useful and often essential to a terrorist operation – and yet none of these could be adequately financed by terrorism alone. The efforts of the War on Drugs reveal weaknesses in our national security to drug dealers and terrorists alike. One of the authors of a study of America’s vulnerability to nuclear terrorism joked the best way to smuggle nuclear material into America would be in a package of cocaine. If America were to focus our national security efforts – including efforts to track suspicious money and to prevent smuggling on terrorist-related targets, less would be known of our capabilities.
The War on Drugs has failed in its objectives. It affects Americans unequally and unfairly. And it is making us less safe. There is an international consensus on the dangers of heroin and cocaine trafficking – and we should continue to combat them. But we stop fighting a “War on Drugs” that is undermining the War on Terror.
We must rationalize the drug laws – by equalizing the penalties across similar classes of drugs and by legalizing those drugs health experts agree are less dangerous and addictive while continuing to make efforts to reduce the demand for and smuggling of the rest. We must end the “War on Drugs” that is targeting a significant percentage of American citizens and helping to destabilize countries around the world. We must stop blurring the lines between our efforts to stop drug trafficking and the War on Terror. The best defense against terrorism is a people who trust law enforcement, respect the rule of law, and are knowledgeable about threats.
The War on Drugs is squandering this resource. Which is why we must end it.
[Picture licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of CmdrGravy.]