Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another wrong war

Another wrong war.

We should never have started the war in Iraq. The war in Vietnam was justified by the “domino theory” – if we did not resist Communism in Vietnam, the rest of Asia would also go communist. That theory is now thoroughly discredited suggesting that we should have staid out of the Vietnam War. Justifications for the Korean War were very similar; most likely it too should not have been fought.

We have an unfortunate inclination to get into unnecessary and unjustified wars .

Now comes news of another ill considered war. Forty years after the beginning of the “War on Drugs” a government commission has concluded that that war, too, failed. In the last 40 years, we have spent more than $650 billion—some reports say “ $1 trillion”-- to reduce the supply of marijuana, cocaine and heroin to US consumers. Two thirds of that amount was spent on incarcerating people arrested for drug offenses. Even the current U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told the Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The project was doomed as soon as it was called “ a war.” Wars are violent, they are extremely coercive, they are destructive of lives and property. Wars are not for the fainthearted. Combatants need to be hard, and merciless in the face of the suffering they inflict. Our war on drugs has been all of those: Violent, coercive, and mercilessly destructive. Our jails are overflowing with persons arrested for drug offenses. US drug gangs bring violence to city streets. Mexican drug gangs seriously undermine the power of their government. In Latin America, and now in Afghanistan, we try – with very limited success – to eradicate coca plants and poppies without any concern for the growers whom we deprive of their livelihood and often sicken with the herbicides we spray on their crops. All that is shrugged off as collateral damage.

We tried this experiment once before – during Prohibition –and found that you cannot force people to avoid substances that may be harmful to them. Draconian laws and their enforcement have not reduced the demand for drugs—neither during Prohibition nor today.

Addicts are souls in pain. Punishment only intensifies that pain. For many addicts, poverty, social isolation, lack of hope for a better life, leads to despair and addiction. When the policeman comes to arrest you and the judge puts you in jail, that simply confirms what you knew all along, namely that life is miserable and there is nothing to hope for. You might just as well get high and forget about your problems. The coercive spirit of the war on drugs encourages addiction rather than reducing it.

The war on drugs failed, not because it was poorly executed but because it was the wrong response to the problem of drug addiction. It was one more example where we allowed the haters among us to set public policy. They have only one response to problems: violence, destruction and intimidation.

We were not sufficiently concerned about fellow citizens whose lives are excessively difficult and unrewarding. We blamed and punished when we should have acknowledged that we are members of the same society and that if some of us suffer, the rest of us may well have some responsibility for alleviating the suffering if we can.

Politicians like to present themselves as “compassionate.” Our response to drug addiction has been anything but that. The 40 year failure of the war on drugs suggests that we should take compassion more seriously. Coercion is destructive; it does not solve any problems.