Pubdate: Mon, 01 Jul 2002
Source: Playboy Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2002 Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Pubdate: July 2002
Page: 66
Author: Geoffrey Norman


The Government's Hooked On The Drug War

The war on drugs has now gone on three times as long as the Vietnam war, 
with no end in sight and no good reason to believe it can ever be 
won.  Richard Nixon declared the war in 1971, and its aim, as stated later 
by an act of Congress, was a drug-free society by 1995.  If that is still 
the objective, plainly we have lost.  In 1980 there were 50,000 people in 
custody for drug-related crimes.  Twenty years later, the number was 
400,000.  The price of locking up all those people climbed above $8.5 
Billion.  In 1980 some 580,000 people were arrested on drug charges.

Almost 1.6 million individuals were arrested in 2000 for alleged drug 
offenses, and some of them have, no doubt, joined the ever expanding prison 
population. Nevertheless, drugs are more available, cheaper and purer in 
content than ever. Inevitably, the drug warriors say they are fighting hard 
but they don't have the resources.

What they need is more money.

In this sense, the war on drugs has come to resemble many other big 
government programs and bureaucracies whose raison d'etre cannot be found 
in any mission statement.

Why? Because they are interest groups, and the real reason for their 
existence, their true mission, is to exist.

And to grow. More often than not, the best way to grow is to fail.

It works for Amtrak, the Postal Service and the Department of Education 
(the worse kids do in school, the more lavishly Congress funds this 
agency), so why not the war on drugs?

The drug warriors are, in a paradoxical way, fortunate to be fighting an 
unwinnable war. After a real war, troops are demobilized, weapons programs 
are canceled and generals are sent into retirement on half pay. But in an 
endless war, the money to carry on the fight more and more of it keeps 
rolling in until the end of time.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal 
government will spend more than $19.2 billion waging the war on drugs in 
2003. That sum is $7.6 billion more than what it spent 10 years ago, and 
has increased by 7 percent in the past two years.

State and local governments will spend at least $20 billion more. That buys 
a lot of enforcement. A drug-sniffing dog with handler runs between $40,000 
and $60,000 a year. A police cruiser equipped to handle dogs goes for about 
$25,000. A DEA agent starts somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000.

Money creates its own constituencies, and those lucky recipients tend to 
favor the status quo. No interest group has ever voted itself out of 
existence or asked Congress for less money than it received in the previous 
year. The people who depend on the war on drugs for their livelihood are no 
different. Consider, for example, the California Correctional Peace 
Officers Association union of prison guards that contributed more than $2 
million to the campaign of the present governor of California. It has more 
political muscle than any lobby in the most populous state in the union. 
The CCPOA campaigned vigorously against a plan to send nonviolent drug 
offenders to treatment instead of prison.

The union has a big stake in the war on drugs and an incentive to push for 
its escalation. More drug busts means more convicts, and that means more 
jobs for prison guards and a larger union membership and war chest.

The longer the war on drugs fails, the better the union likes it.

Before drug offenders can be jailed, they must be arrested and prosecuted. 
That, of course, costs money.

Like prison guards and DEA agents, a lot of judges and prosecutors owe 
their livelihoods to the war on drugs.

Their salaries, pensions, health insurance (which includes drug rehab, no 
doubt) and all the rest are picked up by the taxpayer who, in turn, may be 
picked up himself if he is suspected of fooling around with the wrong kind 
of drugs. Because a lot of the people who are busted for drugs can't afford 
to pay for their own legal defense, the state (i.e., the taxpayer) picks up 
the bill for the lawyer who tries to keep the drug offender out of jail, as 
well as for the one who is trying to send him there.

Just about the only people involved in a routine drug trial who are not on 
the government payroll are the jurors who get $30 a day and a ham sandwich 
for lunch.

The time lost to jury duty on drug cases by otherwise productive citizens 
is just one of a profusion of hidden costs of the drug war.

When you begin to consider these hidden and ancillary costs, you come to 
realize the true magnitude of the waste.

The official, on the books cost of this war is $609 a second.

The real cost is much greater and, because the economic distortions are so 
large, not really determinable.

For example, the zealous pursuit of drug criminals leads inevitably to a 
lot of bad arrests.

Consider the case of the woman who was strip searched at O'Hare airport and 
later collected $129,750 in damages when she took the narcs to court.

There will be large judgments coming in favor of the people who were 
stopped under racial profiling policies used to make drug busts. The drug 
war's failures can sometimes be too expensive to calculate in dollars and 

Consider, for instance, the death of a seven month old girl named Charity 
who was a passenger, along with her missionary parents, in a plane shot 
down by the Peruvian Air Force as part of the U.S.financed war on drugs.

In daily life, the drug war imposes more mundane costs of inconvenience on 
everyone. Those long lines of cars at the Mexican and Canadian borders are 
a cost, in terms of time lost. Time, after all, is money, especially if you 
are in the transportation business.

There is also the cost of the fuel burned by all those idling engines.

Not to mention the pollution they produce.

Drug tests are required by many companies that conduct business with the 
government, and the drug test industry is worth some $5.9 billion.

Does that money represent an efficient use of resources?

If you're smoking a powerful substance, the answer might be yes. The fact 
is that in 1990, 38 federal agencies spent $11.7 million on tests for 0.5 
percent positive results. Each drug user, then, cost about $77,000.

We also have to consider what is not done with the money that goes to wage 
war on drugs.

If you spend money on a prison instead of a school, the long-term cost 
comes in the form of uneducated, unskilled kids who might just turn to 
selling drugs to make a living.

Or using them to ease the boredom. But, hey, you have a prison, so you'll 
have someplace to put them when the bill comes due.

And there is the cost of wasted opportunities and undeveloped resources.

It costs about as much to imprison someone as it does to send him to a good 
college. But factor in the lost wages (and taxes) of what might otherwise 
have been a productive citizen.

Add in the cost of welfare for the dependents of the jailed person and the 
salary of the parole officer who will supervise that person after he is 

Taking someone prisoner in the war on drugs costs a lot of money (as much 
as $450,000, according to one estimate), and it is not a onetime expense.

In the most extreme case, society loses a taxpayer (a productive resource) 
and gains at least one, and maybe several, long term dependents. This may 
be good for prison guards and social workers.

But it isn't much of a bargain for the remaining taxpayers who pay the bill.

Then there is the cost of crimes committed by the violent felons who should 
be in prison but are released early because the space required to house 
them is taken up by drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.

A few years ago, the state of Florida released murderers, among others, 
according to a formula called gain time, because it needed the beds to 
handle drug offenders serving long sentences.

Gain time isn't always the same as good time. In some cases, in fact, it 
was nothing more than time served. Some of the murderers who were released 
returned to violent crime, including murder.

Finally, there is the cost of putting our law enforcement energies into the 
war on drugs instead of, say, the war on terrorism, where the return could 
have been much more satisfying. Between 1992 and 1998, the FBI increased 
its number of convictions by almost 70 percent.

After September 11, one could reasonably ask if the FBI might have been 
fighting the wrong war. If the priorities of the FBI had been different, 
perhaps events might also have been different on September 11. That is one 
of those imponderables, like the actual economic costs of that terrible day.

One small cost of the drug war that has been documented is the more than $3 
million that went for ads during the Super Bowl. Rather than concede the 
possibility that a full scale war on drugs might not be the best use of the 
nation's will and resources, the drug warriors spent all that money to 
propagandize for their war and piggyback on the public's support for the 
war on terrorism.  According to the ads, if you do dope, the money you 
spend on drugs goes into the pockets of terrorists.

Ah, yes. And marijuana is a gateway to hard drugs, LSD causes birth 
defects, and so on. The $3 million plus is chicken feed in the big scheme 
of things (and the war on drugs is a big scheme, if ever there were one). 
The heavy handed pitch is pretty much in line with what we have come to 
expect. Of course, you could point out that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi of 
considerable wealth.

Saudi money comes, directly or indirectly, from oil. So maybe someone 
should have created an ad about how if you drive a gas guzzling SUV, you 
are financing terrorists. Such an ad would have provoked outrage, and 
rightly so. But the drug warriors didn't take much criticism for their 
Super Bowl spots.

Probably because we have all grown weary. The drug war has been going on so 
long that we expect it, like farm subsidies, to go on forever.

The difference, of course, is that when you pay farmers not to grow crops, 
you are just wasting money.

When you pay for a war on drugs, you waste lives. If we are going to pay so 
extravagantly for such meager results (the drugs keep coming in and people 
keep using them), then maybe it is time to pay off the drug warriors.

Give them the money, but only if they do nothing.

The only other solution, after such a long exercise in futility, is to 
recognize that what we really need to do is declare war on the war on drugs. 
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart