HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Drugs and Thugs
Pubdate: Sat,  1 Dec 2001
Source: Reason Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2001 The Reason Foundation
Author: Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor
Bookmark: (Walters, John)
Bookmark: (Peruvian Aircraft Shooting)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


The U.S. Subsidy For Terrorists

SHORTLY AFTER THE September terrorist attacks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert
(R-IIi.) unveiled a new panel: the Speaker's Task Force for a Drug Free
America. "The illegal drug trade
is the financial engine that fuels many terrorist organizations around the
world, including Osama bin Laden," he explained. "By going after the illegal
drug trade, we reduce the ability of these terrorists to launch attacks
against the United States." 

Actually, "going after the illegal drug trade" is what allows terrorists to
fund their operations with profits inflated by prohibition. In that sense,
the $40 billion or so the U.S. spends on drug law enforcement each year
represents a subsidy for murderers. Banning a product that people want
creates an opportunity for criminals, who can earn big profits because they
are willing to risk producing, transporting, and selling contraband.

This "risk premium" means cocaine and heroin sell for 20 to 40 times as much
as they otherwise would. Prohibition thus delivers to armed thugs a handy
stream of revenue, which they can dip into by selling drugs or by taxing
producers and traffickers. Bin Laden's organization seems to have benefited
from the drug trade indirectly: Opium money supports his Taliban hosts in

Stronger enforcement, Hastert's favored solution, would tend to increase the
risks of drug trafficking, eliminate competitors, and raise profits. So it
hardly makes sense to fight terrorism by cracking down on drugs.

In fact the events of September 11 highlighted how the War on Drugs has
skewed the government's priorities and compromised our security. The cost of
focusing on traffickers instead of terrorists was illustrated by the
announcement that federal drug agents would be trained to protect travelers
because there aren't enough sky marshals. Given the government's failure to
stop hijacked airliners from slamming into the World Trade Center, can it
really afford to have so many personnel trying to stop illegal drugs from
entering the U.S.?

It will not do simply to say that the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism
must be waged simultaneously. Aside from the problem that one war generates
the black-market profits that help support our enemies in the other, we have
to face the fact that our resources are finite. Every dollar spent
intercepting drugs is a dollar that could be spent intercepting bombs. Every
agent infiltrating a drug cartel is an agent who could be infiltrating a
terrorist cell.

We have to ask ourselves which is scarier: a dealer who sells an intoxicant
to a willing buyer or a terrorist who murders people at random. Confronting
that question does not necessarily mean repealing prohibition (the approach
I'd prefer), but it does mean taking into account the tradeoffs associated
with the drug war.

That is something John P. Walters, President Bush's choice to head the
Office of National Drug Control Policy, has shown little inclination to do.
Waiters, awaiting an all-but-certain Senate confirmation as of this writing,
seems to be an unreconstructed drug war hawk. He has criticized the Clinton
administration, under which drug arrests and anti-drug spending hit record
levels, for being soft on drugs. Even as other conservatives concluded that
prison cells were better used to incapacitate predatory criminals, he
continued to support harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug

Although the effort to "stop the flow of drugs" is plainly futile--managing,
at best, to shift around smuggling routes and sources of supply--Walters
apparently remains an interdiction enthusiast. He has even praised Peru's
policy of shooting down suspected traffickers, a practice that took the
lives of an American missionary and her baby last spring.

Perhaps recent events have tempered Walters' views by bringing home the
point that America faces threats worse than drugs. Former DEA chief Robert
C. Bonn, now the customs commissioner, seems to have seen the light.
"Terrorism is our highest priority," he says, "bar none"
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