We have a friend with a curious strategy for winning the war on drugs. Its a cinch, he says. The U.S. government should be buying up coca leaves directly from the source-from the plantations in Peru, where peasants are paid peanuts a bushel. The feds should outbid the cartels and destroy what they buy. Thatll drive up wholesale prices to astronomical levels. When whats left reaches the U.S. market, itll be way too expensive for the average drug-seeker.
Crazy, huh? But however bizarre that anti-drug scenario seems, its no more ludicrousand probably a lot cheaperthan Bob Doles new supply-squelching plan. Alarmed by reports of increasing drug use among American teenagers, the GOP nominee now insists that what it takes to win the war against drugs is military muscle. Blaming President Clinton for a relaxed attitude toward illegal drugs, he favors calling on the armed forces to halt the flood of drugs across the U.S. borders and onto the streets.
Perhaps theres no real harm in letting soldiers join the federal and state officers now traipsing through the Texas underbrush and shadowing Americas coke kingpins. Outrunning drug runners ought to be a snap after boot camp. But as candidate Dole hammers on this tired nail of interdiction, he shouldnt imagine hes come up with anything particularly novel. President Clinton has been just as willing as his predecessors to pour money into nabbing smugglers and dealers. Even now, two-thirds of the $13 billion federal drug budget goes to law enforcement and interdiction.
Which isnt to say that this supply-side drug strategyDoles or Clintonsis particularly laudable. Quite the contrary. Consider the conclusion of a new report by The Independent Institute, a California think tank: It finds the war on drugs may actually do more to imperil than protect public safety. The preoccupation with fighting drugs, institute researchers say, has diminished the likelihood that violent criminals will be caught and punished. The upshot has been more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders behind barsand more violence on American streets.
And whatever the side effects, the most distressing thing about the interdiction-and-enforcement approach seems to be its futility. Ample evidence shows that trying to squelch the drug supplyat the border or on the street - has a negligible effect on either drug prices or drug use. Criminologists say thats because the drug trade has an impressively deep bench: Every time a smuggler or dealer is taken out of commission, several wannabes leap out of the sidelines and into the breach.
Its quaint to think that this public-health crisis can be cured by a generous salting of combat troops. The sad fact is that the drug empire will flourish as long as it has customers. If this nations leaders really want to curb drug use, they must invest in the cost-effective treatment and prevention programs known to lessen drug demand. They must think less about plugging the drug pipeline and more about thinning the crowd waiting at its end.
Reprinted from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 11, 1996.