SINCE 1759

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When Admitting Failure Is Forbidden
America On Drugs

David Murray, a drug policy analyst for the Bush administration, was asked recently about cocaine cultivation in Colombia, where the United States is fighting an expensive, low-grade war against coca growers since 2000. “This is a trade whose days are numbered,” Murray told The New York Times. The phrase rang of Vice President Dick Cheney’s evaluation of the Iraqi civil war in May 2005: “I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.” Someone should find out what these Bush types are, if you will, smoking.

Iraqis are now getting killed at a rate of 40,000 a year, more than three times the average annual kill-rate of the Saddam years. Even the most friendly kind of reporting coming out of Iraq — the military embed kind designed to make reporters sound like Cheney cracking softballs on “Larry King Live” — can’t mask the region’s approximation of a Sam Peckinpah movie (think “The Wild Bunch” in fast-forward). Coverage of the war is declining as the certainty of American defeat is increasing. At least the debate over the Iraq catastrophe goes on. The same can’t be said about that other futility warped by official lies, public indifference and $40 billion a year in wasted taxpayer dollars — the war on drugs.

That one was lost soon after Richard Nixon declared it almost 40 years ago. But it’s been every president’s and governor’s pet boondoggle since. It doesn’t matter how useless it’s been — how many lives have been ruined by its lock-up first, treat-rarely approach; how many people have been killed, through turf and gang wars, by its criminalization of a vice less harmful in almost every regard than alcohol; how many billions of dollars wasted on a strategy as obviously pointless as standing watch over a civil war. (The simile is appropriate in the drug war’s case: It is America’s civil war, and minorities are its overwhelmingly targeted victims.) Too bad reforming failing government initiatives is such an ideologically tainted cudgel. Ten years ago today, President Clinton signed welfare reform into law, ending “welfare as we know it.” If a government program ever needed reform, the “war on drugs” is it.

Fat chance. The country is addicted to the bureaucracy of the war. It keeps prisons in business. It keeps police departments fattening up their ranks. It lets politicians on the stump freebase on tough-sounding rhetoric, cost-free. It is the law-enforcement establishment’s bottomless welfare plan, with more dire results than social welfare ever caused those on the dole. For all its “welfare queen” myths and admitted failures, social welfare programs had their millions of successes, keeping people out of poverty or helping them through bad patches. The drug war is a legacy of victims. Its only true winners are its enablers and dependents — government and law enforcement — who, experiencing its futility first-hand, should have been leading the charge for reform decades ago. But they’re too addicted to 12-step their way out of it.

Rather, the quagmire worsens, implicating America’s already tattered foreign policy along the way. Take Colombia. Since 2000, the United States has spent $4.7 billion there to help eradicate coca plants. The large-scale effort is ostensibly a war on cocoa growers. But that’s only cover for the Pentagon’s involvement in a covert war against the country’s left-wing guerillas. Colombia, remember, is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Egypt. Most of it is military aid. With what results? According to a Times investigation, as much coca is cultivated in Colombia today as in 2000 (and it’s rising in Peru and Bolivia) even though aerial fumigation has tripled. Cocaine production exceeds demand worldwide by as much as a third. Street prices, the true barometer of whether the eradication campaign is affecting supply, are unchanged since 2000.

Waste is too forgiving a word. Folly is more like it, especially when ready alternatives would be more humane, more sensible, less costly, and less damaging to health and the environment, if you’re an Andean farmer drenched by monsoons of defoliant: Drug legalization (all drugs), control, regulation and taxation of the whole industry, foreign aid to farmers rather than the Colombian military, beds for treatment rather than prisons at home.

The parallels between the drug war and America’s other futilities — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on “terror” — explain each war’s failure: We so fear defeat, as if it’s somehow un-American, that we cannot admit its remotest possibility. When defeat is a forbidden option, even though it could well be the best way forward, then alternatives are not an option, either. So we build on errors, as we so glaringly have in these wars. There’s no surer way to lose, to learn nothing, and ensure self-destruction. It’s become a national character flaw that’s corroding the country abroad and at home. If you will.

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