Fighting drugs,
A lifelong job;
It makes big profits
For the Mob.

The Afghanistan War sometimes seems interminable. It just became the longest hot war in U.S. history. Europe’s Hundred Years War remains the world record holder, but things moved slower back then. Pentagon officials appear to dream of setting a new record in Kabul.

Meanwhile, our War on Drugs is quietly building its own longevity record. This war dates back to the Nixon administration and shows little sign of abating. The latest skirmish just concluded with California’s failed pot referendum. Attorney General Eric Holder’s troops, amply funded by the generous liquor and prison industries, fought off a determined attack by Drug War realists and pot smokers aimed at regulating (legalizing) marijuana. Luckily for Holder, his side had more money. Yet on that same Election Day, Arizona became the 15th state to approve medical marijuana–a testament to the public’s indifference to the war’s moralizers.

Elsewhere, this war isn’t going well. Who knows how many luckless folks were murdered in Mexico, caught in the destructive drug-fueled gang violence? Mexico has decriminalized small amounts of most drugs to drain some oomph out of that violence, with little impact. The violence helps control the transport of drugs to the north of the U.S. border – not the south.

Our marijuana use keeps climbing, despite the Drug War. The Golden State grows so much cannabis that even if California’s voters had passed Proposition 19, local smugglers might have been largely unaffected. Nationally though, Big Liquor was truly worried. Not only would legal pot have cut into its business, but a recent study concluded that alcohol is even more socially destructive than heroin. Marijuana seems tame by comparison.

The prison industry was also anxious about the outcome of California’s vote. Current drug laws keep those for-profit jails brimming with small-time users who pose no threat to anyone. This front of the war keeps plenty of cops, guards, prosecutors, defenders, wardens, and builders and suppliers of prisons out of the unemployment lines.

Not to be seen as impotent, Congress leapt into action doing what it does best. It created a blue-ribbon commission. No doubt this group will be so broad-based that nothing will come of it. Those with a financial interest in the war will drown out those who really want something done.

The commission would do well to consider the example of other countries. Portugal, though a financial basket case, leads the way on drug reform. It has decriminalized just about everything and has reaped the benefits of less crime, less law enforcement, and even less drug usage. Switzerland leads in treating heroin medically instead of criminally, with a similar happy outcome. Canada is following suit, over stern U.S. protests. President Barack Obama has promised vastly expanded needle exchanges, but little has happened.

Meanwhile our aggressive cocaine eradication assault in Colombia has driven much of the production to Peru. A similar assault on key poppy provinces in Afghanistan has successfully driven heroin production elsewhere. Whoopie! Attacking sources of drug supplies works about as well now as similar approaches did during Prohibition.

Despite the Drug War’s horrific casualties, most elected leaders are fearful of seeking peace. Some of their campaign donors would lose profits, and their opponents could stir up fear and hate. Sounds a lot like the War on Terror.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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