Obama’s Disingenuous War on Drugs

Obama needs to ditch American hubris and hegemony and get real about drugs. By Mansfield Frazier.

Fernando Vergara / AP Photo

At the sixth Summit of the Americas, held in Cartagena, Colombia, President Obama’s flat-out refusal to engage in open and honest discussions on an issue of paramount concern to South American leaders—namely our nation’s appetite for cocaine (and, increasingly, heroin), which has spawned violent drug cartels in their countries and threatens the very stability of the region—most probably was construed as merely another form of long-hated Yanqui imperialism by Latin American leaders.

By stating that strong economies and the rule of law are the ways to solve drug problems (he refused to even discuss the subjects of decriminalization or legalization), the president demonstrated that he is either completely out of touch with reality or has no respect for the intelligence of the other leaders of the Americas. As soon as those words came out of his mouth, the question that had to pop into everyone’s mind was, for years, your country, unlike ours, has had both a strong economy and the rule of law, so why hasn’t the drug problem been solved in the United States?

While the other leaders of the Americas were probably too respectful of the office Obama represents to outright laugh at him to his face, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when they caucused after his comments. American hubris and hegemony obvious knows no bounds.

Indeed, why hasn’t our country’s “war on drugs,” now entering its fourth (or is it fifth?) decade, caused a diminishing of demand? The answer is simple: as currently prosecuted the “war” will never be won ... because it can’t be. The trade is so lucrative, drug smugglers for years have been constructing cheaply made disposable submarines to get their product to market. And while law enforcement loves to show off the vessels they capture, they have no idea how many they fail to detect—and the smugglers aren’t telling.

Here’s why the “war” can’t be won: The U.S. is the largest capitalist economy in the world (at least for another decade or so), and drugs are the purest form of free-market capitalism in the world. Illicit drugs respect no laws, no borders, and no treaties. Drugs respond only to the first, immutable, and supreme law of capitalism—supply and demand.

If the Drug Enforcement Administration was to ever win this “war,” it would make a baldfaced lie out of the very bedrock principle our economic system is based on, not to mention the severe depression such a “victory” would trigger. Too many foot soldiers make a handsome living off of propagating this “war.”

Obama was forced to drink the DEA Kool-Aid upon assuming office, and by now he’s addicted. He can’t stop until the DEA stops. If interdiction worked, the price of drugs would go up due to the scarcity created (that old law of supply and demand again), but over the last few decades the price of a kilo of coke has gone down, not up.

The president also said reducing demand would assist in solving the drug problem, but for that to take place, real drug treatment (absent getting busted and being sentenced to treatment in lieu of incarceration) would have to be widely available in this country. But ask any addicts you know (come on, we all know one or two) if they can access such treatment on demand without having the card of a platinum health-care program in their wallets. Our puny efforts at harm reduction are laughable when compared with successful models in other countries, yet “reduced demand” was the line of bull the president was slinging at the summit.

A really-sane drug policy would shift funds from useless interdiction efforts and focus more on treatment, but that would signal that we’re giving up on the “war,” and we Americans don’t like to lose wars, do we? Not even those we can’t win. Also, because local police departments get to keep the cash they confiscate from drug dealers, they really are not all that interested in programs that might hurt their little crime-inspired enterprises. Indeed, it’s rumored that some law-enforcement agencies lie in wait for drug dealers to fatten their bankrolls before they move in to take them down—meanwhile allowing drugs to be sold—until it’s more profitable for their departments. In the street it’s called “fattenin’ frogs for snakes.”

International trade agreements, while seemingly complicated, are really based on the simple principle of “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” If we want our neighbors to the south to continue buying American-made Caterpillar tractors instead of those made in China or other Pacific Rim countries, we have to be willing to help them with the huge problem American demand for drugs has created for their countries. Otherwise, they’ll shop elsewhere, and why wouldn’t they?

Some members of the president’s advance Secret Service detail evidently took the adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans” too much to heart by reportedly having prostitutes come up to their hotel rooms—because prostitution isn’t illegal in certain areas of Colombia. President Obama should have followed suit—no, not by tricking with prostitutes—but by doing what leaders of South American countries do when he’s in their country: talk honestly and forthrightly on drugs.

The president didn’t, and it’s going to cost us tremendously down the line. But those South American leaders will never tell us that our failure to help the drug problem was, in fact, just the reason Asian nations became their favorite trading partners. They’ll be just as disingenuous to us as Obama was to them.