The War on Drugs: Throwing Good Money at a Bad Idea

In cased you missed it, the Office of National Drug Control Policy spent $3.5 million dollars on Super Bowl commercials earlier this month. The ad campaign will continue into the months ahead.

The message? If you use drugs, you might be supporting terrorists. The ads and the accompanying Web site point out that 12 of the 28 terrorist organizations recently recognized by the State Department derive funding through the cultivation and/or trafficking of illicit drugs.

Just at first blush, the ads reek of manipulation.

The "I Helped" commercial lines up a series of young people, all supposed drug users. One by one they rattle off the nastiness domestic drug purchases have allegedly contributed to.

"I helped kill a policeman," one says.

"I helped murder families," says another.

"I helped kidnap people's dads," still another.

The campaign's accompanying Web site then provides documentation of 14 incidents to support the statements. Six of the documented examples occurred in Mexico. Eight occurred in Colombia. None occurred in the United States, against U.S. citizens or in any country directly tied to the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Sept. 11 is of course what drives the ads. Amid the flags and pomp and tributes that consumed this year's Super Bowl — just following a halftime show complete with a scrawling list of the names of Sept. 11 victims set to anthemic U2 tunes — the ONDCP airs a commercial linking domestic drug purchases with international terrorism.

There's no clear evidence any significant amount of Taliban-grown poppy — used to make opium, or refined to make heroin — ever found its way to U.S. soil. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 82 percent of U.S. heroin comes from Mexico and South America. A small percentage is domestically grown, and much of the rest comes from Asia — of which Afghanistan is only one of a number of exporters, including Thailand, Cambodia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, and China — to name just a few.

That leaves cocaine — and Colombia. Indeed, virtually all of the research and statistics tying drug use to terrorism in the Super Bowl ads and on the campaign's accompanying Web site center around Latin America and Mexico.

And here is where the full hypocrisy of the ads comes into view.

Over the past several years, the United States has spent billions of dollars to eradicate narcotics cultivation in South America, mostly in Colombia. Colombia receives the third-largest bounty of U.S military aid, behind only Egypt and Israel.

President Bush's proposed 2003 budget calls for $439 million in drug-fighting money for Colombia, including an additional $98 million to train a Colombian military brigade to protect a U.S. oil pipeline from narco-guerillas.

The problem is that Colombian military officials have long been in cahoots with right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for the murder, kidnapping and mass slaughter of Colombian citizens. They aren't as bad as the drug traffickers themselves, but they're bad enough.

The carnage got so bad that in 1999, Congress required the president to assure congressional leaders that Colombia had taken significant and convincing steps to eradicate ties between its military officials and terrorist paramilitary groups before any further disbursement of aid. But the situation has not improved much since.

The drug most widely used by illicit drug users in America is marijuana, and the marijuana available on the American street is, for the most part, domestically grown. Secondary sources come from Canada, Jamaica or Mexico. America's pot smokers aren't funding terrorists — unless intelligence sources now indicate we should be screening for Canadians and Rastafarians at our airports.

Meanwhile, since the U.S. officially declared its "war on drugs," illicit drug use has plugged along at steady rates — though the drugs of choice go in and out of vogue. Domestic DEA drug arrests have gone up from 25,000 in 1988 to over 40,000 in 1999. Marijuana emergency room episodes increased six-fold from 1990 to 2000, and heroin episodes tripled over the same period.

We've thrown billions of dollars at the supply end and street prices have remained steady, or gone down. We've thrown billions at the demand end and people are still using.

The "war on drugs" is not only failing; it no longer makes any sense.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va., and publisher of The  

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