07.04.2011 Alessandro Di Maio

War on Drugs: the war of wars

It is the longest, the most global and the most expensive war of the last centuries. It has lasted longer than the two world wars or the religious-wars and it is also much more expensive. It is has now been fought for 50 years on many fronts, engaging soldiers, the latest technology weaponry and modern war tactics. It is the War on Drugs, perhaps the most questionable conflict in the history of humankind.

After the psychological trauma of the Vietnam War and the consequent spread of movements for peace and free love, the United States of America found a new enemy, capable of putting thousands of lives at risk.This time the enemy was different, this time the enemy was drugs.

During an improvised press conference on 17 June 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”, naming drugs as “public enemy number one“. Forty years later, there are no winners or losers yet, and though initially the war front was in the United States of America, now it has spread across the whole world.

By definition, war is a political and social phenomenon where two or more collective subjects begin an armed confrontation when a conflict of economic, ideological or strategic interests can not be settled by negotiating, or when at least one party perceives that there is no other way to achieve its objectives.

When Nixon started his war against drug producers, traffickers and consumers, it is conceivable that he was unwilling to try other methods to reduce the phenomenon of drug abuse, but after forty years, one needs to ask the questions: What did the War on Drugs achieve so far? Who are the winners? Who are the losers? What are the results?

Aram Barra - activist of ‘Espolea’, one of the most important Mexican NGOs committed to the drugs issue - says that finding precise achievements from the War on Drugs is very difficult: “There were many military campaigns, but the production and consumption of drugs has remained unchanged in some countries, while in others it has increased,” he says.

Mexican soldier in a Marijuana field

In 1986, a research of the U.S. Department of Defense analyzed the previous fifteen years of the war on drugs and concluded that the American military activities not only had little effect on reducing the use of drugs but actually helped to increase the profits of criminal organizations involved.

A few years later another study initiated by President Bill Clinton came to similar conclusion. It suggested that financing medical programs for the treatment of drugs addicts might be more economical and efficient then spending billions of US dollars on military machinery.

However, to gauge what point the war on drugs is at now, it is necessary to go to Vienna, Austria, where once a year the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meets to discuss the results of their policy. A demonstration organized by a group of activists, dressed as gangsters and businessmen from various pro-legalization NGOs, welcomes the delegates of each nation. They wave fake dollars and glasses full of champagne, thanking the delegates of the countries that have always supported the prohibition of drugs: “The reason for our protest - says one of the demonstrators from Great Britain – is to communicate to the UN delegates the truth about the War on Drugs, to make them realize that forty years of their War on Drugs has increased the profits of organized crime and drug traffickers“.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs represents all countries because the war is global: “We started in the U.S. - says Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program of the ‘Open Society Institute’ – and now we think in global terms because the issue of drugs has been militarized on a global level, not only in the United States, with a variety of collateral damage“.

The War on Drugs has now seen billions of dollars spent and thousands of soldiers, planes and tanks used in America as well as in Asia. On one side there is a coalition led by the United States, China and Russia; on the other side, South- and Central-American drug-traffickers and warlords from Afghanistan, Pakistan and various countries in Asia.

“Countries which are normally on opposite diplomatic sides fight together against drugs, affecting both the strong and the weak link of the chain made up of poor farmers and drug addicts,“ says Daniel Wolfe.

Plan Colombia, a United States program to reduce the production of cocaine in Colombia, involved the expenditure of 7.5 billion US tax dollars, the use of 72 war helicopters, more than 100 aircrafts and 20,000 soldiers, but “the only result - says Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition – has been to politically and militarily stabilize the region, without reducing the production of cocaine, which remained the same“.

However, the war on drugs is not only fought in the forests of South and Central America or in the fields of Central Asia by regular armies, but also in Western cities, where most of the drugs are sold and consumed.

“The militarization of the phenomenon has been realized thanks also to the criminalization of drug use. There are countries - says Daniel Wolfe – where smoking a joint carries the risk of ending up in jail for seven years and being subjected to torture, abuse and situations that could lead to lethal infections such as HIV and hepatitis“.

Many NGOs criticize the War on Drugs. From their point of view, it is understandable that politicians try to do something against the increasing use of drugs but they very much disagree with the methods and aims involved.

At the same time, there are organizations that support the war. The ‘World Federation Against Drugs’ is one of these. They reject any soft approach to drugs, because they consider this an issue that should not be compromised on.

The UN delegates at the Commission are divided. Many observers have the impression, that only the United States of America has sufficient power and knowledge to initiate a real discussion. It seems that all other delegations merely follow the leader by voting in favor of intransigent military plans against drugs.

“People and governments can support or oppose this war, but we must keep our feet on the ground and look at the empirical data“, says the Mexican activist Aram Barra. According to data published in the 2010 UN report on drugs, the production and consumption of all types of drugs has increased on a global scale.

Global production of opium has grown by 800 per cent, from 1000 tons in 1980 to 8000 in 2009, and the same trend is clearly visible for cocaine and marijuana. An analysis of the longest and most expensive war in the history of humankind should bring governments and the international community to think about the use of alternative methods. Maybe these alternative methods were not well documented in the past, but now they are.

Alternatives exist, thanks to both medical and sociological scientific studies that focus mostly on prevention rather than militarization or on the treatment rather than the criminalization of addicts. By exploring these alternatives and others, this time they could actually win the War on Drugs.

Article by Alessandro Di Maio, published by ‘Orange Magazine’ on March 2011.