Having written about unintended consequences in a very general way, I now do want to look at some specific unintended consequences of the war on drugs. Again, in my mind these seem to be sufficiently harmful that they argue for ending the war on drugs, but I know many will disagree. So, I am presenting them simply to make clear exactly what the costs of the war on drugs are. It is quite possible that many will argue that, even with these consequences, the war on drugs is worthwhile, and I can understand how some could come tot hat conclusion, but I think we are all better served if we agree in advance what the real costs are.
When people mention the foreign policy costs of the war on drugs, most think of the often heard argument that the war on drugs finances hostile foreign powers. And this is a valid concern. Drug profits do support insurgencies throughout South America, as well as warlords in Afghanistan and Thailand. Beyond that many terrorist and criminal groups, such as the KLA, are involved in some segments of the drug trade as well. Admittedly, many are funded more by European drug smuggling than US, but the US prohibition on drugs play a part as well.
However, that is only half the story. The funds that drug growing, growing and smuggling pours into these groups is harmful, but the subsequent consequences are worse. Let us look at just one example, Columbia.
Columbia has been plagued for a long time with numerous insurgent groups. At one time these groups were funded by the USSR through their intermediary Cuba. However, with the fall of the USSR, Cuba no longer has the money to maintain a world wide network of insurgent groups, and Columbian insurgents were forced to turn to drugs and kidnapping for revenues1. And, while kidnapping may be profitable, if we are honest, the drug revenues were the primary source of support for these groups. Whether they participated directly in the drug trade or hired themselves out as muscle for drug cartels, it was the cocaine trade which kept the insurgency alive. Without the drug trade, these rebels would not have vanished, but their ability to cause large scale harm would have been seriously diminished.
But it is not enough to say that our drug laws kept the insurgency alive. What we need to see if how that insurgency hurt US interests. In the nation of Columbia we have a relatively large military presence. Not just to help the nation keep the insurgency in check, but also to participate in drug interdiction and eradication. During peace time this may be of little concern, but now that we are involved in an increasing number of conflicts, we find ourselves with troops tied up in various parts of the world, pursuing drug interdiction and fighting insurgents funded by drug revenues. All of which are direct outcomes of the war on drugs.
Nor is it only in drug producing nations we find our military tied up in drug related functions. The Coast Guard expends quite a bit of effort in attempting to prevent drugs form entering the nation, as does the Navy from time to time. Again, resources that could be otherwise employed are being tied down in pursuing drug smugglers.
And the military resources are not the only cost. On our southern border, faced with an overwhelming wave of illegal immigrants, our border patrol has to expend efforts on preventing drug smuggling at the same time they try to stem the tide of immigration. Admittedly, thanks to the fact that human smugglers and drug smugglers are often the same people, or at least use the same routes, this is not as serious a problem as the military we tie down in Columbia.
However, that overlap does point out one other consequence to the war on drugs that is often overlooked. By making illegal border crossings so profitable, the drug trade across the Mexican border has inspired an ongoing search for newer and safer routes into the US. With millions of dollars of profit available for successful smugglers, a lot of effort is expended on finding ways into the country. The problem is, once those routes are established, not only are they used for drugs, but for large scale human smuggling as well.
Now, this is not to say that there would be no human smuggling were it not for the war on drugs, but human smuggling is simply not profitable enough to inspire the sort of ingenuity the war on drugs has. In some senses drug smuggling has served to subsidize human smuggling. By making the discovery of routes exceptionally profitable, it has opened up new paths which the human smuggler can then exploit at little cost2.
Of course, as I said, many may argue that these costs are justified, that the need to keep people from harming themselves with drugs is sufficiently important to tie up troops in foreign lands, to tolerate increased funding of warlords, and to help subsidize the penetration of our southern border. That is a possible position, and I am sure some will make that argument. All I ask is that, when we debate thew war on drugs, that we are honest about the costs. Often we hear that the only people who are harmed by the war on drugs are a few drug users. But, if we are to be honest, we have to admit that the effects of making drugs illegal reaches far beyond those who use, or even sell, drugs, and touches the entire world.
1. Now that Chavez has oil revenues with which to fund rebel groups, Columbia insurgents may be able to survive a loss of drug revenues. Unfortunately the time to legalize drugs and starve them into submission may have passed. But perhaps Chavez will not have the longevity of the Castro regime, and we will again have a chance to do so.
2. People will argue that there is no cost in establishing a smuggling route, but they are mistaken. Admittedly, it is not a traditional monetary cost, but to establish a new smuggling route it must be explored, tried out, and run several times to see if the users will be caught. The lower profit human smuggling enterprises do not support as much willingness to be caught as the high profit drug routes do. In that way, the drug profits serve as a subsidy for the human smugglers.
Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2008/05/31.