The drug trade is out of control. In Colombia last year, police captured 14 tons of cocaine and washed it down the Yari river. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, drug agents captured 10,000 tons of marijuana and burned it. Together, the busts destroyed nearly two billion dollars' worth of illegal merchandise--yet neither one made more than a ripple in the booming American drug market, which President Reagan's South Florida Task Force calls a $100-billion-a-year business. The federal government is currently spending $1.2 billion annually in its war on the drug trade; 37 separate agencies and 11 cabinet departments are involved in the effort. And yet it is still difficult even to estimate the size of the problem. The Mexican bust alone amounted to eight times the previous estimate of total Mexican marijuana production, and roughly equaled the previous estimate of marijuana entering the United States each year.
The Reagan administration blames the Marxist governments of Nicaragua and Cuba for consciously subverting American society with drugs. In fact,t he international drug trade encompasses Latin Americans of all political stripes. Some darlings of the American right are apparently involved.
The drug industry is the most vicious on earth. The Washington Post recently reported yet another gruesome story: a baby's body, stuffed with cocaine, sewed shut, and carried on an airplane as if alive, to smuggle drugs into the United States. In the past few months two Drug Enforcement Agency officials were murdered in Mexico, Colombian justice minister Rodrigo Lara bonilla was assassinated, and a $300,000 bounty was proclaimed for the murder of American narcotics agents. There are other victims as well, from the 7,000 Mexican peasants who were found doing slave labor at the Chihuahuamarijuana factory to the innocent bystanders caught in Miami machine-gun battles. To fight this menace, the Reagan administration has made drug enforcement a top priotiy. However, its well-intentioned effort is likely to consist mainly of strengthening existing methods of drug control. And for this reason, it is likely to be both ineffective and hypocritical.
The prevailing strategy for fighting the drug war is ineffective because it aims enforcement efforts at drug trafficking, not drug use. It puts money into DEA motorboats and air patrols, customs inspection equipment, and even satellite reconnaissance of suspected Latin American drug fields. It attempts to corral Latin American governments into grudging cooperation. But these methods will almost inevitably fail when used against gangsters with effectively unlimited funds, men who can afford to acquire boats, airplanes, and landing strips for onetime use, and to buy government officials by the hundreds. In Colombia over 300 officials--including the president's private secretary--were recently found to be in the pay of cocaine kingpings. In Bolivia the 1980 military coup brought to power a group of officers widely known as the "cocaine colonels."
As long as the demand for drugs remains constant, drug traffic will defy all attempts at enforcement. The reason is that the drug trade is a perfect example of unadulterated, free-market capitalism. Every new DEA seizures pushes up both the price of drugs and the ptential profits reaped from smuggling them. And the higher the potential profit, the more ambitious and desperate the criminals.
But illegal drugs are not some mysterious and uncontrollable plague seeping north from the tropics. They are commodities that are imported because there is an American market for them. The surest way to stop the illegal drug trade is to make that market dry up. This is where the prevailing drug-control strategy is hypocritical. It exempts from all blame the one class of people ultimately responsible for this brutal business: American drug users. Every time an American lights a joint or does a line of coke, he or she is directly subsidizing murder across the hemisphere. It doesn't matter if the user is a legislative aide to a compassionate congressman or an inner-city pimp. As Colombian drug lord Roberto Suarez Gomez boasts, his fortune came entirely from "the depravity of the Yanquis."
So how to make the market dry up? The most obvious way is also the most draconian: go back to the 1950s and make the use of drugs subject to such severe punishment that demand decreases. Today the possession of marijuana has attained a semi-legal status in some parts of the country. Eleven states have decriminalized the drug, and another 29 have made possession a misdemeanor. Under decriminalization, the law treats those caught with marijuana like speeding motorists. The offenders get a ticket, pay a token fine (in effect a consumption tax), and promise to be more discreet next time. Some states, like New York, seem to have decided that even this benign practice isn't worth enforcing. You can go to a movie in Manhattan and get high simply by breathing. Yet while possession up to a specified amount (usually one ounce) is tolerated, the sale and cultivation of marijuana is still a felony in almost every state. That's why criminal drug marketers come into play. In effect, the legal status of marijuana smoking is like Prohibition, which banned the production and sale of alcohol while leaving drinkers alone. the result in both cases is that crime flourishes.
Several states are attempting to curtail other socially unacceptable practices--drunk driving and the criminal use of handguns--by imposing mandatory jail sentences on convicted offenders. If marijuana and cocaine users drew the same sort of penalty, the demand for the drugs and their black-market suppliers would almost certainly decrease. This strategy would cut down drug-related violence, and it would be less hypocritical than complaining about that violence while condoning the use of marijuana.
Still, the philosophical drawbacks of such legislation are obvious. Classical liberal thought puts a primacy on personal liberty up to the point where an individual's actions threaten to harm society as a whole. It's easy to contend that because the drug culture breeds violence, and individual's freedom to use drugs must be subjugated to the health of society. But to effectively curtail drug consumption, the state would have to consistently invade the privacy of people's homes, where most drug use takes place. Is it possible to maximize personal liberty while defusing the drug wars?
That's solution two: legalization of marijuana, and perhaps even of cocaine. By allowing anyone to grow and sellmarijuana (and removing all penalties for possession), the black market for this drug, and the violence associated with it, would be eliminated. A governemnt agency like the FDA could then regulate the sale of pot, complete with warnings like those on cigarette packages and a guarantee that the product isn't laced with potentially lethal drugs like "angel dust" (an all too frequent reality ont he streets). Revenue from a sales tax on marijuana could finance a government campaign to educate the public on the dangers of drug use. Anyone would be free to get high, but would also be made fully aware of the potential health hazard. This idea is no more untenable than the current situation, which boasts both a plague of violence and widespread drug use.
The real choice to be made in fighting the drug trade, then, is between crackdown and legalization. Both alternatives probably seem absurd to comfortable, middle-class Americans whose only connection to the drug trade is the occasional toke. But they are not at all absurd for the thousands of American and Latin American victims of drug-related crime. Neither solution is easy. But if we honestly want to stop the drug trade, we must decide what our values are--whether we want drugs or not--and then make a choice, and enforce it. We cannot continue to have things both ways.