It's clear enough that the American appetite for weed, cocaine and meth — but mostly weed — has contributed to evil and lurid gang wars in Mexico. An appetite for heroin in Europe has helped fund the war in Afghanistan, too, and in that sense the old and new continents face the same important question: What might quell the violence?
Over the last few weeks, this column has explored various drug policies in Europe and the United States. "War" still summarizes the American approach, in spite of changing rhetoric from the Obama administration. "Harm reduction" roughly summarizes the European approach. No government in Europe, not even Holland or Spain, has fully legalized drugs, but most politicians here see drug use as a public health problem. The resulting systems in Europe are more humane and more effective.
But they also tend to be local; they improve one small region at a time. (Lisbon is safer since Portugal decriminalized all drugs 10 years ago, for example.) Not one European country has weaned itself from a black market in drug supply. The trade is tolerated but still run, internationally, by organized crime.
At least one American expert came to Europe last year with some unconventional advice. Jack Cole, a longtime narcotics officer for the New Jersey state police, leads an American outfit called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He argued in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania that Europe should fully legalize drugs. Cocaine and even heroin should be sold through legal but regulated channels. This column has flirted with the idea without advocating it.
But Cole argues that the violence inherent in prohibition inflates the black market all by itself. The math is simple, he says. When a drug is "dangerous to supply" under prohibition, "that creates an artificially inflated value that makes it worthwhile for this war to go on," he told a journalist for Danish TV.
Most drugs are just weeds, he told me. "I don't care whether you're talking about marijuana from a cannabis plant or cocaine from a coca bush or heroin from an opium poppy, these are basically just weeds. They will grow anywhere in the world. And they are such hardy plants — those of us who were charged with destroying them [know] — they just pop right back up. So, because they are so prolific, until you say they're illegal, they have no value at all."
But the need for production camps in the jungle, for armed smugglers and middlemen, for homemade submarines, for protection from the feds and for gangland turf wars will all tend to raise the price for users in London or New York.
"The value is so huge that between where the drugs are produced, in Mexico, Colombia or Afghanistan, and where it's sold, on the streets of the U.S. or Europe, that value can actually increase by 17,000 percent," said Cole. "Now that's an obscene profit motive, and you have to remove the profit motive if you want to end this war."
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is also a cliché. Afghan poppy farming doesn't just benefit The Bad Guys. A recent feature in Foreign Policy points out that the Taliban earns just a sliver of the industry's profits. "The Taliban's take is subject to debate," writes the magazine, "with responsible estimates varying from $70 million to $500 million — but either way it's not a big slice of the pie. The Taliban take 2 to 12 percent of a $4 billion industry; farmers, traffickers, smugglers, and corrupt officials collectively earn much more."
That means warlords preferred by the West also profit handsomely, and Washington has good reason to oppose policies that would shut down the illegal market. Poppy eradication by NATO has predictably become selective and political, as Jeremy Hammond at the Foreign Policy Journal points out.
In fact, he writes, "this policy has been escalated by the Obama administration, whose special representative to Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, in the summer of 2009 rightly criticized the policy of eradication ('The poppy farmer is not our enemy. The Taliban are.'), only to add that eradication would still continue, only in limited areas — which effectively meant that poppy cultivation in areas under Taliban control would be targeted, but in areas under U.S. control it could continue."
Giving selective help to drug suppliers is not a new policy for Washington. The anti-communist proxy wars in Vietnam and Central America also involved pro-American fighters who funded themselves with heroin or cocaine. In both cases the CIA helped move refined product to the United States. Heroin made from Afghan poppies, on the other hand, travels mainly to Europe and Russia; though it's slopping over to America, too.
U.S. military interests in the Mexican drug war aren't nearly so obvious, if they exist at all, but in Europe as well as America, the political obstacles to ending drug prohibition are far more immediate and shallow. Most people just instinctively don't like the idea. Laws against drugs seem natural.
But Cole likes to remind his audiences that America's full-blown "war on drugs" started in his lifetime. During the '68 presidential election, Richard Nixon swore to crack down on the new drug-fueled counterculture with vastly expanded counter-narcotics bureaus. He followed through but failed to curtail the new American taste for exotic intoxication.
"Nothing worked," says Cole. "When I was a young trooper, in 1970, at the start of the war, we considered an ounce of cocaine or maybe 7 grams of heroin a large drug seizure. What do we get today? We get individual seizures of 10 tons of heroin? Twenty tons of cocaine? One seizure each. And nothing changes on the street, except drugs keep getting cheaper, more potent, and far easier for our children to access. Now that's a failed policy, any way you look at it."