So who’s winning the war on drugs?

President Nixon’s declared war on drugs is more than thirty years old. It’s time to ask who’s winning.

Packages of seized cocaine are seen with a sticker that reads
According to two economists who studied the trade of Colombian cocaine, only 2.6 per cent of the total street value of cocaine produced remains within the country [REUTERS]

Presented with a crime, it is reasonable to ask who benefits from it. Material gain is a motive, after all. This much is familiar to anyone who watches crime drama or reads crime novels. Perhaps, then we should apply this principle to the millions of crimes that together constitute what the American government calls the War on Drugs.

The standard account goes something like this. The main beneficiaries of the trade in illegal drugs are those who control the growing areas, the international supply routes, and the distribution networks in consuming countries. Popular movies and music tell us that drug dealing in America itself is hugely lucrative for the individuals involved. These inner city gangsters capture the bulk of the profits, along with sinister cartels in Latin America and Central Asia. Taken together they are the enemy in this war. Disrupting their activities is the key to reducing the supply of drugs. Law enforcement at home and paramilitary operations abroad can win this war, if only enough resources are deployed and Western politicians remain resolute.

This account is only fitfully accurate and conceals much more than it reveals. For one thing, the places where drugs are produced capture only a tiny fraction of the proceeds of the trade. Two economists, Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejìa, calculate that only $7.6 billion of the $300 billion that Colombian cocaine eventually makes at retail stays in the country. That’s a little less than 3 per cent. The top gangsters might hold on to more than that, but they invest it overseas. The heads of the Mexican and Colombian cartels are also American and European investors. The same is true of the transit routes. Much of the money made there also finds its way out of the country and into the Western banking system. At the other end of the chain, street dealers also take a tiny slice of the trade’s value. A few years ago the social scientist Sudhir Venkatesh estimated that the vast majority of dealers in Chicago make less than $7 an hour.

Banking on it


 Losing the ‘War on Drugs’

Clearly a small number of criminals make significant sums from the trade. But most people are working for little more than subsistence wages, from the peasants growing coca plants in the Andes or opium poppies in Afghanistan to the dealers on the streets of Western cities. Even those few of the latter who avoid arrest or violent death and rise to the top face the constant danger from law enforcement and from their competitors. Though the drugs trade has become a symbol of easy, if immoral, money, much of it is demanding and difficult work, where the penalties for miscalculation are severe.

So, who does gain from the drugs trade? One unambiguous winner is the Western banking sector. In recent years a series of American and British banks, including Wachovia and HSBC, have been caught providing banking services to drug dealers. Bankers don’t move money around for nothing. They receive commissions for the service. And they are only part of a much larger infrastructure of lawyers, company formation agents, accountants and tax advisers who help turn the proceeds of crime into untraceable capital.

The benefits for banks don’t stop there. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told the Observer newspaper that “in many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital” that the banks could access during the credit squeeze of 2008. “There were signs,” he said, “that some banks were rescued that way.”

The War on XYZ

There are other winners. The American state likes declaring wars on enemies that are impossible to beat. The War on Drugs was, in this sense, the template for its Wars on Terror. At the moment these two unwinnable wars bleed into one another as a blanket justification for adventures overseas. In 2010 General William E Ward, told a nine-day counter-narcotics seminar that the American military was in Africa to “help set the conditions for a stable Africa” and that the drugs trade was one of a number of “destabilising factors” that also included terrorism.

The Americans have been engaged in this “noble task” for decades and victory still somehow eludes them. Indeed their allies often turn out to be drug dealers or terrorists, or both, for reasons that the official version struggles to explain. This leads us to something truly mind-bending. The really big beneficiaries of prohibition are, by definition, people who escape detection. We are forced to choose between wilful, unforgiveable innocence about our own rulers or dark, and necessarily unsubstantiated, suspicions that keep us out of the widely publicised exchange that constitute the national debate. More than the products it glamorises, the War on Drugs distorts our understanding. It is part of how accurate description becomes disreputable. This, too, benefits some more than others.

The paramilitary agenda abroad dovetails with the reality of drugs prohibition and punitive law enforcement at home. This aspect of the “noble task” empowers the government to incarcerate vast numbers of its citizens, especially those from minority groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in fifteen adult black males are in prison. The figure for the adult population as a whole, itself extraordinary by international standards, is one in a hundred.

According to Ed Burns, who helped create The Wire, perhaps the only television series to have depicted the drugs trade in an American city accurately, “it’s not a war on drugs, don’t ever think it’s a war on drugs. It’s a war on the blacks, it started as a war on the blacks. It’s now spread [to] the Hispanics and poor whites, but initially it was a war on blacks. And it was designed, basically, to take that energy that was coming out of the civil rights movement and destroy it.”

The War on Drugs, then, is about more than the dramatic crimes and stratagems of gangsters. It has its origins in the political sphere and can only be understood in political terms. Devised in the early seventies by Richard Nixon, that gifted technician of resentment and distrust, it is an instrument of the reaction, a kind of intoxication that serves the “noble task” of keeping money and the power in the same hands. The War on Drugs in its current form serves the established order. It is time we stopped taking it and looked at the world straight for a change. Only then can we identify those responsible, and understand the nature of their crimes.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.