Waging War On Ourselves

I’ve been working on a research project I call the Interlock Project.  At its heart, it’s an attempt to describe all the ways in which the major problems facing the US are interconnected, and how each of them makes the others harder to solve.

I think that this is important for people to understand, because while most Americans who think about it will realize – intellectually – that our problems interact with each other and make each other worse, there is little appreciation of just how much this is true.  There is a tendency to see each problem as a mostly self-contained issue, rather than as a piece of an enormously complicated interdependent system, despite the abundant evidence that it’s nowhere near that simple.

I began by identifying approximately 60 major problems that have a long-term impact on the future of the US.  Each one is a long-standing problem that has resisted obvious solutions and that has a high degree of linkage to other problems.  Figuring that keeping track of that many individual problems would be a bit… mind-boggling (i.e., nobody can keep track of that many moving pieces all at once), I grouped similar ones together until I had reduced the list to a more manageable set of 12 domains.

One of the original problems, the slowdown in the long-term growth rate of the economy, has such a large influence (directly and indirectly) on all of the others because it determines what resources we will have available for fixing other problems, that it really constitutes a domain of its own.  Starting from that point, the remaining problems clustered fairly naturally into three categories, with three or four domains in each of them:

  1. Issues involving demography, education, poverty, and health, which have an influence on the quality of our human capital.
  2. Issues affecting natural resources, infrastructure, and the environment, which are areas of concern within our physical capital.
  3. Issues of corruption, justice, taxes & spending, and foreign relations, which have an impact on our social capital.

Each problem domain is affected by some (or all) of the others, and each in turn creates its own impacts.  Linked together, they form a complex web of interconnections – something like this:

Interlock colored 10-29-13

Take that in for a minute, keeping in mind that a single domain can represent half a dozen different problems.  You may disagree with my placement (or non-placement) of some links, but I don’t think you’ll disagree with me about the sheer complexity of the tangled web we’re dealing with.  Because of the haphazard way our political system works, we typically try to fix specific problems with (comparatively) small and direct initiatives that assume that the pieces are isolated from each other.  And then we’re surprised when those “fixes” don’t actually work … or, more often, cause even worse problems.

So, bearing all this in mind, I had four goals when I started the project:

  1. Define the most important and most intractable problems.
  2. Detail the links/interconnections/impacts between the problem areas.
  3. Determine how important the interconnections are, with regards to how much they actually contribute to the problem(s).
  4. Try to identify some promising and achievable first steps that would help unsnarl the whole mess.

It’s that fourth goal that I want to focus on here.

When I started the project, I worried that there would be no starting point, that the problems facing American society had truly become a single, massive, interlocking mega-problem that had to be solved all at once or not at all – and that an “all at once” total overhaul was far beyond both our political will and our resources.  History has shown repeatedly that societies that get themselves in that kind of trap are on a path that eventually leads to either prolonged decline, or collapse, or painful revolution.

However, spelling out the nature of the interconnections in our current mess suggests that we are not yet in such a bad situation, and that there are several achievable starting points.  This is very good news, because the nature of the Interlock is that it mostly works to prevent any meaningful reform.  Trying to fix A without first fixing B and C will fail, but solving B depends on solving D and E and making real progress on F, and so on.  My concern was that it would all loop back on itself with no entry point, but fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

The big surprise, at least for me, was the nature of one of the best candidates for a starting point:  ending the War on Drugs.

Drug use, addiction, drug trafficking, and drug-related crime are clearly problems for all modern societies, and they clearly have impacts on many parts of the Interlock, including health, education, justice, corruption, and government finance.  But I think most people assume, as I did, that this is essentially a law enforcement issue, not a major contributor to why we seem to be on the wrong track and unable to solve major social and economic problems.

As I have worked on analyzing and documenting the interdependencies in the Interlock, I’ve slowly come to the realization that this seriously underestimates the harm we are doing to ourselves.  The strategy we have followed for dealing with the drug problem has not only failed utterly to solve the problem, but has in fact become a major contributor to almost every part of the Interlock.

How did we get into this mess?

The War on Drugs technically started in 1971, when the Nixon administration put that name on the government’s efforts to clamp down on the use of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine in the US.  But most scholars date the modern anti-drug crusade to the appointment of Henry Anslinger in 1930 as the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the ancestor of the current Drug Enforcement Administration.

Anslinger, a former assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Prohibition, saw the opportunity to build a bureaucratic empire around drug prohibition after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.  He served as director of the FBN for the next 34 years, where he propagandized and lobbied relentlessly for stronger laws and international agreements aimed at stamping out recreational drug use.

Under his direction, the US government produced a relentless barrage of false and wildly exaggerated reports about the dangers of drug use, which succeeded in panicking large segments of the public into supporting ever more draconian punishments and ever-larger drug enforcement budgets.  Anslinger and his associates testified repeatedly, for example, that marijuana was a dangerous narcotic, that it was physically addictive, that it frequently caused incurable insanity, and that it frequently caused users to commit violent rapes and murders.  Even at the time, reputable scientists knew all of those “facts” to be completely false, yet the atmosphere of the time made it dangerous for anyone with a public position to say so, and made it difficult for any dissenting voices to be heard by the general public – even though, in many cases, the sons and daughters of the anti-drug majority knew from first-hand experience that the government claims were false.

In US history, waves of drug prohibition fervor have coincided with periods of social instability and public anxiety about threatening outsiders and minority cultures.  Alcohol prohibition was fueled by tee-totaling Protestants’ anxieties about the waves of hard-drinking Catholic immigrants flooding into our cities.  Marijuana was targeted because it was the drug of choice of poor Mexican immigrants who were seen as threatening American jobs during the Depression.   Heroin was targeted because it was a drug associated with blacks and urban slums.  Crack cocaine was cast in the same role decades later, for the same reason.  Marijuana became a major target all over again during the upheaval in the sixties and seventies as the drug became identified with hippies, the civil rights movement, and especially with radical left-wing militants and anti-war demonstrators.

Good Intentions, Bad Consequences

But attacks aimed at scapegoats have a way of spreading.  Like Prohibition in the 1920s, the War on Drugs started out as an attack on outsiders and minority groups, but has turned into a war that we are waging on ourselves.  Unlike Prohibition, which the nation rejected after just 13 years, we’ve been fighting the War on Drugs for more than eight decades – and we’re losing.

I want to say, before I go any further, that I do not support indiscriminate drug use.  No one can look at the harm that drug addiction has done to families and entire communities and not conclude that we would be better off if we could just banish recreational drug use entirely.  If the War on Drugs had succeeded in reducing drug use and the harm it does by a substantial amount, it might have been worth some reasonable cost.  But theWar on Drugs has demonstrably and conclusively failed.  It has not reduced drug use or improved public health or welfare, the cost has grown far beyond any benefit, and the collateral damage has been wide-ranging and extraordinary.

Truly, the most remarkable part of it is how many ways it’s hurting us.  If it were simply a matter of financial costs and some strain on the justice system, it wouldn’t be quite so much of an issue – societies regularly choose the “lesser of evils” and hurt themselves to deal with greater threats.  But the War on Drugs has seriously damaged both human capital and social capital in the US, the two most important resources a nation can have.

What I want to do here is to describe the ways this self-inflicted damage makes all of our other problems harder to solve.

Governmental costs

The most mundane consequence of the War on Drugs is the sheer amount of money that it’s costing the government.  In 2008, the states spent $25.7 billion on drug prohibition (including policing and corrections expenses), and the federal government spent $15.6 billion.

Housing inmates costs a lot of money, typically around $35,000-$45,000 per inmate per year, depending on how much of the judicial and administrative cost you include.  Given how many Americans are locked up on drug charges (more than 300,000, with another 1.25+ million on probation or parole), this is not small change.  The cost to treat drug addiction is far lower (about $8,000 per person per year), and since many drug users aren’t harming anyone but themselves, they wouldn’t need any government money spent on them if drugs were legal.

Taxes and Regulation

If drugs were not illegal, the government would collect taxes on them and could regulate their quality, two functions it has handed over to drug lords and criminal gangs.  This deprives the government of income (around $40 billion per year, including taxes on marijuana, cocaine, and heroin), and means that drug users are never sure exactly what they’re using – it could be safe, it could be poison, or it could be more pure than they’re used to (increasing the risk of overdose).  Legalizing recreational drugs, and regulating their production and sale, as we do for medical drugs, would significantly reduce the price we pay in lost lives and emergency medical services provided.

Feeding the Black Market

One of the nastier outgrowths of the War on Drugs is the explosion of criminal organizations that have cropped up to feed American’s continued demand for drugs.  Illegal drugs are a $300+ billion annual business, which means that there are a lot of people who are willing to do bad things to get a piece of that pie, and that the criminal organizations that control the drug trade are exceedingly well-financed.

These organizations are increasingly international, with global reach that any legal corporation would envy.  They have a level of resources (financial and political) large enough to evade a considerable amount of the drug war – and even when their shipments are found and confiscated, or their personnel are arrested, their size means they can simply shrug off the loss.

On a local level, the impact of these crime syndicates can be vicious – even if a large organization doesn’t have any presence on the street, the local gangs and criminals have access to drugs and the money that dealing brings them.  The availability of funding for these small-scale criminals means that they can actively recruit new members and it gives them an increased incentive to fight each other for turf – increasing the level of street violence and the killing of innocent bystanders.

The crime level also goes up as a result of the addictive nature of many of these drugs.  Successful attempts to constrict the flow of drugs drive up the price, which means that addicts have to go to greater lengths to get their next hit.  During periods when addictive illegal drugs are scarce and the “street prices” of the drugs are high, the number of thefts, assaults, and murders tend to increase.

Ironically, part of the decline in violent crimes in recent years has been due to the utter failure of the War on Drugs to reduce drug imports, resulting in a flood of cheap heroin and cocaine.  With supplies up and the price of heroin down to historic lows, in spite of the billions being spent by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the average addict can get a fix without committing a serious crime to get the money.

There are many national security problems created by a thriving illegal drug trade.  The difference between criminal and terrorist organizations has gotten blurry over the decades.

One of the problems we continually ran into in Afghanistan was that the US was literally funding both sides of the war – the US and its allies were paying the Afghan government in order to keep it in power, and financing the Taliban and Al Qaeda because Americans and Europeans were buying heroin produced from Afghan poppies.

Dealing in drugs is a natural fit for any terrorist organizations.  They have an insatiable need for cash, especially the untraceable kind, they have weapons and violent foot soldiers at hand, and it’s not as if they aren’t already outlaws.  Since the drug market is so lucrative, why not?

But the fusion of the two creates some special dangers.  A well-oiled smuggling operation can easily be used to smuggle terrorists, explosives, and even chemical and biological agents across borders as well as drugs.  And government officials who take bribes to help a drug gang can then be blackmailed into betraying government security information and helping terrorists planning to strike at sensitive targets.

Damage to our justice system

The corrosive effect of the War on Drugs has seeped throughout the law-enforcement and judicial arms of the government; many law-abiding Americans no longer trust law-enforcement, and with good reasons.

The most immediate result of the War on Drugs on law enforcement was a huge distortion in the incentives to arrest and prosecute drug crimes, as opposed to other, more commonplace ones.  The amount of funding devoted to drug-related policing, compared to that devoted to general policing, is huge – and police departments and law enforcement agencies have adjusted their priorities to match.

This distortion of incentives has, in a number of cases, led to active corruption of law enforcement – police and federal agents using their power as law-enforcement officers to steal from innocent Americans, or to throw innocent people in prison on charges simply because they need to find a guilty party for a crime.

This corruption is aided by the ease with which the police and prosecutors can steamroll those without the resources to hire effective legal help.  The poor – especially poor minorities – have been disproportionately hard-hit by law-enforcement’s prosecution of the Drug War, and this has resulted in a huge decrease in trust for the law amongst lower-income communities.

The pressure on prosecutors, police, and judges to get results, combined with the ease of steamrolling poor defendants, has caused law enforcement officials to prosecute so many people that the courts can’t keep up – judges, prosecutors, and public defendants are so overworked that the modern system of plea-bargains developed, just to help move people through the courts.

Prosecutors now routinely charge poor defendants with multiple offenses related to the same crime, carrying prison sentences of 30 years, 40 years, or more if they insist on going to trial, and then offer them a plea bargain of 6 months to 3 years if they plead guilty.  Even innocent people with plenty of resources would think hard about that kind of gamble; poor defendants often feel that they have no choice except to cop a plea, even if it means pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit.

Unfortunately, this means that the judiciary increasingly resembles an assembly line more than a system for dispensing justice.  Fewer than 5% of all defendants are tried in court; more than 95% of them plead guilty.  On the face of it, this seems absurd.  Even if all of those people are guilty as charged – which is highly improbable – why would they admit it?  The answer is that the prosecutors put a gun to their heads.  Guilty or innocent, it takes real courage to face down what amounts to a life sentence.  Whatever this system provides, it is not justice.

This would be bad enough if the practice were restricted to drug-related cases, but the reality is that our police and courts are so overloaded that they would crash to a halt if defendants refused to bargain.  The “CSI myth” – that serious forensic work is behind most convictions – is just that:  a Hollywood fairytale.  There aren’t enough people or dollars in the system to do that kind of forensics on even a small fraction of all cases.

As a result the typical serious felony conviction is based on no forensic evidence whatsoever.  Every court system is being put under pressure by the increased workload, and so every court system has started to view “expeditious” case-resolution favorably – at the expense of actual justice.

The cost in lives

The human toll that the Drug War takes is the most heartbreaking part of this whole mess – lives are ruined because of a single arrest, decades are lost behind bars for talking to the wrong person, children grow up without parents…  So much damage has been done, is being done, that did not need to be.

The macro-level impact on our human capital is the creation of an essentially permanent under-class, kept in poverty by the stigma of a drug conviction, and deprived of the skills needed to rise out of poverty by their origins in poverty and their entanglements with the justice system.  These are people who are, effectively, never going to be able to contribute to society, because they have been rejected by the system.  Even when they want to contribute, they are refused the opportunity to do so at a level that allows them to survive.  They represent a drag on our economy and governmental safety net, one that we created by criminalizing drug use.

On an individual level, people who are caught up in the drug-enforcement net are (whether guilty or not) stigmatized by that encounter.  Simply being arrested can damage someone’s employment options; a drug-related conviction effectively dooms the person to poverty.  Spending time in prison adds to the damage by costing the person time out of their life, their job skills, and opportunities to improve their situation.  Once out of prison, the options available are so limited that drugs and other forms of crime begin to look like the only way to make money – and their appeal as mood-altering medication is only going to go up when someone is under the stress of not having a job and not being able to pay the bills.

Of course, it’s not just those who get caught up in the justice system who get hurt.  Children brought up in single-parent households, and especially in families in which one or both parents are incarcerated, suffer a huge disadvantage in school, and in life in general.  This contributes to a generational poverty cycle, where children who grow up in households and communities broken by the drug war have so few options that they turn to drugs and/or drug dealing, perpetuating the cycle.

Finally, there are many people who are in need of treatment for drug problems, but are going untreated because asking for treatment is inviting the same stigmatization/imprisonment/poverty cycle as those who are caught by the authorities – it’s easy to conclude that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to deal with the problem on your own… which generally doesn’t work.  These are people whose lives could be salvaged before they hit bottom – but the law says that they should be thrown away, rather than treated.

The benefits of stopping the war

The problems caused by the War on Drugs won’t go away immediately if/when the laws are changed.  People will remain in prison and on parole, those not in prison will still have arrests on their records, and they will still be facing a life of constricted economic options.  Organized crime won’t go away, although it will face a considerable cash shortage as its competitive advantage dries up.  The police and courts will continue to abuse their power – simply because the War on Drugs goes away doesn’t mean that they will change their habits and systems when it comes to defendants in non-drug-related cases, and the lack of funding from the civil forfeiture racket may cause some police departments and prosecutors to behave even worse.

But as time goes by, things will begin to clear up.  Without a fresh supply of people entering prison on drug charges, the cycle of poverty-drugs-arrest/incarceration-poverty can begin to be broken.  Poor communities can begin to heal as fewer members are sent to prison.  Organized crime will lose its big cash cow, reducing its influence and impact.  Terrorist groups will face the loss of billions of dollars in drug revenues.  Law enforcement and the courts will adjust their behavior, and their funding will hopefully match their new priorities.

Just as importantly, there will be substantial public health benefits.  Regulation will result in standardization of doses and elimination of harmful impurities, leading to far fewer overdoses and trips to the emergency room.  Addicts will be able to seek treatment without being arrested.  People will be able to freely use marijuana instead of alcohol as their drug of choice, and reduced alcohol consumption means reduced deaths and injuries from auto accidents and violent altercations as well as fewer health problems from alcoholism itself.  As far as I can tell, it is essentially impossible to kill yourself with marijuana as you can with alcohol, and people who are high are far less likely to start fights or harm themselves or others compared to people who are drunk.

A (relatively) simple fix

Compared to fixing our educational system, dealing with the mess that is the tax code, or reigning in entitlement spending, ending the war on drugs is the easiest thing we could do to start to deal with America’s problems.  Undoing something, even something as labyrinthine as the statutes governing the War on Drugs, is far easier to do than building a new, better-functioning system of laws.

True, depriving our law enforcement organizations of such juicy business opportunities will mean that there will be considerable lobbying against the idea – but, if something isn’t working, why keep doing it?

The proper response to the abuse of mind-altering chemicals should be the same as the response to any self-destructive behavior; that is to say, treatment, rather than a decade or a lifetime in prison.  The one is constructive, restoring function to someone’s life at a relatively small cost to the taxpayer and society as a whole; the other destroys it completely, and costs society and the taxpayer a phenomenal amount over the course of the person’s life.


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