The War on Drugs. For most in Canada and the United States, it’s a familiar concept. A wholesale, all-out war against the drug pushers and their minions. But, it’s also something that most only read about in the headlines or hear about on the radio. We see surprisingly large busts in a bad neighborhood, the occasional flareups of violence in our cities, and that’s largely the extent of it. War, it may be, but at least at home, it is largely bloodless (as far as most people see).
It’s a different story in the Philippines. As noted by The Economist, that country’s human rights commission estimates the extra-judicial death toll for purported drug dealers at the hands of law enforcement is some 27,000.
That the war on drugs is very popular in some countries doesn’t surprise me, though it does disturb me. Inflammatory rhetoric has dogged the drug trade for decades. It was back in the 1970s that American president Richard Nixon started his own country’s war on drugs, beginning with incarceration and following up with rhetoric on rehabilitation.
More than forty years later, success is dubious at best. The Global Commission on Drug Policy has been unremittingly critical of the war on drugs worldwide. A 2011 report from the commission put it plainly. “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
Likely you’ve heard all of this before, and decided one way or the other how you feel about it. I’ll simply add that the evidence shows that treating drug use and trafficking as criminal offences rather than public health issues has been at best ineffective and at worst a tool for corrupt public officials to fracture communities for their own gain.
But I bring all this up not to talk about a better path forward for drug regulation in places like Canada and the United States. It’s been said and the evidence is out there. Google around if you have more detailed questions.
I bring this up because in many parts of the world, the war on drugs has been an invisible agent. In the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement groups do their work, and most citizens hear about it, rather than fall victim to it. The Philippines is not unique, but at least unusual for most Canadians and Americans, in that killings of those connected to the drug trade are extrajudicial.
The relevance to you, dear Canadian or American reader, is that the beliefs that give rise to that violence are not at all foreign: That drug pushers are inherently evil, addicts inherently weak; that the drug trade itself is inherently immoral and dangerous, irrespective of what we do, or don’t do. And so long as the beliefs that gave rise to that violence are here, the conclusion is inevitable: It will come here. It’s already uncomfortably easy for suburbanites to mull the idea that drug addicts perhaps ought to be left to die. Killing them is a jump, but not an impossible one.
So let’s talk about it.
The problem, of course, is that so many of the main social ills and consequences for ordinary people from the drug trade come from the fact that it’s illegal. Or, in other words, it’s not drug trading that’s damaging, but the drug war.
Let’s start with addiction. Many illicit and illegal drugs are addictive, or at the very least habit-forming. It’s questionable as to how much addiction is about the substance itself, or more about lifestyle and pre-existing problems (mental health or otherwise). There was a study that purported that drugs were only ever addictive in rodents when those rodents weren’t able to access other pleasurable things such as games and community; i.e., they were left alone in a cage with nothing but cocaine-infused water. It was a promising sign for a social-model of addiction, but one study is not definitive, and we shouldn’t base social policy on just that.
So, the criticism comes that drug dealers are getting people hooked on these substances, and these people become so desperate to have them that they destroy everything else in their lives to get them. So, people retort against proponents of legalization, why should they be allowed to be sold at all?
Two reasons. First, like it or not, banning things doesn’t make them not exist. For addicts, drugs, especially the harder ones, have a form of inelastic demand. Essentially, that means that bumping up the price by 1 percent doesn’t reduce consumption by 1 percent. More expensive doesn’t just mean dollars. It means any cost associated with accessing those substances; risking jail time, injury or even death. These are all costs that human beings weigh when making decisions. Commodities that have inelastic demand get consumed at relatively similar rates no matter what you have to pay, and no matter what the other costs are.
The problem that arises when we ban price-resistant commodities is that they become more expensive, and consumption rates are relatively unaffected. That means selling them just became more profitable. That means drug dealers have more money they can use to hide their illicit cargo, and more of an incentive to defend themselves from other dealers, or police, with weaponry.
This also increases the ability of drug pushers to increase the density of their product. For drugs, that means potency increases, making them that much more dangerous in many cases. The opioid crisis that has rocked Canada and the United States was compounded when suppliers started switching to fentanyl from heroin or other opiates. Fentanyl proved considerably more deadly because it’s more potent. But the desirability of its potency was directly related to the fact that by being more potent, suppliers could fit more drug (and therefore more money for them) in a smaller package that’s harder to find, reducing their risk and increasing their profits. Lead author of the Rand Corporation study, Bryce Pardo, pointed out that it was the supplier’s making the switch, not users. “Most people who use opioids are not asking for fentanyl and would prefer to avoid exposure.”
Second, banning drugs makes it more difficult for people addicted, or, crucially, those who are afraid they will become addicted, from seeking treatment.
It also makes it less appealing to help people who are addicted. They’re criminals, after all. Some rehab programs call addiction a disease. Alcoholics Anonymous requires you to “submit to a higher power,” because you are considered helpless against your addiction, despite the fact that there are safe and effective drugs that can reduce dependence or cravings for alcohol. Addicts are considered good-for-nothing junkies. One police officer detailed how he relished arresting drug users — any he could find on as little pretext needed, until his own daughter died of an overdose.
Let’s talk about violence as well. There’s no question that there’s profound and shocking violence associated with the drug trade. It’s been dramatized to death, but one doesn’t need to watch Law & Order to find footage of brutal beheadings, torture, or other criminal activity related to gangs. In Canada, just recently, a 14-year-old boy was kidnapped, purportedly because of a drug debt owed by a family member.
But, why is there such violence in the drug trade? Is it just because you have to be a truly awful person to be involved with it at all?
It probably doesn’t hurt. But business and violence are, actually, related. We just don’t tend to think of it that way.
I don’t mean that your average businessperson is beating people up in between conference calls. But businesses rely on the state’s monopoly on violence. The state will use the threat of violence (physical removal, incarceration, etc.) as part of its process of enforcing laws and contracts, and more importantly, any violence against property owners or businesses. On a day-to-day basis, for most people, it never comes to that, since we all know the rules and generally agree with them, or at least acknowledge we can’t win fighting the state.
But what happens when you have a business that’s so profitable you won’t not run it, and can’t rely on the state? When someone screws you over and takes everything you have that you perhaps risked incarceration and violence yourself to get, and there’s nobody you can turn to?
This is, after all, how the Italian Mafia got started. Ineffective and corrupt state authorities lead to prominent families making a point of defending and safeguarding their own communities — it was a business. But things grew out of control. There was no incentive for them to temper their control and intimidation tactics, and every incentive to scale it up. So too is it with the drug trade. If everyone knows you as the guy who will literally remove someone’s face for stealing from you, who will? The more solid and widespread that reputation is, the fewer faces you have to remove and the less loss you suffer.
The point I’m trying to make here is not that I think the drug trade is good, or that taking drugs is good, for that matter. That’s irrelevant here. My point is that even the most anti-drug person in the world should be in support of ending the war on drugs.
The war on drugs, by raising the price of drugs, makes running drugs more profitable and attractive, and by classifying users of drugs as criminals perpetuates addiction.
By criminalizing the drug trade we incentivize violence. We are pouring money into a barrel called “stop violence and addiction,” but it has a hole in the bottom. Beneath it is another barrel, which the drug dealers regularly visit.
And so long as we roll around the ideas of the war on drugs — the militarism, the us-vs.-them mentality — the more comfortable we become with the ideas that have taken root in the Philippines. It’s a vicious circle; the more we spend fighting the drug war, the more vicious the drug trade becomes. The more vicious it becomes, the more we dehumanize those participating in it, and the more palatable it becomes to kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.
So long as we support this war on drugs, we cannot pretend to criticize the people of the Philippines, or the drug dealers for that matter, for their violence. We support it too, in spirit. We fund it, and escalate it, so we can justify our own kind of violence against it. And it, of course, is not “it.” “It” is the kid who grew up in a rough neighborhood and was selling drugs before he was a teenager because the alternative was starvation or addiction himself. It is the guy who grew up in Mexico watching dealers swagger around with cash and clothes and wanted it for himself, discovering the soul-scarring violence that would be demanded of him only when it was too late. It is the single mother of two that had her home raided and destroyed because one of her teenagers got wrapped up with selling contraband.
“It” is real people, people who perhaps didn’t need or want to condition themselves to violence, just as we don’t need to condition ourselves to it.
 This is, of course, notwithstanding the indirect effects of the drug war, especially racially targeted ones. Consider the fact that many black Americans feel like they’re pulled over in their vehicle for simply “being black.”
Photo from The Asean Post “A woman hugs her husband, next to a placard which reads ‘I’m a pusher’, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in Manila. (AFP Photo/Noel Celis)”