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Why a Military Drug War?

Direct Line Commentary, FCF Deputy Director, Center for Technology Policy, J.
Bradley Jansen
April 26, 2001

The tragic downing of a missionary plane in Peru-and the unfortunate deaths of

Roni Bowers and her infant daughter Charity-have given us the opportunity to re-
examine our policies regarding the militarization of the war on drugs.

Fears of the conflict escalating to a Vietnam War-type scenario may not be

unfounded. Given the size of the U.S. military involvement in Latin America and
the ties between the drug trade and guerrillas fighting their governments, the
plane tragedy is almost predictable.

During his confirmation hearing, now US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said,
"I am one who believes that the drug problem is probably overwhelmingly a demand
problem and that … if the demand persists, it's going to find ways to get what it
wants. And if it isn't from Colombia, it will be from somebody else."

But an advocate of the drug war, Ret. Maj. Andy Messing, of the National Defense
Council Foundation told CNN's "Crossfire" recently that Secretary Rumsfeld is "out
of step." The new designate for the Office of National Drug Control Policy John P.
Walters (the deputy director of the office under the other Bush administration)
has written in favor of the U.S. military aiding the Peruvians in shooting down
small aircraft (Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Congressional Record, May 20, 1994, p.

Let's hope that the defense secretary stays on top of the drug czar in the chain
of command. Even Clinton's former drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, told NBC's Meet the
Press Sunday that he thinks Walters is "focused too much on interdiction. I hope
he educates himself carefully on prevention and treatment as an essential part of
this strategy."

The militarization of the drug war is ineffective, costly and fraught with serious
problems. It would only take thirteen truck loads of cocaine to satisfy U.S.
demand for one year. Since the United States has nearly 20 thousand kilometers of
shoreline, 300 ports of entry and more than 75 hundred miles of border with Mexico
and Canada, stopping drugs at the borders is like trying to find a needle in a
haystack (Frankel, G., "Federal Agencies Duplicate Efforts, Wage Costly Turf
Battles," The Washington Post, June 8, 1997, p. A1; Central Intelligence Agency,
World Factbook 1998, 1998).

Interdiction efforts only intercept 10-15% of the heroin and 30% of the cocaine
while drug traffickers earn gross profit margins of up to 300%. At least 75% of
international drug shipments would need to be intercepted to substantially reduce
the profitability of drug trafficking ("U.N. Estimates Drug Business Equal to 8
Percent of World Trade," Associated Press, 1997, June 26).

A 1996 Rand Corporation study for the Pentagon showed that money spent on
treatment is seven times move effective than domestic law enforcement, 11 times
more effective than police interdiction and 23 times more effective than fighting
drug production.

Since President Nixon announced a federal drug war in 1968, we started by spending
$65 million. Spending jumped to $1.6 billion in 1982 under President Reagan and
skyrocketed to $19.2 billion last year, last year, under Bill Clinton.
Three-quarters of the $1.3 billion we sent to Colombia is for military assistance.
With U.S. forces in the field there training troops with U.S.- supplied combat
helicopters, how long before we start counting our commitment in body bags?

The wanton environment destruction of the "crop eradication" program is

reminiscent of the Agent Orange approach to the Indo-China conflict. Logically,
coca production just moves to other areas with no drop in overall supply despite
the poisoned landscape. What are the local people supposed to farm now?

The National Center for Policy Analysis has presented a compelling case that
should be considered (

* There is no need for a federal program.

* Federal programs to reduce juvenile crime are inconsistent with the modern
approach to crime prevention, which requires decentralization of authority and
giving cities the freedom and flexibility to adapt to local circumstances.
* Federal anticrime programs often make things worse.
* Overall, the federal government is contributing to our crime problem.
* Some of the most successful local programs involve clever ways of getting
around federal government impediments to crime-fighting.
* A greater federal role also opens the door to unintended consequences that
could make the crime rate worse.
* The federal government has done a miserable job - far worse than almost any
city government - of fighting crime in the one city that is under its direct

We are spending billions of dollars a year to keep drugs out of this country and
to stop production. No one believes that this approach has or will cut off access
to undesirable drugs in this country. It is not too late to close this Pandora's
box of problems before more innocent people are killed or before we find ourselves
in the midst of another undeclared war.

With competing budget demands for a tax cut, protecting Social Security and
Medicare and paying down our national debt, we should not waste money on programs
that do not work. With military analysts complaining that our military is
stretched too far, we should not jeopardize our security by misallocating precious
resources. Should a civilized country be using the military against civilians-much
less its own civilians?