Enough With the Unwinnable Drug “War”

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Oct 3, 2013, 2:34 pm

The era has passed from when millions of disciplined soldiers armed with guns, tanks, and cannons were placed on the front line, before millions of other similarly armed enemies, to engage in bloody battles that moved the dividing line between them in favor of the winner. This type of combat was the norm during World War II and the Korean War, as well as in some other wars of the second half of the twentieth century, where the outcome of the fight was clear. Yet, already at that time, there was a new type of generalized armed conflict, an unequal struggle that could well be called asymmetrical: the guerrilla warfare, the most prominent example of which was Vietnam, but which also hit Latin America, and nowadays it is taking a somewhat different form from the past decades. (At present the war against terrorism is also widely spoken of, and I shall address it in a subsequent article.)

On the other hand, some fifty years ago another kind of confrontation began, called, somewhat metaphorically, the “war on drugs.” Its purpose was praiseworthy: to prohibit the consumption of certain substances producing harmful effects on human body and behavior, as well as fight against those who produce them and deal with them. The enemy of this war, however, was not clearly defined: it was the drug dealer, of course, including producers and carriers worldwide, but it was also the consumer, who could pay with years of jail time — and in some countries, even with death — for having the audacity to engage in the use of the wrong types of drugs.

The war on drugs has lasted several decades now and has expanded today in a way that, at its inception, was difficult to imagine. Ruthless organizations or drug cartels that have huge financial resources continue to flourish in all continents; consumption seems not be diminishing; and a huge and repressive police state apparatus has been implemented to combat an increasing flow of traffic. It always, however, is able to find new routes and ingenious ways to flow whenever its usual transfer channels are closed. Thousands of people have died in this war, and a resolution is far beyond the resources and capacities of many small nations that now face powerful gangs of traffickers who have the most sophisticated weapons and massive resources.

Ideally — there is no doubt — this strange war could eventually come to an end: the consumption and production of these substances would cease, and this extremely harmful activity would end around the world. But this ideal end is not around the corner yet, and meanwhile, the war on drugs affects us all: in many regions and countries this war has created an overwhelming climate of violence that hinders productive activities, and in order to eliminate what they call money “laundering,” governments have imposed controls on many daily activities, such as money transactions, capital movements, or on something as simple as opening a bank account.

The war — as intense as before, or even more — continues, and for that reason, some disturbing questions arise in our souls: when, under what conditions, and how can this war be won? Because in this case there is no territory to conquer, nor an army to defeat, nor a possible armistice to be signed. Anyone can join the drug trade; anyone can be, or become, a drug consumer.

New Orleanians protest four decades of drug war failure and its mass incarceration. Source: The Pelican Post.

Could drug consumption be eradicated for good, just as some infectious diseases have been once and for all? I honestly doubt it, because history of mankind has proved otherwise. If there have always been people eager to try and consume stimulants and narcotics of all kinds, if there will always be consumers of these products, how can we prevent other people, eager to make a profit, from engaging in their production and sale?

As you can see, the war on drugs is, technically speaking, impossible to win. And this conclusion then leads us to ask some other questions, the answers to which I find imperative: are most of us — who are not dealers or consumers — forced to endure indefinitely the problems caused by this war, which are violating our individual rights on the grounds of a just cause? What can we do to control the issue of drugs without it meaning to continue with a war of an indefinite duration?

There is no easy answer to that, but the various initiatives promoted today by Latin American governments and prominent personalities appear to be significant steps in moving towards a solution. May it be so and may reasonableness and common sense be able to defeat here the dogmatic positions and vested interests that are causing so much harm to ordinary citizens who have no connection at all with this endless war.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324