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Monday 12 March 2001

The War on Some Drugs

A lot of people in the U.S., myself included, are morally opposed to the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. As a method of keeping people from getting high — assuming for the moment that that’s a legitimate function of the government — it’s clearly a failure. Only the most rabid pro-Drug War cheerleaders would maintain otherwise.

Yet it continues. Any attempt to approach the "problem" from another angle is quickly quashed by the government. The same people, Democrats and Republicans both, who crow about Less Government Spending and Less Interference In Your Life consistently approve of the government spending billions of dollars to lock people in prison. Less interference indeed.

The reason that none of this seems to make sense is that we persist in looking at it as a legitimate activity of the government; it’s not. It’s a business.

Allow me to (apparently) digress for a moment: if you live in the United States and own a television, you’ve undoubtedly seen advertisements on late-night TV for things like the Tap Light. The Tap Light is a cheaply-made battery-operated light; it’s electrically identical to a flashlight, but it takes the shape of a little dome of light-diffusing plastic. You put it on a shelf or table, and by tapping the dome (which is also the switch), you turn the light on and off.

There is no demonstrable need for this awful little thing. It’s very poorly-designed, expensive to operate, not very effective (you can’t easily read by its light, for instance), and ugly.

Despite all this, the Tap Light Corporation continues to sell the thing. Its total effect is very small, but the Tap Light is definitely harmful to society. Because the Tap Light Corporation is making money on the it, though, they’re going to continue to sell it. They should do no less.

So why are we surprised that the Drug War continues? On a regular basis, the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association — the prison guards’ union — lobbies against any measure in California that would reduce the number of prison admissions. Police departments push for greater powers to seize property of people accused of drug crimes. Other agencies of the government save money by, for instance, denying federal aid to would-be students who have been convicted of any drug-related crimes.

If you don’t believe me, read this article from the Seattle Times about an attempt in Washington to require that people actually be convicted before their property is seized by the government. In part, it says:

And the money has become essential for police departments trying to stay on top of rising drug crimes while dealing with tighter budgets.

"That’d put us out of business," said Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis.

There you have it in a nutshell. I believe that this is an adequate explanation for a lot of the drug hysteria in the U.S. (which the U.S. then imposes on large parts of the rest of the world): that the government needs another source of revenue.

Whether this source of revenue would be necessary were the government not spending so much on the drug war is a question I will leave unexamined for the time being.

In any case, this is the only explanation I’ve been able to think of that fits the circumstances. If you look at the government’s actions not as any attempt to arrive at some kind of justice, but rather as the actions of a business with something to sell — police and incarceration services, in this case — the Drug War makes prefect sense.

The fact that the Drug War does nothing to stop drugs is irrelevant; the means is the end.

We will not see any meaningful reform of the insane drug laws in this country until no agency of government directly benefits from them.

Posted by tino at 14:00 12.03.01
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