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Biting the Bullet: The Case for Legalizing Drugs

by Walter Wink

Walter Wink is professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City. He received his Th.D. from Union Theological Semianry, has been active in peace movements throughout the world, and is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. His books include: The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (1999), and Cracking the Gnostic Code (1993). This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 8-15, 1990 pp.736-739, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The drug war is over. We lost it long before the latest declaration of war by President Bush. Whatever the other factors, we lost primarily for spiritual reasons. We merely repeated the mistake of Prohibition: the harder we tried to stamp out the evil, the more lucrative we made it. We should know that prohibition doesn’t work. Forcible resistance to evil simply makes it more profitable.

Our attempts to stamp out drugs violate a fundamental principle that Jesus articulated in the Sermon on the Mount: "Resist not evil." The Greek term translated "resist" is antistenai. When it is used by the Greek Old Testament or by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, however, the word is usually translated, "to be engaged in a revolt, rebellion, riot, insurrection." It is virtually a synonym for war. It means to stand up against an enemy and fight. So Jesus’ words should be translated, "Do not resist evil by violent means. Do not fight evil with evil. Do not mirror evil, do not let evil set the terms of your response. Applied to the drug issue, this means, "Do not resist drugs by violent methods."

When we oppose evil with the same weapons that evil employs, we commit the same atrocities, violate the same civil liberties and break the same laws as do those whom we oppose. We become what we hate. Evil makes us over into its mimetic double. If one side prevails, the evil continues by virtue of having been established through the means used. More often, however, both sides grow, fed by their mutual resistance, as in the arms race, the Vietnam war, the Salvadoran civil war and Lebanon. This principle of mimetic opposition is illustrated abundantly in the drug War.

Bush’s drug-war strategy has three elements. First, it requires cutting off the drug source in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Yet this appears to be impossible. Already we see signs that Colombia is collapsing into civil war. Officials and journalists are being gunned down on the streets, civilian homes are being raided and seized, civilian government is increasingly being taken over by the military -- and so far the drug lords have only engaged in selective terrorism.

Moreover, the Colombian army has seldom confronted the 140 paramilitary private armies of the drug lords, or raided their training bases. For in certain areas of the country the military has formed a marriage of convenience with drug traffickers and landowners in a common front against a 30-year-old leftist guerrilla insurgency. With an income in the billions of dollars, drug leaders are able to buy generals, judges and police. In one week last fall, the Colombian national police fired 2,075 officers for having links with the cartels. The drug lords have also bought limited public acceptance by sponsoring the national soccer league, diversifying into legitimate businesses, supporting charities and offering to pay off the government’s $10 billion external debt.

To test public reaction, the Bush administration may talk about sending in U.S. troops. But even if only military advisers are sent, they will soon discover in the field what our advisers found in Vietnam: an army not really committed to a fight. And even if those producing countries could be rid of coca tomorrow, production would simply be moved somewhere else, and the eradication effort would have to be started all over again in Southeast Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and other countries far less likely to let us call the shots. So far, cocaine cultivation uses only 700 square miles of the 2.5 million square miles suitable for its growth in South America. There is simply no way the U.S. can police so vast an area.

Second, the Bush strategy calls for interdicting cocaine at our borders. We have been trying that for years, and it simply cannot be done short of militarizing the borders. According to a Government Accounting Office study, the U.S. Air Force spent $3.3 million on drug interdiction, using sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes over a 15-month period ending in 1987. The grand total of drug seizures from that effort was eight. During the same period, the combined efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, sailing for 2,512 ship days at a cost of $40 million, resulted in the seizure of a mere 20 drug-carrying vessels. Drugs are easy to smuggle. The entire country’s current annual import of cocaine would fit into a single C-5A cargo plane.

Even when interdiction works, it does nothing to reduce drug availability. On September 29, 1989, 21.4 tons of cocaine was seized in Los Angeles; within a week nine tons was taken in Harlingen, Texas, and five more at sea off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The almost 36 tons netted in the three seizures was valued at $11 billion. Yet ten days later undercover agents were able to buy cocaine in bulk at the same price as before the seizures.

William Bennett, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, hopes that interdiction will raise drug prices. In fact, however, cocaine has become more available, while its wholesale price has dropped by 80 percent during the past decade. Increased prices would not deter addicts anyway; it would simply increase their rate of criminal acts. In Dade County, Florida, a mere 254 young addicts accounted for 223,000 crimes in a single year -- almost 2.5 per youth per day. Multiply that by a nation and you see why the drug war was lost before it began.

As Senator John Kerry’s subcommittee on narcotics reported in December 1988, increased cooperation with foreign governments has neither cut the amount of cocaine entering the U.S. nor led to the destruction of the major smuggling organizations. Fifteen percent of the drugs entering this country are being confiscated, but "for the drug cartels, whose production capacities stagger the imagination, a 15 percent loss rate is more than acceptable."

Third, the Bush plan calls for arresting drug dealers and casual users. There are already 750,000 drug arrests per year, and the current prison population is overtaxing facilities. At an average of $51,000 per inmate per year, just to incarcerate the 750,000 arrested annually would cost $38 billion. There are 35 to 40 million Americans who have used illegal drugs within the past year. To jail all users would run a tidy $1.785 trillion.

As for using the death penalty for deterrence, it seems unlikely that this country is ready to execute drug dealers by the hundreds of thousands. If so many millions are flouting the law, Prohibition style, is there really a political will for harsh enforcement? And how sincere is our antidrug effort going to be when the financial community realizes that the cash flow from the drug trade is the only thing preventing a default by some of the heavily indebted Latin American nations or major money-laundering banks? Cocaine trade brings Bolivia’s economy about’ $600 million per year, a figure equal to the country’s total legal export income. Revenues from drug trafficking in Miami are greater than those from tourism, exports, health care and all other legitimate businesses combined.

It is not drugs but rather drug laws that have made drug dealing profitable. Drug laws have also fostered drug-related murders and an estimated 40 percent of all property crime in the U.S. Ethan A. Nadelmann, whose article "Drug Prohibition in the United States" in the September 1, 1989, issue of Science has been a major catalyst for public discussion of legalization, argues that "the greatest beneficiaries of the drug laws are organized and unorganized drug traffickers. The criminalization of the drug market effectively imposes a de facto value-added tax that is enforced and occasionally augmented by the law enforcement establishment and collected by the drug traffickers." Rather than collecting taxes on the sale of drugs, governments at all levels expend billions of dollars in what amounts to a subsidy of organized criminals.

The war on drugs creates casualties beyond those arrested. There are those killed in fights over turf, innocents caught in cross fire, citizens terrified of city streets, escalating robberies, children fed free crack to get them addicted and then enlisted as runners and dealers, mothers so crazed for a fix that they abandon their babies, prostitute themselves and their daughters, and addict their unborn. Much of that, too, is the result of the drug laws. Cocaine, after all, has been around a long time and was once sold over the counter in tablet form and consumed in Coca-Cola. What makes it so irresistible today is its lucrativeness. And it is lucrative only because it is illegal.

The media usually portray cocaine and crack use as a black ghetto phenomenon. This is a racist caricature. The New York Times reported on October 1, 1989, that there are more crack addicts among the white middle and upper class than any other segment of the population and far more such occasional cocaine users. The typical user is a single white male 20 to 40 years old who generally obtains his drugs from black dealers. The white demand makes the drugs flow. Americans consume 60 percent of the world’s illegal drugs -- too profitable a market for dealers to ignore.

In the drug war, we are blindly fighting what we have become as a nation. Some observers say that drugs are the ultimate consumer product for people who want to feel good now without benefit of hard work, social interaction, or making a productive contribution to society. Drug dealers are living out the rags-to-riches American dream as private entrepreneurs trying desperately to become upwardly mobile. That is why we cannot win the war on drugs. We Americans are the enemy, and we cannot face that fact. So we launch a half-hearted, half-funded, half-baked war against a menace that only mirrors what we have ourselves become as a nation.

The uproar about drugs is itself odd. In 1987, according to the Kerry subcommittee, there were 1,400 deaths from cocaine; in 1988, that figure had increased to 3,308. Deaths from all forms of illegal drugs total under 6,000. By contrast, 320,000 to 390,000 people die prematurely each year from tobacco and 100,000 to 200,000 from misuse of alcohol. Alcohol is associated with 40 percent of all suicide attempts, 40 percent of all traffic deaths, 54 percent of all violent crimes and 10 percent of all work-related injuries.

None of the illegal drugs are as lethal as tobacco or alcohol. If anyone has ever died as a direct result of a marijuana overdose, no one seems to know about it. Many people can be addicted to heroin for most of their lives without serious consequences. Cocaine in powder form is not as addictive as nicotine; Nadelmann points out that only 3 percent of those who try it become addicted. Crack is terribly addictive, but its use is a direct consequence of the high cost of powdered cocaine. Crack was a cheap ghetto alternative, and its spread to the middle and upper classes has in part been a function of its low price. Severely addicted humans may in some ways resemble those experimental monkeys who will starve themselves to death if supplied with, unlimited cocaine, but the vast majority of users are not in such danger (and alcoholic humans also will drink themselves to death)

We must be honest about these facts, because much of the hysteria about illegal drugs has been based on misinformation: All addiction is a serious matter, and the churches are right to be concerned about the human costs. But many of these costs are a consequence of a wrongheaded approach to eradication. Our tolerance of the real killer drugs and our abhorrence of the drugs which are far less lethal is hypocritical, or at best a selective moralism reflecting fashions of indignation.

Drug addiction is singled out as evil, yet we are a society of addicts living in an addictive society. We project on the black drug subculture profound anxieties about our own addictions (to wealth, power, sex, food, work, religion, alcohol and tobacco) and attack addiction in others without having to gain insight about ourselves. New York City Councilman Wendell Foster illustrated this scapegoating attitude when he suggested chaining addicts to trees so people could spit on them.

I’m not advocating giving up the war on drugs because we cannot win. I am saying that we cannot win as long as we let drugs dictate the means we use to oppose them. The only way to win is to ruin the world market price of drugs by legalizing them. When drug prices plummet, drug profits will collapse -- and with them, the drug empire.

Some people have called for decriminalization, but they probably mean legalization. Decriminalization would mean no more laws regulating drugs, no governmental restraints on sales to minors, no quality controls to curtail overdose and no prosecution of the inevitable bootleggers. Legalization, however, means that the government would maintain regulatory control over drug sales, possibly through state clinics or stores. Advertising would be strictly prohibited, selling drugs to children would continue to be a criminal offense, and other evasions of government regulation would be prosecuted. Driving, flying or piloting a vessel under the influence would still be punished. Taxes on drugs would pay for enforcement, education, rehabilitation and research (Nadelmann estimates a net benefit of at least $10 billion from reduced expenditures on enforcement and new tax revenues) Street users would be picked up and taken to hospitals, like drunks, instead of arrested.

Legalization would lead to an immediate decrease in murders, burglaries and robberies, paralleling the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933. Cheap drugs would mean that most addicts would not be driven to crime to support their habit, and that drug lords would no longer have a turf to fight over. Legalization would be a blow to South American peasants, who would need support in switching back to less lucrative crops; but that would be less devastating than destruction of their crops altogether by aerial spraying or biological warfare. Legalization would enable countries like Peru to regularize the cocaine sector and absorb its money-making capacity in the taxable; legal, unionized economic world. Legalization would be a blow to ghetto dealers, who would be deprived of their ticket to riches. It would remove glamorous, Al Capone-type traffickers who are role models for the young, and it would destroy the "cool" status of drug use. It would cancel the corrupting role of the drug cartels in South American politics, a powerful incentive to corruption at all levels of our own government and a dangerous threat to our civil liberties through mistaken enforcement and property confiscation. It would free law-enforcement agencies to focus on other crimes and reduce the strain on the court and prison systems. It would nip in the bud a multibillion-dollar bureaucracy whose prosperity depends on not solving the drug probe. It would remove a major cause of public cynicism about obeying the laws of the land.

Legalization would also free up money wasted on interdiction of supplies that are needed desperately for treatment, education and research. Clinics in New York have room for only 48,000 of the state’s estimated half-million addicts. Only $700 million has been earmarked by the Bush administration for treatment, out of a total expenditure of $8 billion for the drug war. Yet nationally, approximately 90 percent of the addicts who apply to drug treatment and rehabilitation Centers are turned away for lack of space, resources, and personnel. For those who do persist, the waiting period is six to 18 months. Even then, one-third to one-half of drug abusers turned away do reapply after waiting the extended time.

The worst prospect of legalization is that it might lead to a short-term increase in the use of drugs, due to availability, lower prices and the sudden freedom from prosecution. The repeal of Prohibition had that result. Drugs cheap enough to destroy their profitability would also be in the range of any child’s allowance, just like beer and cigarettes. Cocaine is easily concealable and its effects less overt than alcohol. The possibility of increased teenage use is admittedly frightening.

On the other hand, ending the drug war would free drug control officers to concentrate on protecting children from exploitation, and here stiff penalties would continue to be in effect. The alarmist prediction that cheap available drugs could lead to an addiction rate of 75 percent of regular users simply ignores the fact that 35 to 40 million Americans are already using some drugs and that only 3 percent become addicts. Most people have strong reasons not to become addicts. A major educational program would need to be in effect well before drug legalization took effect.

Fighting the drug war may appear to hold the high moral ground, but this is only an illusion. And while some have argued that legalization would place the state’s moral imprimatur on drugs, we have already legalized the most lethal drugs -- and no one argues that this constitutes governmental endorsement. But legalizing would indeed imply that drugs are no longer being satanized like "demon rum." It’s time we bit the bullet. Addicts will be healed by care and compassion, not condemnation. Dealers will be cured by a ruined world drug market, not by enforcement that simply escalates the profitability of drugs. Legalization offers a nonviolent, nonreactive, creative alternative that will let the drug menace collapse of its own deadly weight.


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