by Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Agitator)
The war on drugs has failed. Its failure has been so categorical and self-evident that the statement itself is bromidic. By any reasonable metric of success—addiction rates, violence, the availability of drugs in our schools— it’s clear that our 40-year jihad against certain plants and chemicals has done far more harm than good. Despite this, the federal government’s drug war strategy, which is founded upon aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration, remains unchanged. We continue to arrest nearly a million people a year for marijuana offenses. We remain the world’s leading jailer, with an incarceration rate more than five times the global average. And this year, the federal government will spend nearly $4 billion more on drug law enforcement and interdiction than it will on drug treatment.
What has this strategy gotten us? The highest drug abuse rates on the planet and 50,000 corpses in Mexico.
The American people—along with a growing chorus of world leaders—are rapidly waking up to this reality. Just 10 percent of the public now believes that the drug war is succeeding, and a majority now favors marijuana legalization. To mix metaphors a bit, public opinion is undergoing a sea-change and is quickly approaching an inevitable tipping point.
Apparently, I’m a slow learner, as I was well behind that curve. I spent 13 years working as an Intelligence Analyst with the Drug Enforcement Administration before resigning last year. Over the course of that time, I gradually realized that our drug policies only served to enrich and empower the very cartels we were fighting. I could have kept up the good fight for another 50 years, and the problem would only have been worse as a result of my efforts.
In 2010, while assigned to the DEA office in Monterrey, Mexico, my family was evacuated as a result of the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation. As I drove them northward through the desert in a long caravan of heavily-armed Federal Police trucks, trying to comprehend the barbarity plaguing the region, I recalled a wonderful verse from the Tao Te Ching: Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.
That may or may not be a universal truth, but it certainly applies to drug prohibition. Why did the Zetas want to kill us? Well, we wanted to kill them. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency, but I am suggesting that nearly all of the evils of the drug trade are Frankenstein’s monsters of our own creation. The violence of the drug world, from drive-by shootings in Chicago to internecine cartel wars in Mexico, is a direct and inevitable consequence of prohibition (see: Capone, Al). Most overdose deaths are attributable to impurities and inconsistent potency levels of drugs bought on the street—factors that would cease to exist in a regulated legal market. Most addictions persist because addicts are treated as criminals rather than patients. And, of course, being arrested for marijuana has destroyed far more lives than the drug itself ever could.
Since leaving the DEA, I am proud to be a speaker with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). LEAP is a non-profit organization comprised of current and former “drug warriors” who have recognized the failure of drug prohibition and now advocate for a policy of regulated legalization. Our members include retired police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, wardens, detectives, special agents, and others who have the courage to approach the drug policy issue with reason and compassion.
Radley has graciously offered LEAP the opportunity to contribute to The Agitator over the next few weeks. His offer is greatly appreciated. With public opinion shifting, Mexico burning, our prisons overflowing, our police militarizing, and needless deaths occurring every day, this is a critical time to address a very critical issue.
Eventually, all wars end. Some end in victory, some in defeat, and some—particularly in recent years—with the fatigued realization that waging them was a tragic folly from the beginning. So it is with the war on drugs.