It’s fairly agreed upon these days that the war on drugs has caused more problems than it’s solved, and that controlled legalization along with treatment over incarceration would make a better solution. Countless lives have been lost and billions in taxpayer revenue has been wasted as a result of both fighting and trafficking illegal drugs. But how complicit is the average user in the violence and economic waste?
In May, the London School of Economics published a report titled “Ending the War on Drugs.” The authors of the report, which included five Nobel prize-winning economists, maintained that the global war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure that requires world leaders to rethink their approach to drug laws. The report cites mass drug-related incarcerations in the U.S., corruption and violence plaguing developing countries and Russia’s HIV epidemic as glaring factors that the UN’s “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to combatig drugs has failed in its intended goal, and has instead created a $300 billion black market. The solution? “Rigorously monitored” experiments with legalization and an emphasis on public health that would minimize the impact of the illegal drug trade.
It’s not only economists who question current drug policies: in April, a national survey by the Pew Research Center found that 67% of Americans say that policy should focus on providing treatment rather than incarceration. The same survey found that 54% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana. And in early October, The Guardian published the results of a survey that found 84% of Britons want to see an end to the war on drugs, with 27% in favor of decriminalization.
However, the ugly truth is that until governments find a workable solution to the drug problem, you can probably bet that your drugs followed a long trail of corruption, bribery and bloodshed to get up your nose. For starters, death toll estimates for the Mexican drug war range from 60,000 to 160,000 since 2006. Most progressives shit bricks to hear those kinds of figures from Big Pharma or Big Tobacco, and would arrange the protests and boycotts to prove it. But how often is a blind eye turned to the realities of drug production and trafficking–the death tolls, the government corruption, the wasted resources–in favor of getting high?
What follows herein is an overview of the socioeconomic costs of some of the most popular and widely used recreational drugs.
Earlier this year, the Mexican newspaper El Universal alleged that the DEA had an agreement with the Sinaloa cartel. Ultraculture reported at the time:
In mid-January, the Mexican newspaper El Universal alleged that the US DEA allowed the notorious Sinaloa cartel, considered Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers, to operate with impunity in exchange for informing on rival cartels—smuggling billions of dollars of drugs without interference, previously including nearly 200 tons of cocaine and heroin between 1990 and 2008.
El Universal also alleged that Operation Fast and Furious—in which Arizona ATF agents allowed arms sales to cartel members in order to track them—was part of a larger scheme to arm and finance the cartel in exchange for information on rival cartels.
The United States government has a history of working with drug traffickers. Ultraculture recently ran an article on Gary Webb, whose story is the basis of the new film Kill the Messenger. Webb had his career systematically terminated through a smear campaign that cost him his credibility, his job and ultimately his life after his Dark Alliance series ran on the San Jose Mercury News‘ website. One of the earliest viral news stories, Dark Alliance was Webb’s investigation into the CIA dealings with Nicaragua’s Contra rebels. In order to finance their counterrevolutionary campaign, the Contras trafficked cocaine directly to Los Angeles, where it was processed into crack and distributed on the streets–to mostly low-income black neighborhoods, who were disproportionately sentenced under imbalanced crack laws. Webb alleged that the CIA was aware of the shipments and allowed them through to the U.S. without informing the DEA, making the CIA complicit in America’s crack problem.
What’s more, the Mexican cartels have moved into oil theft in recent years. In 2010, an illegal tap at a Pemex crude pumping station in Puebla ignited, resulting in a fire that destroyed some 115 homes and killed 30 people. Vice News alleged that one man who lost his home and his entire family–ten relatives including his grandchildren–was later extorted by the cartels for money given to him by Pemex to rebuild his home. And since these organizations are black market, there is no one to one to be held accountable for this disaster–there were no safety regulations that were violated, and no CEOs to prosecute.
And now, with Mexico’s recent oil reform, the cartels are expected to diversify their holdings into oil even more. The International Business Times reported in February:
Mexico’s vast shale-based reserves are some of the world’s largest, according to a recent assessment by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the shale is also located in precisely the northeastern regions most heavily influenced by the Zetas organized crime group. The Zetas and rivals like the Gulf Cartel have profited from reselling stolen oil and illegal mining operations for years, pocketing about $1.13 billion from the trade in 2012 and the first nine months of 2013, according to a November report by Pemex director Emilio Lozoya. And more than half of the money came in during the last nine months, indicating gangs’ oil profits are rising.
If the sort of allegations above were brought up against a multinational corporation like Starbucks, a protest and boycott would be organized by the same college students who casually snort coke on the weekends. It’s not often that a partygoer considers the geopolitical implications behind the line of coke that’s about to go up their nose. But there are huge ramifications indeed—for even the most casual of coke habits.
Back in 2006, it was reported that 90% of the world’s heroin originated in Afghanistan. That number likely hasn’t changed. Opium cultivation in Afghanistan rose to an all-time high in the twelve years that the nation was under US and NATO military control, according to the 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey. Cultivation of the poppy rose 36% in 2013 and total opium production amounted to 5,500 tons, up nearly half since 2012.
The Taliban has long controlled the Afghan opium trade. A 2010 report found:
The Taliban’s principal and most lucrative source of income in Afghanistan is its control of the opium trade. The Taliban have long profited off of the ten percent ushr tax levied on opium farmers, an additional tax on the traffickers, and a per-kilogram transit tariff charged to the truckers who transport the product.
The opium trade has been highly lucrative for the terrorist organization. A 2010 UN report found that the Taliban was estimated to bring in as much as $650 million annually from the opium trade. And in June 2013, Newsweek even reported that the newest generation of Taliban live like Latin American drug lords, dwelling in “mansions featuring faux Grecian columns, silver-tinted blastproof windows, and 10-foot-high walls topped with concertina wire” and driving “Toyota Land Cruisers or other luxury cars.”
“The Taliban are more involved than ever in systematically promoting, financing, organizing, and protecting the drug trade,” Ahmad Woror, director of narcotics control in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, told Newsweek.
Any attempt made by the US to combat the opium trade has only benefited the Taliban. Forbes reports:
Cutting off funding to the Taliban has been the second major justification for opium suppression efforts by the U.S. in Afghanistan, next to combating heroin addiction and consumption. What Professor Clemens shows is that these efforts have had the opposite effect. Anti-opium efforts increased the flow of opium income to farmers in Taliban-heavy districts from some $240 million in 2004 to $580 million in 2010, or double in both absolute numbers and share of total opium production. That’s a lot of money in a country with a GDP per capita of about $1,000. The Taliban take an important cut from all of this business. They impose a 2 to 10 percent tax on farmers, the ushr, and they provide protection services to traffickers.
However, it doesn’t seem like the US has tried very hard to combat the opium trade. In 2010, Public Intelligence released this series of photographs showing US troops patrolling Afghan opium fields. Public Intelligence notes:
In a recent report from Geraldo Rivera which aired in late April on Fox News, a USMC Lt. Col. indicated that US forces encourage the Aghans to grow different crops, however, out of fear of losing stability poppy cultivation is tolerated and even supported. In November 2009, the Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics General Khodaidad Khodaidad stated that the majority of drugs are stockpiled in two provinces controlled by troops from the US, the UK, and Canada. He also said that NATO forces are taxing the production of opium in the regions under their control and that foreign troops are earning money from drug production in Afghanistan.
Stateside, there has been a shift toward heroin in the opioid market. Heroin use doubled in 2010, after OxyContin was reformulated to be controlled release–making it impossible to snort or inject. Price has also played a factor in heroin’s resurgence. According to a 2014 UN report, “Law enforcement officials nationwide have noted prescription opioid abusers switching to heroin because it was cheaper and/or more easily obtained than prescription drugs.”
The methamphetamine trade is a pan-Pacific enterprise between China, Mexico and the United States. A 2013 study by Mexican think tank Seguridad con Democracia found that 80% of the U.S. meth trade is run by the Sinaloa Cartel.
“This organization is a truly global enterprise,” the study writes, “for both its markets and its products exhibit a high degree of diversification. North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia stand out among its markets. Marijuana, cocaine, opiates, and methamphetamines are prominent among its products.”
Restrictions on pseudoephedrine–the precursor to meth–in both Mexico and the U.S. have made it difficult to produce mass quantities, so the cartels have taken to illegally importing it from the Asia Pacific region. ABC News reports:
The study found that ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the starting point of the triangular money route that starts in the Asia Pacific region. These two types of drugs, which were banned in Mexico in 2008, arrive illegally from Asia at the ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo in Mexico, or at Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. From there, they are moved to labs in the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Sonora and Sinaloa, where they are processed in order to produce methamphetamines.
Aside from the public health dangers of methamphetamine, the drug also poses considerable danger to the environment. Illicit methamphetamine production typically involves toxic materials. The waste of these toxic chemicals is often discarded in rivers, forests, and fields, causing great damage to wildlife. A 2008 paper in the San Joaquin Agriculture Law Review states:
In California, large areas of trees, vegetation, and soil have been contaminated by toxic meth chemicals. In Sitgreaves National Forest, meth-lab fumes killed 150 year-old ponderosa pine trees, juniper, and pixon pines. Meth labs frequently explode, which causes the burning of forests and vegetation. The fires release… carbon dioxide and methane. These gases affect global warming and climate change.
Often, hazardous meth waste is dumped into rivers and streams, which contaminates the water. The waste kills fish, birds, amphibians and small animals. Ammonia, a chemical used to make meth, is hazardous to aquatic organisms because it depletes oxygen from water, and suffocates them. In Kansas, 33,000 salmon died of “gill rot” near the Klamath River, as a result of fifty meth labs surrounding the river.
Since methamphetamine is illegal and unregulated, it is impossible to know the full extent of its environmental damage. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an eco-friendly meth hitting the market any time soon.
The recent push for the medical and recreational decriminalization of cannabis in the U.S. has lost the cartels a lot of business. This year, the Washington Post reported:
Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25.
“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”
However, the decline in cannabis has contributed to an upswing in opium cultivation, flooding U.S. drug markets with heroin. “Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them,” reported the Post. Heroin, as you recall, surged in popularity as a result of tightened controls and reformulations of popular synthetic opioids to combat an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.
It’s difficult to deny that the war on drugs has been a waste of money, resources and human life. This waste is sure to continue as long as governments fight drugs with draconian laws and military tactics—and what complicity does the casual user have in the bloodshed and waste?