What makes a war a failure?
America finally ended its war in Afghanistan last month, nearly two decades after the terrorist attack that precipitated it. The country now needs to end another that is being fought in large part on its own turf and that has gone on much longer: the “war on drugs.”
Many of the tragedies and sins associated with failure in the war in Afghanistan could equally apply if the words “in Afghanistan” were swapped out with “on drugs”: that it raged for decades; was immeasurably bloody; was carried out with no clear exit strategy; had the support of an American public that was blinded by politically charged debates and that scarcely appreciated its costs; and is managed by political leaders who overwhelmingly want it to end, but do not want to own the responsibility for doing so.
While President Richard Nixon first laid a marker on drugs by calling for major narcotics legislation in 1969, the rhetoric of the modern drug war as we know it began with a speech he gave in 1971. There, he declared that the federal government would treat addiction as “public enemy No. 1,” and that “in order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.”
It would be easier to take Nixon (or the war on drugs, for that matter) seriously were there any shred of sincerity that it was ever actually about drugs in the first place. As his domestic affairs advisor, John Ehrlichman, reportedly made clear years later, going after drugs was nothing more than a political tool for attacking Blacks and anti-war hippies. A writer reported years after Ehrlichman’s death that he once had said in an interview, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin…[w]e could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Even crediting Ehrlichman’s family’s statement that the quote doesn’t square with their knowledge of his views, Nixon’s racism – caught on tape! – is well-documented.
Certainly not every subsequent leader and law enforcement official has acted with Nixon’s lies and bigotry, but what has followed in the decades since has been less a war than a slaughter. The term “war” implies armed engagement between combatants; the word carries a connotation that the parties involved are on relatively equal footing. But while the public perception of White peacenik stoners as a menace disappeared along with bellbottoms and Pet Rocks, young Black and Brown men to this day remain the bogeymen that the earliest generals in the drug war all but ensured they would be.
`Illogical at Best, Disingenuous at Worst’
More importantly, in practice, the very notion of a “war on drugs” is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. It suggests that drugs themselves are the source of our collective fear, as if there is always a chance that a dime bag or bong might strap itself with a suicide vest and blow up a city bus. To the contrary, since its earliest days, the “war” has largely targeted the people who use and possess drugs. It was, and remains, largely a war of choice that has made America’s own (usually Black or Brown) citizens the enemy. Certainly, targeting the supply of drugs – the syndicates, the traffickers, the kingpins – has been, and continues to be, a focus of U.S. and global narcotics enforcement. However, one need look no further than the history of U.S. drug laws, and current demographic data on who gets incarcerated today to realize that America’s approach to fighting drugs has never been just about arresting or killing Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán or Pablo Escobar.
From the first anti-opium laws directed at Chinese immigrants in the 1870s, to anti-cocaine laws aimed at Black men in the U.S. South soon after the turn of the century, and anti-marijuana laws targeted at Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the 1920s, American history is littered with examples of drug laws that target the ostensibly most threatening racial or ethnic community du jour. The result today is grossly disproportionate enforcement of drug offenses in Black and Brown communities nationwide. For instance, federal prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue mandatory minimum prison sentences for Black people as for White people charged with the same offense.
All of the above have led to commonly-cited statistics that are alarming by themselves: nearly 1.6 million drug arrests were made in 2019, with almost 1.4 million of those being for possession alone; Black people represent 26 percent of those arrested for drug crimes despite making up about 13 percent of the country and using and selling drugs at roughly the same rate as Whites; a fifth of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in America are serving sentences for drug crimes. Moreover, nothing today screams about the racial underpinnings of the country’s approach to drugs more than the fact that today’s opioid crisis (one that has victimized Whites), is thought of as exactly that — a crisis. Today’s White users are vulnerable victims to be nurtured; Black users often remain enemy combatants to be dispatched.
Hidden behind the numbers is the fact that each arrest and conviction carries severe collateral consequences that create barriers for individuals reentering society by denying or restricting benefits otherwise available to all Americans. A person might believe that the war on drugs has been successful at keeping communities safe by arresting and incarcerating drug users. However, once released, they likely remain barred from a vast range of critical assistance ranging such as food stamps or, in the irony of ironies, the ability to participate in one of the fastest-growing economies in the United States, the cannabis industry. It defies logic that arrest or prison time precludes the very measures that would allow people to rebuild their lives and make future arrests less likely. Unless, of course, that was never the point.
Whatever we are doing is not working.
At least the conflict in Afghanistan had, even in its beginnings, an explainable enemy and mission. And, although it occurred long, long after it was clear that the war was unwinnable, we got out. We should do the same with the war being fought at home.
At Least Minimize the Carnage for Starters
To at least minimize the carnage in the meantime, the United States could start by further decriminalizing some drug use and possession, particularly marijuana. To be clear, not all drugs are created equal, international trafficking remains a serious problem, and intoxicated people still, at times, pose threats to themselves and others. Still, as many states across America are doing, it is time to take a serious look at how any number of substances are criminalized, and how possession of them is sentenced. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the 100-to-1 crack-powder sentencing disparity to 18-to-1. In 2018, the First Step Act made it retroactive, allowing more than 3,000 people who had been given mandatory minimums for crack offenses to receive sentence reductions.
Congress can still go further and consider legislation to narrow the disparity further, or close it altogether. America’s greatest act of “nation building” could start with no longer conscripting millions of its citizens to a lifetime of incarceration and failure triggered by low-level drug-possession convictions early in their lives.
In addition, baked at least partly into the American psyche is the notion that police are not guardians of the communities they serve, but rather warriors engaged in ongoing combat (think about it: police often are called “troops” or “forces” and trained at military-style boot camps, and military veterans represent about 20 percent of police forces despite making up just 6 percent of the general population). Humans most often go to war with people they view as unlike themselves; likewise, police officers may see themselves as guardians of people like themselves. For generations, America’s entire notion of what policing is has largely overvalued police officers’ roles as warriors and undervalued their role as protectors. That must evolve. While defunding police may not make communities safer, shifting the very paradigm that police only exist as extensions of the country’s military apparatus will.
In talking about his decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden argued that once it was no longer in the nation’s national interest to remain there, it was time to leave. We should apply that same thinking to another war that is no longer in the national interest — and perhaps never was — but continues to cost us immeasurably.