Tools for Political Understanding: The “War on Drugs”

16:21 Sun 25 Feb 2007. Updated: 13:23 26 Feb 2007
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In early January I wrote a post called Tools for Political Understanding, the beginning of an attempt to help others analyze the political sphere. With yesterday’s post in mind, I’m going to look at the “War on Drugs” using the tools I suggested as aids to understanding.

Who Benefits?

This is the first question to ask. Here, it’s also the most controversial, since it will immediately involve the claim that society as a whole benefits from the attempted suppression of drug activity.

Putting that aside for the moment, let’s look at who else benefits.

The surviving suppliers. Criminalization removes a lot of suppliers from the market. Those that survive benefit from this, and from the fact that their proceeds are of necessity untaxed. It’s clear that demand remains, and so a market exists due to the demand, a market that’s extremely lucrative for those who are able to sell.

The enforcement organizations. Those that exist to suppress drug activity obviously benefit, and benefit from every expansion of the effort. In the United States, this most obviously means the DEA, but drug-oriented departments of all law enforcement agencies also benefit, since they get both money and expanded powers from the “drug war”.

The prison industry. As one example, the state of California currently spends over eight billion dollars per year on correctional facilities. This is largely demand-driven also, and demand comes from a high inmate population—a significant proportion of whom are in jail due to prohibitions on drug activity. I’ve never seen or heard a convincing argument that inmate numbers would remain the same if drugs (even just some drugs) were legalized, so the prison industry gets a clear net benefit.

Authoritarians. This is a much more amorphous category, but is very significant. Those people who crave either authoritarian power for themselves, or who crave a society in which strong authority dictates acceptable behavior and severely punishes those who stray, clearly gain from the extension of enforcement power into more areas of life. They also gain particularly from the characterization of the suppression as a “war”, as wars are usually perceived as struggles for existence, justifying the suspension of all kinds of liberties that authoritarians would prefer to eliminate permantently. (See The Authoritarians for one psychologist’s perspective on authoritarian traits.)

What Resources are Involved?

Or, “follow the money”. There’s a huge amount of money involved here. This goes directly to how the suppliers and the enforcement/incarceration arms benefit, as noted above. Power and political/bureaucratic resources are involved as well, in ways that don’t necessarily translate to money (money doesn’t easily buy you your own government agency, for example). The “war” aspect of the suppression has helped lead to more militarized law enforcement, giving police the power to use overwhelming force when they deem it necessary—also something that can’t necessarily be purchased with money alone.

What Emotions are Being Encouraged?

Fear. This is primary one, and will show up in almost all pro-suppression rhetoric. The potentially lethal effects of drug use, the spectre of drug-addicted children, and the threatening/violent/dangerous nature of drug users are all hallmarks. (These will show up when trying to suppress almost any activity.) Drug use is potentially lethal under certain circumstances, children being addicted to drugs is a terrible thing, and dangerous behavior is sometimes the result of drug use. However, a careful analysis of these possibilities isn’t what is encouraged by the rhetoric here, but rather an emotional response of fear that overrides the desire for a rational response.

Righteousness/Anger. This is less critical, but still an important factor. Attempted suppression of drug activity via enforcement brings with it demonization of users and dealers. This demonization provides a kind of “psychological wage” for the rest of the population, the ability to assuage insecurities with “I may be flawed, but at least I’m not a filthy drug abuser/dealer”. The anger is fed by both the fear and the demonization, and results in that anger determining the response to things like sentencing requirements—again displacing a rational weighing of the benefits and hazards.

Submissiveness. Less critical again, this remains an underlying message, that “government knows best” and will punish you if you refuse to bow to its edicts.

While the above analysis doesn’t necessarily provide an answer to the question of whether or not society as a whole benefits from the attempted suppression of drug activity, it does definitely illuminate the political landscape around the debate.

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