Sometime in early October 2015, in a secret jungle hacienda in a remote swath of Mexico, Sean Penn conducted an interview with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader who tunnelled out of a maximum-security prison earlier in the year and was on the run. Penn’s story on the drug lord was published in Rolling Stone, which led to a wide range of legal and ethical questions, resulting in the sort of Internet outrage reserved for the Kardashian clan. It didn’t help matters that Penn’s 11,000-word story was written in a pale imitation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-style journalism.
Sean Penn went on 60 Minutes to set the record straight. In an interview with Charlie Rose, the actor said, “I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy in the war on drugs.” Whatever you might think about Penn’s article, his purpose, at least, is noble, as the policies on the war on drugs have been a systematic failure for over 40 years. America can’t win the drug war. Why? Because it’s impossible to win a societal war with criminal justice tactics. But that’s only the beginning. Here are 10 reasons why America can’t win the war on drugs:
10. Prohibition Put the Drug Trade in the Hands of Criminals
In 1998, a United Nations general assembly pledged that the world would be “drug free” by 2008.” Vast amounts of money and resources have been used to accomplish this goal, and now, nearly 20 years after the UN’s pledge, pursuing the impossible has made the drug trade are far more lethal and dangerous problem. Failed drug policies have benefitted cartels and crime networks more than anyone else; global drug control efforts have led to a $320 billion a year black market. The drug trade is in the hands of criminals, not federal, state, or local authorities. With a drug market of staggering proportions, criminals use billions of dollars to pay-off government officials. Economies are poisoned. Societies are destabilized and riddled with violence.
9. The U.S. Government Manipulates the Numbers
Are we winning the War on Drugs? It depends who you ask. When it comes to the fog of war, any type of war, misinformation turns the machinery. Despite the fact the war on drugs costs American taxpayers $20-50 billion yearly, what are the tangible results, other than U.S. prisons are filled to capacity and non-violent drug offenders are grouped with murderers and rapists? Drugs still flood the borders. They still permeate the streets. The U.S. government says it’s winning the war on drugs, and it inflates the numbers when it’s time to bleed more money from Congress. But the number of illicit drug users in America, not to mention the sharp increase in overdoses, paints a different picture.
8. The War on Drugs is Really a War on People
In 2009, Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, said this about the War on Drugs: “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a war on drugs or a war on product, people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with the people of this country.” Kerlikowske’s statement illustrates a shift in the war on drugs –one that favors treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration and a tough criminal justice approach. Still, the drug czar’s statement also reinforces the idea that the war on drugs has always been a war on people –the addicts as well as the cannabis and opium growers. The statement is an admittance of the failure of America’s drug polices.
7. Drug Policies Brutalize Farmers
Since 1994, crop dusters have buzzed through Columbian skies spraying glyphosate in an attempt to eradicate coca production. Not only has the indiscriminate air war on cocaine destroyed legal crops, but according to Columbian farmers, glyphosate –labeled “probably carcinogenic” by WHO- causes skin rashes, respiratory problems, and miscarriages. The U.S., however, defends the use of the chemical. Farming communities make a living from the land. Wiping out a farmer’s livelihood with a forced eradication of crops increases poverty and leads to displacement. It brutalizes human rights. At the same time, the methods used to eradicate crops are damaging, causing environmental degradation. Collateral damage is part of war, but collateral damage that wipes out entire farming communities is immoral, unjust, and another failed policy in the war on drugs.
6. The War on Drugs is a War on Constitutional Rights
Phones lines are tapped. CCTV cameras are on every corner of every city, in every building. Modern surveillance is already an unconstitutional combination of a Big Brother and East German Stasi state. The war on drugs, however, takes it to the next level. Government bureaucrats insist that the war on drugs is war for our own good, but in actuality it’s a war on our freedom. Police armed with paramilitary gear break into homes without warrants. Illegal strip searchers are common. Urine tests are widespread. Private property is seized without due process. In an ongoing and increasingly desperate effort to catch the bad guys, police and government officials continually strip American citizens of their rights and liberties – rights and liberties protected under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
5. The War on Drugs is Discriminatory
The underprivileged are the most negatively affected by the drug war. According to Business Insider, there are states in the U.S. where a drug conviction means a person isn’t eligible for many jobs, food stamps, or health benefits; convicted rapists and robbers, on the other hand, aren’t disqualified for receiving food stamps or health benefits. While the war on drugs is discriminatory, the argument can also be made that it’s racist: African Americans are 10 times more likely to end up in jail because of drugs than Caucasians.
4. Drug Trade Violence is Increasing, Not Decreasing
While Juarez has long been a hotbed of cartel killings and drug violence, the effects of the war on drugs is now reaching popular tourists destinations such as Acapulco. The once glamorous resort town, known for it white sands, coastal boulevard, and spring break revelers, has become a frontline in drug-related violence. The upsurge of killings –a sarong vendor was recently murdered by a man who escaped on a Jet Ski, and a 15-year-old girl’s body was found chopped into tiny pieces –has turned Acapulco into a war zone. According to the World Drug Report, spring break tourism to Acapulco fell 93% from 2010 to 2011.
3. A Sharp Rise in Fatal Drug Overdoses
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal drug overdoses in America were the highest in recorded history in 2014, killing almost 50,000 people. That’s double the number of people who died from overdoes in 2000. The sharp rise in casualties illustrates that the U.S. is losing the war on drugs. It doesn’t matter how many police patrol the streets and harbors, or whether or not Sinaloan cartel leader El Chapo tunnels an escape route out of a Mexican prison, if people want to get high, they’re going to get high. Perhaps it’s not a question of whether or not America can win the war on drugs, but what course of action it should take now that it’s lost the war.
2. A Drug-Free Society is Impossible
President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs over 40 years ago, effectively making it America’s longest running war. Yet drugs are as plentiful as ever. The only thing that’s changed over the years is the type of drugs being consumed; the inner city crack epidemic of the 1980s has turned into a suburban heroin blight in 2016, particularly on the East Coast, where well-heeled, bucolic communities are ground zero for distribution networks and opiate overdoses. Federal, state, and local governments spend over $50 billion a year on the drug war, wasting taxpayers’ money on an impossible utopian concept: creating a drug-free society is a pipe dream.
1. American Consumers Love Drugs
It’s economics plain and simple, the law of supply and demand dictates whether or not America can win the war on drugs, and right now, well… American consumers love their drugs. America is the world’s top consumer off illicit drugs; in 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 had used an illicit drug in the past month. Whether it’s hits from the bong or painkillers riffled from a medicine cabinet, Americans are getting high. Drug use in America is the highest it’s been since 2002, with 27 million illicit drug users looking for a fix.