The war on drugs is over. We came second.
What you see now is just a guerrilla rearguard action; we’re shooting an airgun at a tank while taking heavy losses. And the truly galling thing is that right from the start we all knew how this would end. Why? Because history told us. It’s always been this way; make something illegal and it makes a sociopath rich. That’s why drug barons love lawmakers.
I was watching ‘The Untouchables’ the other night. Great movie; love that scene at Grand Central station with the mother wheeling the pram up the marble staircase during the gunfight. But Elliot Ness only won that battle in the movie. In real life the gangsters won.
Nowadays we accept that all Prohibition did was give impetus to the rise of the Mafia in the US and enriched men like Al Capone. The Volstead Act of 1919 did bring about a decline in alcohol consumption, but it was allied with a dramatic and unprecedented rise in organized crime. It was the making of the Mafia, which was in decline until that point.
By the time Prohibition was repealed the damage had been done. The mobsters moved their vast wealth into legitimate enterprises and waited for the lawmakers to provide them with more criminal opportunities elsewhere.
Which they did after Nixon declared his War on Drugs in 1971. The Chinese gangs and the American Mafia made enormous sums through the eighties and nineties from the heroin trade, just as the cocaine barons in Mexico are doing now. I wrote about the growth of this trade in the Opium series.
There’s hot debate in my country right now over a report from a think tank called Australia21 comprising former federal law enforcement officers, health ministers and state premiers. One of the report’s authors is our current foreign minister, Bob Carr.
Their conclusion was: “Like the failure of the prohibition of alcohol in the USA from 1920 to 1933, the current prohibition of illegal drugs is creating more harms than benefits and needs to be reconsidered by the Australian community.”
Our premier, in her wisdom, says she won’t even countenance such a rethink: “Drugs kill people, they rip families apart, they destroy lives and we want to see less harm done by drug usage.’
Well, yes. I am sure we all of us agree with her absolutely 100% – except that prohibition won’t stop any of those things happening. It just makes some bikies and Italian and Lebanese crime bosses in our country richer and more powerful.
But politicians do not lead: they look at polls. They see where everyone is going and then run to stand at the front. That’s not leadership, but it’s why drug barons love our elected politicians so passionately.
Our abhorrence of drugs is understandable – although we don’t seem to be as opposed to legalized drugs like nicotine and alcohol – as is the instinctive urge for a punitive approach. Only our instincts don’t benefit anyone except drug czars, mafia bosses and bikie gangs who say thank you very much people, keep those laws coming.
A former DEA agent, Michael Levine, talked about his undercover work with Colombian cocaine cartels in Tim Lynch’s book, After Prohibition:
“I learned that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they counted on it to increase the market price and to weed out the smaller, inefficient drug dealers. They found U.S. interdiction efforts laughable. The only U.S. action they feared was an effective demand reduction program. On one undercover tape-recorded conversation, a top cartel chief, Jorge Roman, expressed his gratitude for the drug war, calling it “a sham put on for the American taxpayer” that was actually “good for business”.
‘If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience?’ – George Bernard Shaw.
Or as Mark Twain put it, more succinctly: ‘History may not repeat, but it sure does rhyme.’
This year a cocaine smuggler called Joaquín Guzmán Loera appeared on the Forbes 2012 World Billionaires list for the fourth year running. I don’t know the man personally but I’ll bet if there was another referendum on Prohibition he would be lobbying hard to get it passed.
The global drug trade now makes up .893% of total global commerce. Mexican and Colombian traffickers alone laundered between 20 to 40 billion dollars in 2008. In fact, it is said that the drug barons’ liquidity saved the US from a total banking collapse that year. Perhaps we should thank them.
What should we do? First, we have to stop reinventing the wheel. Forward thinking people look backwards. It’s why history is so important to all of us; it tells us what works and what doesn’t, if we would only pay attention. The past is the perfect antidote to wishful thinking.
History can illuminate many of our contemporary problems if we would only pay attention. But I’ll bet that there’s some guys in Colombia and Mexico hoping that we never do.
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