The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy spent more than $3 million for two TV ads during Sunday’s Super Bowl. One ad asked viewers: “Where do terrorists get their money?” The answer: “If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you.” Drug users are portrayed as terrorist financiers — practically the moral equivalent of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center towers.
President Bush hit the same theme when he recently signed the Drug-Free Communities Act: “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”
Unfortunately, U.S. drug laws have done far more to empower terrorists than Bush & Co. would like to admit. Drug laws are far more effective at putting profit into narcotics than law enforcement is at taking the profit out.
Afghanistan produces about 70 percent of the world’s opium. Revenue from opium production helped finance both the Taliban government and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Narcotics have also provided huge windfalls to the leftist guerillas in Colombia. The White House claims that more than a dozen terrorist groups are funded by illicit drugs.
Government prohibitions make drug trafficking far more risky and far more profitable than it would otherwise be. The only reason that opium is more profitable for terrorists than beer is that the United States and other governments prohibit opium while tolerating beer.
Because narcotics are illicit, they tend to attract violent, ruthless people and organizations to carry out their production and marketing. Groups that specialize in violence — such as terrorists — take to drug trafficking like a duck to water.
Drug Enforcement Agency chief Asa Hutchinson told Congress in October, “The DEA will continue to aggressively identify and build cases against drug-trafficking organizations contributing to global terrorism. In doing so, we will limit the ability of drug traffickers to use their destructive goods as a commodity to fund malicious assaults on humanity and the rule of law.”
But how will the DEA change the laws of agricultural economics that encourage farmers to grow crops disapproved by the U.S. government? Afghan farmers can easily earn ten times more from growing opium than from growing wheat or other crops. The effort to persuade Third World farmers to abandon illicit crops will be about as successful as trying to persuade stockbrokers and law-firm partners to abandon their high-paid jobs, move to Mexico, and scratch out a livelihood assembling toilet brushes for sale at Wal-Mart.
If the Bush administration is really serious about defunding terrorist groups, it should summon the courage to look at drug laws themselves. The falling price of cocaine and heroin in recent decades is proof of the failure of drug warriors to close the borders. Federal officials have admitted that the government fails to interdict up to 90 percent of the drugs being smuggled into the United States. This failure rate is absolutely intolerable when illicit drugs finance terrorism.
The futility of government drug bans was made stark by one White House anti-drug ad that purported to show the different costs that go into a drug smuggler’s operation. One item that flashed briefly on the screen was thousands of dollars for bribes. The ad did not mention who was being bribed — whether it was the U.S. Coast Guard, or the Customs Service, or perhaps foreign government officials. It is ironic for the drug czar’s office to complain that drug users help finance bribes to government officials — but to say nothing about the G-men who take bribes.
American policymakers make a careful distinction between the financing of terrorist activity by selling illicit drugs and the U.S. government’s financing of terrorist-like activity to suppress drug cultivation. While Bush went ballistic over “terrorists” mailing anthrax to government offices, the United States is conducting a chemical warfare campaign in Colombia, fumigating much of the countryside with deadly herbicides to suppress coca production. Unfortunately, the U.S. campaign has devastated the crops of many law-abiding farmers and left children gasping and ill.
The U.S. government spent more than three times as much on the drug war as it did in fighting terrorism before 9/11. While drugs can leave a person in the gutter, they do not destroy 110-story buildings. While drugs can blur people’s vision, they do not turn airliners into suicidal missiles. While drugs can perforate a person’s sense of responsibility, they do not leave large holes in the side of the Pentagon.
How many more Americans must die in order to perpetuate the fiction that the U.S. government can completely control every farmer in the world? This is the phantasm at the heart of the U.S. war on drugs and on U.S. efforts to intervene anywhere in the world to suppress any product that offends or frightens American politicians.
Are politicians more interested in controlling people or in protecting them? Unless President Bush can guarantee that none of the profits from illicit drugs will seep back into terrorist organizations, he should do the honorable thing and end the war on drugs.