Thanks to an accelerating trend towards ending the prohibition of marijuana in this country, the entire construct of the ‘War on Drugs’ as we know it is about to change and there is no one more frightened of this than the drug war establishment itself.
What happens next is a war for war: with billions of dollars in government investment and corporate profits at stake, it would be naive to expect the vested interests to take such a hit lying down. This is about survival. So get ready, the war to end the Drug War, or save it, has already begun.
“It scares us,” James L. Capra, head of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations, told congress on Jan. 15, when asked about the new marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington state.
“Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”
Capra did not bother backing up this bold statement with any facts, but he did let his emotions do the talking – what The Washington Post account of this exchange did not capture but the raw CSPAN video (around the 50-minute mark) clearly does, is Capra’s attempt to appeal to the senators’ inherent fear of the drug. First, he proclaims his fealty to government service, then his fatherhood (six kids), then his voice, nearly trembling, enumerates the shock at recent developments:
“Going down the path of legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible. I am talking about long-term impact … it scares us. The treatment people are afraid, the education people are afraid, law enforcement is worried about this … the idea that this is somehow good for us as a nation, sir … is wrong.”
But what Capra really seems exasperated about is this has been a popular shift in policy voted in by the people across the country, and not just by small pot interests with deep pockets. Sure, the efforts to promote the successful legalization referendums in Washington and Colorado had significant funding, but proponents tapped a diverse range of support, and made it an issue of fairness and economics, and about treatment over punishment. It’s a reality 55 percent of Americans are now willing to accept: prohibition just doesn’t work.
“Ten years ago, a DEA official talking like this would be like, well, duh,” said Mike Krause, director of the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute in Colorado. “Now all of a sudden people are mocking him. I think what you are going to see is the drug war establishment really freak out.”
To call it an “establishment” might even be understating the situation. Even the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower would acknowledge that something akin to a Drug War Industrial Complex (DWIC) has been constructed like a sprawling empire around the criminalization of drugs, beginning in 1970, when marijuana was first declared a federal Schedule I narcotic and President Richard M. Nixon began to funnel money into expanded law enforcement efforts against pot and harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. The DEA was created in 1973.
Since then, both the public and private prison industry has swelled with millions of non-violent drug offenders, fueled by a seeming endless pipeline of policing and prosecution resources, and the advent of broader mandatory and “three-strikes” sentencing. The CIA and military have staked out their own turf in international interdiction. The DEA, beyond its domestic purview, has become a paramilitary force executing its own expensive missions all over Latin America and Afghanistan, i.e., Plan Columbia and the Merida Initiative. After launching the latest front — “Operation Anvil” – in Honduras, the DEA, working with U.S military, has been criticized for killing civilians in botched operations as recently as 2012.
Capping it off is the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), led by a series of “drug czars,” some more zealous than others. It serves as a command center and generous trough for all government anti-drug measures, from questionably effective national media campaigns to the billion-dollar military operations more recently accelerated by the War on Terror. In fact, the DEA doubled its presence worldwide (87 offices in 63 countries) after the 9/11, developing a robust intelligence and law enforcement network all over the Americas and in Afghanistan, according to documents published by WikiLeaks two years ago.
ONDCP also directs teams of agents planted in High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) in U.S counties and states (covering about 60 percent of the population, according to its own website) for intelligence sharing, law enforcement assistance and prevention. Or as Rolling Stone put it last year, they are budgeted $238 million a year “to meddle in state-based marijuana policy reform.” That proved true during the run up to last year’s Colorado referendum. And don’t forget, President George W. Bush’s longtime czar, John Walters, spent most of the 2000’s campaigning in states against legalization and medical marijuana initiatives.
So today’s picture for Capra, and to some extent the latest DEA Director Michele Leonhart, and a score of ex-czars and other directors who have been scolding Attorney General Eric Holder for not getting tougher on the renegade states, must be stark. Brutally stark, when one looks at how much is at risk from the DWIC point of view if marijuana were ever federally legalized.
For example, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, there are 19 federal agencies getting billions in anti-drug funding today. That’s a lot of programs and administrators and staff dependent on the status quo. Some beneficiaries are obvious, like the Department of Justice, the Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services. But one wonders when the Agriculture Department, Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service got on the front lines of the War on Drugs.
All told, $24.5 billion was appropriated to these agencies in 2013, a slight increase over 2012 numbers. Some $15.1 is allocated to “supply side” (law enforcement), while $9.3 billion is going to treatment and prevention. Add that to state and local funding and the country spends about $51 billion a year on the drug war, says the pro-decriminalization Drug Police Alliance.
Prosecutions and incarceration rates are humming, probably the only part of the drug war one could call “working” (if only they were bringing down abuse rates, keeping bad guys off the streets, or improving society, which they’re not). According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there were 1.5 million people in the US arrested on non-violent drug charges in 2012. Of them, 749,825 were related to marijuana, and of that number, 658,231 were for possession only. Pot smokers are costing the system alright, but think of all the money they are paying into it, by way of court fees and fines, bail bondsman and attorneys to defend them. Quite a tidy business.
Not surprisingly, those pot offenders unlucky enough go to jail (and we know they are disproportionately black), make up more than 10 percent of the state and federal incarcerated population today. In fact, one could say their absence would have a somewhat radical effect.
For example, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, “Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004,” which uses the most recent data available, an estimated 333,000 Americans were imprisoned then on drug offenses (27 percent were for possession). Of all drug offenders behind bars, 12.7 were there on a marijuana rap (the majority, 60 percent, were there for cocaine/crack violations).
Crunching the numbers at the time, Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), wrote, “Multiplying these totals by U.S. DOJ prison expenditure data reveals that taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion annually to imprison pot offenders.”
Writing for Reason magazine in 2012, Mike Riggs charged that beer and alcohol, addiction services, drug testing and the private prisons industries had the most to lose when the drug war ends and they know it.
“Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company, has donated almost $4.5 million to political campaigns and dropped another $18 million on lobbying in the last two decades,” he wrote. “The company, and others like it, is up to its elbows in drug war spending.”
Howard Wooldridge, a retired police officer who lobbies the government for marijuana decriminalization, told reporter Lee Fang that next to police unions, the “second biggest marijuana opponent on Capitol Hill is big PhRMA (Pharmaceutical lobby),” because pot can replace “everything from Advil to Vicodin and other expensive pills.”
The only front in this war that stands to survive might be the international theater – the DEA FAST and military operations — because they can pretend they were focusing the stronger stuff — heroin, cocaine — all along. But they might find, too, that a shift toward treatment over punishment might be shrinking their budgets and political capital back home (and the $7 billion failures in Afghanistan don’t help).
Meanwhile, noises toward full legalization in countries like Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile and even Mexico, might soon yank the welcome mat right off the front porch.
Could this be the end?
“The answer is categorically, yes. We are going to look back on this year down the road and say this is where it all started,” proclaims Jim P. Gray, who served as a Superior Court Judge in Orange County from 1989 through 2009 and adjudicated enough drug cases to make his own assessments about the dangers of prohibition. He wrote the book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment Of War On Drugs in 2001, and served as Gov. Gary Johnson’s running mate on the Libertarian Party ticket for president in 2012.
During an unsuccessful bid as a Republican for US Senate in 1998, Gray recalled a trip he made to Washington to meet with conservative leaders on Capitol Hill. On the issue of drugs, “they brought up the subject and almost literally, said ‘Jim, most people in Washington realize the drug war is lost … but this is money.’”
The political winds, however, have been blowing against the War on Drugs, and “if politicians are really good at any one thing, it’s followership, and they are starting to come out,” Gray said.
Bottom line, the “peer pressure” is growing. Consider that just in the last two weeks, Eric Holder has said that lawful marijuana businesses should have access to the American banking system. Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, former UN Secretary Kofi Annan and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, called for a rising up against drug prohibition.
They were joined on stage by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who said in reference to the marijuana question, “states should be allowed to make those decisions.”
Four thousand miles away, a once uptight Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was telling reporters, “we waste a lot of time and law enforcement going after these guys that are smoking marijuana.”
Just a week before, President Obama made headlines when he recalled his own dalliance with pot as a youth, and said, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” and, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”
Apparently, the DWIC is responding to this latest salvo in kind, and perhaps, there’s no going back. Reports from The Boston Herald say Obama’s own DEA Chief Michele Leonhart, “slammed him” over the comments in a speech she made before like-minded cops on Jan. 21.
“This is a woman who has spent 33 years of her life fighting drug abuse in the DEA, her entire life,” said attendee Donny Youngblood, a county sheriff and president of the Major Counties Sheriffs’ Association. He called the president’s comments “a slap in the face” to everyone in the room.
“I think the way that she felt was that it was a betrayal of what she does for the American people in enforcing our drug laws. … She got a standing ovation.”
Let the war to end the war begin.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com, a regular contributor to antiwar.com, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.