Politics rather than ‘war’ as answer to drug problem

31 12 2012

I want to talk about the drug war, making clear what I take to be at stake in it and make a case for decriminalization, legalization, and regulation. It has been over-moralized and under-politicized, so I want to start by talking about politics in general and then talk about the political calculations regarding illegal drugs.

The regulation of human behavior is the core of politics. Any politics worthy of the name commits itself to creating an environment in which people can thrive. Politial debates and struggles revolve around how broadly politics reaches, who thrives and why. The question of reach is important because with regulation comes the possibility of violating that regulation and the need for authorities to deal with those violations. Especially where those violations are defined as a threat to the welfare of the people to whom the politics are committed, i.e., defined as a crime, they must be dealt with firmly. Because that demands resources, what a society chooses to criminalize needs to be carefully considered and its consequences weighed.

Criminality will always be with us. There will always be those willing to break the law and others willing to exploit that. However, wise political action can reduce the size and impact of these groups. In the healthiest societies, criminal society can be limited to a few small coteries, with most crime a result of simple human passion. Poor politics, though, provides criminality with the opportunities to thrive.

As soon as society criminalizes a behavior, it creates a market opportunity for those willing to provide people with the chance to engage in it. Where the demand is high and the rewards great, whole economies and societies can develop around criminal behavior. Because these economies are outside the society’s and rooted in the violation of the society’s laws, their existence is toxic to society. While criminals may be ethical after their own fashion, the ethos they support often undermines the stability of the broader society.

That is what has happened on a massive scale as a result of the U.S. drug policy. Multinational drug cartels have expanded throughout the Americas, fueled by the high prices illegal drugs were able to fetch in places like the U.S. As they have grown, they have also diversified, expanding into profitable criminal niches like kidnapping and extortion. The largest have made what are effectively military incursions into existing countries, claiming and controlling territory. The takeover of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas by Columbian cartels during the first decade of the 21st century is a nasty case-in-point. The struggles in Mexico with its own cartels is another.

Legalizing and regulating presently illegal drugs like cocaine and marijuana provides an avenue for slowly defusing that situation. These cartels have grown to the point where it is unlikely that they can be eradicated or simply broken up. Quick fixes like that might have been possible in the early days of the ‘war on drugs,’ but their scope and breadth makes them durable institutions, even when elements of it (be they individual peoples or gangs) are thwarted. Legalization gives those presently engaged in the drug trade an opportunity to enter the legal markets, drawing away some of the commitment they have to criminal societies and improving the access of the government to the wealth of the drug market which they can then use to further weaken criminal powers.

It’s a precarious and unsteady process. Those who enter the legal market won’t suddenly stop being criminals or lose their connections to those who are deeply integrated into criminal life. Over time, though, they are likely to enter into political life and integrate their own criminal societies into the political life of the public society. If the political system can ameliorate the attendant corruption that comes with that, the resources (fiscal and otherwise) that come with that can be used to improve the life of its people.

I’m sure some will find this unseemly, as ‘rewarding criminals for crime.’ It is unseemly, but over the course of legalization it is possible to target and prosecute specific criminals so long as it is done strategically, with an eye to the long-term absorption of the criminal drug economy into the legal one. In a perfect world, perhaps, most if not all criminals could be so pursued, but we don’t live in that perfect world. Instead, we live in one in which practicality must take a prominent seat at the table beside justice.

Politics works best when it takes morality as its aim rather than its means. The goal of politics should be a society in which its participants have the maximal opportunity to be moral and that demands accepting immorality when extinguishing it would degrade the social situation in such a way as to make a moral life more difficult. To subject thousands, perhaps millions, to a life in cartel warzones is far worse than accomodating drug use and drug abuse. It is worth giving some criminals de jure or de facto amnesty, if it means a future in which the sort of criminal life they presently perpetuate becomes less common and less violent.

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