Law & the Courts

For Many of Us, the War on Drugs Is Not Real

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers display seized cocaine (Reuters: Ana Martinez)
It is fought in a foreign land.

I want to state a simple, obvious truth: The War on Drugs is not real. It does not exist, not for millions of Americans.

Sometimes I doubt myself on this point. One hears things, after all. For instance, did you know that America spends over $51 billion per year on this war against drugs? Did you know that about 1.25 million Americans are arrested annually for drug possession? That 643,000 of them were only in possession of marijuana? That since 2006, over 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war?

You probably did know that, more or less. These are facts — we know about “mass incarceration,” for instance — and I do not dispute them. But there are different ways to know something, distinctions that make all the difference.

The Israelis, for instance, know terrorism. Even if an individual Israeli citizen has never seen a terror attack, he knows many people who have. He has been in or walked past a market or a café that has been attacked recently. A young Israeli’s parents vividly remember the Second Intifada. This generation has seen or lived through waves of stabbings.

In Israel, terrorism has an existence and a presence. It is real in a way that the War on Drugs is not, at least for an entire American milieu. This milieu comprises the upper classes. From the innocent days of youth to the fancy private high school to the university and through to life as a young professional, members of our policymaking classes live in a world without drug enforcement. Let’s take Charles Murray’s term and call this world “Belmont.”

In Belmont, nobody grows up seeing his father sent to jail for drug possession. This is unheard of — it is not a reality. In Belmont, a student caught smoking weed a few blocks from his high school is still Ivy League–eligible; his transcript and good name remains untainted. He has just made a youthful mistake, which is automatically forgiven. At university, the students of Belmont U smoke weed openly, without fear. Some will do so regularly, even multiple times a day, suffering, at worst, minor reputational costs. Others will experiment with Ecstasy at music festivals and with psychedelics on camping trips. All of these drugs are perpetually available. More importantly, their use is well known and culturally sanctioned.

Those who choose not to smoke do not abstain out of fear of criminal prosecution; college students have long since learned that ghosts do not exist and they do not worry about them.

One can go searching for the War on Drugs in Belmont, but like Bob Dylan with dignity, good luck finding anything. There simply is no enforcement of drug laws, no deterrent in play. The cops don’t want to arrest you. Among the young, there is little stigma associated with smoking weed. These two facts may be causally related.

In Belmont, the War on Drugs is a matter for abstract contemplation. In the classroom, it is recognized as an injustice — something terrible perpetrated against the poor, black young people out there. Around the dinner table, one’s parents and grandparents might see it as a necessary evil — something unpleasant that must be done in the inner cities to keep the dangerous substances and their users at bay.

Either way, the war is fought abroad, in a foreign land. Its victims are like the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan — momentarily pitiable but ultimately forgettable. Their suffering is sufficiently remote (culturally more than geographically) as to never achieve a real existence on the home front, or in the case of the War on Drugs, in Belmont.

Consequently, it continues. In fact, the War on Drugs continues aimlessly and indefinitely, even as it fails. The drug war can still go on because its failures and costs remain fundamentally immaterial — recognized not as tragedies, but as statistics — for the people who could alter its course. Moreover, drug enforcement seems doomed to fail as long as it never deigns to threaten the upper classes. Indeed, the last few decades have been nothing but a crash course in the folly of half-heartedly pursuing foreign wars.

The War on Drugs may be a war worth fighting. Victory could still be worth the costs. However, we need to be clear about what those costs actually are.

If it’s not worth ruining lives at Yale, then it shouldn’t be worth ruining lives in New Haven.

A real War on Drugs, one that stands a chance of success, would disturb the lives of the rich and powerful. The sons and daughters of congressmen would have their permanent records marred by marijuana possession. Young guns on Wall Street would be sent away on cocaine charges. Police would raid music festivals, escorting hundreds of teenagers and young adults out in cuffs. University students full of potential and idealism will have their studies interrupted or lives ruined by stints in jail.

Then — and only then, I reckon — will the War on Drugs become truly real in the corridors of power. It will have intruded into Belmont, challenging its quiet “understandings” and relaxed mores. It will force our policymakers and their donors to ask themselves a simple question: Is winning the War on Drugs worth derailing the lives of my daughter’s friends at Yale?

If it’s not worth ruining lives at Yale, then it shouldn’t be worth ruining lives in New Haven.

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