The war on drugs has motivated authorities to pursue a zero tolerance of illicit drugs being possessed, sold or made in our society. Washington’s approach stems from eliminating drugs from the source of production to seizing them before they reach American soil (Bagley, 1988: 71). This war is one that is impossible to win, due to various reasons including the corruption entrenched in foreign governments and drugs being the crucial funding for guerrilla groups.
Historical interventions of illicit drugs is attributed to xenophobic traits, such as the opium dens of Chinese men (Lang, 2008: 6) or the Asians importing heroin into Cabramatta. The war on drugs has been said to fail because it is “diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that is wasting our resources, and it is encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures associated with police states” (Buckley, 2002:30). The impact of the heavy handedness of the law has seen “nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans in jail today” (Buckley, 2002:30) a result of continuous crackdowns on drugs, which appears to have made little headway in impacting the drug trade or amount of users.
Despite the billions of dollars being wasted to enforce campaigns on the war of drugs, perhaps for the reward of political elections and votes, there seems to be no end in sight to the closure of the drug trade.
The Columbia drug trade
It has been reported that Columbia earns more from the drug trade than any other country in the western hemisphere (Bagley, 1988: 70), as they produce most of the world’s cocaine, heroin and a large amount of marijuana (Pardo, 2000: 66). As a well organised criminal organisation, they are able to produce the drugs, smuggle and distribute it through their extensive networks, which span much of the globe. America in response, have attempted to “include programs of eradication, crop substitution, interdiction and enhanced law enforcement” on Columbian soil (Bagley, 1988: 71).
“Efforts to combat crime are hampered by corruption and the lack of government institutions in large areas of the national territory” (Bagley, 1988: 72). It is difficult to penetrate the drug trade when various violent guerrilla factions, in particularly the notorious Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces, “an 18,000-strong drug-financed umbrella group” (Sweig, 2002: 123), have such a strong hold in the industry, as well as a hand in the corrupt governments. Deaths from fighting have exceeded 30,000 in the past ten years (Sweig, 2002: 123), making Columbia the world’s homicide capital.
It is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers depend on the cultivation of marijuana for their livelihoods, in addition to another 50,000 seasonal pickers making a living from it (Winslow, n.d.). If the American government attempt to subside this market for alternative crops, the economy would suffer due to the decrease in profits and availability of employment as a result. The drug trade has proved to “provide the population with income, comforts and a degree of economic stability that they had never before enjoyed” (Winslow, n.d.). Continuing the war on drugs in Columbia may risk the economy to collapse.
America’s determination to address the cartels of Columbia was based on a myth, creating a perception that the drug industry was officially controlled by the one group. In contrary, it has been reported that the drug trade was “simply small, independent groups” (Kenney, 2007: 234) who networked together to get the job done, effectively making it difficult for the American government to penetrate and eradicate. Initially Washington was interested in penetrating the Columbian drug trade due to “financial opportunities or crises” but now sees the country as a security threat (Pardo, 2000: 64).
Intervention into the Columbian trade is important if the right policies and actions are put in place, rather than emphasising heavy-handedly “the war on drugs”. Guerrillas and paramilitary forces rely on the financial backing of drug traffickers to keep fighting but American’s interaction could not possibly solve all of Columbia’s drug problems. (Pardo, 2000: 66). Bolivia has been able to wipe out the drug trade in their country, although the farmers now suffer from unemployment and impoverishment as a result (Sweig, 2002: 128).
Between 1972 and 2000, the imprisonment rate for young black minority American men has increased sixfold, resulting in 1.3 million incarcerated (Pettit et al, 2004: 151). As a result, America has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, which on average, equates to 690 per 100,000 population with the worlds average being 80 (Shelden, 2004:5). The so-called “land of opportunity” (Boyle, 2011) known as the United States, appears to fail to equip black minority men and immigrants with the opportunities they deserve in line with mainstream society. “Drug arrests for minorities went from 600 per 100,000 population in 1980 to 1,500 in 1990” (Shelden, 2004:6).
“In 1997, 60% of Federal prisoners were serving time for drug crimes, serving an average 40 months” (Pettit et al, 2004: 152). Between 1985 and 1995, the number of prisoners in state institutions for drug offences increased by 478% and for federal institutions, 446% (Shelden, 2004:6). The war on drugs appears to be about zero tolerance, high conviction rates and the lack of rehabilitative opportunities to redeem oneself from abstaining from the cycle of crime and drugs, once they are released from prison.
It is believed that the low social economic status and the lack of employment opportunities of poor urban neighbourhoods have contributed to the drug trade amongst young black men (Pettit et al, 2004: 154). Intensified crackdowns as a result of the war on drugs has increased the amount of Americans incarcerated for drug related crime, increasing the risk of imprisonment as well as the length of time given to serve. According to Shelden, as a result of the war on drugs that actually began in the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, it had the “consequence of filling the prison system beyond capacity, which resulted in a building frenzy unprecedented in American history” (2004: 6). “Street sweeps, undercover operations and other aggressive policing efforts target poor black neighbourhoods” (Pettit et al, 2004: 151), which in turn produce an inescapable cycle. These men are forced to turn to the drug trade to earn a living as a result of the lack of opportunities they suffer, the war on drugs has therefore magnified the risk of imprisonment for this class.
Like the opium dens that were regarded as something the Chinese were responsible for in Australia (Lang, 2008: 5) the American mass media tends to focus on black minorities for the face of violent crime and drug related offences (Shelden, 2004:8). The war on drugs increases the imprisonment risk for this class of minorities when instead, they may be able to solve a lot more of the drug issues if they tackled the social risks that lead to turning to drugs to make a living. Riddled with economic and poverty issues, these slums are a goldmine for drugs and violent crime as a result of not being equipped with the very opportunities that most Americans, or even most Australians, take for granted. To spend the same amount that is currently spent on incarceration and new custodial facilities, towards improving communities, living standards and employment opportunities, one could expect a substantial decrease in drug and crime offences.
The effect of drug laws
Police attention to particular drugs as a result of crackdowns, may cause more harm than good. Prices and the