Volume 1, Number 3
26 March 2001

The Drug War

Dear Friends,

If you want to see money thrown at a problem to no good effect, you need look no further than America's "War on Drugs." The federal government will spend roughly $18.5 billion on drug-control policies this year, and over $19 billion in 2001; state and local governments annually pitch in another $22 billion or so. By comparison, the entire Justice Department will have a budget of about $21 billion this year.

The war also carries social costs. Among the more than 2m people imprisoned in America, for example, over 450,000 are incarcerated for drug offences — more than are in jail in the European Union for crimes of every kind. Blacks and Latinos are jailed for drug offences in striking disproportion to their numbers: according to Human Rights Watch, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. Mandatory minimum sentences sometimes keep drug offenders behind bars longer than violent criminals.

As if this were not enough, our "war on drugs" has spurred a real war in Colombia. For decades, guerrillas — who called themselves Marxist — had been fighting the government "on behalf of the poor." More recently, they have turned to drugs. To create civil unrest, they murdered mayors (over 30 in 1997) and killed and kidnapped civilians. At least 300,000 farmers and ranchers were driven from their homes in 1999 alone, and others were ordered to grow coca to process cocaine for the United States. In 1985, sixteen-year-old Carlos Castano gathered a small band of armed farmers to avenge his cattle-ranching father, killed by guerrillas. His movement spread, until today the "paramilitaries" have become a formidable army of 5,000, some say stronger than the national army. Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries butcher peasants, whom each accuses of favoring the other side. The paramilitaries have been known to take over a town, order all the men into the main plaza, judge them and execute them, and then finish off the afternoon with liquor and music. By 1999, one family in four had lost a member to violence, while violence caused 25% of the cases of mental illness (according to the government).

In 1998, President Andrés Pastrana withdrew the army from a "demilitarized zone" the size of Switzerland, in exchange for an agreement by the guerrillas to enter into talks. He then declared that the demilitarized zone would not be administered by the national government. Instead, the guerrillas set up a government, courts, and appointed a police and civil officials. They finance themselves with "taxes" in the form of coca.

The United States ships military equipment to the Colombian army. It has offered assistance in spraying the coca plants and subsidizing the farmers to produce alternative crops. However, it did all of this earlier in Bolivia and Peru, but the coca merely shifted to Colombia. Now, wealthy Colombians are buying land in Ecuador, in case the cultivation should move there. Many places all over the world can grow coca. So long as it is demanded, it will be supplied, and if one spot is shut down, it moves to another.

Here is the story of a small town in Perú (New York Times, 3/17/01):

This isolated town used to be as sedate and dirt poor as all the rest. Then came coca and its by-products, discos and prostitutes, pool halls and cantinas, cheap hotels and the businesses that cater to newcomers, ... The change began more than a year ago ... but accelerated with a huge American-backed campaign to destroy coca fields in adjacent Putumayo Province. The effort, the officials said, displaced coca growers and their crops, sending them to the jungles here in Nariño Province.

As alternative crops are grown in formerly coca areas, coca displaces similar crops in the new areas to which it moves. Net effect: probably zero.

Viewing drugs from a Quaker standpoint, Eric Sterling recently wrote in the alumni magazine of Haverford College:

"Taken altogether, I believe that Quakers must balance their concern about the serious problems of drug use and abuse with the egregious problems created by the efforts to control such use and abuse. Examining our anti-drug strategy in the light of Friends' traditional concerns — respecting the individual, abhorring violence, caring for the community, and protecting the environment — reveals a strategy dramatically inconsistent with these views; in short, the worthwhile social objectives of reducing drug use around the world are being pursued by means that are very hurtful to individuals, to society, and to the environment."

I agree with Eric and go further. Early Quakers not only respected the individual; they placed responsibility upon him or her. Many have suggested that if all the money we spend on imprisonment and war were used instead for treatment, the results would be better. Treatment is good; it works. But I believe the problem should be attacked at its roots: why are drugs used in the first place? I recall my parents saying to me, with respect to smoking and drinking, "The Lord provided enough stimulants in the wind, the sun, and the trees, that we do not need artificial ones."

I believe the drug problem resides mainly in the family, the church, and schools. But schools and church have failed. My own students (in the University of Colorado) tell me the evils of drugs were drummed into them repeatedly in high school, but they paid no attention. Nor have churches generally assumed this is their problem. On the other hand, loving families, attention to children, and every once in a while telling them what my parents said to me (but don't overdo it) will go a long way (I think).

This would be the classic liberal approach. Classic liberalism is the liberalism that grew up in England in the seventeenth century, closely associated with Quakerism. It means freedom from the dictates of king, nobility, and feudalism, freedom to choose one's religion. It respects the individual and places responsibility upon him or her. Though it helps the poor and those who get into trouble (healing the sick, treating the addicted), nevertheless it teaches that the individual is ultimately responsible for his or her actions, including addiction.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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I agree with everything in the letter, but it didn't quite say out straight: The war on drugs does much more harm than drugs do. The harm is disproportionate to minorities and women and innocent people. The Manhattan (NY) Bar Association documented that several years ago. It is chilling to read at: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/nycla/nycla.htm.

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Friends Meeting.

God created us with free will. We should try to act in His image and do the same for those around us. At the same time we have to use all our powers of persuasion to help our young people to "just say no." We don't need more lawyers and policemen to control the supply side; we do need more sophisticated, skilled marketers/persuaders to work to reduce the demand side. So long as there is a market, someone somewhere will find a way to meet the demand. The greater the risks on the supply side, the greater the profit when they succeed. We have to take the profit out of the supply side, and that won't happen until there is diminished demand.

A well enforced tax and tariff plan on legalized drugs would provide funds for education and treatment, and, even more important, might bring production back inside this country where it would be more controllable and less damaging than it is now in the backwoods of the Andean countries.

— Gordon Johnson, Episcopalian Church, Alexandria, VA

My first exposure to the arguments for decriminalizing drug abuse was in articles Milton Friedman wrote shortly after WWII. Other "conservatives", such as Bill Buckley, took up the cause. I argued this position at several annual gatherings of the FCNL, AFSC and FGC during the 1980s and was assured by many Friends, such as Alison Oldham, that Friends never would subscribe to that position. Recent discussions with Quakers, however, convince me that that this position is very widely shared by Friends now.

The drug war is simply an attempt at crop restriction with the only direct effect, if any, being to support cocaine prices--an activity enthusiastically supported by the Mafia. But the chief beneficiary appears to be the prison-industrial complex.

— Herb Fraser, , Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting

We lost a nephew to a drug overdose. At Universal Woods we test for drugs whenever there is an accident. That is the only time. We had a person seriously hurt himself while on drugs. We felt we had no choice but to terminate him. Would these things happen more frequently or less frequently if drugs were legal? There is no use comparing to booze. You can smell when booze is used inappropriately, and everyone knows it.

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr, Friends Meeting of Louisville (KY).

I am disturbed by allegations that elements with CIA connections were allied with the South East Asian opium producers. Then there were allegations that drugs were used to help finance the Nicaraguan Contras. Then we were a supporter of Manuel Noriega, who apparently had drug trade involvement, until he got too big for his britches and uncooperative. In more recent years, while the US Coast Guard was doing its best to interdict drugs coming across the Gulf of Mexico, substantial amounts of drug importation were discovered arriving via commercial aircraft in Miami right under the noses of the enforcement people. Most recently, and most disturbing to me, there have been allegations that a "quota" of drug importation has been permitted with the purported justification that such an approach would limit the over-all amount of drugs coming in, despite the fact that such action would represent government complicity with international criminals. I have no way of knowing which if any of these allegations may be true, and I hope none are true; but I fear that where there is smoke there's also some fire.

Spending money on education and treatment may be the best approach after all, though I hasten to add that "legalization" goes right back down the "pact with the Devil" path; and, so as long as a substantial drug problem persists, some form of drug-law enforcement will be necessary and require funding.

— Frank Galloney, Episcopalian Church, Montrose (AL).

Jack has frequently argued against boycotts, on the grounds that they harm the innocent and may deprive people of their living. Could we not apply this concern to the government-sponsored "boycott" on drugs? As Friends, we generally favor more regulations to cure the ills of society: reign in the corporations, tax the rich a little more, give more power to government, restrict the power of employers, etc. These all become "boycotts" when backed by the power of the state. Could the drug "war" be "won" by fewer laws rather than by more laws? This might allow more space for effective witness.

— J.D. Von Pischke, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Bob Schutz, Santa Rosa (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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