A Just "War on Drugs"?

This is part one of a two part series on the "War on Drugs" in America. 

Marijuana characterizes the current drug debate in the United States. The legalization of this drug in my home state of Washington (as well as in Colorado) and the increasing permissibility of medical marijuana suggest that long-term changes in law governing marijuana are inevitable. But this debate has left untouched those “hard drugs”—such as cocaine and heroine—that are largely unquestioned in terms of their legality, but produce the greatest problems internationally, and which often exacerbate struggles in the U.S.

These problems that drugs generate provoke serious questions regarding the justice of current national drug policies. As such, I will address the U.S.’s drug problem in a two part series: First I will look at the problems these drugs create domestically and abroad, and later will explore why the concept of public justice confirms the necessity of cocaine’s illegality. Second, I will consider what constitutes a more just approach—specifically examining the need for fundamental changes in foreign policy and emphasis on health care and restorative justice at home.

First, the problems: the United State has an unsustainable prison population, massive spending on questionable policies, and neighbors devastated by the violence and instability that in part stems from this drug trade. This approach not only violates standards of public justice and international justice, but also poorly stewards available resources.

The sobering statistics regarding the U.S. prison population are relatively well known. The U.S. incarceration rate comes in first worldwide, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars and a rate of over 700 per 100,000 persons incarcerated. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a startling 48 percent of these individuals find themselves imprisoned due to drug-related crimes (many from marijuana, but very significant numbers from cocaine and heroine as well).

Such incarceration policies produce serious strains upon the budget at both the federal and state level. Between 1980 and 2006, spending on incarceration ballooned from $6.9 billion to $68 billion. Meanwhile, states can spend upwards of $50,000 per inmate—equivalent to the 2011 median household income. More directly, the federal government spends over $15 billion a year to stop the use of illegal drugs; within this amount, 60 percent goes to stopping drug production and trafficking, while only 40 percent goes to domestic prevention and treatment.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, U.S. cocaine consumption intensifies violence from Colombia to Central America to Mexico. North Americans are not unfamiliar with this violence; its spillover in recent years, seen in the extreme violence in northern Mexico, has raised awareness of the problem this consumption causes outside our homeland. The major drug transit countries of Honduras and Guatemala possess homicide rates that are among the highest in the world (and these rates are significantly higher along major drug trafficking routes). Further, the influx of money breeds corruption and instability: $4 billion worth of cocaine leaves Guatemala every year for the U.S., while the entire Central American region spends $3 billion on security annually, suggesting that the region’s security institutions are overwhelmed.

Thus, simply put, the “War on Drugs,” as Nixon first put it in 1971, has failed. But why can’t we simply legalize cocaine usage, like the emerging trend with marijuana? If we consider carefully the concept of “public justice,” we see that in part it strives to do justice to the individual, based on the fact that all humans are created in God’s image and designed to fulfill diverse responsibilities and God-created potential in their lives. Additionally, public justice seeks the common good of the political community.

Given this norm of the state, government has a legitimate interest in limiting the consumption of cocaine. This drug can be harmful to the human body and further, is addictive. It therefore degrades the individual and negatively affects the individual’s ability to live out their God-given potential. In addition, cocaine usage is also often tied to criminal activity (in large part to feed cocaine usage due to costs associated with its use)—thus hinting at its addictive nature, and representing a problem for the political community (and one whose resolution would not be solved by legalization).

But with that said, the approaches utilized by the United States to confront this problem—mass incarceration and international interception and eradication—do not abide by the norm of public justice for the individual, and do not respect the demands for justice and the responsibility the U.S. wields as the primary consumer of cocaine. In the next article, I will explore what a more just response to these concerns looks like.

-Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.