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How Legalizing Drugs Would Strengthen Democracy From Afghanistan to Mexico

Corrupt Afghan officials would lose a source of income and Latin American violence and corruption would decrease.

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But by 1933, we had come to the realization that prohibition was an ineffective way to address abuse and indeed sidelined attempts to address alcoholism and family violence. There is still no simple solution to these problems, but we understood then that any response must directly address the problem. We as a society have come to terms with the inescapable downsides of a product that the public insists on having but that is subject to abuse. We have struck a balance since realizing that criminalizing the trade in alcohol only made everything worse.

Exporting the Problem

Federal statute criminalized narcotics beginning in 1914. There was no nationwide public advocacy campaign as there was leading up to Prohibition. Legislation seems to have been driven primarily by racial fears—of “cocaine-crazed Negroes” raping white women and “Chinamen” in California both using opium and seducing white women into becoming opium addicts. Perhaps there was political value in coming out against the evil of drug use by disfavored groups when it seemed costless to do so.

But we now know a great deal about the worldwide costs in violence, crime, and corruption of making drugs illegal. If the downsides of our drug policy are now so clear, why haven’t drugs (opium and heroin as well as marijuana) been legalized? Why is the calculation different from that made vis a vis ending Prohibition?

After spending more than four years in Afghanistan and seeing first-hand the impact of our drug policies—consequences most Americans never see—I have come to the conclusion that we persist on this course primarily because the costs of our drug policies are borne by other countries, not by us. In contrast with our experience under Prohibition, the corruption of American police and politicians by the drug trade is a relatively minor problem. Demand within the United States is just not high enough to necessitate much bribery.

The serious corruption is instead all on the production end, and this we have succeeded in outsourcing to foreign countries. Our war on drugs is fought on the territories of countries such as Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. The headless bodies in Mexico barely make the inside pages of American newspapers (imagine if dozens of mutilated bodies were dumped in suburban Maryland). We have requisitioned foreign turf for our war on drugs. Citizens of these countries have no voice in the matter. Their leaders’ acquiescence to U.S. policies undercuts electoral accountability, and corruption of their police and courts undermines the rule of law. We have compromised democracy in our own hemisphere.

In Afghanistan, we have failed to connect the dots between drugs and corruption. At the July 2012 donors’ conference in Tokyo, donor after donor urged President Karzai to combat corruption. However, as long as we insist on the illegality of poppy, we are making a demand that cannot possibly be met.

A country that supplies 80-90 percent of the world’s demand for poppy products must necessarily be corrupt. To move the heroin, opium, and marijuana from field to market, officials and police can demand payment to look the other way (or engage in the trade themselves). The import of chemicals for processing requires the cooperation of customs and border police. Even the poppy eradication process itself has been corrupted, as officials target the fields of rivals while protecting their own. And any eradication in one area inevitably pushes production to another, simply pushing a bubble around in a balloon.

Afghan citizens are well aware of the suitcases full of dollars that leave Kabul Airport every day for Dubai. While kickbacks from development and military contracts are undoubtedly involved, drug profits in particular have to be moved out of the country. In Helmand Province, district chief of police positions are reportedly purchased for sums as high as $150,000 (and that is only the initial payment, not the yearly “rent”), and the chief expects to recoup his investment. District governors, appointed by the president, are merely shifted in musical-chairs fashion around the province when citizens or the U.S. military complains about corruption.

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