Artist Ricardo Cortes has a beautiful exhibition of his work in the current edition of Vanity Fair entitled Sketches of the Drug Czars. In his series he points out the steps that have led our country through the most expensive (and least effective) domestic policy in history.
Starting with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, Cortes describes the first federal restrictions on “medicines-gone-wild” such as morphine and cocaine (sorry Coca Cola) followed by the criminalization of marijuana in 1937, coincidentally taking place just a few years after the prohibition of alcohol was being eliminated as a failure.
Cortes then leads us through the presidencies of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton as the budget for drug enforcement rises just as the cost of street drugs plummet. Money was sure to be made all around.
After this period we had the following high praise to show for our efforts:
According to John Carnevale, former director of planning and budget at the O.N.D.C.P., “The strategy totally failed to achieve any progress in this key goal area…. Eight years were wasted.”
What presumably originated as an effort to protect people from substance abuse and addiction has become a permanent, expensive, prison-hungry police and military operation. Prohibition has created an illegal-drug market that is demonstrably more violent than the drugs themselves. President Barack Obama has called the war on drugs “an utter failure.” The drug czar he appointed, Seattle police chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, has pledged to “change the conversation on our drug problem” and abandon the “drug war” metaphor. Obama’s 2010 budget, however, would allocate $15.1 billion to fund the O.N.D.C.P.–$1 billion more than President Bush’s final budget request. The plan calls for an increase in every aspect of drug-war funding except drug-use prevention (which decreases by 11 percent), and again the largest share of resources would go to domestic law enforcement. So what has changed?
Drugs are cheaper, more potent and more plentiful than ever before? Drug cartels have more power than Al Capone could ever dream? I’m sure someone feels this was money well spent.