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The Drug War and Terrorism

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AMERICANS NO DOUBTwould be distressed to learn that the U.S. government helped finance the terrorist attacks that killed so many people in New York and Washington.

It’s not such a far-fetched thought. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, terrorist organizations are financed in part by profits from trading in drugs. “The illegal drug trade is the financial engine that fuels many terrorist organizations around the world, including Osama bin Laden,” Hastert said. He has created a commission to study the connection between terrorism and drug money. I suspect that commission will fall short of the right policy prescription.

Adding his voice to those emphasizing that connection is none other than William Bennett, the former drug czar. In a recent article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Bennett wrote that since September 11 “we have learned a great deal about the connection between terrorism and illegal drugs, including the fact that our enemies in Afghanistan have derived considerable sustenance and resources from the drug trade. This trade not only spreads addiction but is an inherent enemy of lawful order and democracy throughout the world: just as heroin and cocaine destroy lives, so, too, do the heroin and cocaine trades destroy institutions of law and popular government.”

Bennett’s statement is worth parsing, both for its accuracies and inaccuracies

First, he properly refers to the connection between terrorism and illegal drugs. Had he said simply “drugs” he would have been misleading his readers. As far as I know, there is no connection between terrorism and aspirin or Sudafed. There is no intrinsic link between any chemical per se and the financing of terrorism. We are talking law not pharmacology here.

But then Bennett quickly (and conveniently) forgets his point and asserts that the drug trade is the “inherent” enemy of lawful order and democracy throughout the world.” He goes on to reinforce this by drawing an analogy between the damage to health that heroin and cocaine can cause and the damage they can allegedly bring to institutions.

I submit that that analogy is less than perfect. It is certainly true that a person can hurt himself with heroin and cocaine. But it requires an act of will by the user. That is strenuously forgotten by all drug warriors, who talk as if drugs invade our country and force themselves into our bloodstreams. No one is compelled to try drugs, much less use them habitually. People surely develop strong drug habits, but it is a mistake to think that the user’s will is irrelevant. As a heroin addict once told an interviewer, “You have to work at becoming an addict.”

The destruction that “drugs” inflict on institutions is quite another beast. How can they destroy institutions? Of course they can’t. But people can destroy institutions by their chosen conduct. The type of conduct that can destroy the institutions associated with a free society involves the initiation of physical force against innocent people. Sometimes that conduct is authorized by legislators, making it “lawful,” and sometimes it is not. An example of “lawful” conduct that threatens free institutions is the war on drugs. An example of unlawful conduct that threatens free institutions is terrorism. This puts a slightly different perspective on Bennett’s remarks.

If the issue is the large profits from the drug trade, Bennett might have asked what makes the trade so profitable. But he can’t go there, can he? Why? Because just one thing makes drugs profitable enough to finance international terrorism: The U.S. war on drugs. How ironic! The war on drugs is now necessitating the war on terrorism. War does indeed beget war. This is a particularly sordid example of what the CIA calls “blowback,” the backfiring of an official operation.

Bennett took a great risk in publicizing the connection between illegal drugs and terrorism: anyone who looks at the matter objectively will conclude that since the drug war is at the root of the drug trade’s immense profitability, every drug czar — including Bennett — has been an unwitting financier of terrorism.

Drugs in themselves are fairly cheap to produce. Growing marijuana, poppy for opiates, and coca for cocaine is no big deal. Poor people do it all over the world. The processing of those crops into usable drugs is also relatively inexpensive.

The problem is the drug war

What makes the drug industry so lucrative is the U.S.-led effort to stamp it out. With prohibition come high risks and thus elaborate efforts to hide drug-related activity — in a word: the black market. Black markets always produce high profits; they are the premium needed to compensate those who undertake great risk to produce the prohibited product in defiance of the authorities.

 

This is nothing new. It is the well-grounded economics of black markets. Opponents of prohibition have long held that the way to remove the exorbitant profits from drug dealing is to end prohibition. Few in the policymaking world would listen.

Now it is clear, if it wasn’t already, that drug profits are used to finance abominable operations, such as terrorist organizations that seek to kill innocent people. This should surprise no one.

Black markets tend to be run by the most ruthless and despicable characters around. Because black markets are outside the law, the standard forms of resolving disputes are unavailable to their personnel. If a multimillion-dollar drug deal goes awry, the wronged party can’t sue the offender. The courts are not open to him. So he’s likely to take matters into his own hands. That means violence.

For obvious reasons, then, the drug trade will attract those with the fewest scruples about using violence. Indeed, it will reward those who are best at it. Enter those who wish to engage in terrorism.

It has long been known that violent groups in Latin America have made money by protecting coca farmers from government agents, both American and indigenous. It should come as no surprise to learn that the same happens in Central Asia and the Middle East. It is certainly no surprise to the American authorities. They paid the Taliban in Afghanistan millions of dollars before September 11 to stem the growing of poppies for heroin. The Taliban is reported to have obliged, but the lost heroin is reported to have been made up by the Northern Alliance, the U.S. government’s new allies. Is it okay for the drug trade to finance our ally du jour, Mr. Bennett?

Make no mistake about it: it is U.S. policy that creates a harmony interests between violent guerilla organizations and poor farmers trying to make a living by growing crops needed for the production of drugs. The U.S. government has foolishly hoped that those farmers could be encouraged to grow legal crops. It has even tried to poison illegal crops in various places. But those efforts are futile, because the financial reward for producing drugs is so large.

In fact, the reward is so large that often the U.S. government’s foreign partners in the anti-drug effort are also involved in the black market. Nothing is better at corrupting a law-enforcement establishment than prohibition. Let’s not forget our own history.

But the U.S. government persists in its worldwide war on drug producers and traders despite countless failures and “blowbacks.” Let’s be blunt: the U.S. government helps finance terrorism.

No one is saying that drugs are the only source of money for terrorists. But the multibillion-dollar industry is undoubtedly a major source. Denied that money, the terrorists would have to operate at a far more modest level. And the lives of many innocent people would be saved.

Here, then, is another good reason to end the absurd war on drug producers, sellers, and users. There were plenty of good reasons already. But this one might finally get people to reconsider this truly stupid policy.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.