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Smartest Drug Story of the Year

Rolling Stone on the war on drugs.

The Rolling Stone drug piece

If I were maximum dictator, I would force every newspaper editor, every magazine editor, and every television producer in the land to read Ben Wallace-Wells’$2 15,000-word article in the new (Dec. 13) issue of Rolling Stone, titled “How America Lost the War on Drugs.”

Wallace-Wells captures the complete costs of the drug war better than any journalist I’ve read in a long time. He documents how the federal government has dropped about $500 billion combating illicit drugs over the past 35 years. Nearly 500,000 people sit in jail or prison for drug crimes, “a twelvefold increase since 1980,” Wallace-Wells writes. For all the money the government has spent and all the people it’s jailed, it’s still failed to make a long-term impact on the availability of drugs. The militarized drug-control techniques favored by the Bush administration, he reports, have increased violence and political corruption abroad, violated human rights, and destabilized several Latin American nations.

Wallace-Wells’ accomplishment, while formidable, didn’t require the back-channel confidential sources that Bob Woodward relies on or the mildewed library stacks of obscure documents that made up I.F. Stone’s arsenal. Wallace-Wells gets the story and gets it well by approaching the much pawed-over topic with an open mind and a smart set of questions. Like an auditor called in to assess the wreck of a Fortune 500 company, he asks what the government has gotten for the half-trillion dollars it has spent on the drug war and takes the question to the limits.

There is no reason that this project couldn’t have been conceived and executed by any newspaper in America. No reason except that too many editors, most of whom have indulged in illicit substances, fear the consequences of telling their readers the truth about drugs (canceled subscriptions, invective from Limbaugh and O’Reilly, loss of respect at the country club or university club).

Wallace-Wells believes that a heavily subsidized drug-treatment program, think-tanked to the top of the Clinton administration’s policy pile, could have reduced crime and drug use if Newt Gingrich and the Republicans hadn’t taken complete control of Congress. We’ll never know. He writes that Clinton acquiesced to the Republicans because he didn’t want to appear soft on crime or drugs, letting Clinton off too easy in the process unless, of course, Newt put a gun to Clinton’s head and forced him to appoint the tyrannical Barry McCaffrey to the drug czar throne in 1996.

Wallace-Wells’ skillful illustration of the international repercussions of the repressive Nixon-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush war on drugs, which threatens to turn Peru and Mexico into narco-states, inspired me to revisit economist David R. Henderson’s findings on the effects of stringent drug control. In a working paper circulated in the late 1970s and finally in a 1991 paper published in the University of California-Davis Law Review (1991. 24: 655-676) titled “A Humane Economist’s Case for Drug Legalization,” Henderson shows how increased penalties never have the effects on drug markets predicted by governments.

Henderson looks at drug markets as rational, which they are, and writes that increased drug penalties tend to drive “more civilized dealers” out of the market and reduce supply. “Competition by buyers for a lessened supply must cause the price to rise,” he writes, and as “the price rises, profits will increase and in the long run eventually will return to their precriminalization levels.” As the civilized dealers exit, the most vicious dealers rise. He continues:

Profits of dealers will look higher than normal because the cost of imprisonment, fines, and bribes is not subtracted. Also, profits of successful dealers who are never caught will be higher than normal, just as profits of lottery winners are higher than normal. Looking only at the profits of dealers who successfully avoid capture, however, and concluding on that basis that the illegal drug business is abnormally profitable is like looking at the fortunes of only lottery winners and concluding that buying a lottery ticket is abnormally profitable.

Henderson’s insights help explain the phenomenal violence of the cocaine trade described by the Rolling Stone piece. A DEA veteran explains that in the 1970s, “swashbuckling entrepreneurs” with small planes smuggled drugs into the United States through the Caribbean—”guys who wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.” Increased militarization of drug interdiction by the United States failed to eliminate drugs—it only moved their staging grounds to other Latin countries and enlisted more ruthless drug entrepreneurs, such as Pablo Escobar.

After the drug warriors killed Escobar in 1993, Wallace-Wells writes, the Medellín cartel didn’t dissolve. Instead, it cleaved into smaller operations that obtained protection for their coca crops from the Colombian and U.S. armies from FARC, the ultraviolent and well-armed rebel army in Colombia’s jungles. Smuggling to the United States through Mexico, the microcartels partnered with local drug gangsters who compromised police, the army, and politicians as they cut them in on the action.

The end result is a more violent and better-established drug trade than before, and much more than ever before. The old-school Colombians were “civilized” compared with the Mexicans, as this recent Reuters report shows. One Mexico anecdote in Wallace-Wells’ piece reads like a lost paragraph from Blood Meridian. He writes:

Last year, gunslingers wearing military uniforms walked into a popular nightclub in Uruapan and dumped the severed heads of five rivals on the dance floor, like soccer balls.

A piece doesn’t have to be perfect to win my admiration, and Wallace-Wells’ isn’t. Although Mexican drug operations came to dominate the U.S. illicit methamphetamine market, I think he gives them a tad too much credit for popularizing and spreading the drug. The drug was very well-established in the U.S. West before the Mexicans pushed their way into the market in the early 1990s.

For example, Nexis tells of a 1,000-pound methamphetamine bust in San Francisco in 1989; a 125-pound methamphetamine bust in Fullerton, Calif., in 1987; a 1978 lab bust in Toronto with chemicals on hand to make 200 pounds of the drug; and much more. An Aug. 20, 1988, Los Angeles Times article reports the seizure of three chemical-supply plants in Los Angeles and San Diego counties that supplied upward of 2,000 other meth labs with chemicals.

“Federal agents said there were enough chemicals in the plant to make more than 50 tons of methamphetamine, which over the years could wholesale for millions of dollars,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

But I’m quibbling. Read Wallace-Wells’ fine feature, and if you know any journalists, buy them a copy.

Addendum, Dec. 3: Also worthy of your attention is Mark A.R. Kleiman’s piece in the American Interest.


But when Rolling Stone botches a drug story, it’s just as bad as the rest of the pack. See this feature about methamphetamine from 2003, which Reason’s Nick Gillespie rightly condemned. Seen a good drug story out there? Or a wretched one? Send sightings to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)