Back to back news reports about the War on Drugs on the December 1, 2010 broadcast of the PBS NewsHour, widely considered to be the best nightly television news in America, provide examples of the hollowness of drug policy news coverage. The first story by reporter Tom Bearden is a vehicle for the local official sources in Colorado Springs to describe their War on Drugs while the second story was an interview by reporter Margaret Warner with Wall Street Journal correspondent Nicholas Casey. Both reports on the economics of the drug trade carefully elude the fundamental reason that it is so extraordinarily profitable.
Bearden’s local official sources, including a district attorney and a DEA agent, warn ominously of unnamed Mexican cartels in the “unsuspecting” neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, some of whose members have been arrested for selling drugs to high school students. Evoking an ethnic folk devil that threatens youth is a timeless tactic of law enforcement. What is necessary to protect the community from this danger? Rather unsurprisingly, the answer offered is continued funding for drug law enforcement. State government budget cuts, warned one local official, threaten to release incarcerated drug users back onto the streets. Bearden found nothing to challenge in any of these claims, sought neither confirmation nor disconfirmation from unofficial sources, and offered no historical context for what is actually a very old story in America. The result was silence about the futility and waste of the drug prohibition, with the word itself seemingly tabooed.
As for the connection between the bloody mayhem south of the border between the various Mexican cartels and the Mexican government, only one question was raised: Would the violence spread north of the border? Here the folk devil seemed to lose some of its menace with the response that the drug distribution network was operated so much like a modern business that violence was unlikely. Colorado Springs was too important as a distribution point on the I-25 corridor to allow anything like the sort of violence seen in Juarez or Nuevo Laredo.
Warner’s interview with Casey probed the futility and waste of the War on Drugs not in the U.S. but in Mexico. Premising their discussion on the assumption that the source of the problem was the “insatiable demand” for drugs in the U.S., with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their authority, they proceeded to establish that arresting or killing “major drug figures” merely resulted in their replacement by others who are engaged in the same very lucrative business.
The most compelling evidence of the futility and waste of the War on Drugs is that the campaign against the drug cartels that began four years ago in Mexico succeeded in dramatically increasing the body count yet failed to reduce the volume of drugs available on either side of the border. More than 31,000 Mexicans have perished in the violence of the drug war that President Felipe Calderon escalated in December 2006, with no other appreciable effect.
That there is no shortage of ambitious subordinates willing to take the same risks as their arrested or killed superiors in the drug trade means that the public policy problem is not that bad individuals have decided to engage in an illicit business but instead that the illicit business is an irresistible economic opportunity that is created by drug prohibition. What makes the drug trade extraordinarily profitable is that the price of drugs is driven skyward by the artificial scarcity produced by the enforcement of drug laws.
What is paradoxical about the kind of War on Drugs news coverage represented by the two December 1st PBS NewsHour reports is that it encounters so little objection from an audience that has been thoroughly familiarized with the market mechanism of capitalism. No people in history have been more thoroughly indoctrinated in its virtuous efficiency. Few peoples in history have been made so accustomed to its uncertainties. Yet Americans acquiesce in news coverage that ignores the economic relationship between the prohibition, scarcity and profitability in favor of moralizing about demand. Part of the explanation must lie in the very peculiar intellectual firewall reflected in these two news reports. Until it comes down, Americans are unlikely to have a proper national conversation about continuing to wage the War on Drugs.