Are drugs and terrorism linked? The Drug Enforcement Administration thinks they are:
A photograph of President Bush waving a flag after the Sept. 11 attacks is juxtaposed against a black-and-white image of an African American mother smoking crack cocaine in bed next to her baby. Larger-than-life portraits of Osama bin Laden and Pablo Escobar line the walls. The central message of a traveling Drug Enforcement Administration exhibit unveiled at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry yesterday is that terrorism and drugs are inextricably linked.
This is just the most recent example of a message that U.S. drug warriors have pushing for years. Many will remember a sequence of television ads that aired during past Super Bowls making the same claim. The premise is that if no one purchased drugs, terrorists could not profit from drug trafficking.
The logic is unassailable as far as it goes, but it tells only half the story.
Many terrorist organizations do profit from illegal drugs. Usually, terrorists sell protection services to drug traffickers, who have huge profits at stake and are at war with law enforcement authorities and each other. Terrorists organizations are natural suppliers of protection services since they are already fugitives from justice and have the necessary expertise and equipment. This symbiotic relation between drug traffickers and terrorists has persisted for years in Colombia and Peru, where the FARC and the Shining Path finance their campaigns against the government with drug profits.
But the reason for this connection between terrorism and drug trafficking is that drugs are prohibited. If drugs were legal, the producers would not need protection from government or from rival suppliers. If drugs were legal, their prices would fall to competitive levels so there would be no excess profits to protect.
A different reason for the connection between terrorism and drug trafficking is that both tend to locate in countries with weak governments, such as Afghanistan. But opium poppy, marijuana, and even coca grow in a broad range of countries, not just those where production currently occurs. If drugs were legal, production would be widely dispersed and have no particular overlap with countries that harbor terrorists.
Thus, there would be no drug trade if no one purchased drugs; but there would be no connection between drugs and terrorism if drugs were legal.
So which approach to fighting terrorism is most likely to be effective: the interdiction and eradication efforts the U.S. has pursued for decades; or the legalization of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana?
Past attempts to eliminate drug trafficking have had no demonstrable success. After billions spent on interdiction and eradication over the past several decades, drugs are far cheaper and more readily available—and indicators of drug use little different—than twenty-five years ago, before Ronald Reagan launched a major escalation of the War on Drugs.
Legalization, however, would eliminate excess profits from selling drugs, forcing terrorists to rely on more limited sources of funding. The U.S. could not unilaterally impose legalization on other countries, but since the U.S. has been the driving force behind prohibition, much of the world would follow the U.S. lead.
Legalization would also reduce the bloodshed in countries that produce drugs by stopping the violent resolution of conflicts between drug traffickers, politicians, and law enforcement authorities. Legalization would allow the police and the armies in drug-producing countries to fight terrorism, not drugs. Legalization would undercut the corruption that is funded by drug profits. And legalization would bring drug production above ground, providing additional tax revenue.
The legalization approach does have its own risks; drug use might increase. Claims that use would skyrocket are scare tactics based on no evidence, but an honest defense of legalization must acknowledge that use could rise. Thus, the fact that legalization would hinder terrorism does not by itself mean legalization is the right policy (although in my view, it is).
But blaming terrorism on drug use is a cynical attempt by Drug Warriors to cash in on concerns over terrorism. The sponsors of this new industry exhibit know it will have no effect, but they also know it makes good press. Only the country’s fight against terrorism will suffer.