The War on Drugs: Cui Bono?

by Laurence M. Vance
May. 18, 2012

Cui bono, a maxim of Cassius quoted by Cicero meaning “who benefits?” or “to whose advantage?” is a useful principle when investigating political assassinations, conspiracy theories, mysterious deaths — and the war on drugs.

The war on drugs, which actually began in the United States before World War I with the passage of a series of federal anti-narcotics laws, was officially declared by Richard Nixon in 1971. It was expanded by Ronald Reagan and the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s, reached ridiculous heights under George W. Bush’s Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, and continues in 2012 under Barack Obama and his crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Although the war on drugs is a war on a victimless crime that is not sanctioned by the Constitution, has ruined countless lives, has cost untold billions, and is a failure in every respect, it continues unabated, full-steam ahead. It will not even be an issue in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.

True, medical marijuana is now legal in sixteen states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia, and there is legislation to that effect pending in a dozen more, but drug warriors have hardly noticed.

I see four reasons why.

First, marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance. The federal government still considers growing, distributing, or possessing marijuana in any capacity to be a violation of federal law regardless of any state laws to the contrary.

Second, states that have to some degree legalized marijuana for medical use all have numerous restrictions, rules, and regulations regarding the prescribing, possession, growing, buying, and selling of marijuana. In addition, there are fees to pay, paperwork to fill out, fingerprints to be taken, cards to be issued, dispensaries to be inspected, and background checks to be done.

Third, the use of marijuana — for medical reasons or not — is still viewed very negatively. And of course, the use of drugs such as cocaine, LSD, and heroin is disparaged even more.

Fourth, there is almost universal support for the drug war among Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, Protestants, police, preachers, physicians, and housewives; that is, among the vast majority of Americans. The only two major groups who think the contrary are libertarians and college students. There is only one member of Congress that I know of who has absolutely and consistently opposed the drug war — Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

There is no logical or sane reason that a policy like the war on drugs that is so blatantly unconstitutional, that is such a miserable failure, that has so eroded civil liberties, that has so destroyed financial privacy, and that has fostered so much violence should be supported by so many people.

Some people support the drug war because they view getting high on drugs as immoral. Others favor prohibition because they consider narcotics to be addictive. Still others focus on the dangers of ingesting illegal drugs. They are all, of course, inconsistent, since they rarely call for outright bans on alcohol, tobacco, or bungee jumping.

But there are other groups of people who support the drug war for reasons totally unrelated to whether illegal drug use is immoral, addictive, or dangerous. Persons in these groups may even think that taking drugs is all of those things and more, and believe that most drugs should be banned, but that is not the main reason that they support the drug war.

Some people support the war on drugs because they have something to gain from it. They are advantaged in some way by it.

The first group who benefits from the war on drugs is drug dealers. They may not use drugs themselves, but they know a good investment when they see it. The reason that the price of some drugs is so astronomical is that drugs are illegal. The penalties for drug smuggling are severe, the risks to life and limb are great, but the potential profits are incredible. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the head of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, recently said that he owed his fortune to the U.S. war on drugs:
I couldn’t have gotten so stinking rich without George Bush, George Bush Jr., Ronald Regan and even El Presidente Obama, none of them have the cojones to stand up to all of the big money that wants to keep this stuff illegal. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say “Gracias Amigos” I owe my whole empire to you.
The second group who benefits from the war on drugs is alcohol distributors. Illicit drugs are a threat to their sales of beer, wine, and spirits. Purveyors of alcohol are afraid that people might substitute smoking marijuana at home while watching the playoffs for drinking beer at the local sports bar. In 2010, a ballot initiative in California called Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act, would have made it legal for individuals to possess a maximum of one ounce of marijuana and for authorized retailers to sell it to those 21 and older. Although the initiative was defeated, it is interesting that the California Beer & Beverage Distributors spent money in the state to oppose the initiative.

The third group who benefits from the war on drugs is the prison industry, including private prison corporations. One of the most evil things about the war on drugs is that it has unnecessarily swelled the prison population. More than half of the federal prison population and about 20 percent of the state prison population are imprisoned because of the drug war. In 2008, California prison guards spent more than a million dollars to defeat a proposition that would have sent some nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than to prison. The California Correctional Supervisors Organization gave $7,500 toward defeating Proposition 19.

The fourth group who benefits from the war on drugs is law enforcement. Another evil thing about the war on drugs is that it makes criminals out of too many otherwise law-abiding Americans. According to the FBI’s latest report, “Crime in the United States,” more than 1.6 million Americans were arrested on drug charges in 2010, with almost half of those arrests just for marijuana possession. How fewer and smaller law-enforcement agencies would be without the war on drugs. Oh, and the California Narcotics Officers’ Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Peace Officers Association, and the California District Attorney Association all contributed toward defeating Proposition 19. (A growing exception to law-enforcement support of the drug war is the organization Law Enforcement against Prohibition (LEAP), an international association of criminal-justice professionals who favor a repeal of drug-prohibition laws.)

The fifth group who benefits from the war on drugs is the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA made almost 31,000 arrests last year. It has 10,000 employees in 226 offices organized in 21 divisions throughout the United States and 83 foreign offices in 63 countries around the world. The DEA even employs 300 chemists and 124 pilots. These government parasites owe everything they do to the war on drugs. And don’t forget the state DEA parasites.

And then there are physicians and the pharmaceutical industry, state and federal prosecutors, judges and lawyers, the CIA and the FBI, the drug-testing and addiction-recovery industries, and any group receiving federal funds for anti-drug campaigns.

Cui bono?

More individual persons and organizations than you might think.
Laurence M. Vance is a policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundation and the author of The Revolution That Wasn’t. Visit his website: Send him email.

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