David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 1/4/02
Observers of current events in the mid-1990s might remember the tragic death of Accelyne Williams, a retired priest in the Dorchester area of Boston. Williams had a fatal heart attack after a team of black-clad Boston police officers battered down his door without warning, burst into his home and tackled him to the floor. The police were looking for drugs, of course. They didn't find any. It turned out that a confidential informant of dubious credibility had given them a bad address.
Williams' death, and the resulting public outrage, ought to have given pause to police leaders in Boston and around the country about these reckless no-knock drug raids. But the same thing happened in another Boston neighborhood only two weeks later, though fortunately that raid wasn't fatal.
Not long after the Williams tragedy, I found myself discussing drug policy in a social situation (which happens all too often) with some people I had just met. I pointed out that drug interdiction has proven futile for reducing the drug supply, and that tragedies like that of Accelyne Williams were therefore an unacceptable cost. Why risk killing people when it's known in advance that it won't do any good?
One of the other parties to the conversation responded, "we have to do something." Perhaps. But doing the wrong thing can be worse than doing nothing. The needless fate that was perpetrated upon Accelyne Williams is an example of this. And it's not simply a case of a mistake or an inevitable casualty in an unfortunately necessary drug war. The drug war is not necessary, it is not even helpful, it is a terrible cancer spreading violence, corruption and pain throughout the nation and world.
Accelyne Williams was one man, but examples of doing the wrong thing in the drug war have caused great harm to entire nations as well. Back in the late 1980s, the previous Bush administration waged an expanded drug war in Latin America under the name of "The Andean Initiative." One of the consequences of this policy was to push a substantial share of coca cultivation, which had primarily been centered in Peru, into Colombia.
The drug trade in Peru had certainly not been innocuous, but its harms paled in comparison with the gripping violence that overtook Colombia as the nation became pressed between the violently aggressive Medellin drug cartel on the one hand, and the diplomatically aggressive United States government on the other. Literally hundreds of public officials were slaughtered by Medellin leader Pablo Escobar's assassins, before Colombia managed to take Escobar and his organization down. And for all the pain, no gains were ultimately made against the drug supply, which simply shifted to the province of Cali and its less confrontational drug lords.
US-encouraged anti-opium campaigns in Afghanistan by the Taliban before September 11th, followed by the post-September 11th reprisals against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, have now pushed some of Asia's heroin trade into Peru, where entrepreneurs from neighboring Colombia see an opportunity to garner a share of Europe's lucrative heroin market. The new business is now helping to fund a revival of the terrible Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) rebels, a Pol Pot-style Maoist insurgency that plagued Peru for many years.
Doubtless there will be many more unintended consequences yet to come, as drug warriors frenetically chase drugs from country to country, sometimes catching but never stopping them. Some of them are misguided true believers, some of them are cynical profiteers in it for monetary or political gain, some of them are just doing their job. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because no fundamental difference in the drug or drug trafficking scenes will ever be achieved by governments' drug wars no matter what they do, only changes in faces and shifts in terrain.
The belief, right or wrong, that "we have to do something," does not justify doing the wrong thing again and again. If we have to do something about drugs, there are better things to try besides prohibition.