This review partially follows A Brief Guide to America's Clandestine Economy.American and international drug policy, like policies on guns and immigration, tends to be driven more by emotion than reason. More than forty years after Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs,” study after study reveals that the majority of Americans consider it a failed effort. Yet elected leaders still craft policy to appease a vocal minority of moralistic outliers. Another alternative must exist.
In a dual career as a methadone counselor and ranking Cincinnati vice cop, Howard Rahtz has seen the drug war from multiple fronts. He knows how drug markets destroy neighborhoods, and how massive, high-profile busts make hardly a crease in the larger field. And he has learned one important truth about America’s underground drug economy: it’s an economy, just like the legitimate one, and needs constant transfusions of money.
Much recent drug debate has focused on what Rahtz calls “the prohibition-legalization continuum,” the attitude that we must either ban drugs or permit a libertarian carnival. Neither position makes sense to him. On the one hand, absolute prohibition has racked up massive costs, not just in money, but in lives sullied and communities divided. Rahtz uses multiple yardsticks to demonstrate that America’s drug war is ineffective, unfair, and costly.
But he doesn’t consider complete legalization the alternative. As he states, America doesn’t have a drug problem; it has a drugs problem, with different drugs having different effects on users and society. We must approach each one, as it is, instead of applying blanket bromides in which everything is good. After all, nobody who has seen a meth-head thinks that filth should be legalized.
Rahtz carefully unpacks the past and present of American drug policy. Working backward, much anti-drug rhetoric has been appallingly racist, and many illegal drugs were first banned because cassandras claimed these substances would make minorities rape white women. Hey, hit Uncle Alarmist, his disc is skipping again. These policies remain in place long after America has excoriated Jim Crow. Peter Andreas covers much of this territory in Smuggler Nation.
While keeping brown people comfortably incarcerated, American drug laws also keep criminal enterprises flush with cash. Forget the Crips and Bloods; America’s appetite for narcotics, and the massive undocumented network necessary to supply it, sustain massive money pipelines for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Afghan Taliban. Our drug habit is also subsidizing Mexico’s ongoing civil violence, and threatens the stability of the European Union.
Rahtz explicates this in great detail, and with thorough documentation, but keeps his writing mercifully free of jargon. The facts he reveals are scary, not just because they exist, but because they exist in plain English. You don’t need a criminology background to understand just how badly the course of the drug war has gone astray, or how we’re paying consequences we should have foreseen.
Instead of doubling down or giving up, Rahtz suggests a third alternative. Though his position is much more complex, unlikely to create the kind of soundbites that fuel talk radio and TV news, he does proffer solid evidence. His suggestions recall what has worked in other nations, and how America has dealt with organized crime in the past. He makes a persuasive case that the past offers valuable lessons to the present impasse.
For starters, we need to stop treating ordinary users as criminals. Our regime based on arrest and incarceration has not produced fewer users, and makes those who want out of the life less likely to seek treatment, or even call an ambulance for an overdose victim. Nations like Portugal and Holland, which treat users as patients in need of medicine, have far fewer users and a much higher recovery rate.
Rahtz’s second, and more intricate, approach involves starving drug networks for cash. Hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, with their long supply chains and smaller markets, rely on marijuana to provide them funds and new customers. Splitting the market would dry up cash reserves, pricing cartels out of the market. Rahtz even spotlights states and nations that have begun this process, and seen street markets dwindle for want of money.
>Rahtz is no romanticist. He acknowledges that drugs exact a heavy toll, including legal drugs like booze, tobacco, and prescriptions. He does not excuse all drugs, or any drugs. But he makes a persuasive case that the cure is worse than the disease, and bolsters that with evidence from two relevant careers. He offers no magic bullets. But if we address our drug problem as it is, we increase our chances of making realistic headway.