The Drug War Doesn’t Work Abroad Either

As an October 20 piece in Stars and Stripes reminds us, the U.S. has been fighting a second war in Afghanistan without much success – that would be the one against poppy production. Poppies are the flower from which opium is derived, so the U.S. campaign against their growth is a not particularly surprising aspect of their international version of the war on drugs.

This is the unimpeachable rule of the war on drugs: Money goes in, and somehow the worst people benefit, and the drug trade soldiers on and on. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of opium, and the sales of it have helped charming folks like the Taliban purchase weapons and other things most nice people would rather they didn’t possess.

According to Stars and Stripes, when U.S. and NATO troops exit the country in a few months, they will leave behind 500,000 acres of poppies. This is a 36 percent increase since 2013. The amount of poppies has in fact been increasing since the U.S. invasion 13 years ago this month.

How much has the U.S. spent in fighting the scourge of pretty plants that make you high? Since 2002, $7.6 billion. In fact, so desperate were they to stop the opium trade that in May 2001, America spent $43 million to reward the Taliban for its fine anti-narcotic work. Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter noted in 2002, that that "needs to be placed in context. Afghanistan’s estimated gross domestic product was a mere $2 billion. The equivalent financial impact on the U.S. economy would have required an infusion of $215 billion." So, though it sounds like a pittance in terms of U.S. spending on all things God-awful, that $43 million was more substantial to the Taliban. File this awkwardness under usual U.S. habits. These include: anything is worth it if you’re fighting drugs; and any villain will do as an ally, however temporarily, as long as you have a Bigger Bad to fight (this Bad is frequently drugs, but is sometimes communists or terrorists).

The Stripes article also notes that in their last year of rule, the no-fun Taliban managed to squash 91 percent of the poppy growth, which is a lot better than either the U.S. or the current Afghanistan government has done since. Now that is a hell of a lesson for drug abolitionists. All you need to win any war on drugs is to behave like the Taliban.

Though the U.S. has managed to avoid banning music, shaving, and education for women, they have vastly increased their authoritarianism at home in the decades since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. The U.S. prison population now stands at a shameful 2.3 million, thanks greatly to "libertarian-ish" Ronald Reagan’s 1980s militarization of the already too-literal conflict.

And though the domestic high water mark for this disaster may have been reached, what with the inroads marijuana legalization had made in the past two years, the lives ruined will not be unruined. Nor, likely, will the Fourth Amendment or our idea of reasonable police behavior be repaired. (A Radley Balko quote I have had on my Facebook for years sums it up: "We’ve reached the point where it’s commonplace for the government to wage violent, confrontational invasions of private homes over the suspicion of possession of the dried leaves of a plant." If you think that’s an exaggeration, well, if only it were.)

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the U.S. has not contained its drug war hysteria to its own nation, or even to countries it has invaded. The U.S. spent a trillion dollars over four decades trying to squash the Latin American drug trade. They succeeded mainly in moving it around, while stoking a violent fire, either by provoking cartel wars, or by acting directly.

The cartels are made up of some of the worst people in the world, but scores of thousands have died as a result of governments fighting them in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries; and all the while their lucrative trade marches on. Legalizing drugs as a solution for at least partially defanging these creeps was a long time coming. It is still tentatively mentioned mostly in meetings, though Uruguay boldly legalized recreational marijuana in 2013.

Plenty of Latin American leaders were ready for ill-advised wars with cartels, sure, but anyone who rejected American guidelines was in the doghouse of the U.S.A. The late Hugo Chavez was an enemy of freedom for his own people, and later had his own ill-advised crackdown on drugs, but he also reasonably told the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to sod off and stay out of Venezuela back in 2005.

He had good reason to be wary. The U.S. and its allies have done nightmarish things in the name of the war on drugs. In 2001, Peru shot down a plane containing missionaries instead of smugglers. In 2012, Honduran pilots shot down planes twice more. Also, in that same year in Honduras, DEA agents basically lead a paramilitary strike team that left four dead, including a 14-year-old. These so-called Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams came out of Afghanistan and were intended to stop the poppy trade there. Five different teams ended up dotted all over central America, fighting cartels, and occasionally leaving body counts of innocent people. They have never answered for this. If you’re dead by DEA hands, you’re guilty of something.

The DEA were bad enough at home. But now they have evolved into an international organization with CIA reach in scores of countries, and a spying op that mimics the NSA and shares data from its 800 billion-strong pool. This is the nature of declaring a war against something, this endless power grab, and ever-increasing scope of authority. Like U.S. militarism itself, the war on drugs is characterized by arrogance, an endless cycle of the same mistakes, and a disturbing indifference to the resulting bloodbath.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.