The Bikecast Episode #39: The War on Drugs and the “Winding Up of Violence”

The war on drugs, like all wars, is actually a war on people. It has an endless list of disastrous and tragic social consequences that reaches to the very heavens. In this episode of the bikecast, I focus on one of the most pernicious and long lasting effects of this type of psychotic state program–what I call the “winding up of violence”.

By applying ever-increasing levels of force in an attempt to control voluntary human interactions, international drug policy weeds out all but the most lunatic element of the black market. It then makes this element very, very, very rich and gives them monopoly on the use of violence over a geographical region (just like their larger counterpart, the state!). Even if the drug war were to end tomorrow, the violence in places like the U.S. – Mexico border will take decades of ongoing human misery to wind down.

Download this episode of the bikecast

Prohibiting commodities of any sort has two effects that I want to concentrate on. First, it tends to remove peaceful, honest business-people from the production and distribution processes. For obvious reasons, most farmers won’t grow that which is illegal and most distributors (pharmacists in many instances related to the drug war) won’t stock illegal products. The exceptions to this tendency are people who don’t have good prospects in the conduct of legal business. People who are already distrusted, who have a tendency toward violent dealings or who otherwise prefer not to rely on the legal market will fill the spots vacated in the newly criminalized market sector.

The greater the degree of prohibition, the more this tendency will increase. At the level of open warfare that exists between the drug cartels and the north and central american states[1], only the most desperate and brutal criminal elements are willing to risk traffic large amounts of product. All but the most casual growers and sellers face threats so large that any reasonable alternative source of income is preferable.

The second effect that I want to look at is that prohibition drives the price of the commodity artificially high because of the new overhead of avoiding or bribing law enforcement and the associated risk of imprisonment and death.

One result of the price increase is that it becomes profitable to grow the market for the illegal substance in a way that it previously was not. If a drug costs a few cents per dose, it’s not (very) profitable to try and get another customer interested in long term use of the drug.

Once the price goes up to dollars or tens of dollars per dose, the seller has a much greater motivation to seek out new customers. Thus the salesman, who formerly served existing customers becomes a “pusher” who gives away free samples and travels from schoolyard to schoolyard attempting to maximize his customer base.

The consequence of price increase that I want to focus on for this discussion is a far more primary effect. Whoever gains control over part of the market for an illegal substance has an artificially inflated source of wealth with which to grow and protect the operation. Again, the greater the effort put into prohibition, the greater the increase in price.

Over time, the interaction of these two factors leads to large, well armed, and ruthless organizations with a steady stream of tremendous wealth. This is what we see today on the us-mexican border, in columbia and afghanistan[2].

These changes have taken place over a period of decades and the misery will continue to escalate in response to further increases in the violence used for prohibition.

The aspect of this dynamic that I focus on in the bikecast is the hangover after the flow of energy to such a system is halted. If the war on drugs was to end tomorrow, the organizations that traffic drugs illegally aren’t going to go away. They will continue to search for ways to exploit their position as the best armed group of thugs in the region in ways that will plague the communities/regions they’ve claimed for years and decades to come.

The longer prohibition escalates, the more wealth and power accrue to the most ruthless of drug organizations, and the longer the period of “wind down” to normalcy will last.

This same phenomenon also occurs in foreign military occupations. In Vietnam, relatively diplomatic and scholarly nationalists seeking independence for French Indochina were imprisoned and suppressed. This left increasingly violent guerrilla leaders as the only opponents of western imperialism. After 30 years of continuous warfare, the peasant armies that carrying antiquated armaments in the 1940s were heavily armed, well trained, and lead by a ruthless political class.

What might have been a bloodless transfer of power to a nationalist government or a minor and short lived civil war in 1945 was instead a bloody internal conflict after the south fell. Violent, radical collectivization and centralized economic control in the hands of the revolutionary leadership lead to untold violence and generated millions of refugees. It’s remarkable, given the degree of brutality with which the vietnamese were treated that they recovered relative stability within a couple of decades.

Currently we’re watching a decade long windup in afghanistan and another in iraq, plus a 20 year windup in somalia and another underway in yemen. The flawed logic of increasing violence until stability is reached is killing not only the present well being, but the future chances of stability in the societies cursed by foreign occupation.

I go into more detail about the winding up of violence (along with a pained analogy) vis à vis foreign wars in a supplementary bikecast that I didn’t like enough to put into the general stream. It’s here if you’d like to listen. This is the intro paragraph for the podcast:

I want to apologize in advance for the analogy in this episode of the bikecast. Every now and then I have to indulge my inner dork. I flesh out the concept of the “winding up of violence” that we talked about in the last bikecast. Much as heat will tend to “even out” throughout a closed system, violence tends to dissipate when the resources energizing it are removed. Violence is expensive and unsustainable and, left in isolation, violent situations quickly flame out as the particpants exhaust themselves and are compelled to seek compromise and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, this winding down cannot begin until the “energy sources” fueling the conflict are removed. Thus on the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as around the world where the United States (and to a far lesser degree other large nation-states) provide weapons, wealth and motivation to violent conflicts, the distance between the current situations and “normalcy” grows larger every day. The longer the winding up of violence, the longer and more painful the winding down.

Download this supplementary bikecast (attached to the above paragraph)

Other excellent resources for recovering drug warriors (there are roughly ∞ of these online, I picked a semi-random handful).
Drug War, What Is It Good For?
Timeline of the Drugwar
America Should Decriminalize Drugs
The Drug War vs. American Civilization (Drug war and civil liberties)
The Eternal Drug War

  1. [1] The United States, obviously, chief among them
  2. [2] And any number of other narco states whose products are shipped to the west.
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