Crime or Commerce?

Posted on October 23, 2017


Robert Joe Stout

The “War on Drugs” drags on.

|        Why?

Because no one in positions of authority or power understands why it exists or how to terminate it successfully?

Or because no one in positions of power or authority wants to see it end?

Could either or both be true?

The War on Drugs as popularly defined is governments’ attempts to eliminate the use and distribution of narcotics. To do so (or to do so legally) the governments involved pass laws prohibiting the distribution and sale of specific substances defined as narcotics. Most of these governments describe themselves as “democracies” and they justify the laws prohibiting the distribution and sales of narcotics by labeling these activities as “crimes.”

Crimes are bad. Consequently, the use, distribution and sales of narcotics is bad. Simple, no?


Almost without exception these same governments—democracies—advocate economic systems based on supply and demand. Governments and individuals, separately or in collusion, profit economically by how well they meet demands. Demands include food, housing, transportation, education. They also include many things not necessarily essential to human life, diversions such as entertainment, artificially or regionally determined fashions, items of personal comfort.


Though illegal after 1917 the use of marijuana, cocaine and heroin was quasi-acceptable since it didn’t materially affect the dominantly white middleclass until the 1960s. Many musicians and entertainers were openly identified as drug users, so were many dwellers in Afro-American ghettoes. Frank Sinatra depicted a trying-to-reform addict in a 1950s movie and songs like “La Cucuracha” connected Mexicans with marijuana. During the 1960s civil rights movement “the ghettoes invaded the suburbs” in the words of a California drama student participant and threatened the image of the United States as the world’s most moral political entity.

Marijuana in particular, but also cocaine, accompanied the invasion. As U.S. intervention in Vietnam’s civil war became increasingly unpopular and more and more people, particularly those under thirty, identified with the counter-culture the demand for marijuana, cocaine and newly available designer drugs increased. Meth labs sprouted throughout the country. Small time Mexican producers increased their output. South American growers shouldered their way into providing for the expanding market. The U.S. government escalated crackdowns on importation and on the possession of even small amounts of marijuana. Government propaganda repeatedly identified its attempts to suppress drug importation and use as a “crusade,” making it a moral as well as a political issue.

For many it was. But for many others it was economic. Selling drugs, even on a small scale, became quite profitable, particularly for people who lived on the fringes of social acceptance. Business creates business. Production and sales increased despite law enforcement efforts to curtail sale and use.

The description given by the son of a Chihuahua, Mexico ranch owner/businessman to a forum in Mexico City details how drug money infiltrates society. Among the crops that the father grew and exported in the early 1960s was marijuana. To him and his neighbors marijuana was a cash crop like alfalfa, frijoles or apples that he sold to a small-time exporter who operated out of Ojinaga, a small town on the Rio Grande across from Presidio, Texas. By the mid-60s demand had increased, so had the father’s profits. With the cash he was accumulating he purchased a neighbor’s ranch. To upgrade it he acquired cross-blood Cebu cattle, hired several full-time employees and bought two new trucks and an all-terrain vehicle. Those receiving the money from these purchases and wages spent it on food, furniture, appliances, paid school tuition, tithed to the Church and took vacations. The money coming into father’s hands for the purchase of drugs by U.S. users spread throughout the local economy. Except for the marijuana sale none of the other transactions was illegal and many people felt they benefitted from the windfall.

This pattern is repeated wherever commerce in narcotics exists. Criminal organizations, even when confronted by law enforcement agencies, need vehicles, gasoline, lawyers, accountants, storage units. Members of competing cartels need to eat. They need shoes, ammunition, places to live. Money generated by drug sales spreads throughout society. It’s big business. Big big business.

And “The War on Drugs”?

Is really an economic push-pull between competing participants. Like any other marketable product, petroleum for example, the issue is not whether or not it exists but who controls the production and marketing. Substituting government control (i.e. “winning” the war on drugs) would distribute the money differently but not end drug use. Only if the demand ceases to exist and production and commerce dry up as a consequence will narcotics no longer be either a criminal or moral issue.


Posted in: war on drugs