The War on Drugs is a War on the Environment

by Eric E. Sterling

From 1979 to 1989, I was assistant counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, responsible for federal anti-drug enforcement. In August 1983, I accompanied Members of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control on a study mission to South America. Twenty-five years ago, drug crop eradication -- coca, cannabis, and opium poppy -- were heralded as extremely cost-effective drug control tools. However, I witnessed coca and cannabis eradication efforts in Colombia, and in Peru in the Amazon watershed. What I saw confirmed the research -- the strategy was ineffectual in reducing the supply of drugs to users.

I spent over nine years overseeing federal anti-drug programs for Members of Congress, and writing legislation to give greater enforcement powers to federal law enforcement agencies. I worked with many wise and compassionate legislators, notably William J. Hughes, Father Robert F. Drinan, Don Edwards, Robert Kastenmeier, Bruce Morrison, and Peter Rodino. In various political conflicts, however, I saw anti-drug rhetoric and policies used to gain media attention, to mislead the public about social problems, to attack political opponents, and to advance political careers. I witnessed numerous instances of indifference to the suffering of drug addicts, those with HIV/AIDS, and their families. I witnessed a sickening cynicism toward the tragedy of substance abuse, and the public's concerns. I lost the illusion that law enforcement and suppression are the best primary tools to control drug use, misuse and the disease of addiction.

One salient feature of American and global anti-drug programs is the disregard of evidence regarding ineffectiveness. Coupled with that disregard  for evidence for effectiveness is a disregard for the costs of the strategies, even when they are counterproductive.  A majority of Congress continued to support D.A.R.E., for example, even though numerous studies showed that youth exposed to it used drugs at greater rates than youth who had not.

Outside the view of most American taxpayers, over three fiscal years, 2006-2008, the U.S. will spend almost two billion dollars on its Andean anti-drug program. The cornerstone of that effort is the eradication of coca fields. American taxpayers should know two things: first that the program is ineffective, and second, it is contributing to global climate change. calls upon scientists, policy makers, and the public to look deeply and broadly at global drug control programs and their myriad unintended consequences. When well-intentioned laws and policies create incentives that contribute to potentially catastrophic global climate change, those laws and policies must be carefully examined. If those laws and policies are not effective, then they ought to be repealed. If those laws and policies are effective, the benefits they provide must be compared to the negative environmental consequences they create. If the benefits the laws and policies create are not greater than the environmental catastrophe they are contributing to, again, those laws and policies must be repealed.