War on Drugs Targets Tech

The new scapegoat for the failed War on Drugs is, of all things, technology.

The new scapegoat for the failed War on Drugs is, of all things, technology.

The 120-page December 2000 International Crime Threat Assessment report — created by basically every federal law enforcement agency in the U.S. — is riddled with examples of how computer technology has advanced the cause of national and international crime. Modern telecommunications and information systems, state-of-the-art communications equipment, computers — theyre all to blame.

What the report fails to squarely acknowledge is that the oil that fuels organized crime in the U.S. and abroad, including terrorist organizations, is profit from the trade in illegal drugs bound for the U.S. — billions of dollars in profit from drug sales that enhance the power of international crime cartels and their ability to corrupt police, judges and governmental officials from Tijuana to Tanzania.

"Through the use of computers, international criminals have an unprecedented capability to obtain, process and protect information and sidestep law enforcement investigations," the report stated. "They can use the interactive capabilities of advanced computers and telecommunications systems to plot marketing strategies for drugs and other illicit commodities, to find the most efficient routes and methods for smuggling and moving money in the financial system and to create false trails for law enforcement or banking security."

It goes on to assert: "More threateningly, some criminal organizations appear to be adept at using technology for counterintelligence purposes and for tracking law enforcement activities."

In other words, its not our flawed drug policy thats to blame —its new technology.

Where All This Began

In 1937, Harry J. Anslinger, six years into his 30-year-reign as director at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified before the U.S. Senate on behalf of the "Marihuana Tax Act." This delighted the Hearst newspapers, which, lacking a real war to increase newspaper sales, launched an all-out battle against demon marijuana. Here are a few excerpts from Anslingers sworn testimony. Clearly, our drug policy traces its roots to reasoning that was as racist and alarmist as it was wildly inaccurate:

• "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana can cause white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."

>• "The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races."

>• "Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death."

>• "Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."

With Hearsts backing, Anslingers war on marijuana escalated to an all-out war on all narcotics — save for alcohol, which, having just been legalized again after the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition, was once more apparently OK because it was enjoyed by the nondegenerate folks as well as by "degenerate races."

Now, after six and a half decades of speeches and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of arrests, convictions and sentences, what signs point to even modest success in this multitrillion-dollar war against drugs? Drug trafficking is the most profitable of all illegal activities, according to the International Crime Threat Assessment. The War on Drugs has not stemmed supply or demand, but it has managed to drive up the price of — and profits from — illegal drugs and created a world of corruption.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Instead of rethinking the sanity of our basic policy on drugs, federal police agencies appear bent on blaming technology —unbreakable encryption via e-mail, encrypted cellular phones and faster, cheaper networked computers —for the losses sustained in the drug war. This is clearly nonsense.

In 1999 alone, Americans spent an estimated $63 billion on illegal drugs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse stated: "The estimated total cost of drug abuse in the United States — including health care and lost productivity —was $110 billion in 1995, the latest year for which data is available."

In addition, a U.S. Customs Service report said the department will soon be able to inspect only 1 percent of all goods entering the U.S..

This is the score after six and a half decades of our drug policy. Do we have to wait until 2037 to recognize that we lost the Hundred Years? Drug War? And, in the meantime, will we see more and more attacks on technology as the evil ally of narcotics?

The obvious yet politically difficult solution here is to remove the profitability factor from drugs. Will there be more casualties? Will more people succumb to addiction? Maybe. But dont we already have casualties? You have to employ some tortured logic to rationalize how removing the profit incentive from drug use could make things any worse than they are.

Now the Feds want to escalate the war as an excuse for having their way with encryption. But encryption is an essential business tool and a means of protecting our privacy. Outlawing it as a scapegoat of our drug policy is like trembling in fear before the great Wizard of Oz and paying no attention to the discredited man and his policies behind the curtain.

Lewis Z. Koch has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. Currently, he is a special correspondent at CyberWire Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]