MEXICO CITY — After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.
Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked.
"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske said. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."
This week President Obama promised to "reduce drug use and the great damage it causes" with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.
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Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.
Kerlikowske, who coordinates all federal anti-drug policies, says it will take time for the spending to match the rhetoric.
"Nothing happens overnight," he said. "We've never worked the drug problem holistically. We'll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction."
His predecessor, John P. Walters, takes issue with that.
Walters insists society would be far worse today if there had been no War on Drugs. Drug abuse peaked nationally in 1979 and, despite fluctuations, remains below those levels, he says. Judging the drug war is complicated: Records indicate marijuana and prescription drug abuse are climbing, while cocaine use is way down. Drug seizures are up, but so is availability.
"To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."
Drug abuse is costing the nation in other ways. The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse —"an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction" — cost the United States $215 billion a year.
From the beginning, lawmakers debated fiercely whether law enforcement — no matter how well funded and well trained — could ever defeat the drug problem.
In 1970, proponents said beefed-up law enforcement could effectively seal the southern U.S. border and stop drugs from coming in. Since then, the U.S. used patrols, checkpoints, sniffer dogs, cameras, motion detectors, heat sensors, drone aircraft — and even put up more than 1,000 miles of steel beam, concrete walls and heavy mesh stretching from California to Texas.
None of that has stopped the drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says about 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the United States every year — almost all of it brought in across the borders. Even more marijuana is sold, but it's hard to know how much of that is grown domestically, including vast fields run by Mexican drug cartels in U.S. national parks.
The dealers who are caught have overwhelmed justice systems in the United States and elsewhere. U.S. prosecutors declined to file charges in 7,482 drug cases last year, mostly because they didn't have the time. That's about one out of every four drug cases.
In prison, in the U.S. or Mexico, traffickers continue to operate, ordering assassinations and arranging distribution of their product even from solitary confinement in Texas and California. In Mexico, prisoners can sometimes even buy their way out.
The violence spans Mexico. In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of drug violence in Mexico, 2,600 people were killed last year in cartel-related violence, making the city of 1 million across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, one of the world's deadliest. Not a single person was prosecuted for homicide related to organized crime.
Follow the money
And then there's the money.
The $320 billion annual global drug industry now accounts for 1 percent of all commerce on the planet.
A full 10 percent of Mexico's economy is built on drug proceeds — $25 billion smuggled in from the United States every year, of which 25 cents of each $100 smuggled is seized at the border. Thus there's no incentive for the kind of financial reform that could tame the cartels.
"For every drug dealer you put in jail or kill, there's a line up to replace him because the money is just so good," says Walter McCay, who heads the nonprofit Center for Professional Police Certification in Mexico City.
So why persist with costly programs that don't work?
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, sitting down with the AP at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, paused for a moment at the question.
"Look," she says, starting slowly. "This is something that is worth fighting for because drug addiction is about fighting for somebody's life, a young child's life, a teenager's life, their ability to be a successful and productive adult.
"If you think about it in those terms, that they are fighting for lives — and in Mexico they are literally fighting for lives as well from the violence standpoint — you realize the stakes are too high to let go."