Careerists and Corporate Interest: Why despite endless failure the drug war will continue indefinitely

A look at why drug war policies continue despite totally failing to achieve their stated objectives.

Submitted by Soapy on August 28, 2016

In 1988, Congress created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “As noted on its website, ONDCP was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Its principal purpose is to accomplish the following, ‘Establish policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation’s drug control program. The goals of the program are to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences.’” It has been some 30 years since ONDCP was created, and it is safe to say that ONDCP has failed miserably in nearly every task Congress set out for it to achieve. As Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen conclude in their study of the ONDCP from 1988-2012, “We find that statistics readily available to ONDCP suggest that illicit drug use was not down during this period, that the need for drug treatment was up, that deaths attributable to illicit drugs and emergency room mentions of illicit drugs were up, that illicit drugs were still widely available, that prices of illicit drugs were down, and that illicit drug purity was up.” 1 2

Rather than admit its own failure, when dealing with the public ONDCP simply misrepresents reality. For example, the headline of one ONDCP published statistic reads, “Since 1985, all major drugs show a substantial decline in the level of current use.”

Well yes, this is true, but ONDCP was created in 1988, so why is 1985 used as ONDCP's base point? The answer is simple, because drug use was higher in 1985 than 1988. In fact, drug use peaked in 1979 and declined significantly until around 1988 (which was when ONDCP was created). After 1988, drug use shot up again during the 1990s, and then declined during the 2000s, with drug use at around the same level today as it was in 1988. So by starting the statistical analysis in 1985, ONDCP can avoid having to face some uncomfortable questions about the purpose of its own existence3 . And, as is well documented by Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen, ONDCP misrepresents drug war statistics quite frequently.

ONDCP’s reaction to its own abject failure is indicative of what really drives the drug war. The most obvious reason why ONDCP might be compelled to misrepresent the facts on the drug war, is that ONDCP and those work for it, are concerned about their own bureaucratic survival. The careers of the people working in ONDCP rely on outsiders in government and in the private sector viewing their actions favorably. If ONDCP were to admit its failure (and by extension the failure of all those involved in supply side drug control policy over the last 30 years), then ONDCP might be eliminated and those who work for it would lose their jobs. Worse, after becoming unemployed they would be hard pressed to advance their careers in the vast NGO, law, and lobbying sectors that would view their uncouth behavior with scorn.

Interest groups and Plan Colombia

In reality, the war on drugs is nothing more than an amalgamation of politically powerful groups each taking actions to serve their own interests. A microcosm of this can be seen with what is called Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia was launched in 2000 by the Clinton administration with the ostensible purpose of curbing Colombian cocaine growth and production by 2006. This was to be done by massively increasing the power of the Colombian military through US AID, as well as by sending US soldiers and contractors to Colombia to conduct military operations. But Plan Colombia didn’t pan out as expected. As financial and military assistance increased, far from suffering setbacks, Colombian coca growers and producers only seemed to profit. By the target year of the program, 2006, Colombian coca cultivation had actually increased by 22.6%. Despite failing to achieve the principal purpose of the program, in 2006 the US and Colombian governments simply extended the program, and it is still ongoing. 4

Why spend billions of dollars on a policy that does not achieve its stated objectives? Well, as Jeff Lebowski tells Walter Sobchak, “It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, know” [youtube]-eDOJ4L0Edk[/youtube]

So who benefits from Plan Colombia? Well, most obviously the Colombian state, which used the increased funding to turn the tide in its war with the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).5 Additionally, the fog of war allows the state cover to eliminate social organizations and their leaders with little domestic or international scrutiny. This also benefits transnational corporations, most famously Chiquita Banana, Coca-Cola, who hire paramilitary groups to conduct terrorist campaigns against their workforces and troublesome farmers. In her book, Drug War Capitalism, Dawn Paley documents some of the stories surrounding murdered Colombian activists:

In the early 2000s, paramilitary activity provided cover for oil giant BP after it took a 15 percent stake in a company called Ocensa, which built an 800km pipeline from the Cusiana-Cupiagua oil fields to the port of Covenas. 'The construction of the new pipeline destroyed hundreds of water sources and caused landslides that ruined local farmers. To protect the pipeline an exclusion zone was created around it--denying the farmers more of their land. [Lawyer Marta Hinestroza] began to hear the complaints of many farmers, but it proved impossible to represent them effectively in the courts. Four of her colleagues--ombudsmen in neighboring municipalities--were assassinated by the paramilitaries. Then Hinestroza began to receive death threats. A short time later, the paramilitaries arrived at the home of her aunt, dragged her out, tied her hands behind her back, made her kneel down, and then in front of the villagers shot her in the back of the head.'6

In the chaos of the drug war it is easy to repress farmers and the working poor. Until earlier this year, another company that benefited significantly from the drug war in Colombia was agricultural behemoth, Monsanto. Beginning in 1978, Colombia used a highly concentrated form of the Monsanto produced pesticide, Roundup, in its crop eradication campaigns. Given that by 2002, 14 percent of the entire land area of Colombia had been sprayed with Roundup, one can assume that Monsanto made quite a bit money from its pesticide sales. Additionally, the crop eradication efforts often targeted ordinary farmers growing legal plants. Monsanto, (currently represented by Hillary Clinton’s former employer, the Rose Law Firm) profited from “accidental” crop eradications by selling Colombian farmers its Roundup resistant seeds to protect their plants in the event of accidental fumigation.


Just as Monsanto profits from the drug war, so do the officials at ONDCP and hundreds of thousands -perhaps more than a million- criminal justice professionals from the US to Colombia advance their careers by waging the drug war. Huge swaths of people working in the law, defense, and prison industry rely on the drug war for employment. And the lobbying power of these professionals is substantial. Of all industries that donated to Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign, lawyers and law firms ranked #1 with over $46 million in donations. In addition to lawyers, there are well over a million law enforcement officials and agents whose jobs rely in large part (or totally) on the continuation of the drug war. Included in this list are members of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigations, US Marshals Service, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, IRS, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, US Coast Guard, Bureau of Federal Prisons, and others. Defense contractors who provide weapons and develop new technology to head off the overblown epidemic of super smugglers benefit with lucrative contracts.

Careerism extends to Colombia as well. Careerism in the drug war takes many forms and is international in scope.

According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Colombian soldiers were preying on local people as a form of career advancement: 'With a view to obtaining privileges, recognition or special leave, soldiers detain innocent people without any valid reason and then execute them. Their bodies appear the day following their disappearance tens of kilometers away and are identified as members of illegal armed groups killed in combat. These are mainly vulnerable people-street dwellers, adolescents from poor areas of big cities, drug addicts and beggars-who are dressed in a uniform and executed.’7


To put it simply, the drug war continues because of the support it gets from many powerful interest groups whose motivations are not necessarily related. Well paid professionals and multi-national corporations are capable of influencing government policy, and the so the drug war continues. Meanwhile, the victims of the drug war, the poorest and most oppressed peoples of North and South America, are politically weak and so are simply ignored.

  • 1 Robinson, Matthew B., and Renee G. Scherlen. Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Albany: State U of New York, 2007
  • 2The single exception to ONDCP’s failures is that crime and violence have in fact declined, though there is no reason to believe this has anything to do with ONDCP’s efforts and criminologists point to a multitude of other factors unrelated to law enforcement entirely
  • 3Robinson and Scherlen
  • 4And while Colombian coca production did eventually decline significantly, this decline was offset by the increase in coca production in other South American countries bordering Colombia. ONDCP likes to brag that after 2007 the price of cocaine in America has increased making it harder to acquire. And while this may be true, the increase in cocaine prices also coincides with the growing problem of prescription drug abuse leading Robinson and Scherlen to suggest possible drug substitution. Coincidentally, Colombian coca growth and production has decreased in direct relationship to the decrease in US funding for Plan Colombia.
  • 5 Mysteriously, despite repeated claims that FARC was primarily responsible for Colombian coca growth and production, as already noted the Colombian coca sector grew from 2000-2006 a time when FARC suffered massive setbacks.
  • 6 Paley, Dawn. Drug War Capitalism. 76.
  • 7Paley, 71