The Business of Drugs: inside the economics of America’s longest war
A half-century into America’s ‘war on drugs’, a new Netflix series uses dollars, cents and economic incentives to ask: is prohibition worth it?

The economics of the drug war

Adrian Horton

As a CIA analyst in Shanghai and Pakistan during America’s “war on terror”, Amaryllis Fox was familiar with drawn-out, intractable conflict. She’d studied the compounding effects of redoubling on failed policies, of redundant good versus evil arguments peddled into a quagmire, costing billions and an incalculable loss of life.

But the situation in America’s longest military war, now nearing two decades, paled in comparison to the subject of Fox’s post-CIA project for Netflix: America’s costly, decades-longer engagement known as the “war on drugs”.

The Business of Drugs, a six-part series Fox hosts on Netflix, takes a clear-eyed approach to the futility of drug enforcement: what are the incentives,

economic and personal, that keeps the market flow of narcotics churning despite a generational trail of violence and waste? Declared in 1971 by Richard Nixon, the “war on drugs” refers broadly to the federal government’s campaign to control psychoactive substances through draconian legislation, expansion of enforcement agencies, and military aid and intervention to other countries.

Drug enforcement policies have long served as cudgels against minority groups – the first anti-opium laws, in the 1870s, targeted Chinese immigrants; anti-cannabis measures in the 1910s and 20s aimed for Mexican workers – and the current iteration grows from these roots; from mandatory minimum sentences to no-knock warrants, the “war on drugs” has fueled, in part, the mass incarceration of Americans, especially people of color. Nearly 50 years and $1tn in, the business of drug prohibition has “not only not worked, but the problem is worse than it was when the policy began”, Fox told the Guardian.

The Business of Drugs plays like a condensed, updated version of the popular National Geographic series Drugs, Inc (also on Netflix), moving from America’s voracious consumption of illicit substances to the global network of supply evading, or dwarfing, interlocking attempts at enforcement. The series’ six segments are delineated by substance – cocaine, synthetics (such as MDMA, also known as ecstasy), heroin, meth, cannabis and opioids – and explore substances of wildly varying levels of addictiveness, use and geography.

Together, the chapters form a loose condemnation of prohibition as both policy and moralistic stance.

The series is not a matter of admitting defeat in the “war on drugs”, Fox said. Instead it demands “looking at the policies themselves rather than the fight to enforce them, and asking ourselves if in fact prohibition has any logical hope of working, or whether it’s a residue of a moralistic stance that I think is no longer relevant in our society”. Explore more on videos and resources: Continue reading

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