A Single Act of Justice

How the Age of Terror Transformed the War on Drugs

A U.S. Marine patrols through a poppy field in a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, Afghanistan Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters

Since its inception in 1971, the U.S. war on drugs has never been as unpopular as it is today. Civil liberty groups decry the injustice of arresting nearly 1.5 million people each year on drug-related charges. Civil rights advocates point out that African-Americans bear the brunt of the current rules, making up 55 percent of all drug possession convictions and 74 percent of all prison sentences for drug possession. Prominent political officials, including several presidents of Latin American countries, have signed on to new efforts to legalize marijuana use. And voters in Colorado and Washington have supported such measures as well.

Yet the war wages on, namely because it has been more successful than most people realize. The reason, surprisingly enough, has to do with U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” for which he also enlisted the Drug Enforcement Administration. The arrangement benefitted Washington’s drug warriors enormously. The DEA, which had fewer than 3,000 employees in 1972, now employs over 10,000 personnel working out of 312 offices in some 67 countries. And its annual budget has grown from a mere $65 million to more than $2 billion in 2012. After September 11, DEA administrators pushed for additional funding from the attorney general's Counterterrorism Fund to enhance the DEA's intelligence capabilities, particularly its ability to intercept communications in support of agencies conducting counterterrorism in the United States and abroad.

The effects have been remarkably positive. In reshaping the war on drugs to support the war on terrorism, the United States found a better way to fight both. Take, for example, the rise in prosecutions of drug traffickers in the past decade. During the 1990s, the United States managed to extradite only a handful of alleged drug traffickers from Mexico; since 2001, the U.S. government has brought hundreds of drug-trafficking offenders north of the border for trial. In many of those trials, the defendants were members of terrorist organizations. In 2001, for example, U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Tomás Molina Caracas, an alleged commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of

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