A $40 billion habit


Don't blame Colombia for the deal that let cocaine baron Pablo Escobar surrender to authorities there with the promise that he will never face U.S. justice and that he can idle away the next few years in a custom-built luxury "prison" paid for with his ill-gotten millions. The Colombian government agreed to this bizarre arrangement to keep the country from being torn apart by the vendetta that has claimed thousands of lives in the turf wars that made Medellin the murder capital of the world.

Escobar and his ilk couldn't survive a week without the massive demand for drugs emanating from the U.S. Last year alone Americans spent $40 billion on illegal drugs. With that kind of demand, there will always be 10 replacements for every drug baron who decides to exchange his fugitive status for luxurious retirement at public expense.

This country's so-called "war on drugs" has been a cruel hoax, something politicians trot out at election time and then conveniently forget until the next campaign. "Official" statistics showing that drug use is down are misleading. Our borders are as porous as ever, and the consequences of our $40 billion habit are evident in everything from street crime to soaring homicide rates to a criminal justice system so clogged with drug-related offenders that the civil courts have virtually ground to a halt.

Americans don't want legalization, but neither are they ready to make the kind of massive investment in domestic social programs that would give society's most vulnerable members alternatives to a life of such poverty and degradation that drugs represent the only realistic hope of escape.

In 1981, when conservatives began cutting those programs as a wasteful abuse of taxpayer's money, President Reagan assured Americans that "a safety net" would remain in place for those truly in need. A decade later the only safety net in sight seems to be reserved for Colombian drug lords who can buy their way into luxurious retirement with impunity.

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