The so-called War on Drugs, which is sold to the people as a means to combat drug-related crime, is another one of those Orwellian devices deployed by the US as an excuse to implement harmful policies. It was originally devised by the Nixon administration as a convenient means to criminalise black people and the anti-war left. It was ratcheted up by the Clinton administration when the Cold War came to a close and the US government needed another boogeyman to terrorise its people into continued submission. Nowadays the US uses the “terrorist” label to impose its will on its people and the world, but the War on Drugs is still around, mainly because too many people are making too much money out of it.
It probably doesn’t need to be said, but the US government has demonstrated time and again that it has no interest in fighting drugs that are actually harmful. The country is currently overwhelmed with an opioid epidemic that kills more than 115 Americans every day, largely brought about by prescription pain relievers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine. These are highly addictive drugs prescribed by physicians and they serve as gateways to even more harmful drugs when the prescriptions are no longer available or can no longer be afforded. We know, for example, that around 80% of people who use heroin began by misusing prescription opioids. Around 55% of Americans regularly take prescription medicine and around 38% of the population takes at least one prescribed opioid each year. It is probably safe to say that 180 million Americans do not need to take prescription medicine regularly. The Federal government refuses to legalise marijuana for medicinal use, despite numerous studies showing it to be a non-addictive and highly-effective form of pain management. US physicians are, effectively, glorified drug dealers, forcing highly addictive drugs onto innocent patients needing medical treatment, leading them down the path to addiction, abuse, and possibly death.
Some very obvious laws could be passed by lawmakers to address the opioid crisis. Some examples include:
Lifting the ban on price bargaining. In 2003 the Republican-controlled Congress barred the federal government from negotiating cheaper prices for prescription drugs. It is also illegal to import drugs even if they meet the US’s regulatory standards. This keeps the prices of prescription drugs high and prevents potentially less harmful drugs from being available.
Criminalising “free samples”. Big Pharma gives free prescription drug samples to physicians to influence their prescription writing. This leads to poor clinical decision making, escalating health-care costs, and encourages the distribution of addictive opioids amongst patients for which a less harmful treatment may be available. This cosy relationship, where over 90% of physicians have some relationship with Big Pharma, needs to be carefully monitored and the distribution of free samples should, obviously, be banned.
Legalising marijuana. Medicinal marijuana is currently legal in 29 states (and DC), with various degrees of legality. Medicinal marijuana has been found to assist the management of many conditions, such as chronic pain, epilepsy, seizures, Parkinson’s Disease, and multiple sclerosis. Additionally, it has been shown that medicinal marijuana reduces addiction and deaths caused by opioids.
The opioid epidemic killed 64,000 people in the US in 2016, and yet the US government persistently refuses to take action to address it. Clearly, it has no interest in an actual war on drugs. So what is the real reason for the war on drugs? The reader will probably not be surprised to find that the answer is the same as everything in this blog series: cui bono?
A brief history of the War on Drugs
Since the rise of organised labour in the US, the ruling classes have always sought a way to exercise their control over the poor and working masses. They have always been terrified of what is generally referred to as “the left”, as it threatens to halt the unceasing distribution of wealth away from the poor and working classes and towards themselves. As the military industrial complex escalated through the 1960s the left were also associated with the anti-war movement, and were likewise seen to be a threat to the escalating appropriation of taxpayer funding by the war machine. The War on Drugs was devised during the Nixon campaign in 1968. According to Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, there were two enemies to his rise to power: The antiwar left and African Americans. It would, obviously, not be politically savvy to state this goal outright, and so instead they began a smear campaign where hippies were associated with marijuana and blacks were associated with heroin. By criminalising marijuana and heroin, then, the ruling classes had a convenient excuse to crush these enemies of the right, arrest their leaders, break up their meetings, disrupt their communities, raid their homes, etc.
So successful was the propaganda campaign that even today the hippie movement is more often associated with drug use than with its peace and anti-corporate movement.
With their domestic enemies forcefully subjugated, after the election the Nixon administration immediately began working the War on Drugs as a propaganda tool to justify foreign conquest. In early 1969 he sent (then New York Governor) Rockefeller to Latin America to investigate how the US could “improve its policies and increase the effectiveness of its cooperation”. In his report later that year, Rockefeller noted that if the US could not control Latin America then “we will hardly be able to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.” The governor’s findings endorsed greater support for right-wing dictators.
The US has imposed its will on Latin America in the name of the so-called War on Drugs ever since. Some examples are listed below:
- Manuel Noriega was a CIA agent who was installed in the ranks of Panama and became dictator in 1981. In 1989 he disobeyed orders from Washington leading to an attempted US-led coup and, after that failed, the US invasion of Panama. The illegal invasion was sold to the public as removing a drug trafficker from power.
- The US-supported coup in Haiti in 1991 was supported by members of the Haitian National Intelligence Service (NIS), who continued with waves of political murders after the coup. The NIS was funded millions by the CIA from 1986 to the 1991 coup in the name of counter-narcotics, and it is alleged that the Haitian drug trade skyrocketed after the coup.
- In July 2009 the US and Columbia concluded a secret deal to permit the US to use seven military bases there. Its official purpose is to counter narcotrafficing and terrorism, but really it is to serve as a regional hub for Pentagon activities.
- In Ecuador, US funding for the war on terror led to the militarisation almost a million police officers, who led an attempted coup in 2010.
- The last few years has seen US interventions in Venuzuela, Peru, and Paraguay. In each case the excuse is given as fighting the drug war, but it is really a convenient excuse to embed tens of thousands of marines to garrison those countries.
While it was a useful ploy to justify its aggressive foreign policy, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s posed a problem domestically. The right wing and the ruling classes no longer had the mystical Communist monster with which to terrify the American people. For decades it had successfully prevented the public from left wing activism with the application of the Communist label (this is one of the five filters of Chomsky’s propaganda model that we will discuss in a later post), so the establishment needed a new monster. And so the war on drugs was escalated. Much of the propaganda centered around gangs, from the black “superpredator” as described by Hillary Clinton in 1996, to Hispanic immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes” as Representative Steve King falsely claimed in 2013. The Clinton administration expanded the domestic war on drugs, through which the prison population sky-rocketed from 8,000 in 1990 to 86,000 in 2000 and the private prison industry exploded. We showed in a prior post how African Americans and Hispanics make up 56% of the prison population and that the median income level of incarcerated people (prior to their incarceration) is 41% less than non-incarcerated people.
If the purpose of the war on drugs was to combat the illegal drugs trade then it has obviously been a colossal failure. The reason it continues is because of corruption (same as everything). There are five main industries that profit greatly from the war on drugs.
- The private prison industry. In an earlier post we discussed the rapid expansion of the private prison industry, its contracts with the government and the means by which it extracts profits from the tax payer, the inmates, their families, and slave labour. Needless to say the private prison industry would not be so lucrative without a constant supply of poor and working class minorities convicted of petty non-violent crimes by white wealthy judges.
- Big Pharma. Criminalising drugs such as marijuana prevents the public from accessing low-cost non-addictive, less harmful forms of pain management medication. It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical giants to maintain their monopoly of their harmful addictive pain killers, which guarantees a continuous supply of opioid addicts desperate to abuse their products.
- The alcohol giants. Recreational marijuana is cheaper, less harmful, and does not provide the side effects (e.g., hangovers, liver damage) that alcohol provides. It therefore poses a very serious competition for the alcohol industry, and they would rather maintain their monopoly on legal recreational drug abuse.
- The tobacco giants. Like with alcohol, recreational marijuana does not have the addictive or long-term harmful effects of tobacco, so, like alcohol, the tobacco giants would prefer to leave them out of the recreational drug market.
- The military industrial complex. Through the 1990s the military was supposed to be scaling down after the conclusion of the cold war. It was able to keep draining public funds because of the war on drugs. It has a new excuse for its oppressive foreign and domestic policy nowadays in the form of the poorly-defined “war on terror”, but it still uses anti-narcotics as an excuse to impose its will on Latin America
It is worth noting that recreational marijuana has also been a revenue boom in the states that have legalised it. In the state of Colorado, for example, it was legalised for recreational use in a ballot measure in 2014. In the first year alone the state saw an increase in tax revenue of $70 million. By mid-2017 it had collected a total of half a billion dollars in taxes and fees from marijuana alone. The Colorado economy (GDP growth, migration into the state, unemployment rate, etc) is ranked #1 in the US.
The new boogeyman
There is only so much a person can be afraid of before they stop consuming. Since 2001 the war on terror, which is also a ridiculous farce (a topic for another post), has served many of the purposes that the ruling classes were using the war on drugs for. Under the claim of “anti-terrorism” the government has eroded the civil rights of its population to the point where it pre-dates the magna carta of the 13th century. Since 2001 the government has expanded its mass surveillance, increased its brutalisation of left wing activism and whistleblowers, and continued to enforce the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the working masses. The military industrial complex is larger than ever, and it has finally achieved its dream of having the US in a state of endless war. Obama was the first president in US history to oversee two terms with the country at constant war. He will not be the last.
While the war on drugs is not really needed by the ruling classes any more as a means of public coersion, those corporations who are leeching profits from the poor and working classes still greatlt benefit from it; and the government knows who really calls the shots in US politics. I do not expect the war on drugs to be going away any time soon.