The Political Economy of the War on Drugs

An early twentieth century writer by the name of Randolph Bourne remarked that “War is the health of the state”. The American founders recognized that government has a tendency to grow and expand over time. Nothing does as much to speed up the growth rate of as war. Throughout American history the greatest expansions of government have occurred during war times. The American Civil War of 1861-1865 consolidated the power of the federal regime over the previously sovereign states. The entry of the United States into the First World War took place at the same time as the enactment of the federal income tax, the implementation of alcohol prohibition, the creation of the FBI and other drastic expansions of federal power. The advent of the Second World War consolidated the welfare state of the New Deal, the cartelization of industry and labor under Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (modeled after Italian fascism), the subordination of the domestic economy under war production, the interment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and many other ills. The Cold War era brought about the permanent entrenchment of the military-industrial complex, the creation of the CIA in 1947, permanent peacetime conscription (not ended until 1971), the creation of the United Nations and a foreign policy of world wide military interventionism. The war in Vietnam took place along side the advent of the Great Society expansion of the welfare state, the elimination of the gold standard in monetary policy and the COINTELPRO program of repression against domestic dissidents. The acceleration of the arms race during the 1980s coincided with the quadrupling of the national debt. The evidence is overwhelming that war is indeed a great boon to the state. War provides the state with opportunities to raise taxes, eradicate civil liberties, consolidate central power, subsidize elite economic interests, acquire new territory, expand the power of officials, rally the public behind the state and many other benefits.

Historically, states seeking to increase their power have frequently looked for excuses to go to war or hold up the threat of war. The decaying Roman Empire sought the support of its citizens by proclaiming its desire to save them from an alleged threat of invasion by the Germanic tribes of the north. “The barbarians are at the gates” became their rallying cry. States can also claim to be saving society from some ominous threat by waging a war on an alleged “enemy within”, that is, some group within the society that is villified by officials and attacked as a grave danger to “ordinary” citizens. This is what the Nazis did with the Jews, of course. The Nazi German regime denounced Jews as carriers of disease, criminals, purveyors of perversions and decadence, unpatriotic, responsible for the spread of communism, engaging in unscrupulous and ruinous banking and business practices and many other things. The Nazi regime demanded and obtained extraordinary powers in order to combat the alleged Jewish menace. The American regime of today is pursuing an path identitical to that followed by Germany during the 1930s. However, the “enemy within” that is under attack is not the Jewish people but the users and sellers of those particular psychoactive substances commonly referred to as “drugs”.

What is a drug? What is a “drug user”? What is a “drug dealer”? How are these objects/persons portrayed in the rhetoric of government officials and in the media? How consistent is this portrayal with actual fact? A “drug” is simply a psychoactive substance legally prohibited by the state such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, MDMA (“ecstasy”) or LSD. Using this terminological criteria, other psycho- active, addictive and potentially deadly substances such as alcohol, tobacco and valium are not considered “drugs”. However, medical research shows that tobacco (nicotine) is at least as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Four hundred thousand people die from tobacco use annually in the United States. The addictive intoxicant alcohol is the strongest of any psychoactive substance and indeed is the only one from which withdrawal is potentially fatal. On the other hand, there has never been a documented case of death from marijuana use alone. Also, numerous studies have shown that marijuana use does not severely impair driving while alcohol abuse is responsible for many, many traffic fatalities.

Drug users are typically depicted as thieves, criminals, negligent parents, derilects, degenerates, disruptive neighbors and chronically unemployed bums. Former “first lady” Nancy Reagan even claimed that drug users are accomplices to murder. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates once remarked that casual marijuana smokers should be executed for treason and stated later on that he wasn’t being facetious. However, included in the ranks of drug users are many high school and college students, blue-collar workers, businesspeople, housewives, lawyers, physicians, athletes, entertainers, judges and, of course, politicians. Are all of these people predatory criminals, accomplices to murder and seditious traitors to their country? William F. Buckley has noted that reliable estimates indicate that as many as half of the soldiers fighting in Vietnam were using drugs such as heroin, opium, hashish or marijuana at the time. Were all these folks who were risking their lives in the name of their country criminals and subversives? What is a “drug dealer”? Simply put, a drug dealer is a person who sells a drug to another person who desires to purchase it just as a grocer is a “food dealer” or a bartender is a “liquor dealer” or a tobacco farmer is a “nicotine dealer”. “Drug dealers” are often portrayed as predators preying on the “misery” of their customers. But the vast array of breweries, distilleries, liquor stores, convenience stores, bars, nightclubs, dance halls, restaurants, fraternities and countless other enterprenuers and establishments are not denounced for preying upon the “misery” of alcoholics and problem drinkers. Grocers are not blamed for the woes of anorectics, bulimics and obese persons. Interestingly, when “drug dealers” are prosecuted they are attacked for preying upon and allegedly victimizing drug users. However, when drug users are prosecuted they are denounced for creating the market for drug dealers and perpetrating the illicit drug trade. Hence, the drug user becomes the victim and the criminal simultaneously.

Of course, most people who use drugs are not drug addicts in the clinical sense just as most people who drink are not alcoholics. Even most addicts are not derilects just as most alcoholics are not skid row bums. In fact, most people are drug users of some sort. Rare is the person who completely abstains from alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, valium, prozac, ritalin, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens and other psychoactives all at once. The differentiation between legal and illegal drugs is cultural and historical rather than medical, scientific or ethical. The same is true of the differentiation between illegal drug use and other potentially risky but legal activities such as skiing, skydiving, automobile racing, boxing, football, rockclimbing, bungee-jumping, overeating, motorcycling and cayaking.

Why are some drugs illegal while others are not? The earliest American drug laws begin with attempts to prohibit opium smoking in the nineteenth century. At the time, America was experiencing a wave of Chinese immigration. Opium was their drug of choice. Powerful labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor feared competition from Chinese laborers who were quite hardworking and generally willing to work for lower wages. Labor leaders villified the Chinese as opium-crazed fiends who preyed sexually upon young white girls. Similarly, blacks and Mexicans used marijuana because it could be grown locally and was cheaper than alcohol so marijuana became a target as well. The United States was really the first nation to enact modern drug prohibition and began to use its growing international power to pressure other nations in the same direction. The first federal drug laws began with the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. Not coincidentally, the federal income tax had begun the year before. Drug prohibition has continued in the United States since that time with varying degrees of intensity. Following the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933, the Bureau of Prohibition, set up to enforce alcohol prohibition, began to target marijuana instead. The Bureau of Prohibition is now called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). Drug enforcement also intensified in the early 1970s. President Nixon realized that substantial political mileage could be gained from the scapegoating of drug users even though his own commission on drug policy recommended the decriminalization of marijuana use. It was the era of the Vietnam-related culture wars and marijuana users were portrayed as dirty, anti-American hippies and communist sympathizers. However, the current version of the drug war, the most intense in American history, began in the 1980s. Like Nixon before them, officials in the Reagan administration understood that a lot of political mileage could be gained from whipping up hysteria against drug users among more “conservative” sectors of the population. As the Cold War began to wind down in the late 1980s, the American government needed a new enemy that it could claim to be protecting the people from and “drugs” provided an easy and obvious target. Public concern regarding drug abuse had been rising because of the advent of the new and highly addictive drug crack, violence related to the new and highly competitive inner-city crack trade and the death of prominent college basketball star Len Bias from an alleged cocaine overdose. The “War on Drugs” in its present form began. A new government agency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created and originally headed up by the neo- fascist demagogue William J. Bennett. The ONDCP became an outlet for anti-drug propaganda generated by the government. Drastic increases in government spending in areas related to drug policy took place. Draconian penalties for the tiniest of drug infractions were implemented.

To fully understand what the drug war is about it is necessary to examine some important and relevant historical precendents. Traditionally, when governments have sought to increase their power by attacking an internal population group the usual targets have been religious and ethnic minorities. This was true of the Romans who attacked Christians, a predominately lower class religious movement at the time. This was true of medieval theocratic states which attacked, alternately, Catholics, Protestants, heretics, witches, Jews, pagans, Muslims, etc. Indeed, we might say that just as medieval states maintained and promoted an official state religion (usually Catholicism) and persecuted and prohibited others (Protestants, Jews, dissident Catholics) so does the current American government maintain official, socially approved and even government subsidized and sold drugs (alcohol, tobacco, ritalin) and prohibits others (marijuana, heroin and cocaine) and persecutes those who use and sell them. The Nazi regime targeted Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals and other groups and, historically, many American politicians have sought to advance themselves by attacking and scapegoating blacks, immigrants and other minorities.

In contemporary America, it is not socially acceptable to openly engage in the villification of racial and religious minorities as it was in past cultures. This would be in conflict with the prevailing ethos of religious toleration originating from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the minority civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Therefore, other cultural groups not considered to be a part of mainstream or “respectable” society, such as “drug users”, are targeted instead. The historian Richard Lawrence Miller has conducted an enlightening study of the parallels between the Nazi war on Jews and the American war on drug users. Miller is more than qualified to comment on these matters. He is the son of an investigator for the prosecution during the Nuremburg trials of Nazi leaders for war crimes. Miller is also the author of several books on both drug policy and Nazi law and jurisprudence. His evidence and conclusions are meticulously researched and documented. No doubt most Americans would find comparisons between the drug war and Nazi persecution to be the result of mere fanaticism. Americans ignore evidence legitimizing such a comparison at their peril. Americans do not want to believe that their country, supposedly the “land of free” who fought and defeated fascism, could have gotten so far off track as to be pursuing a path identical to that of the Nazis. However, the evidence is overwhelming that this is indeed the case. The Nazis blamed the Jews for crime, the spread of disease, urban blight, the terrible conditions in slums and many other ills. The current American regime blames drug users for all of these things. Even the language and terminology employed by leading drug war officials and Nazi leaders is identical. Hans Frank, the Nazi commissioner of occupied Poland, remarked that “Jews are the carriers of diseases and germs”. Likewise, the original American drug “czar”, William Bennett, proclaimed, “The casual adult drug user is in some ways the most dangerous person because that person is a carrier…a non-addict’s drug use, in other words, is highly contagious”. Miller notes that “a person having the status of Jew was forbidden to do things permitted to other persons…they were forbidden to engage in activities inherent to normal life, from driving a car to holding a job”. Similarly, William Bennett announced: “Drug users who maintain a job and a steady income should face stiff fines…These are the users who should have their names published in local papers. They should be subject to drivers’ license suspension, employer notification, overnight or weekend detention, eviction from public housing or forfeiture of the cars they drive while purchasing drugs”. In other words, drug users should be rendered uemployed, homeless and immobile even when it is clear that their drug use has harmed no one and that they are functional and self-sufficient. Nazi leaders even went so far as to claim that Jews represented a type of supernatural evil. The Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, later hanged for war crimes, remarked, “The Jews are not human beings but children of the devil and the spawns of crime…This satanic race has no right to exist”. Interestingly, the drug war criminal William Bennett told a group of Baptists that “drug users are the product of the devil” and later remarked on television that no trial should be necessarily required before the summary execution of accused drug sellers because “they deserve to die”. Instructively, even the Nazi regime found it impossible to suppress the illegal trade in cocaine and opiates in Germany. Miller analyzes the five steps through which the Germans systematically accelerated their attacks upon the Jews and shows how an identical program has been implemented in the war on drugs. The five steps are identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration and annihlation. The process is well under way. Consider:

  1. Identification- an undesired class of persons is held up to be different from and inferior to others. Nazis denounced Jews as criminals, social parasites, degenerates and other slurs. Drug users are treated in a similar manner. What is the truth here? Just as German Jews were ordinary German citizens in every important sense, the distinguished narcotics expert Jerome Jaffe remarks:

    “The addict who is able to obtain an adequate supply of drugs through legitimate channels and has adequate funds usually dresses properly, maintains his nutrition, and is able to discharge his social and occupational obligations with reasonable efficiency. He usually remains in good health, suffers little inconvenience, and is, in general, difficult to distinguish from other person.”

  2. Ostracism-the target group is subjected to institutionalized discrimination because of their social status. German Jews were forbidden to drive cars, hold certain jobs, serve in the military, intermarry with ethnic Germans and many other activities. Likewise, American drug users can have their drivers’ licenses revoked, their children taken away, their employment terminated and many other similar sanctions. Under American drug law, drug users may be denied student loans and welfare but no similar sanctions exist concerning convicted murderers and rapists.
  3. Confiscation-the property of the target group is systematically seized by the state. The businesses and homes of German Jews were often seized and forfeited to the Gestapo and other Nazi agents. The homes, businesses, automobiles, bank accounts and personal possessions of American drug users are being taken from them in a similar manner and frequently kept by the police. Even the property of persons never convicted of any drug “crime” is frequently seized.
  4. Concentration-the target group is restricted to certain geographical locations and barred from entering others. German Jews were initially confined to ghettos and then placed in concentration camps. American drug users are placed in jails and prisons, mental hospitals, pseudo-military “boot camps” (a practice also utilized by the Nazis) and forced to undergo experimental and unscientific “substance abuse treatment” programs in violation of standards of medical ethics.

    At this point some of the stereotypes hurled at drug users by drug warriors become self-fulfilling. A favorite tactic of the Nazis was to concentrate Jews into segregated ghettos and then remove sewage, electricity and other sanitation and utility services. The predictable result would be an increase in the spread of tuberculosis and dysentary, lice, rodents, squalor and decay. Jews forced to live in these conditions would then begin to resemble the stereotype of the depraved, derilect Jew depicted in Nazi propaganda. The Nazis would then use these conditions as a justification for their racial views and an increase in the persecution. Similar tactics are used against drug users. Prohibition forces addicts to buy their drugs on the black market. Heroin and cocaine are both worth about two dollars per gram at standard market value. But the black market price can often be fifty times greater. Consequently, many addicts, particularly from the poorer classes, have no options but theft or prostitution as a means of obtaining their drugs. When there was a serious shortage of tobacco in Europe following the Second World War, many tobacco addicts began to steal to finance their habits as prices soared and many tobacco-addicted women resorted to prostitution in order to obtain money for cigarettes. The situation that poor addicts face would be akin to one where food were declared illegal and a sandwhich or a hot dog suddenly cost $200 on the black market. What would most people do in such a situation? Drug policy is designed to all but guarantee that addicts become impoverished, homeless, unemployed, unable to care for children and other dependents and intertwined with the criminal underworld. Likewise, drug prohibition guarantees that a disproportionate number of sociopaths and routine criminals enter the drug business and susequently engage in violence as a means of market discipline and the elimination of competitors. This only serves to bolster the bigoted stereotypes purveyed by drug war propaganda. The fifth and final step in the crusade against German Jews and American drug users is the obvious one:

  5. Annihlation-the target group is systematically exterminated. German Jews were killed by means of poison gas, firing squads, deliberate starvation, incineration, intentional denial of medical care and prolonged exposure to harsh conditions. The mass extermination of American drug users has not, at the time this essay is being written (early 2001), became a full-scale endeavor. Rather, the killing of drug users is most often a side effect of the general persecution program. Cancer and AIDS patients who might benefit from the medicinal use of marijuana are denied treatment. This seems to have been the central factor in the death of the late author Peter McWilliams. Some people have suggested that overdose victims be denied medical care altogether (most overdoses are the result of adulterated black market drugs). Others, such as New York radio talk show host Bob Grant, have suggested that authorities deliberately place poisoned drug supplies on the street for the purpose of intentionally killing addicts. Officials ranging from former drug czar William Bennett to former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrinch have called for the execution of drug “offenders”. Drug users, and even bystanders uninvolved with drugs, are sometimes killed as a result of terrorist activities by thuggish police SWAT teams and narcotics and vice agents. William Bennett has praised the murder of drug users and sellers by private vigilante groups.

The apparatus necessary for a full-scale genocide has already been constructed. A target group has been subjected to every form of threat, harassment, persecution, confiscation and incarceration. Those who view drug users as subhumans deserving mass incarceration are unlikely to be particularly troubled by mass extermination. A vast army of special interest groups has evolved that has a powerful incentive to keep the drug war rolling to its “final solution”. These include:

  • police for whom the drug war is a means of employment, career advancement, funding for law enforcement agencies, power, glory, adventure and prestige.
  • bureaucrats heading up and employed by a myriad of agencies involved in the drug war ranging from public housing authorities who evict drug using tenants to regulatory agencies who shut down the legal businesses of drug users or dealers to towing companies with contracts to impound the cars of suspected drug buyers.
  • lawyers, both defense attorneys and prosecutors, for whom drug cases are a major source of business, prestige and career advancement
  • the organized alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical lobby who regard illegal drugs as unwanted competition to their own products. Much of the funding for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a drug war propaganda group consisting mostly of a coalition of advertising agencies, comes from these elements.
  • politicians building their careers on drug war demagoguery and inflammatory rhetoric
  • journalists and media outlets for whom the drug war is a source of sensationalistic and therefore ratings-gathering and career-enhancing news.
  • construction companies and service industries with lucrative government contracts to build and supply more and more prisons
  • corrections officials and prison guards’ unions for whom mass imprisonment of drug users is a source of job security. The prison guards’ union is the second largest campaign donor in California state elections.
  • state-subsidized academics deriving prestige from developing drug war policy, gathering statistics and research, and creating an ideological smokescreen for the drug war
  • corrupt informants, often criminals themselves, paid to “snitch” on others
  • judges (no explanation needed)
  • “moral enteprenuers”, that is, persons deriving recognition from pushing the drug war as a righteous moral crusade ranging from Jesse Jackson to televangelists to radio talk-show hosts
  • owners and employees of “drug treatment” facilities whose clients are often persons coerced into such programs
  • corrupt public officials personally involved in the drug trade and deriving enormous profits from the black market pricing system
  • military officials who see the use of the military in both foreign and domestic drug war efforts as means of obtaining job security, power and prestige
  • organized physicians and pharmacists who see drug decriminalization as potential threat to the monopolistic prescription system of which they are the main beneficiaries
  • foreign policy elites who see the drug war as an excuse for military intervention in other countries (such as Columbia) for other political purposes
  • corrupt bankers who profit from drug money laundered by their banks
  • parents groups afraid that an end to the drug war will result in the increase in the number of youngsters who use drugs
  • neigborhood groups concerned about the effects of the war on drugs in their community who mistakenly blame drugs for the effects of drug prohibition
  • religious factions for whom drug use is a strong taboo

Of course, many more elements could be added to this list. At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the drug war is, in a broader sense, a war against traditional American democracy and civil and constitutional rights of every kind. How is this being done? The drug war is being used to attack the First Amendment provisions for freedom of religion, speech and the press. American Indians and Rastafarians for whom peyote and marijuana have sacramental meaning are not allowed to practice their religion. A case of this type went before the Supreme Court in 1989. The Court rejected the claim that Indian groups had any right to use peyote for religious purposes with Justice Antonin Scalia remarking that freedom of religion was “a luxury we can’t afford” if it got in the way of the drug war. This sets a precedent whereby religious liberty may be arbitrarily denied when it is in conflict with state policy of the moment. Similarly, when the late Peter McWilliams was working on a book arguing in favor of the medical use of marijuana the federal Drug Enforcement Administration got word of his project and went to his home and confiscated the computer containing the files for his manuscript. William F. Buckley remarked at the time that it was akin to the DEA going to the headquarters of the New York Times and confiscating their printing presses. The DEA has also pressured newspapers to refrain from carrying columns by Buckley criticizing the DEA.

The Second Amendment protection of the right to bear arms is also under attack because of the drug war. Violent turf wars conducted by drug dealing street gangs and the alleged threat to police by armed victims of drug war raids have led to a call for stricter guns laws, even outright gun confiscation in some quarters. All other constitutional rights-freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process, property rights, privacy rights, states’ rights, exemption from excessive punishment, the provision against double jeopardy-are being undermined and assaulted in the name of the drug war. The United States has five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. The drug war has contributed to a drastic deterioration in the realm of race relations. Even though most drug users are white, blacks and other minorities are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug “offenses” at a grossly disproportional rate. Forty percent of all black youth in their twenties are either in prison, on probation or on parole. One and a half million children now have one or both parents in prison. Large sections of cities have become virtually uninhabitable because of violence generated by the drug war.

One last thought needs to be considered. As mentioned, the apparatus necessary for a full-scale genocide has already been created. The Nazis managed to exterminate millions of Jews and other groups. The only active armed resistance occurred in the Warsaw ghetto. Originally containing three hundred thousand Jews, the gradual Nazi deportation program eventually reduced the population to forty thousand. It was at this point that an armed resistance movement, armed with homemade weapons and led by courageous youth in their twenties, began. They succeeded in warding off the Gestapo for a month before finally being crushed. So far the only public official courageous enough to advocate genuine resistance to what is being done to America today has been former New Hampshire state representative Tom Alciere. Let’s not make the same mistake as the Europeans of sixty years ago.

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