Date: Thu, 18 Jun 98 12:18:02 CDT
John V. Wilmerding <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Drug War: a War on Poor, Lower Classes
Organization: Prison Activist Resource Center
United Nations’ special session in New York on drugs. Hundreds
of prominent people from around the world signed on to the view that
the drug war has been a disaster and
the time has come for a truly
open and honest dialogue about future global drug control
The statements to which the signatories put their names are mostly
unimpeachable common sense:
Drug war politics impede public health
efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious
diseases. Human rights are violated, environmental assaults
perpetrated and prisons inundated with hundreds of thousands of drug
All true, and every phrase repeated, proved and doubly proved year after year.
So why does the drug war grind on, decade after decade, immune to reason, often grotesque in its hypocrisy? How can one listen without laughing to the solemn posturing of the U.S. government about the recent sting on Mexican banks for their washing of drug money, without a word about corresponding drug-money laundering by U.S. banks?
The answer is plain enough, particularly if one takes a look at the history of drug wars over the past 150 years. These drug wars are either enterprises that expand the drug trade or pretexts for social and political repression. In either case, the aim of halting the production, shipment and consumption of drugs is not on the agenda.
In the mid-19th century, the British fought two drug wars to force the
Chinese to accept imports of opium from India. Nearly a century and a
half later, as it contemplated intervention against the Soviet Union
in Afghanistan, the Carter administration initiated the spending of
covert billions on what was, if we view it realistically, another drug
war, as one of President Carter’s own advisors predicted. As he
later recalled, David Musto, a White House member of the
president’s Council on Drug Abuse, told his boss that
going into Afghanistan to support the opium growers in their rebellion
against the Soviets.
As covert U.S. military aid soared, so did Afghan opium production,
tripling between 1979 and 1982. By 1982, in U.N. and Drug Enforcement
Administration figures, the Afghan heroin producers—romanticized
by U.S. politicians and press as
captured 60% of the heroin market in Western Europe and the U.S. They
had of course the all-important asset of being anti-communist.
All the millions sent by the U.S. to Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, allegedly to battle drug lords, have never made a dent in the drug trade. But they have helped Latin American armies and police crush peasant insurgencies and murder labor organizers.
drug war has always been a pretext for social
control, going back to the racist application of drug laws against
Chinese laborers in the recession of the 1870s when these workers were
viewed as competition for the dwindling number of jobs available. The
main users, middle-class white men and women taking opium in liquid
tonics, weren’t harassed. But the Chinese
Exclusion Act allowed Chinese opium addicts to be arrested and
In the 1930s, the racist head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and
Dangerous Drugs, Harry Anslinger, was renaming hemp as
marijuana to associate it with Mexican laborers and claiming
that marijuana could
arouse in blacks and Hispanics a state of
menacing fury or homicidal attack.
As he was so often, President Nixon was helpfully explicit in his
private remarks. H.R. Haldeman recorded in his diary a briefing by the
president in 1969, prior to launching of the war on drugs:
emphasized that you have to face the fact the whole problem is really
the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while
not appearing to.
So what was
the system duly devised? The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse
Act, with its 29 new minimum mandatory sentences, and the 100-to-1
sentencing ratio between possession of crack and powder cocaine,
became a system for locking up a disproportionate number of black
So to call for a
truly open and honest dialogue about drug
policy, as all those distinguished signatories in the advertisement
requested, is about as realistic as asking the U.S. government to
nationalize the oil industry. Essentially, the drug war is a war on
the poor and the dangerous classes, here and elsewhere. How many
governments are going to give up on that?