A Battle Against Reason, Democracy and Drugs: The Drug War Deciphered

September 25, 2007

Why is the United States in Colombia? Why is it intervening with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid in a decades-old civil war? The ostensible reason is something called the “war on drugs,” a multi-billion-dollar effort aimed at wiping out a class of illegal substances seen as uniquely threatening to the fabric of U.S. society. Yet since neither the ghetto poor, nor Hollywood hipsters, nor others long associated with drug use are people that Washington politicians, especially Texas Republicans, have ever particularly cared about, can such rhetoric be taken at face value? Is U.S. intervention in Colombia really about protecting ordinary Americans against a class of ultra-dangerous substances? Or is it about something else—the same old war against Communism, for instance, in a slightly different guise?

The following is an attempt to run through some of the answers. For starters, the charge that the anti-drug effort is somehow a phony crusade, less concerned with stamping out drugs at home than with combating leftism abroad, should be laid to rest. With drug arrests in the United States currently running at nearly 1.6 million a year, triple the level of the 1970s, and a U.S. incarceration rate that, thanks largely to the drug war, is by now the highest in the world, the anti-drug effort must be seen as nothing if not serious. Sure, Washington has tolerated drug running among Afghan mujahideen, Nicaraguan Contras, and others it has deemed useful to its strategic interests. Sure, it would never allow fighting drugs to get in the way of the far more important fight against Communism. But now that the Cold War has faded into history, the anti-drug crusade has emerged as a holy crusade in its own right, one encompassing everyone from the White House to the local PTA. Formerly little more than an afterthought, it has long ago moved to the forefront and taken on a life of its own.

But what, exactly, does the drug war mean? What is its goal? The answer is not as clear as it might appear at first glance. Like the Cold War before it, the drug war rests on an exceedingly simple premise, i.e. the belief that illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and opiates are in a class by themselves in terms of the threat they pose to the moral and physical well-being of American society. As no less an authority than George W. Bush has declared, illegal drugs are sui generis in terms of their ability to rob Americans of their “innocence and ambition and hope.”[1] But are such substances really a class apart? Are their dangers truly of a different order from those posed by any other substance? The answer, in a nutshell, is no.

Chemically speaking, substances like pot, coke, and heroin are far too diverse to be regarded as in any way constituting a distinct, readily identifiable class. They are as different from one another in terms of their fundamental makeup as, say, alcohol and nicotine. In terms of their health effects, they are highly diverse as well. Pot, for example, is notably benign. Described by one of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own administrative law judges as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” it has never been linked to a single overdose death. As John Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York and co-author, with Lynn Zimmer, of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, is fond of pointing out, “The only way pot will kill you is if a bale of it falls on your head.” Despite years of federally funded research, concerns that regular marijuana use might lead to birth defects, reduced sperm counts, or a lowered immune system remain unsubstantiated. While studies indicate that regular pot smokers do suffer from a slightly higher incidence of respiratory disease (although not nearly as high as cigarette smokers), researchers have found nothing linking pot with such killers as emphysema and lung cancer—most likely because marijuana users inhale comparatively tiny portions of the substance.[2]

Cocaine and heroin, by contrast, do have serious health consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, they are responsible for an estimated 14,000 premature deaths per year in the United States alone. This is bad, certainly, yet it is a fraction of the 81,000 U.S. deaths that the CDC attributes to alcohol each year or the 430,000 it attributes to cigarettes.[3]

Bottom line: Illegal drugs are not a class apart in terms of their health consequences nor presumably, therefore, their moral consequences either. If that is the case, then why does the entire U.S. political establishment, liberal Democrats no less than conservative Republicans, insist that they are? Where Communism clearly did pose a mortal threat to U.S. capitalism, why does Washington insist on assigning that same role to a diverse group of chemicals that manifestly do not?

The answer is that there is no rational answer at all. This is what the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould meant when, in Dissent magazine in 1990, he labeled the drug war “a tragedy born of a phony taxonomy,” which is to say a false system of classification. Since pot, coke and heroin are not a class apart in terms of either their chemical composition or their impact on public health, he wrote, any attempt to construct a public policy on such an assumption can only wind up doing more harm than good. To quote Gould: “[H]ow can we possibly defend our current policy based on an absurd dichotomy that encourages us to view one class of substances with ultimate horror...while the two most dangerous and life-destroying substances by far, alcohol and tobacco, form a second class advertised in neon on every street corner of urban America…?”[4]

How indeed. Moreover, the more effort that goes into making such a policy work despite the absurd dichotomy on which it is based, the more damage it will wind up doing. The more the drug warriors turn up the volume concerning the dangers posed by illicit drugs, the more skeptical young people will become and hence the more inclined to see for themselves. Drug consumption will remain stubbornly high as a consequence, while drug production needed to meet demand will remain stubbornly high as well. Rather than reducing drug use, drug prohibition pumps it up to loftier levels.

Which leads to another question: If the drug war is obviously flawed, why don’t the drug warriors face facts that the crusade is not working and go back to the drawing board? Why escalate an unwinnable war if the only result is to make matters even worse?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to turn to a classic of drug historiography, Agency of Fear, a 1977 study by the well-known intelligence expert Edward Jay Epstein. Written when the modern drug war was still in its relative infancy, it argues that, historically, the goal has not been to stamp out drugs per se, but to create a war-time atmosphere of hysteria in which the government would feel justified in using extraordinary measures to counter an extraordinary threat.

Rather than eradication, the purpose of the drug war is thus war itself. If it is factually impossible to rebut arguments that illicit drugs are not uniquely threatening, then so much the better. Rather than addressing such arguments on their own terms, the logic of the anti-drug crusade requires that drug warriors mount deliberately irrational appeals whose goal is to sow confusion and fear. Rather than rendering U.S. citizens more capable of critical thought, the idea is to render them less—and hence easier to manipulate and control.

Epstein begins his tale with Richmond Pearson Hobson, a former naval officer who, as a member of Congress, crusaded against alcohol in the years leading up to Prohibition and then, in the 1920s, carved out a lucrative career for himself by crusading against drugs. As Agency of Fear tells it, Hobson specialized in regaling his middle-class audiences with nightmarish accounts of the hideous effects wrought by heroin and similar substances.

“The entire brain,” he wrote in 1924, “is immediately affected when narcotics are taken into the system. The upper cerebral regions, whose more delicate tissues, apparently the most recently developed and containing the shrine of the spirit, …are at first tremendously stimulated and then—quite soon—destroyed....” Hobson went on to declare that users have “an insane desire to make addicts of others,” and then played on xenophobic fears by adding: “Like the invasions and plagues of history, the scourge of narcotic drug addiction came out of Asia.”[5]

Little of it was true. As some of the more sober drug experts of the day already realized, heroin did not deprive users of their moral sense and did not afflict them with a vampire-like desire to addict others. Rather than emanating out of Asia, heroin boasted a sterling European pedigree, having been invented in Germany in 1898. Yet the truth was irrelevant. The theme of the vampire-like addict lurking in the shadows was picked up and embellished by generations of drug warriors in Hobson’s wake, from Harry J. Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 until 1962, to New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, author of the draconian drug laws that bear his name, and then to Richard Nixon a few years later.

As an internal Nixon Administration memo put it in 1970: “If the misuse of all drugs—illicit drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco—was discussed in only medical and public health terms, the problem of drug abuse would not take on inflated importance requiring an undeserved federal response.... However, because of the political significance of the problem, visible, hard-hitting programs must be highlighted to preclude irrational criticism.”[6] Politics required, in other words, that rational criticism be painted as irrational and vice versa so that the crusade could go forward. The real purpose was to confound and confuse so that, like frightened horses, the American public would be reduced to rearing and bucking at shadows.

The result, as Agency of Fear points out, was a manufactured crisis that key Nixon operatives like G. Gordon Liddy, a former Poughkeepsie, New York county prosecutor turned Nixon anti-drug warrior, hoped would allow them to operate in such a way that was “free of any normal restraints from the ‘bureaucracy,’ from congressional subcommittees, and from the press.” It was an effort that would culminate in the White House dirty tricks squad and the Watergate break-in.

From a war on reason, the drug war thus metastasized over the ensuing decades into a low-intensity military conflict whose ultimate target is political democracy. Rather than evading legislative or bureaucratic oversight, the idea has been to render oversight superfluous by enlisting Congress, the media, and ultimately the public itself in an all-consuming jihad. After all, a people unable to distinguish truth from falsehood when it came to drugs would be unable to distinguish truth from falsehood when it came to global warming, energy policy, separation of church and state, or tax cuts for the rich and famous. Because it would be unable to assess where its true interests lay, it would be all the more subject to domination and control.

Three decades later, the results are all too evident. From a sideshow to the struggle against Communism, the drug war has evolved into a self-perpetuating movement that grows larger and larger the worse the drug problem grows. Each new failure sparks renewed fanaticism. Where liberals and social democrats were hoping for a “peace dividend” in the aftermath of the Cold War, the drug war, with arrests up 43% since 1990 and the prison population nearly doubling, has expanded to fill the vacuum.[7] Given the stepped-up rhetoric now emanating from the Bush Administration—despite George W.’s refusal to answer questions concerning his own youthful drug use—the escalation promises to continue.

Internationally, the movement seems to be extending its reach as well, creating mini-Vietnams throughout the Andean region for no other reason than that is what the movement itself demands. The drug war is multiplying the social chaos in Colombia and sending it washing over the border into Brazil and Ecuador. It has caused repeated social turmoil in Bolivia and was a major force propping up the Fujimori regime in Peru. This is crazy—ordinarily, one would think that capitalism would demand stability rather than deepening turmoil—but then a movement whose ultimate goal is to encourage fear and hysteria is by definition immune to rational analysis.

On the other hand, perhaps it is not so crazy after all. The logic behind the drug war, it can be argued, is not too dissimilar from the logic that the Bush team employed during the epic post-election battle of November-December 2000. That effort also hinged on a simple premise, i.e. that merely by calling for a recount, Al Gore, in the view of former drug czar William Bennett and other top Republican honchos, was guilty of “a massive campaign to subvert” American democracy, of launching “a coup d’état,” and of attempting to steal a national election.[8] It was a massive propaganda campaign designed to bludgeon the public into believing that the candidate who had come in second in the popular vote had in fact won and that one who had come in first was cheating by virtue of demanding an honest and accurate tally. It was an attempt to stand truth on its head that might not have succeeded if years of drug-war propaganda had not prepared the way. Because generations of drug warriors had successfully turned black into white, GOP operators found the going all the easier in the waning days of the twentieth century.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that shortly after he was nominated, Attorney General John Ashcroft promised in an interview to “relaunch” the drug war on a new and intensified basis? Or that John P. Walters, the Bush Administration’s new drug czar, has vowed to step up intervention in Latin America, stiffen penalties against marijuana, and put a halt to further federal financing of needle-exchange programs that are meant to prevent the spread of AIDS?[9] Having already won one victory in the war against democracy, the Bush Administration is clearly preparing to wage another... and another. Where the Clinton Administration at least paid lip service to the goal of liberalizing Colombian society, the Bush Administration is clearly moving in the direction of something harder and more confrontational. If war for war’s sake is good, then more war is better. Rather than destroying Colombia in order to save it, it is destroying it merely so that the drug war can continue.

Daniel Lazare is a freelance writer who has written widely about drug issues, urban affairs and the U.S. Constitution. His latest book is America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It (Harcourt, 2001).

1. David E. Sanger, “Bush Names a Drug Czar And Addresses Criticism,” The New York Times, May 11, 2001, p. A20.
2. Ethan A. Nadelmann and Jann S. Wenner, “Toward a Sane National Drug Policy,” Rolling Stone, May 5, 1994, p. 24. Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan, Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts: A Review of the Scientific Evidence (New York: The Lindesmith Center, 1997), pp. 113-4.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Comparative Causes of Annual Deaths in the United States,” available at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/research_data/health_consequences/andths.htm.
4. Stephen Jay Gould, “Taxonomy as Politics,” Dissent, Winter 1990, p. 7.
5. Edward J. Epstein, Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), p. 27.
6. Edward J. Epstein, Agency of Fear, p. 184.
7. Annual drug arrests available from “Uniform Crime Reports,” published yearly by the Department of Justice, and available at www.fedstats.gov. For prison statistics, see www.sentencingproject.org.
8. William J. Bennett, “Gore Challenge Undermines U.S. Democracy,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2000, p. A36; “A Gore Coup d’Etat?” The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2000, p. A18. See also Paul A. Gigot, “Burgher Rebellion: GOP Turns Up Miami Heat,” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2000, p. A16.
9. Ethan A. Nadelmann, “Change of Tune on Drug Policy?” The Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2001, part 2, p. 13; Christopher Marquis, “Tough Conservative Picked for Drug Czar, Officials Say,” The New York Times, April 26, 2001, p. A20.

Tags: drug war, violence, democracy, militarization, US foreign policy

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