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  Rethinking Drug Prohibition:
      Don't Look for U.S. Govt. Leadership

    Peter Webster

    Drug Prohibition is today too important a tool for U.S. political institutions, and too critical an issue for certain economic interests, to expect that significant drug-law reform will be initiated in the United States. One certain indicator that significant reform in the U.S. is still remote is that at present it is rarely (if ever) suggested in political discourse, and only occasionally in the national media that current drug policy is a Prohibition analogous in every respect to America's infamous "noble experiment" of National Alcohol Prohibition. As a harbinger of and catalyst for drug-law reform, popular recognition of the history of a long series of failed Prohibitions and the close parallels between former Prohibitionist efforts and current drug policy would provide the example and imperative for necessary change. That U.S. political institutions and economic interests avoid discussing the obvious can only be intentional, for it is not logical.
    But the realization that reform will not originate in Washington is not to say that the growing reform movement within the United States is doomed to failure. On the contrary, it has become the model for similarly-minded groups elsewhere and, in its combat against Drug Prohibition at home, will force the U.S. Government into increasingly absurd positions which the governments of other nations will simply refuse to emulate. Although such a development has only begun to show early signs and may seem a fanciful hope to many reformers, it will almost certainly be the eventual scenario which defeats Drug Prohibition.
    Pressure for reform is certainly growing in the U.S. and it is forcing the government into a spiraling and ugly obduracy. U.S. reform groups are becoming well-organized, highly visible and frequently reported in the press, and they have convinced a great many former Prohibitionists that present policy is simply untenable, extremely wasteful, and aggravates the very problems it purports to solve. While the Prohibitionists pompously insist they occupy the moral high ground—the last refuge when truth has evaporated from one's position—the reformers seem lately to have the facts squarely on their side, to such an extent that the Prohibitionists, even the vaunted Drug Czar, refuse to enter into public debate with them. Instead, Prohibitionists content themselves in issuing inflammatory propaganda from the safety of their inner sanctums, and sponsoring bogus "research" while denying the efforts of legitimate investigators.
    A further certain indicator that the U.S. government fully intends carrying through to the bitter end is its reaction to the passage of Medical Marijuana Initiatives in California and Arizona in November of 1996. This development, its success an indicator of the growing influence of the reform movement, was perhaps the best and last opportunity for honorable retreat, for the U.S. Government to gradually back away from total Drug Prohibition. Instead, it appears that the resolve for yet further hardening of position has been the result: medical doctors have been threatened with prosecution if they would even recommend marijuana as a possible therapeutic remedy according to Initiative guidelines, and ways are being discussed in the various legislatures, governors' mansions and drug enforcement agencies to nullify the will of the people. The media have widely reported accusations by the Prohibitionists about the voters being "stupid" and "duped" for having overwhelmingly approved the Initiatives. The latest moves by federal and state government Prohibitionists in recommending yet further "research" on medical marijuana are certainly tactical, and aimed at delaying and diluting the successes of the reform movement. The tardiness of these latest moves argues the case.
    Abroad, the United States has been attempting to squelch or discredit any moves in other nations toward modest efforts at drug law reform or efforts aimed at harm reduction or decriminalization. In U.S. publications and speeches to Congress, for instance, we constantly hear about the "disaster of Holland's lenient drug policies", especially the de facto legalization of cannabis, available in "coffeeshops" throughout the country. Even a casual glance at Dutch government and international studies of the situation, however, reveals that the disaster is that other nations do not forthwith establish similar measures: the Dutch approach has, in fact, been highly effective at reducing consumption, especially of hard drugs by the young, has saved enormous sums from enforcement efforts, justice system and prison costs, it has brought a far higher proportion of hard drug addicts into pubic health care than in other countries, reduced the spread of AIDS, and produced other undeniable benefits as well.
    Recently an Associated Press newswire story recounted the success in Switzerland of a trial program supplying heroin to addicts. Very few U.S. newspapers, and none of consequence, carried the story. Instead, the news that made the headlines was a typically exaggerated interpretation of the latest NIDA sponsored research: many media reports suggested the results had proved once and for all that marijuana was addictive and a certain gateway to the "harder stuff". Yet close examination of the research showed no such thing. As a result of the Swiss success, Holland, Australia, and other nations are seriously considering pilot programs and certainly many key medical and government figures outside the U.S. are realizing that the "drug problem" is far more the result of Drug Prohibition than drug use.
    But the U.S. government is not about to let such realizations and reforms gather momentum without a fight, and it looks to be one involving low blows and dirty tricks, rather than above-board international debate—another sure sign that truth has long evaporated from the U.S. Prohibitionist position. In a very revealing report in an Australian newspaper, we read of the covert pressure used by the U.S. and its "narcotics-control" agencies to ensure that Australia does not give in to increasing public demands for drug law reform. The story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of July 19, 1997, a major Australian national newspaper, and was titled, "The real drug war: Why the US won't let Australia reform its drug laws." The article noted that
    "Wherever a nation seems about to break ranks, the US will be there, cajoling or threatening. As a result, the UN and US between them have achieved a remarkable international consensus, the more astonishing for surviving the almost universal verdict that the strategy of drug prohibition has failed."
    America is in the throes of an addiction, to be sure. But it is to Drug Prohibition far more than to drug use. A great tolerance has now developed, just like the classic, if somewhat mythological tolerance to heroin: Enormous and wildly increasing budgets are squandered on ever-increasing doses of the Drug Prohibition habit, and vehement denials that the Prohibition habit is the problem are heard frequently along with pronouncements that with one more big fix of "enforcement and interdiction" the drug problem will be resolved. And in great irrational fear of the imagined rigors of withdrawal, the addict is ready to commit any disgrace, deception, crime or doublethink whatsoever to get his fix. Let us examine some of the reasons for this addiction to Drug Prohibition. There are many current imperatives for Prohibition, although most, if not all of these reasons have only recently become important. Neither is it necessary that present reality reflect original intent: In politics, any tool at hand is used, and misused.
    Quite the contrary to Prohibitionist propaganda, the drug war is not about preventing the harms associated with people using illegal substances, it is not even about protecting young people from discovering their use, and it is certainly not about improving the conditions of life in inner cities. It is about:
  • Political power at every level: from local mayoral and chief-of-police campaigns and posturing, to national party political jockeying, to use as a tool and lever for international "influence" (read: coercion).

  • Investments and profits: the Prison Industry has become a Wall Street darling. According to Justice Department figures, state and federal prison capacity has increased by 41% in the five years through 1995, with 213 new prisons being built. Treatment centers and research, and the drug testing industry are also now "big business" with important institutional investors having a big stake in continued, if not accelerated growth. Many Prohibitionists have been revealed as having investments in these industries. Even the weapons industry is making significant profit as more and more arms, planes and helicopters are supplied to nations far and wide for their drug war cooperation.

  • The preservation of profits for pharmaceutical industries: In the case of medical uses of marijuana, pharmaceutical houses stand to lose significant revenue even if marijuana were approved as an alternative for just a few of its potential applications such as anti-nausea and glaucoma therapy. If marijuana, as is likely, should become an even occasional substitute for some big-selling anti-depressives and tranquilizers, or sleeping remedies, analgesics, pre-menstrual syndrome remedies and other applications, major losses for pharmaceutical houses would result. Marijuana, of course, is unpatentable, cheap and easy to produce, and not even taxable to a significant extent without large black market sources developing in response.

  • The survival and growth of the alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries: These large Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) obviously fear for their customer base as evidenced by their significant funding for anti-drug groups such as PDFA, DARE, and other Prohibitionist interests. "Sin-tax" revenues enjoyed by several layers of government, which are enormous and would be difficult to replace, are also a certain factor in maintaining the Prohibitionist status quo.

  • The TNC's best propaganda organ: Since in the U.S. the partnership between TNCs and government is stronger than in other countries, and the U.S. government is the prime mover and architect of such things as international free trade treaties which are nothing but carte blanche invitations for big business to exploit at will, we may conclude that the resistance of TNCs to drug policy reform will express itself first and foremost through their primary mouthpiece, the U.S. government.

  • The Power of TNCs to maintain and increase consumerism: It is a little-discussed phenomenon these days, yet was much used as a justification for hysteria in the 1960s, that users of marijuana and psychedelic drugs seemed in general to become less enamored with capitalist principles of ever-increasing consumption of the products of the system. It seems upon reflection, and a study of the relevant literature supports the notion, that a society which might adopt the use of these age-old substances for other than strictly medical purposes would indeed tend to become satisfied with simpler, less wasteful, and more ecological modes of existence.

  • Social control: Even ignoring the possibility that the repeal of Drug Prohibition might conceivably lead to a popular reassessment of modern economic imperatives, and thus be strenuously resisted by some economic interests, Drug Prohibition is certainly a mechanism of social control in an even more important sense, and reminiscent of the McCarthy period in its fanatic pursuit to "cleanse" America of its "un-American" elements and dissidents. Particularly with regard to the now widespread practice of drug testing in companies nation-wide, the writer Ellen Willis has observed a link between the drug test and the loyalty oath required of all good anti-Communists in the 50s: "The purpose of this '80s version of the loyalty oath is less to deter drug use than to make people undergo a humiliating ritual of subordination: 'When I say pee, you pee.'" In his book, The New Temperance, professor David Wagner writes:
"The urine test—along with mandatory sentencing and other severe behavioral controls central to the drug war—is a power strategy that mirrors the "personal is political" radicalism of the 1960s.It takes seriously the proposition that those who resist the dictates of power, whether or not such resistance is framed as "political" in the conventional sense, are enemies and are undermining production, public order, and rationality. Like the loyalty oath and the "naming of names," the policing of everyday life—which in schools, for example, focuses on behaviors such as smoking, speech, and sexuality—requires Americans, from an early age on, to comply with the norms of the powerful without asking questions, and to accept the right of the state and corporate power to hold their bodies captive. Ultimately, it is not important whether drug testing finds traces of a drug in a student's urine or if locker searches turn up cigarettes or guns or pornographic literature. Rather, it is the policing itself that makes the point about who is in control."

  • Forfeiture, on mere suspicion of drug-related activities or the word of anonymous paid police informers, with the proceeds to the agents of social control at every level: The forfeiture of bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, even funds necessary for legal fees defending oneself against forfeiture in the absence of any criminal charges (the great majority of cases) has become a national scandal in the U.S. That the enforcement agencies, from the local police on up to the DEA and the Justice Department itself retain, and now depend on such revenues will make reform next to impossible. Even modest efforts such as the Henry Hyde bill now before Congress are either impossible to get solid backing for, or are watered down to insignificance at the insistence of police lobbyists and the Justice Department.

  • Readily available source of anonymous funding for CIA and other "secret" operations: Apart from the recent flap about cocaine-dealing purportedly aided by CIA complicity or at least willful ignorance, there is plenty of reliable evidence that the CIA has been very close indeed to at least some aspects of the international drug trade, and for a very long time. (See, for example, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W. McCoy). Such involvement has routinely been associated with the funding of groups or movements which assist the CIA in its clandestine schemes, often carried out in defiance of Congressional authority. Many current books and articles detail such involvement, and do not seem at all wildly exaggerated. Of course the CIA and the U.S. Government vehemently deny any such involvement. What could one expect?

  • Federal control and monitoring in ways that would otherwise be resisted: For example, the constant crackdowns on "money-laundering" and the various restrictions on currency movements and financial transactions that have resulted from drug war enforcement are a convenient means for the U.S. government to control and more precisely monitor all financial dealings worldwide. The partnership between big business and government in the U.S. would obviously value such control and knowledge of world finance in its plan for economic "leadership", or hegemony as it would be called for any other nation. Economic imperialism is not to be ruled out as a suitably descriptive term.

  • An excuse for future invasions in South and Central America (and elsewhere): In response to terrorist (read: populist) movements which might endanger U.S. and TNC investments in "developing" countries through such things as land reform measures and nationalization and redistribution of resources to native populations, purported drug dealing by such regimes may well provide a convenient justification for U.S. interference. Any time a successful populist or reformist movement breaks out, watch for accusations of "drug barons" being shielded in such a country. Even at present, it has been convincingly suggested that arms, planes and helicopters supplied to some "drug-source" nations "to fight the War on Drugs " are actually being employed against populist movements.

  • Scapegoat and demon to replace Communism and communists: Much propaganda has been written about the "demise" of communism, the "end" of the cold war, and the "peace dividend," but certainly America has been in need of an omnipresent mortal enemy since the fall of Russian and Eastern European communist regimes. Designated demons such as Quaddafi and Saddam seem to lose their appeal as a universal menace all too quickly, so the "drug problem" has been neatly tailored to fit the bill. "Drugs" have been called everything from "public enemy number one" to "the greatest threat to the future of civilization," the absurdity of such statements being exceeded only by that of public subscription to their veracity.

  • Distraction from real problems: In recent years, and despite the trumpetings of politicians, Wall Street, and the Barons of Big Business, grave economic and social problems continue to plague the American people. Most are working more for less, job and health security have become an illusion for many, Americans are suffering the consequences of declining community and educational standards, often not even bothering to participate in elections for the perception that government lying and corruption simply cannot be changed, and the less fortunate of the middle-class have suffered even more. Poverty now afflicts one child in five, and the gap between the rich and the poor has been increasing for decades. The list is lengthy, and makes the focus on the "drug problem" a disgrace that may someday be seen as a hypocrisy and dumb-show typical of the decline and fall of civilizations, assuming there will still be historians around to write of such things.

  • Tool of racism: The racial disparity in prohibition's enforcement and imprisonment of drug law violators hardly needs further comment. The drug war is a very effective way to prevent blacks and other minorities from organizing dissent and gaining power, or even from getting jobs and voting. The War on Drugs is also the current manifestation of a religious and cultural fundamentalism which began with the Spanish Inquisition, New-World Colonialism, and the still-continuing 500-year extermination of ancient and "primitive" peoples whose traditions have always used these drugs. At the beginning it was the European priests and Inquisitors who were condemning the use of peyote and such as a manifestation of the devil. Today the Drug Inquisition continues apace.

  • The continued growth of the DEA as a major bureaucracy: Any such agency which does not grow, meeting or exceeding its annually-increasing budget, is doomed. A major lesson of the practice of Western Democracy might have been a variant of Occam's Razor: Do not multiply government agencies beyond necessity. Like bogus theories, they tend to take on a life of their own and soon bedevil the capacity for rational thought.

  • Hubris: The unabated continuation of the War on Drugs is also about the pernicious habit of the United States to refuse to admit that it has been wrong. Vietnam, slavery, Native Americans, Cuba, Nicaragua, assassinations and dirty deeds, the list of American sins which have never been publicly admitted, much less atoned for, is lengthy. To reverse Drug Prohibition would necessarily be to admit enormous waste and gravely mistaken long-term policy.

  • Temperance: As noted in David Wagner's book quoted above, the War on Drugs is the current manifestation of the long-continuing American Temperance movement and represents a peculiarly Puritanical American paradigm about the role of law and government in controlling personal behavior. Drug Prohibition today, as Professor Wagner shows in his final chapter, is very much about eradicating and demonizing the "Sixties" and all that the freedom movements of the time represent for individual liberty and the rectification of long-standing abuses in America, abuses in flagrant contradiction to the founding principles of the nation.

  • Marijuana: Finally, the War on Drugs is mostly about marijuana. Marijuana arrests, convictions, incarcerations, and the seizure of property in marijuana cases constitute the great majority of "drug-war incidents." Without marijuana Prohibition, the War on Drugs and its bloated budgets are simply not justifiable, nor the DEA, nor foreign intervention, nor political anti-drug posturing; without marijuana Prohibition the whole War on Drugs would soon fall apart. World War has never been fought against a more benign enemy.

    In view of such considerations it is more than obvious that a political consensus to back away from Drug Prohibition, even one driven by popular demand, will not be forthcoming in the United States of America. The more that European and other interested governments can band together to resist the U.S. lead in Drug Prohibition, the sooner we can expect some repudiation, timid and cautious at first, but angry and definitive eventually, of that great 20th Century drug trip on which the United States and its Puritan zealots have taken us. It has been a bumpy, and certainly not a fun ride, and a deplorable number of innocents have fallen victim to the Drug Prohibition Blitzkrieg.
    As I pointed out above, Drug Prohibition is now preponderantly about the Prohibition of marijuana, so the logical first step for Europe and the rest of the world will begin with not just the decriminalization of marijuana use which will leave the black market intact, and thus the "reform" open to legitimate criticism, but the repeal of Marijuana Prohibition itself. Nothing less will do, and there is simply no other alternative for nations espousing liberty and personal freedoms than a continuing and increasingly radical reorientation of policy concerning all drugs and drug issues. Only a timely and confident move in such a direction can avoid future defacto world domination through the mechanisms enabled by U.S. Prohibitionism. The politics of the War on Drugs is a politics of creeping totalitarianism: it will most certainly lead to the end of free societies as we know them.

Peter Webster     email: vignes@monaco.mc

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