Rethinking Drug Prohibition:
Don't Look for U.S. Govt. Leadership
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 groundthe last refuge when truth has evaporated
from one's positionthe 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
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 debateanother 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,
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"
- 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
- 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
- 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 testalong with mandatory sentencing and other
severe behavioral controls central to the drug waris 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 lifewhich in schools, for example, focuses
on behaviors such as smoking, speech, and sexualityrequires
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
Peter Webster email: firstname.lastname@example.org