The Drug War Industrial Complex
High Times Interview with Noam Chomsky, April 1998
by John Veit
HT: You've defined the War on Drugs as an instrument of population
control. How does it
CHOMSKY: Population control is actually a term I borrowed from the
counterinsurgency literature of the Kennedy years. The main targets at
the time were Southeast Asia and Latin America, where there was an awful
lot of popular ferment. They recognized that the population was
supporting popular forces that were calling for all kinds of social
change that the United States simply could not tolerate. And you could
control people in a number of ways. One way was just by terror and
violence, napalm bombing and so on, but they also worked on developing
other kinds of population-control measures to keep people subjugated,
ranging from propaganda to concentration camps. Propaganda is much more
effective when it is combined with terror.
You have the same problem domestically, where the public is constantly
getting out of control. You have to carry out measures to insure that
they remain passive and apathetic and obedient, and don't interfere with
privilege or power. It's a major theme of modern democracy. As the
mechanisms of democracy expand, like enfranchisement and growth, the
need to control people by other means increases.
So the growth of corporate propaganda in the United States more or less
parallels the growth of democracy, for quite straightforward reasons.
It's not any kind of secret. It is discussed very frankly and openly in
business literature and academic social-science journals. You have to
"fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men," in their standard
phraseology, to indoctrinate and regiment them in the way that armies
regiment their bodies. Those are population control measures. This
engineering or manufacture of consent is the essence of democracy,
because you have to insure that ignorant and meddlesome outsiders --
meaning we, the people -- don't interfere with the work of
the serious people who run public affairs in the interests of the
HT: How does the War on Drugs fit into this?
CHOMSKY: Well, one of the traditional and obvious ways of controlling
people in every society, whether it's a military dictatorship or a
democracy, is to frighten them. If people are frightened, they'll be
willing cede authority to their superiors who will protect them: "OK,
I'll let you run my life in order to protect me," that sort of
So the fear of drugs and the fear of crime is very much stimulated by
state and business
propaganda. The National Justice Commission repeatedly points out that
crime in the United States, while sort of high, is not off the spectrum
for industrialized societies. On the other hand, fear of crime is far
beyond other societies, and mostly stimulated by various propaganda. The
Drug War is an effort to stimulate fear of dangerous people from who we
have to protect ourselves. It is also, a direct form of control of what
are called "dangerous classes," those superfluous people who don't
really have a function contributing to profit-making and wealth. They
have to be somehow taken care of.
HT: In some other countries you just hang the rabble.
CHOMSKY: Yes, but in the U.S. you don't kill them, you put them in jail.
The economic policies of the 1980's sharply increased inequality,
concentrating such economic growth as there was, which was not enormous,
in very few hands. The top few percent of the population got extremely
wealthy as profits went through the roof, and meanwhile median-income
wages were stagnating or declining sharply since the '70's. You're
getting a large mass of people who are insecure, suffering from
difficulty to misery, or something in between. A lot of them are
basically going to be arrested, because you have to control them.
HT: It's absolutely true, but how do you prove it?
CHOMSKY: Just by looking at the trend lines for marijuana. Marijuana use
was peaking in the late '70's, but there was not much criminalization.
You didn't go to jail for having marijuana then because the people using
it were nice folks like us, the children of the rich. You don't throw
them into jail any more than you throw corporate executives into jail --
even though corporate crime is more costly and dangerous than street
crime. But then in the '80's the use of various "unhealthy" substances
started to decline among more educated sectors: marijuana and tobacco
smoking, alcohol, red meat, coffee, this whole category of stuff. On the
other hand, usage remained steady among poorer sectors of the
population. In the United States, poor and black correlation -- they're
not identical, but there's a correlation -- and in poor, black and
hispanic sectors of the population the use of such substances remained
So take a look at those trends. When you call for a War on Drugs, you
know exactly who you're going to pick up: poor black people. You're not
going to pick up rich white people: you don't go after them anyway. In
the upper-middle class suburb where I live, if somebody goes home and
sniffs cocaine, police don't break into their house.
So there are many factors making the Drug War a war against the poor,
largely poor people of color. And those are the people they have to get
rid of. During the period these economic policies were being instituted,
the incarceration rate was shooting up, but crime wasn't, it was steady
or declining. But imprisonment went way up. By the late '80's, in terms
of imprisoning our population, we were way ahead of the rest of the
world, way ahead of any other industrial society.
HT: Who benefits from incarcerating young black males?
CHOMSKY: A lot of people. Poor people are basically superfluous for
wealth production, and therefore the wealthy want to get rid of them.
The rich also frighten everyone else, because if you're afraid of these
people, then you submit to state authority. But beyond that, it's a
state industry. Since the 1930's, every businessman has understood that
a private capitalist economy must have massive state subsidies; the only
question is what form that state subsidy will take? In the United States
the main form has been through the military system. The most dynamic
aspects of the economy -- conputers, the Internet, the aeronautical
industry, pharmaceuticals -- have fed off the military system. But the
crime-control industry, as it's called by criminologists, is becoming
the fastest-growing industry in America.
And it's state industry, publicly funded. It's the construction
industry, the real estate industry, and also high tech firms. It's
gotten to a sufficient scale that high-technology and military
contractors are looking to it as a market for techniques of high-tech
control and surveillance, so you can monitor what people do in their
private activities with complicated electronic devices and
supercomputers: monitoring their telephone calls and urinalyses and so
forth. In fact, the time will probably come
when this superfluous population can be locked up in private apartments,
not jails, and just monitored to track when they do something wrong, say
the wrong thing, go the wrong direction.
HT: House arrest for the masses.
CHOMSKY: It's enough of an industry so that the major defense-industry
firms are interested; you can read about it in The Wall Street Journal.
The big law firms and investment houses are interested: Merrill Lynch is
floating big loans for prison construction. If you take the whole
system, it's probably approaching the scale of the Pentagon.
Also, this is a terrific work force. We hear fuss about prison labor in
China, but prison labor is standard here. It's very cheap, it doesn't
organize, the workers don't ask for rights, you don't have to worry
about health benefits because the public is paying for everything. It's
what's called a 'flexible' workforce, the kind of thing economists like:
you have the workers when you want them, and you throw them out when you
don't want them.
And what's more it's an old American tradition. There was a big
industrial revolution in parts of the South in the early part of this
century, in northern Georgia and Kentucky and Alabama and it was based
mostly around prison labor. The slaves had been technically freed, but
after a few years, they were basically slaves again. One way of
controlling them was to throw them in jail, where they became a
controlled labor force. That's the core of the modern industrial
revolution in the South, which continued in Georgia to the 1920's and to
the Second World War in places like Mississippi.
Now it's being revived. In Oregon and California there's a fairly
substantial textile industry in the prisons, with exports to Asia. At
the very time people were complaining about prison labor in China,
California and Oregon are exporting prison-made textiles to China. They
even have a line called "Prison Blues."
And it goes all the way up to advanced technology like data processing.
In the state of Washington, Boeing workers are protesting the exports of
jobs to China, but they're probably unaware that their jobs are being
exported to nearby prisons, where machinists are doing work for Boeing
under circumstances that the management is delighted over, for obvious
HT: And most of these prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders.
CHOMSKY: The enormous rate of growth of the prison population has been
mostly drug related. The last figures I saw showed that over half the
federal prison population, and maybe a quarter in state prisons, are
drug offenders. In New York State, for example, a twenty-dollar street
sale or possession of an ounce of cocaine will get you the same sentence
as arson with intent to murder. The three-strikes legislation is going
to blow it right through the sky. The third arrest can be for some minor
drug offense, and you'll go to jail forever.
HT: The Drug Czar's office estimates that Americans spend $57 billion
annually on illegal drugs. What effect does this have on the global
CHOMSKY: Well, the United Nations tries to monitor the international
drug trade, and their estimates are on the order of $400 to $500 billion
-- half a trillion dollars a year -- in trade alone, which makes it
higher than oil, something like 10 percent of the world trade. Where
this money comes and goes to is mostly unknown, but general estimates
are that maybe 60 percent of it passes through US banks. After that, a
lot goes to offshore tax havens. It's so obscure that nobody monitors
it, and nobody wants to. But the Commerce Department every year
publishes figures on foreign direct investment -- where US investment is
going -- and through the '90s the big excitement has been the " new
emerging markets " like Latin America. And it turns out that a quarter
foreign direct investment is going to Bermuda, another 15 percent to the
Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, another 10 percent to Panama, and so on.
Now, they're not building steel factories. The most benign
interpretation is that it's just tax havens. And the less benign
interpretation is that it's one way of passing illegal money into places
where it will not be monitored. We really don't know, because it is not
investigated. This is not the task of the Justice Department, which is
to go after a black kid in the ghetto who has a joint in his pocket.
HT: What do you think of the US policy of offering trade and aid favors
to countries who
promulgate so-called antidrug initiatives?
CHOMSKY: Actually, US programs radically increase the use of drugs. Look
at the big growth in cocaine production that has exploded in the Andes
over the last few years, in Columbia and Peru and Bolivia. Why are
Bolivian peasants, for instance producing coca? The neoliberal
structural-adjustment policies of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund, which are run by the US, try to drive peasants into
agro-export, producing not for local consumption but for sale abroad.
They want to reduce social programs, like spending for health and
education, cutting government deficits by increasing exports. And they
cut back tariffs so that we can pour our highly subsidized food exports
into their countries, which of course undercuts peasant production. Put
all that together and what do you get? You get a huge increase in
Bolivian coca production, as their only comparative advantage.
The same is true in Columbia, where US "food for peace" aid, as it is
called, was used to destroy wheat production by essentially giving
food---at what amounts to US taxpayer expense---through US
agro-exporters to undercut wheat production there, which later cut
coffee production and their ability to set prices in any reasonably
And the end result is they turn to something else, and one of the things
they turn to is coca production. In fact, if you look at the total
effect of US policies, it has been to increase drugs.
HT: Well, anybody who looks into the history of American drug policies
in this century...
CHOMSKY: I'm putting aside another factor altogether, namely clandestine
warfare. If you look into the history of what is called the CIA, which
means the US White House, it's secret wars, clandestine warfare, the
trail of drug production just follows. It started in France after the
Second World War when the United States was essentially trying to
reinstate the traditional social order, to rehabilitate Fascist
collaborators, wipe out the Resistance and destroy the unions and so on.
The first thing they did was reconstitute the Mafia, as strikebreakers
or for other such useful services. And the mafia doesn't do it for fun,
so there was tradeoff: Essentially they allowed them to reinstitute the
heroin-production system, which had been destroyed by the Fascists. The
Fascists tended to run a pretty tight ship; they didn't want any
competition, so they wiped out the Mafia. But the US reconstituted it,
first in southern Italy, and then in southern France with the Corsican
Mafia. That's where the famous French Connection comes from.
That was the main heroin center for many years. Then the US terrorist
activities shifted over to Southeast Asia. If you want to carry out
terrorist activities, you need local people to do it for you, and you
also need secret money to pay for it, clandestine hidden money. Well if
you need to hire thugs and murderers with secret money, there aren't
many options. One of them is the drug connection. The so-called Golden
Triangle around Burma, Laos and Thailand became a big drug-producting
area with the help of the United States, as part of the secret wars
against those populations.
In Central America, it was partly exposed in the Contra hearings, though
it was mostly suppressed. But there's no question that the Reagan
administration's terrorist operations in Central America were closely
connected with drug trafficking.
Afghanistan became one of the biggest centers of drug trafficking in the
world in the 1980s, because that was the payoff for the forces to which
the US was contributing millions of dollars: the same extreme Islamic
fundamentalists who are now tearing the country to shreds.
It's been true throughout the world. It's not that the US is trying to
increase the use of drugs, it's just the natural thing to do. If you
were in a position where you had to hire thugs and gangsters to kill
peasants and break strikes, and you had to do it with untraceable money,
what would come to your mind?
HT: Where do you stand on drug legalization?
CHOMSKY: Nobody knows what the effect would be. Anyone who tells you
they know is just
stupid or lying., because nobody knows. These are things that have to be
tried, you have to experiment to see what the effects are.
Most soft drugs are already legal, mainly alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco
is by far the biggest killer among all the psychoactives. Alcohol deaths
are a little hard to estimate, because an awful lot of violent deaths
are associated with alcohol. Way down below come "hard" drugs, a tiny
fraction of the deaths from alcohol and tobacco, maybe ten or twenty
thousand deaths per year. The fastest growing hard drugs are APS,
amphetamine-type substances, produced mostly in the US.
As far as the rest of the drugs are concerned, marijuana is not known to
be very harmful. I mean, it's generally assumed it's not good for you,
but coffee isn't good for you, tea isn't good for you, chocolate cake
isn't good for you either. It would be crazy to criminalize coffee, even
though it's harmful.
The United States is one of very few countries where this is considered
a moral issue. In most countries it's considered a medical issue. In
most countries you don't have politicians getting up screaming about how
tough they're going to be on drugs. So the first thing we've got to do
is move out of the phase of population control, and into the sphere of
social issues. The Rand Corporation estimates that if you compare the
effect of criminal programs versus educational programs at reducing drug
use, educational programs are way ahead by about a factor of seven.
HT: But alarmist drug-propaganda programs like DARE and the Partnership
for a Drug-Free
America's TV ads have been found to increase experimentation among
CHOMSKY: The question is, what kind of education are you doing?
Educational programs aren't the only category. Education also has to do
with the social circumstances in which drugs are used. The answer to
that is not throwing people in jail. The answer is to try and figure
what's going on in their lives, their family, do they need medical care
and so on? This very striking decline in substance abuse among educated
sectors, as I said, goes across the spectrum -- red meat, coffee,
tobacco, everything. That's education. It wasn't that there was an
educational program that said to stop drinking coffee, it's just that
attitudes toward oneself and towards health, how we live and so on,
changed among the more educated sectors of the population, and these
things went down. And none of it had to do with criminalization. It just
had to do with a rise in the cultural and educational level, which led
to more care for oneself.