American death trip

The war on drugs has been a horrendous failure. So, asks Daniel Lazare, why do governments remain hooked on repression?

When a Mexican drug gang kidnapped four Americans in the border town of Matamoros two weeks ago, killing two and wounding a third, the usual suspects in Washington gave vent to the threats and hysteria we have come to expect.

Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s attorney general, declared that “the cartels are responsible for the deaths of Americans” and that “the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and FBI are doing everything possible to dismantle and disrupt and ultimately prosecute the leaders of the cartels and their networks that they depend on”. William Barr, Garland’s predecessor as AG under Donald Trump, said that the US should “use every tool” to combat Mexican drug lords. “We have to use economic, we have to use intelligence assets, military assets, and law enforcement.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican from South Carolina, vowed to “put Mexico on notice: if you continue to give safe haven to fentanyl drug dealers, you are an enemy of the United States”.

And then there was Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right congresswoman from Georgia, who is a force to be reckoned with, now that Republicans have taken over the House of Representatives. “I can’t understand why we’re fighting a war in Ukraine,” she said, “and we’re not bombing the Mexican cartels who are poisoning Americans every single day.”

Drugs, kidnappings, murder - is there any problem that US bombs cannot solve? Rhetoric like this is dangerous and militaristic, needless to say. But it is also a first-class political puzzle, since it is obvious after decades of brute force that the only result has been to take a minor drug problem and make it a thousand times worse. So why does the US still do it?

The failures go back decades. In the 1960s, the Mexican drug trade consisted mainly of day labourers earning side money by transporting paper bags full of marijuana to Texas, California and other border states. When Richard Nixon declared war on pot in September 1969, traffic backed up for miles at border crossings, as thousands of border patrolmen combed through cars, clothing, purses and reportedly even school lunchboxes. Yet after three weeks, all they found was 3,102 pounds of the stuff, which, if you do the maths, is enough for roughly one joint for every 30 US adults.1

A drug inundation it was not. But, while Operation Intercept, as it was known, may have led to spot shortages on US campuses, what it mainly succeeded in doing was persuading smugglers to abandon land transport and switch to air instead. Within months, border towns were abuzz with Piper Cubs dropping off bales and sacks, so that college students in places like Massachusetts and Wisconsin could get high listening to acid rock.

“They fly low and slow, by the light of the moon, and make $50,000 a night,” The New York Times reported two years later. “They use some private planes and old military transports and land on deserted airstrips or sagebrush-covered desert. Their cargo is marijuana, cocaine and heroin.”2

When Mexico began spraying marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat, Colombians took over, flying a bit faster this time into South Florida. When Colombian officials responded by spraying a weed-killer called glyphosate,3 traffickers shifted their attention to coca fields farther to the south. After all, cocaine is compact, odourless, non-biodegradable and far more profitable to boot. So why make thousands when you can make millions instead?

The cocaine boom was on - not despite the drug war, but because of it. As supply expanded, prices plunged so low that coke went from a party drug of the Hollywood elite to the favourite inebriant of the inner-city poor in the form of crack.

Since then, drug panics have followed regular as clockwork - first crack, then heroin and oxycontin, then methamphetamine and fentanyl, and now an animal tranquiliser called xylazine, which can lead to severe skin ulcers and even limb amputations when injected.4 Philadelphia is reportedly full of it, as are Detroit, Baltimore and other US cities. “Tranq is basically zombifying people’s bodies,” a 28-year-old user told the Murdoch-owned Sky News. “Until nine months ago, I never had wounds. Now there are holes in my legs and feet.”5

Xylazine is still legal, while fentanyl - so super-potent that two milligrams can be fatal - is effectively unstoppable. Instead of making people healthier, the drug war is ushering in substances that are making them sicker and sicker.

Side effects

The result is a rerun of the 1920s, although on grander scale. Alcohol prohibition in the US had a number of unexpected side effects. One was gangsterism: eg, Al Capone in Chicago, the Purple Gang in Detroit, etc. Another was an explosion in drinking, thanks to the so-called ‘forbidden fruit’, syndrome. (Criminalising a substance turns out to make it more glamorous and desirable.)

But a third was a shift from mild to ever more potent substances. Beer disappeared in 1920s America, because bootleggers saw no point dealing with a substance that is 95% water. Rotgut proliferated instead - cheap, home-made concoctions that used everything from dead rats to rotten meat to simulate the tastes of bourbon whiskey.6 To discourage misuse, the US Treasury ordered manufacturers in 1926 to “denature” industrial alcohol by adding a range of poisons, including kerosene, brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline and benzene. As a further disincentive, the Treasury stipulated that industrial alcohol contain up to 10% methanol as well.

Known as wood alcohol, methyl alcohol led to outbreaks of mass poisoning that saw 400 deaths in New York City alone in 1926 and 700 more in 1927. The city medical examiner charged:

The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol, yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes.

Yet with some 30,000 bars known as ‘speakeasies’, drinking in New York continued to climb.7 Government policies were killing people, just as they are doing today.

Basically, the difference between prohibition then and prohibition now is the difference between a biplane and an F-35. Back in the 1920s, prohibition was limited to the US, as the rest of the world looked on in either bemusement or dismay. Today, drug prohibition is a global enterprise, employing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide - growers, processors, smugglers, dealers and enforcers. The blue-ribbon Global Commission on Drugs, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, estimates that the international drug trade amounts to $500 billion a year, that efforts to combat it cost $100 billion a year, and that illegal opiate production has nonetheless risen nearly tenfold since 1980. The commission says in its latest report:

Massive defiance of the law erodes fundamental adhesion to the rule of law. When laws are ignored on such a scale in any jurisdiction, they are usually reviewed and modernized. But, when it comes to drug laws, their inability to adapt to societal needs is ignored and, if anything, they are enforced with additional zeal through even more repression, thereby causing more harm, while feeding the cycle of defiance.8

Bourgeois governments are hooked on repression. In Mexico, drug-related homicides have quadrupled from 8,867 in 2007, when then-president Felipe Calderón declared his own war on drugs under intense US pressure, to 36,661 as of 2019. Homicides have soared in the “golden triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - weak states that international cartels have all but taken over. Haiti, which has also emerged as a major transhipment centre, has seen a volcano of gang violence that has brought with it social breakdown, food insecurity, the worsening of mass diseases, such as cholera, and huge numbers of refugees.9 With thousands of people desperate to flee such hellish conditions, the only response of the Biden administration has been to send the US Coast Guard to prevent their escape.

Like Gaza or the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, Haiti is little more than an open-air prison - created by capitalism in its neoliberal, imperial stage.


But this leads to the puzzle: why? Rather than a country saturated with drug violence, would America not prefer a nice, peaceful Mexico, filled with hard-working people who smoke marijuana, the way Italians drink wine or Germans drink beer? Would that not be better for US exports, not to mention US maquiladoras that employ thousands of workers along the 2,000-mile US-Mexican border?

The answer in some abstract sense is ‘yes’. But, for concrete reasons, the US ruling class says ‘no’. One is that the drug war is now a global industry. Millions of cops, military officers and prison guards - not to mention government contractors and entrepreneurs - add up to a vital constituency that could not care less if their efforts are making matters worse. All they know is that the war must go on, so that money continues to flow.

Another is that, whereas the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933 meant a return to a status quo ante that Americans remembered from just a dozen or so years earlier, repeal of drug prohibition would mean advancing into a brave new world, in which the concept of drug abuse would have to be completely rethought. Legalisation would be a social experiment on a giant scale, stretching from Argentina and West Africa to Scandinavia. But, since a concerted policy change like this is beyond the reach of an anarchic nation-state system, individual governments find it easier to stick with established policy rather than advancing to something better.

But that assumes that the ruling class wants to advance, when in fact it derives immense benefits from the status quo. ‘Plan Colombia’ - the anti-drug initiative signed by Bill Clinton and Colombian president Andrés Pastrana in 2000 - illustrates this perfectly. It flowed directly out of US-backed efforts to counter leftwing guerrilla movements like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN), both founded in 1964. The emergence of the drug cartels in the 1970s had injected additional levels of violence into an already strife-torn country, while Plan Colombia would inject still more. As if that was not enough, the post-9/11 war on terror added additional volatility that put Colombia over the edge.

“Please, we must understand that drugs have the capability for mass destruction equivalent to that of the most feared chemical weapon,” Álvaro Uribe, Pastrana’s far-right successor, told the UN in 2002. But 75% of anti-drug financing went to security forces during Plan Colombia’s first year of operation, while, by 2003, an estimated 5,000 US soldiers and contractors were working out of the US embassy in Bogota - a larger force than anywhere outside of Afghanistan or Iraq. The US flooded the country with military hardware, including ‘smart bombs’ aimed at decapitating the FARC-ELN leadership, while Uribe handed out cash rewards to anyone who killed a member of the guerrilla forces. Thousands of civilians died at the hands of soldiers and rightwing paramilitaries.10

Today, Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world, surpassed only by Israel and Egypt. It provides military and police training throughout the region and, since 2019, has been a Nato “global partner” as well.11 With FARC and ELN defeated, Colombia is meanwhile the most economically unequal country in Latin America after Honduras, with 37.5% of the population living below the poverty line.12

So the drug war has not worked out too badly for the ruling class after all. Incessant drug panics meanwhile lead to hysteria, which results in further regimentation, militarism and control - all increasingly important for a US intent on drumming up support for its proxy war in Ukraine and its incipient war in the western Pacific. Militarisation and regimentation are also vital, when it comes to suppressing leftwing dissent.

Who cares if Mexico is a “failed narco state … held hostage by tens of thousands of paramilitary members of terrorist organizations”, to quote Bill Barr, as long as US-owned maquiladoras are union-free?13 In the eyes of the US ruling class - and the Mexican elite as well - that is better than a workers’ Mexico governed by socialists.

So bombs away!

  1. druglibrary.net/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/CU59.html.↩︎

  2. timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1971/11/30/79408648.html?pageNumber=1.↩︎

  3. www.upi.com/Archives/1984/07/10/Colombia-has-begun-to-spray-its-marijuana-with-a/7024458280000.↩︎

  4. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3080818.↩︎

  5. news.sky.com/story/tranq-dope-a-new-drug-is-rotting-peoples-skin-and-causing-horror-on-us-streets-12810916.↩︎

  6. www.smithsonianmag.com/history/modern-craft-cocktail-movement-got-its-start-during-prohibition-180971265.↩︎

  7. slate.com/technology/2010/02/the-little-told-story-of-how-the-u-s-government-poisoned-alcohol-during-prohibition.html.↩︎

  8. www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Time_to_end_prohibition_EN_2021_report.pdf.↩︎

  9. news.un.org/en/story/2023/03/1134097.↩︎

  10. www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/08/us-war-drugs-helped-unleash-violence-colombia-today.↩︎

  11. jacobin.com/2021/12/colombia-right-wing-uribismo-2022-election-petro.↩︎

  12. www.reuters.com/breakingviews/guest-view-colombias-struggle-against-poverty-2021-05-11.↩︎

  13. www.foxnews.com/media/mexican-cartels-dealt-like-isis-4-americans-kidnapped-barr.↩︎