Why is there a drug war?
Mass incarceration and police brutality are no answer to either the gangs or drug-related health issues, argues Daniel Lazare
In a recent article about the gang violence enveloping Ecuador, Eddie Ford described the international war on drugs as “an insane exercise” that has “brought disaster whenever it has been tried” - but one that governments insist on pursuing regardless.1
He could not be more correct. In one country after another - not just Ecuador, but Haiti, the ‘northern triangle’ of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the Dominican Republic, etc - governments are busily destroying society in order to ‘save’ it. But this begs a question: why? Although Ford mentions “a combination of venality, desperation and self-interest” that is fuelling such scorched-earth tactics, it is unclear, exactly, where the self-interest lies in capsizing entire nations. If today’s ultra-imperialism is all about exporting capital and shifting manufacturing to low-wage nations, why demolish such societies instead of putting them to work? Wouldn’t US multinationals wring more profits out of Ecuador if it were peaceful and law-abiding rather than gang-ridden and ultra-violent?
Indeed, every month seems to bring news of some fresh drug-war failure. Despite decades of interdiction and eradication, cocaine production in Colombia has risen seven years in a row and is now at record levels. Relative to population, more people around the globe are using coke than ever before, while ever-inventive manufacturers are continually coming up with new ways of enticing them - with 87 new drug products introduced onto the market in the year 2021 alone. Instead of giving in, narcotraficantes (drug lords) are diversifying and switching to synthetic substitutes like fentanyl that are hyper-potent and virtually impossible to intercept.
As the UN puts it,
Synthetic drugs offer criminals several advantages: namely lower operational costs, fewer production impediments and reduced risks of detection, interdiction and prosecution, because they can be produced closer to destination. Supply reduction efforts may be increasingly challenged, as criminals employ new means of manufacture that are easier to conceal, use chemicals that fall outside of existing controls or access inputs within expanding chemical and pharmaceutical sectors, where it becomes easier to conceal diversion. Synthesis of drugs offers additional flexibility in terms of having no fixed geography and much shorter production times. Interdiction of drugs may be less effective, as illegal manufacture can be relocated and product quickly replaced.2
Instead of traffickers, it should be the drug warriors who are running up the white flag. Although no-one knows how big the illicit drug trade really is, a 2014 study put it as high as $652 billion a year.3 Adjusted for inflation, that is roughly what the US spends annually on the Pentagon. The result is an army of gangsters whose job is to manufacture, distribute, bribe and intimidate - as well as to rip each other off at every turn and shoot any and all innocent bystanders who get in the way.
“Fifty years into the world ‘war on drugs’, the drugs are winning,” a health-policy journal observes.4 So, again, why do governments stick with a losing cause?
The answer is that it is a mechanism that bourgeois society is using to propel itself to the right. Capitalism has set itself a number of goals in an era of neoliberalism. It wants to discipline the working class, envelope society in a straitjacket of police repression, and neutralise what little remains of political democracy. The drug war is one of the major ways of achieving those goals.
The drug war’s roots are impeccably racist and imperialist. They go back at least to the 1870s and 80s, when a growing enthusiasm for drug and alcohol prohibition intersected with similar efforts against prostitution and pornography. With its vast, moralistic and politically-attuned middle class, a newly-powerful United States helped lead the way.
In 1901, the US Senate adopted a resolution calling for “the destructive traffic in intoxicants” to be banned in black Africa. In 1902, Congress banned the sale of liquor to Pacific islanders, while in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt issued a call for “the universal prevention of liquor and opium traffic with all uncivilised tribes and races”.5 America banned the internal consumption of alcohol in 1919 and prohibited marijuana in 1937. In 1951, Congress hiked penalties for both pot and heroin on the grounds that blacks and Latinos were “pushing” them onto ‘innocent white teenagers’.6
But it was not until the onset of neoliberalism - indeed, slightly in advance of it - that the movement really took off. Richard Nixon began the process by launching Operation Intercept in 1969 - a 20-day shutdown of the US-Mexican border aimed at closing off a tidal wave of marijuana that was supposedly fuelling unrest on college campuses. Traffic backed up for miles, yet border guards seized no more pot than before the embargo.7
Undaunted, Nixon declared a national emergency in 1971. “If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America,” he proclaimed, “then it will surely in time destroy us.”8 Two decades later, John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide who served 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in, shed light on what was going through his boss’s mind. He told a reporter in 1994:
You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or [anti-] black, but, by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.9
The US prison population sextupled from 1971 on, while blacks wound up behind bars at five times the rate of whites.10 Yet, like scratching away at a rash, the effect was not to shrink the drug trade, but to inflame it. When the US began spraying Mexican marijuana fields with the weed killer, paraquat, in 1975, consumers responded by switching to the much-coveted Colombian Gold. But when president Julio Turbay launched a crackdown on Colombia’s Guajira peninsula, the centre of the marijuana trade, dealers responded by switching to cocaine, grown and processed in the Andean highlands hundreds of miles to the south. Coke is odourless, compact and hence easier to smuggle. It was also “worth almost six times its weight in gold”, as Time Magazine helpfully informed its readers.11 So it was far more profitable.
Prices thus plummeted, usage soared, and Democrats and Republicans competed with one another to see who could denounce the new evil of crack more vehemently. One of them was a senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.
“If you have a piece of crack cocaine no bigger than this quarter that I’m holding in my hand, if you’re caught with that, you go to jail for five years,” he said in 1991. “You get no probation, you get nothing other than five years in jail. The judge doesn’t have a choice.”12 Those who received such sentences were overwhelmingly black and poor. Needless to say, Biden’s son, Hunter, was not among them, even though he would later confess to smoking crack “every 15 minutes, seven days a week”.13
The poor go to prison, while the rich go to rehab. The upshot decades later is akin to a case of cancer that has spread to every part of his body: brain, lungs, kidney - you name it. In 2003, some 100,000 “social justice warriors” descended on Porto Alegre, Brazil, to hear people like Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy address the World Social Forum. “[W]e are a gathering force which might one day prove unstoppable,” gushed George Monbiot.14 Fifteen years later, Porto Alegre was overrun with coke and violence and was a Jair Bolsonaro stronghold.15 In the 1990s, Sweden had the lowest gun homicide rate in Europe.16 But now, with Helsingborg (located across the Öresund from Denmark) emerging as a major cocaine hub, it has the second highest.17 Drug violence has fuelled the rise of the ultra-right Sweden Democrats - now the second largest party in the Riksdag. With the SD declaring that Sweden has become a “breeding ground for international leagues, drug syndicates, terrorists and criminals”, the Social Democrats, not to be outdone, are calling for the army to be sent in as well.18
Yet the drug warriors want more. Noting that fentanyl’s inroads into the American market are causing excess cocaine to wash up on European shores, the neocon Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington recently recommended that the EU emulate US policy by ratcheting up penalties and policing. Where America “spends an average of $11 billion on supply-side reduction each year,” it says, the European Union spends just $3 to $4 billion - “an amount that ... only allows border security forces to interdict around 10-12% of the total flow of cocaine into the continent”.
Since “light penalties in Europe incentivise drug traffickers to continue their illicit trade,” CSIS adds, Europe should adopt “harsher penalties” so as to “deter subcontractors in the collection and distribution stages of the cocaine supply chain.”19
Bottom line: more cops, stiffer laws, bigger prisons and “coordinated cooperation among US, Caribbean and European stakeholders”: ie, following US diktat to the letter. If a US level of fatal drug overdoses - 106,000 per year according to the latest count20 - is what the EU wants, then that is what it will get if it follows CSIS advice and adopts the US model.
With America on the verge of a Trump takeover and far-right parties surging in the polls in Europe as well, rightwing authoritarianism is what it will get as well. Drugs, crime and immigration are not only roiling the waters from Rotterdam to the Rio Grande, but are shaking up Latin America too. After arresting more than one percent of the population in response to a terrifying wave of drug violence, El Salvador president Nayib Bukele won re-election on February 4 by a mind-boggling 87% margin. When drug gangs are recruiting your 12-year-old sons as hitmen and your daughters as prostitutes, Mussolini might not look so bad after all.
All too predictably, Bukelismo is sweeping the region. Peru wants to build a monument in his honour, Honduran politicians imitate his tough-guy and even his youthful fashion style, while protestors have taken to the streets in Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia and Guatemala to call for adoption of his policies. In Ecuador, where the government has imposed a state of emergency, a poll last summer found that Bukele was twice as popular as any politician at home.21
This is what drug prohibition leads to. If the outsourcing revolution of the 1980s and after has led to stepped-up coordination of production across the neo-colonial world, the drug war has led to stepped-up coordination of prisons and policing. The aim is to globalise an approach based on mass incarceration, police brutality, economic polarisation and rightwing populism. Nations cannot resist the trend individually, since they will be overwhelmed with drugs and violence the moment they let down their guard. Rather, the proletariat can only resist it internationally by defeating US imperialism as a whole.
It is either them or us, which is to say either the drug warriors and their policies of mass destruction or society in general. The goal should not be to liberate humanity from drugs so much as to liberate it from the drug war, which is many times worse.
‘Police, soldiers and gangs’, January 18: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1474/police-soldiers-and-gangs.↩︎
AH Taylor American diplomacy and the narcotics traffic, 1900-1939: a Study in international humanitarian reform Durham, NC, 1969, pp20-28.↩︎
www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ9hezfXmlQ. (The quote starts after two minutes).↩︎