In 1918, Randolph Bourne wrote an essay which came to be called War is the Health of the State. In it, he argued that the characteristics which define a state come to full flower only during military campaigns. War encourages nationalism, obedience, coercion, intolerance, and violence. The “first” world war, which prompted Bourne to write this piece, not only produced mass slaughter, but cranked up patriotism and repression in the united states and the other “homelands” with the result that anyone who spoke out against the killing was considered a traitor worthy only of contempt, and dissidents were arrested, beaten, killed, and imprisoned.
The word war has come to be used more loosely and metaphorically since Bourne’s day. There was the war on poverty and the war on cancer, neither of which were military operations, but both of which resulted in a surrender by the government. And then there is the ongoing war on drugs. This war shares some of the characteristics of the latter two in that the campaign involves government funding of research and education programs to counteract what it sees as a social problem. But it has come to resemble more and more a traditional war both in its strategy of aggressively and violently enforcing anti-drug laws domestically and its increasing use of military and political intervention in the affairs of other countries. While this war is, technically, not a military campaign, it is used to justify warlike government action both at home and abroad.
The Myth of Dangerous Drugs
The drug warriors believe that any use of recreational drugs that are not approved of by the government and polite society is a problem. In fact, it is considered not only a social problem, but a medical problem as well. The authorities would have us believe not only that regular users of cocaine, heroin, and even cannabis, are suffering from a disease called addiction, which, of course, requires expert medical treatment, but that any use of these drugs is harmful. Any bogus study which claims to prove that marijuana or coke are dangerous in heretofore unknown ways merits immediate coverage in the newspaper and on television. It can be the most patent nonsense, whether it is that smoking cocaine or methamphetamine is immediately addicting, that cannabis causes brain damage, or that snorting coke spreads hepatitis C. If something bad can be said about illegal drugs it will be.
In addition to exaggerating the adverse physical effects of illicit drugs, the experts have sold most people a bill of goods in the form of the addiction hypothesis. The theory goes that habitual users of cocaine methamphetamine, opium, etc, continue to use these drugs despite the financial, physical, and social effects their intemperate use can lead to, because they have a medical condition which compels them to continue getting high. This is nonsense. Using drugs, like any other habit, is ultimately a voluntary act over which the individual has control. For whatever reasons, some people find it easier to give up habits which serve them poorly, whether smoking meth or biting one’s fingernails, more easily than others. But just because some find it more difficult or distressing to change their behavior than do others, this does not mean they are ill. They have simply chosen unwisely, as many other people do in any of a number of areas of their lives.
Even the medical and legal powers-that-be who promote such misconceptions about drug users don’t really believe this crap, however. If they did, their approach would be different. In the case of real diseases, when people do not take recommended treatments or they continue to do things that make them sicker, they do not run the risk of ending up in jail for doing so. But when an addict is caught buying or using drugs they can be arrested and thrown in prison. Hardly a therapeutic intervention.
This punitive approach on the part of the state has also spread into private employment settings. People are routinely asked to piss in a cup for drug-testing before being hired, and can be tested at random in some occupations. Having a dirty urine, even if there is no problem with one’s work and no evidence that the person is under the influence of drugs during working hours can mean being fired, and in state-licensed occupations, being blackballed from working in one’s specialty unless one undergoes the torment of “rehabilitation” and constant surveillance.
Caution: Use of Police Powers Can Be Habit-forming
While the pseudo-medical approach to drug users has the flavor of social work about it, the warrior mentality comes out unadorned in the a government’s methods of dealing with those who provide the drugs. Punitive as the cops and courts can be in their approach to drug consumers, they reserve their special wrath for those who grow, sell, transport, or otherwise are involved in the supply end of the drugs trade. Most of those arrested for possession or use do not actually end up serving time in prison anymore, but thousands of people are arrested and do serious jail time simply for growing or selling a product others want to buy. Someone growing cannabis plants on federal land, for example can spend years in prison if caught. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws ensure severe penalties even for non-violent activities related to the drug trade.
The collateral damage in this war extends beyond drug users and their dealers. The war on drugs has led police departments to become more like the military with SWAT teams and snipers and armored vehicles. Squads of goons dressed in black lay siege to apartment houses, batter down doors, and terrorize uninvolved neighbors, who are forced out of their homes and onto the streets and sidewalks while the cops wreck their buildings in order to “protect” them by rooting out the evil drug sellers. And if, as often happens, the cops have wrong information from their paid informants, people who have no ties to drugs at all can be beaten, arrested, and even killed, before the police will admit they have made a mistake.
Besides allowing cops the excuse act like the bullies they are trained and desire to be, laws designed to fight drugs also encourage cops to go after people with minimal evidence. Forfeiture laws allow police to take possession of personal property that they contend was acquired with drug money, even in cases where the evidence is minimal. Simply having large amounts of cash on your person or in your home is presumptive of guilt to these thugs, and they are more than happy to relieve you of it. Even if the cases never go to trial, and they often don’t, it is almost impossible for people affected by these laws to regain the cash, homes, and/or vehicles stolen from them in the name of the drug war.
The Real Drug Wars
However violent and repressive the domestic drug campaign against drugs is, the toll on peaceful people in the united states pales in comparison to that taken on those in other countries to which the american government has exported its anti-drug policy. The american military killed hundreds in panama when it invaded that country to capture Noriega. American money and arms have fed the war of terror by the colombian military against farmers who grow coca there. And thousands have been killed in the area of mexico near the border with the united states, where american drug enforcement administration agents and mexican police are at virtual open war with drug traders.
Now that the war of terror is losing support among americans, the government is using the cultivation of opium poppies in part of afghanistan as a justification for its continued attacks against the people who live in that country. But even when there is no real evidence of any drug-related activity going on in some country whose rulers they dislike, the politicians will invoke the drug war as an excuse for their belligerence. If they can’t find other means to generate support for their destructive campaigns against other countries, american officials are not above making up charges of drug-trading to justify hostile propaganda and embargoes, as they have in the case of Cuba.
All of this murder and mayhem is bad enough, but the hypocrisy of american foreign policy related to drugs is almost incredible. During the war against the people who live in indochina, united states agents worked with heroin traders in the golden triangle. They supported Noriega for many years, during which time he was engaged in the activities for which the americans arrested and jailed him. At the time of the soviet occupation of afghanistan, american spies worked with opium growers to raise money for the islamist resistance, which ended up producing the taliban. And who can forget the CIA’s commerce in cocaine to raise money for their war against the Sandinista government and the people living in nicaragua. The united sates government has no business preaching to anyone, whether it is drug users or foreign governments, about the evils of illegal drugs.
What Prohibition Has Wrought
There is nothing inherently wrong with using cocaine, heroin, or cannabis. Using too much too often can cause problems, financial or physical or social, for people, but so can shopping or eating to excess, driving too fast, or taking too much aspirin. Lying about the supposed evils of recreational drugs and trying to prohibit their use not only does not keep people from using them, but drives them to use them in unsafe ways. Prohibition and the illegal trade in drugs that it creates, makes the product costly because of the risks involved and encourages adulteration of the goods, since there can be no above-ground quality control monitoring. Illegality leads to more concentrated products which are easier to transport secretly, so people end up smoking, snorting, or injecting coke instead of chewing coca leaves, a safer and cheaper method of administration. The same thing happened when alcohol was banned in the united states: people switched from low alcohol beverages like beer and wine to higher potency drinks like whiskey. Thus the drug war, like alcohol prohibition, has not made life safer for users.
Because the dangers involved in growing and selling illegal drugs lead to higher prices than these products would otherwise command, there is a lot of money to be made in this business. High profit margins and the lack of other methods of resolving disputes in such an underground enterprise lead to violent interactions between competing traders, as well as between the traders and the legal authorities, again as was the case during alcohol prohibition. So teenagers shoot each other on the streets of the united states, gang members kill cops in mexico, and american bombers murder farmers in afghanistan. And all to keep individuals from ingesting or injecting something they like into their own bodies.
The drug war has led to more violent policing, high rates of incarceration of non-violent law-breakers, the death of people uninvolved in drug use or commerce, and increased snooping into people’s personal lives by government and businesses in the united states. It has led to butchery by the armies of nasty little police states in latin america. It has served as an excuse for american military operations against people in other countries and propaganda campaigns against governments of which american officials disapprove.
The drug war, like other wars, may be the health of the state, but it has brought only misery to millions of regular people. Government action created the modern drugs problem, and the continuing war on drugs only makes it worse. Although the politicians eventually wised up and ended alcohol prohibition, this was largely because most americans were opposed to it and were fed up with the violence it produced. Unfortunately, most people today believe the lies spread by the government and its experts about other recreational drugs, although they are hardly different from the stories made up to justify banning alcohol. Until people wake up and reject the demonization of currently illegal drugs and the myth of addiction, this bloody war on drugs will continue to wreak havoc around the world.