The Drug War: a War on Poor, Lower Classes

Alexander Cockburn is coauthor with Jeffrey St. Clair of "Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press," to be published next month by Verso

We believe the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.” This was the banner on a double-page ad in the New York Times on Monday, timed to coincide with the big United Nations’ special session in New York on drugs. Hundreds of prominent people from around the world signed on to the view that the drug war has been a disaster and “the time has come for a truly open and honest dialogue about future global drug control policies.”

The statements to which the signatories put their names are mostly unimpeachable common sense: “Drug war politics impede public health efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Human rights are violated, environmental assaults perpetrated and prisons inundated with hundreds of thousands of drug law violators.”

All true, and every phrase repeated, proved and doubly proved year after year.

So why does the drug war grind on, decade after decade, immune to reason, often grotesque in its hypocrisy? How can one listen without laughing to the solemn posturing of the U.S. government about the recent sting on Mexican banks for their washing of drug money, without a word about corresponding drug-money laundering by U.S. banks?


The answer is plain enough, particularly if one takes a look at the history of drug wars over the past 150 years. These drug wars are either enterprises that expand the drug trade or pretexts for social and political repression. In either case, the aim of halting the production, shipment and consumption of drugs is not on the agenda.

In the mid-19th century, the British fought two drug wars to force the Chinese to accept imports of opium from India. Nearly a century and a half later, as it contemplated intervention against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the Carter administration initiated the spending of covert billions on what was, if we view it realistically, another drug war, as one of President Carter’s own advisors predicted. As he later recalled, David Musto, a White House member of the president’s Council on Drug Abuse, told his boss that “we were going into Afghanistan to support the opium growers in their rebellion against the Soviets.”

As covert U.S. military aid soared, so did Afghan opium production, tripling between 1979 and 1982. By 1982, in U.N. and Drug Enforcement Administration figures, the Afghan heroin producers--romanticized by U.S. politicians and press as “freedom fighters"--had captured 60% of the heroin market in Western Europe and the U.S. They had of course the all-important asset of being anti-communist.

All the millions sent by the U.S. to Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, allegedly to battle drug lords, have never made a dent in the drug trade. But they have helped Latin American armies and police crush peasant insurgencies and murder labor organizers.


Domestically, the “drug war” has always been a pretext for social control, going back to the racist application of drug laws against Chinese laborers in the recession of the 1870s when these workers were viewed as competition for the dwindling number of jobs available. The main users, middle-class white men and women taking opium in liquid form as “tonics,” weren’t harassed. But the Chinese Exclusion Act allowed Chinese opium addicts to be arrested and deported.

In the 1930s, the racist head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Harry Anslinger, was renaming hemp as “marijuana” to associate it with Mexican laborers and claiming that marijuana could “arouse in blacks and Hispanics a state of menacing fury or homicidal attack.”

As he was so often, President Nixon was helpfully explicit in his private remarks. H.R. Haldeman recorded in his diary a briefing by the president in 1969, prior to launching of the war on drugs: “Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

So what was “the system” duly devised? The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, with its 29 new minimum mandatory sentences, and the 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between possession of crack and powder cocaine, became a system for locking up a disproportionate number of black people.

So to call for a “truly open and honest dialogue” about drug policy, as all those distinguished signatories in the advertisement requested, is about as realistic as asking the U.S. government to nationalize the oil industry. Essentially, the drug war is a war on the poor and the dangerous classes, here and elsewhere. How many governments are going to give up on that?