The roots of the fiasco 

From shoddy premises to final 'failure,' a look at the War on Drugs

I'd like to start off the new year, if I may, with a radical look at the War on Drugs — a close look at its roots and at the ugly growths that have resulted in America's failing social order today.

I'd like to take as my text a statement by — of all people — TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who commented recently on his 700 Club broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network: "We're locking up people that take a couple of puffs of marijuana, and the next thing you know they've got 10 years.

"I'm not exactly for the use of drugs — don't get me wrong," Pat said, "but I just believe that criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot and that kind of thing, I mean it's costing us a fortune and it's ruining young people. Young people go into prison ... as youths and they come out as hardened criminals, and it's not a good thing." Robertson's spokespersons later tried to back away, saying that he only wanted government to "revisit the severity of the existing laws," but the episode is telling.

Our subtext is provided by the Associated Press in a piece cited by Tony Newman in Alternet last month. The AP headline: "The U.S. drug war has met none of its goals." The AP said, "After 40 years, the United States War on Drugs has cost 1 trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence more brutal and widespread."

"This year," Newman adds, "Mexico President Calderon called for a debate on drug legalization to help reduce the bloody war in Mexico. Former Mexico President Vicente Fox has since gone further and called for an end to prohibition. Just last week, United Kingdom's Bob Ainsworth, the former drugs and defense minister, called for the legalization and regulation of drugs.

"All of this follows a 2009 report by three former Latin American presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, where they called the drug war a failure and emphasized the need to 'break the taboo' on an open and honest discussion on international drug policy."

"An open and honest discussion" would lead first to an examination of what the War on Drugs is all about: Why do they have a War on Drugs? What are its goals? Who are the combatants? Why has there been no measurable success at all?

First off, it's not a war on drugs per se, because all sorts of drugs are more prevalent than ever, and the pharmaceutical industry is indeed the most profitable of enterprises, but it's a war on recreational drugs and their users.

The purpose of the War on Drugs is to persecute and punish users of recreational drugs in an effort basically to try to keep people from getting high on substances ruled illegal by a political process with little regard for medical or moral niceties — nor for due process of law, for that matter.

Recreational drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin were once legal. One day, through some mystical process that took place in the houses of Congress and in state legislative bodies in turn, each of them was determined to be illegal.

Marijuana was declared a narcotic. The narcotics themselves were deemed to have no redeeming social value whatsoever. Users and suppliers would be subject to long punitive sentences up to and including life in prison, and there would be no provision for medical or mental health uses. The shit would be illegal, period. Case closed.

This "tissue of horseshit" (as William Burroughs would put it) was sold to lawmakers and the nation's press by a creep named Harry Anslinger not long after the repeal of alcohol prohibition (remember that?) in 1933. Four years later, the idiotic marijuana laws were enacted by Congress with absolutely no convincing medical evidence in support, and users of cocaine and heroin began to be characterized as bigger threats to society than bank robbers or kidnappers.

Like the great novelist Upton Sinclair (no relation) pointed out, as cited by Paul Armentano on AlterNet: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Quickly, however, the stakes progressed beyond simply Herr Anslinger's measly salary to spawn a vast legion of drug law enforcement personnel that gradually reshaped our nation's approach to the very nature of law enforcement itself.

This is all in my own lifetime. I was born four years after marijuana was criminalized, started smoking weed in 1962, and was a criminal user of marijuana until the age of 67, when I was recognized as a medical marijuana patient by the same State of Michigan that had held me for three years in its various prisons some 40 years before.

I started my own war against the marijuana laws 46 years ago this very month, even before the government admitted that there was a War on Drugs — or better said, a war on drug users. The drugs weren't going anywhere, and in fact the government itself has arguably been responsible for importing massive quantities of heroin and other drugs from Afghanistan and Southeast Asia since World War II.

The drug user is a pretty easy target for the drug police. The real criminal elements who present a law enforcement problem are the large-scale suppliers of drugs to the recreational drug users, and they're a problem because incredible sums of money are at stake in their operations as a result of the criminality of the drugs themselves.

If the drugs were legal, these people would be druggists, not criminal drug dealers, they would purvey a uniformly high-quality product and they would be taxed on their sales and earnings. Duh! Instead both users and suppliers are viciously demonized by the forces of law and order, and their parrots in the press, persecuted as a danger to society, and subjected to the entire range of penalties and punishments mandated by the lawmakers.

While I'm sick of hammering at the same old wall — not only for the past few months in this column but almost my entire adult life — somebody's got to say something to try to break this issue open and end the War on Drugs at last. There's progress on several important fronts, and the incessant hammering on the wall is beginning to be heard over the babble of law enforcement, legislators and the sensational media.

But we're fighting a fearsome opponent whose dimensions are revealed in news bites like these gleaned from an AP story by Barry Hatton and Martha Mendoza: "Arrests for marijuana possession in California totaled 61,000 last year — roughly triple the number in 1990" and "The U.S. is spending $74 billion this year on criminal and court proceedings for drug offenders, compared with $3.6 billion for treatment."

Hatton and Mendoza point out that "the first drug court in the U.S. opened 21 years ago. By 1999, there were 472; by 2005, 1,250. This year, new drug courts opened every week around the U.S., as states faced budget crises exacerbated by the high rate of incarceration on drug offenses. There are now drug courts in every state, more than 2,400 serving 120,000 people."

Now, they say, "even [U.S. drug czar] Kerlikowske has called for an end to the 'War on Drugs' rhetoric. 'Calling it a war really limits your resources,' he said. 'Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense.'"

No shit, Sherlock. How about ending the rhetoric and the War on Drugs itself — starting today? Happy New Year, everybody.

—Amsterdam, Dec. 29-31, 2010

More by John Sinclair

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