The drug war


Imagine you are the leader of a political party with the following problems. A poor country in your hemisphere is sitting on enormous oil reserves, which your country wishes to exploit, but the natives do not believe they should live to serve your country. People in your country are wary of military engagements, perhaps still stinging from the last time you assaulted a third-world country to maintain your hold on global hegemony. Poor people and racial minorities in your own country tend to vote for the opposing political party and make the same sorts of demands these uppity third-world natives make. Finally, you wish to maintain a certain rate of unemployment, in order to preserve wealth maldistribution in your country. While it is politically unfeasible to leave the permanently unemployed portion of your population to die, any kind of welfare program diverts needed resources from corporate welfare handouts and tax cuts for wealthy contributors. What do you do?

If you said, “start a war on drugs,” you understand policy as well as anyone in the Nixon administration. For Richard Nixon, a man who did not like “putting more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls” and who characterized Mexicans as “dishonest” and prone to stealing, the War on Drugs solved innumerable problems. While racial stereotypes have played a significant role in drug regulation, Nixon elevated this American tradition to a new level, and Reagan, Bush, Clinton and W. have enthusiastically continued and expanded it.

Black men have been the primary America casualties in the drug war. The U.S. prison population, relatively stable from 1926 until 1970, has increased from 200,000 to 2.4 million, with the most impressive gains occurring during the Clinton administration. Although there are five times more white drug users than black, blacks comprise 62.7 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prison. Five percent of all black male adults are in prison, and mandatory minimum sentence laws ensure that these prisoners spend a decade or more learning little more than how to commit more serious crimes.

The genius of this assault on racial minorities is that they cannot fight back. Forty-seven states disenfranchise felons, 14 of them permanently, and 13 percent of all black male adults cannot vote. Many southern states enacted these laws alongside poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy and property tests in response to the Fifteenth Amendment (giving blacks the right to vote). Democrats might consider which candidate the 3.9 million disenfranchised felons and ex-felons in this country would likely have voted for in 2000.

A RAND Corporation study reveals that treatment and education programs work as well as police efforts, at one-fifteenth the cost. As for stopping the supply of drugs, 1 percent of the world drug crop could satisfy U.S. demand, yet this is roughly the amount the DEA could seize in its best year (leaving the other 99 percent available). Border interdiction has failed, and the government will not likely pursue chemical companies who illegally provide ingredients for cocaine production. Of course, a shift to treatment would damage the highly profitable prison industry that has arisen to respond to the exponential growth in incarceration.

“Defense” is an even bigger racket than the prison industrial complex, but since Vietnam made Americans wary of military engagement, the government has needed to provide a compelling pretext for deployment of weapons and personnel in Latin America. The war on drugs has served this purpose nicely. Through “Plan Colombia,” we are sending Colombia $1.3 billion, rivaling the military aid we send to Israel and Turkey.

If, as the GAO reports, source-country reduction efforts are failing, why would we send money to a government whose military has one of the worst human rights records in the world? The answer is “oil.” We get more oil from Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador than from the entire Middle East. Legislators supporting the drug war receive handsome contributions from BP Amoco, Shell and Exxon Mobil, all of whom are finding that indigenous peoples want to preserve their “property rights” and “protect their environment.”

Colombian military and paramilitary troops carry out 60 percent of the world’s trade unionist executions, racking up 3,800 since 1986. They also assassinate Catholic priests and human rights organizers who advocate for the poor. Peasants have been “disappearing” at an alarming rate, and 14 Colombians die from political violence every day.

We are all still reeling from the horrific acts of September 11, when evil announced its existence to the world in the most vivid way. However, evil works most frequently and most effectively in silence and shadow, feeding on the willingness of good people to ignore its presence. Whether or not those who designed, implemented and continue to carry out the drug war intended to inflict the widespread misery I have described, they have inflicted it, and it is time to stop.

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