Our Aggressive 'War on Drugs' Is Not Actually About Drugs

In 2016, Colombian President Juan Miguel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching a peace accord with FARC and ending a 50-year war that has ravaged Colombia.  In his address to the Nobel Committee, suggested that “The manner in which this war against drugs is being waged is equally orperhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined. It is time to change our strategy."

The manner in which this war has been waged is prohibition, a strategy of suppression that criminalizes all parties to trade in a given commodity.  Drug prohibition enables law enforcement to arrest and convict lots of people, but it never ever succeeds in eliminating, or even really reducing, drug traffic and use.  “Let me be clear,” said Santos. “The prohibitionist approach has been a failure.”  Except that it has succeeded wildly, in the U.S., in controlling and disenfranchising large social cohorts, young African American and Latino men. Santos’s comments are unprecedented in this hemisphere.  

Though there are European countries where narcotic possession and use are legal – so many demonstrations that legalization does not drive up the numbers of drug users, does not increase crime, and does not turn cities into drug dens – the prospect of legalization has never been realistic in the U.S..  And the liberalization of marijuana laws does not make it so.

Legalization of marijuana just reclassifies a drug that was misclassified to begin with; it does not change the structure of drug prohibition.  Opiates and cocaine and hallucinogens have never been anywhere near reclassification, and since the election and the prospect of the appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, even the gains of marijuana could be in question.  Sessions was recently quoted as saying he thought the KKK were good guys until he heard they smoked pot, and that prosecutions should be stepped up.  In his confirmation hearing, Sessions said no, he could not promise not to enforce federal marijuana laws, which has been the position of the Obama administration, as well as states and localities.

Did this election offer a challenge, then, to the basic principle of prohibitionism, with the legalization of recreational marijuana on the ballot in several states?  No, but its reclassification does have some significance.  It opens up a legal market with all the benefits: revenue, regulation of product and of industry practices, reduced inducement to corruption, and potential destigmatization.  Medical marijuana is very popular.  In recent years, at various levels, police have been instructed to forego arrests for small amounts of drugs, amounts that suggest personal consumption.

But the liberalization of marijuana laws and enforcement to date has been relatively superficial, meaning it can still be rolled back because nothing has yet happened to change our basic commitment to prohibitionism. As with the threat of detention, registry, deportation, individual mayors and commissioners can direct enforcement to step up arrests. The decline of stop-and frisk reduces the rate of this kind of arrest.  By contract, when stop-and-frisk is amped up again, those arrests increase. As with trickle-down economics and rampant deregulation, corrupt cronyism, or old-fashioned overt racism and male chauvinism, obsolete logics seem to rear up as we stand to lose so many legal and cultural gains. So too with the war on drugs.

Trump and Sessions have a range of worldviews available to them.  In contrast to Santos, there is Duterte of the Philippines, who is responsible for extrajudicial killings, and rounding up people suspected of drug activity to hold them in and mass detentions in inhumane conditions.  Thousands of people have been murdered in the months since Duterte’s accession to the Presidency.  This is “The War on Drugs” run amok, the specter  that represents the ad absurdum extension of prohibitionist policy, one calculated for maximal suffering.  And this is the strategy applauded by Trump after the election. In one of his impulsive phone calls, Trump called and affirmed the realization of Duterte’s promise to ramp up the drug war, to prevent the Philippines from becoming a narco state.

Trump inherits a very old war on drugs in the United States, one with prisons almost as overpopulated as Duterte’s detention centers, where the “insanity” of the “purely repressive approach,” “counterproductive and cruel,” is the law and practice of the land. This war on drugs goes back before Nixon’s famous declaration and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s.  Our national commitment to drug prohibition goes back almost as far as our commitment to alcohol prohibition, a thirteen-year disaster that dramatized all the perils of a strategy of suppression but somehow did not persuade us not to use the same one with narcotics.  With the installation of Harry J. Anslinger as Commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, the federal government began a campaign of drug prohibition which, during his three decades in office, in making into federal law.

So why, if it only took us thirteen years to prove that alcohol prohibition was both costly and ineffective, have we failed to question the warrant for a strategy that has failed for over seventy years and counting?

We maintain a drug prohibitionist policy and law in the United States because there is a socially desirable result, although reduction of drug traffic and use is not that result.  It is precisely because of the efficiency of racist and classist enforcement and administration of drug laws in effectively disenfranchising and disadvantaging huge cohorts of young African American and Latino men, those convicted of minor nonviolent drug offenses.  The damage to these men – and women are also affected, of course – and their communities is extensive; their disenfranchisement hurts everyone, or again, serves a regressive social agenda.


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