What Is the ‘War on Drugs’?


What Is the ‘War on Drugs’?

By Barry Sheppard

Nixon proclaimed the “War on Drugs” four decades ago. Since that time, drug use around the world has skyrocketed.

From 1998 to 2008 alone, globally opiate use has risen 34.5 percent, cocaine 28 percent, and marijuana 8.5 percent.

People in the U.S. are the world’s largest users of cocaine, Colombian heroin, Mexican heroin, and marijuana. When Nixon launched the “war,” his initial budget for it was $100 million for the first year. This has ballooned year after year, until in 2011, it was $15.6 billion for that year alone.

There are many commentators who proclaim that the “war on drugs” has failed, given these facts.

Why then does this “war” continue – it looks like into the far future, like its cousin, the “War on Terror”? Was its objective, perhaps, not drug use at all? For an answer, let’s look at its actual results, and leave aside the advertising used to sell it.

One result has been the mushrooming of the U.S. prison population due in the main to drug crimes. In 1980, 800,000 people were incarcerated in America. At the end of 2009, the number rose to 2.3 million.

If the number of people on parole or probation are included, the number jumps to 7.2 million.

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, at around 740 per 100,000 inhabitants. Russia is next, with 575, followed by Rwanda, 560. Australia in 2010 had 133.

There is a big racial disparity among those in jails and prisons. Non-Latino Blacks account for about 40 percent of those currently jailed. The Census Bureau puts Blacks at about 13 percent of the population. Latinos comprise 21 percent of those behind bars, compared with16 percent of the population.

To understand all this, we should take a look at “crime.” To commit a crime means to violate a law, whether it is a law against workers’ striking, tax evasion, burglary, etc. etc.

“Organized crime” means some thing more. It refers to capitalist businesses that provide commodities such as drugs, or services such as prostitution, loan sharking, or certain forms of gambling which are illegal but in high demand. Because they are illegal, the capitalist concerns engaged in these pursuits run the risks of being prosecuted.

They deal with this risk in many costly ways. One is the use of armed force to defend their businesses against the various police agencies. Related to the use of armed force is the use of part of their profits to corrupt the police and governments at all levels, international, national, state and local. Without this corruption, these businesses could not function.

There are other costs to running organized crime, including the hiring of attorneys, paying financial institutions to launder their money, and so forth.

All these risks and costs drive up the prices for the goods and services these capitalist organizations provide.

These illegal capitalist firms, operating alongside the legal ones, are also able to charge much more than the value of their goods and services on an open market, precisely because they are illegal, resulting in super-profits.

The drug cartels are one aspect of such illegal capitalist enterprises, although they may also be involved with prostitution, gambling, etc. As in any capitalist enterprise, the big profits go to the top, and taper off down the hierarchy.

The police do make “drug busts,” and arrests. They must or the whole “war on drugs” would be exposed as phony. But they most often go after the little guys, and especially the drug users. A key part of the operation is that the law makes not only the providing of the illegal drugs a crime, but criminalizes the users.

Since the “war” was declared, the U.S. has arrested more than 37 million non-violent drug offenders, mainly users, and a high percentage of these is for marijuana use.

The big capitalists at the top of the drug syndicates are almost never arrested. In the rare cases that they are, it’s because the police have been paid by rival criminal organizations. Those at the top pay off their muscle and underlings, and the bribes, etc. But they also reinvest part of their profits in legal capitalist enterprises, and become entwined with them.

They don’t just bribe bankers to launder their money, they become bankers.

At the bottom of organized crime enterprises are the gangs that actually deliver the goods, including drugs. It is these soldiers on the ground that look out for cop raids, and defend their “turf” – areas where they establish monopolies on the sale of the drugs.

Especially affected are the Black ghettos and Latino barrios. The high rates of unemployment that preceded the Great Recession (which have only skyrocketed since) among youth in these communities means that there is a large pool of young people looking for some kind of a way out, who can be recruited as foot soldiers by the capitalist drug enterprises.

The defense of their “turfs” leads to gang warfare and shootings, including of bystanders. In a vicious circle, such violence leads to calls for “law and order” campaigns. Many ordinary Black and Latino workers are affected by the violence and give partial support to such efforts, but then fall victim themselves to the increased police violence, which is indiscriminate and often racially motivated.

Whites of course also use illegal drugs, and the drug cartels serve them, too. And there are white drug gangs at the bottom doing the final sales. Many white users also drive into Black and Latino communities looking for drugs.

In this racist society, Blacks and Latinos are arrested disproportional to whites for the same crimes, and receive longer sentences. Even the crimes are divided racially. For example the sentence for using crack cocaine, which is cheaper and used more in poor communities, is much stiffer than for powdered cocaine, favored by the more affluent.

The “war on drugs” thus intensifies racism, which has historically been used to divide the working class. That’s one function it carries out well.

Another function is to increase the prison-industrial complex, which has grown into a new massive industry, one which is being increasingly privatized, run for profit.

Those incarcerated are mainly from the working class, and are deprived of the vote, many even after they are released. This dovetails with current efforts to push back on Black voting rights won in the civil rights revolution.

The last thing the drug cartels want is to legalize the drug trade. That would cut into their super-profits. The vast network of corrupt officials who directly benefit also are opposed. The many legal businesses entwined with the drug cartels also would lose out. The “War on Drugs” is in reality a “War to Keep Drugs Illegal.”

There is no question that many of these drugs are harmful. Many are less so, however, than alcohol and tobacco, which are legal. This should be dealt with as a health problem, not a criminal one, and regulated as such.

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