Five Questions the War on Drugs Should Answer

war on drug

Which war has been the longest war of the USA? No, it is not the 21 year War on Terror. It is the 51 year old War on Drugs, starting during the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Of course this great leader may have disturbed over the increasing drug addiction, but was the war on drugs primarily motivated by this? Not really, as statements of his own key aides reveal, the real motive was to go after the young people, including the hippies, and the blacks who were in the forefront of the anti-war movement and the anti-drug drives were found to be a convenient guise for going out after several of these war opponents and even sending them to jail on exaggerated charges.

This brings us to the second question of the impact of the War on Drugs on civil liberties. With the passage of time it became clear that the war on drugs was leading to a very large number on persons being sent to jail for non-violent drug offences. This began to peak in the years of the Ronald Reagan presidency. The number of prisoners indicted for non-violent drug offences increased rapidly from 50 thousand in 1980 to 400 thousand in 1997. The presence of blacks and Latinos among these prisoners has been very high. In other countries related to the US led war on drugs, the situation could be even worse. In the case of the war on drugs carried out during the tenure of President R. Duterte in the Philippines, for instance, it has been estimated that as many as about 12,000 Filipinos died in the war on drugs, most of them urban poor.

Perhaps the most disturbing question relates to whether, at the same time as the war on drugs was continuing and sometimes related to this, did several actions of the USA government and its agencies actually contribute to a big increase in the illegal production and trafficking of drugs, including opium and heroin (among others)?

During the decade of roughly the 1980s the USA government and in particular the CIA, with the close involvement of the Pakistani government, carried out a huge operation to assemble fundamentalist/fanatic fighters called mujahideens from many countries to fight the Soviet army and the communist regime in Afghanistan. Although the USA government spent big money on providing weapons to them, much more money was needed to support the mujahideens and their local supporters. These massive resources were raised by poppy or opium cultivation. It has been estimated that during this decade the opium production here increased by about 20 times. In course of time a large number of processing units sprang up on Pakistan-Afghanistan border to convert this opium into heroin. The CIA turned a blind eye to all this, arguing that their main aim was to defeat the Soviet army and topple the communist regime, and if in the process drug trafficking was increasing, well, it was bad but also Ok with them. This attitude soon came to haunt them as this region soon became the major supplier of heroin to the USA as well as to Europe.

After the Soviet army left Afghanistan, the interest of the USA dwindled and a number of war-lords now fought each other for greater power and control over territory. These warlords in turn used opium and arbitrarily imposed taxation on opium as their easiest source of earnings. As the Taliban helped by Pakistani authorities mobilized to gain control of Afghanistan, opium again appeared to be a quick source of earnings. Ironically, it was when the Taliban government had started taking the first steps to curb opium cultivation that it was ousted after the war on terror started following 9/11. Again when a guerilla war started against the USA army and regimes supported by it, opium again became the easiest source of earning for them.

While various USA interventions have been associated with a very big increase in opium cultivation and drug trafficking in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this was not the first time that USA foreign policy and military interventions had been related to drug trafficking. As David Ransom reported  in the New Internationalist (October 1971), the careers of several big barons of a leading opium producing area, ‘the golden crescent’ on the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, began when the CIA stimulated their activities during the Vietnam war. Later in the context of Nicaragua, Senator John Kerry’s subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism uncovered many, many links between the US-based Contra forces and drug trafficking. Then there was also the notorious Iran-Contragate scandal in which there was freelance drug dealing involving high US military officers in order to get around a Congressional ban on funding for the Contras. The investigations following the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) also revealed that this was being used by the CIA for laundering drug money to be channeled to the Contras. The Colombian drug cartel also used the same bank to launder drug money. The investigations following the collapse of Nugan Hand Bank in Australia also revealed the involvement of CIA agents employed here in drug trafficking.

Thus while the USA and its CIA encouraged, facilitated and increased drug trafficking at many levels and in many countries where it suited them to do so under the cover of fighting a war on drugs, did US policies also lead to increase in drug use in other ways, for example by contributing to making the life of blacks and other minorities more difficult and insecure, particularly in the inner city areas? Here too there is a lot of evidence that involvement of people in drug consumption as well as drug trafficking increased when there was denial of fair wage jobs and when welfare and employment programs faced big cuts.

Last but not the least is the all-important question–after jailing several million people and killing several thousand around the world, has the 51 year old war on drugs, involving many-sided expenditure of around 1000 billion or one trillion dollars, really led to any significant decrease in the consumption and use of drugs? Actually the present indication is that worldwide as well as in the USA use of various intoxication drugs, including use of illegal as well as legal drugs, appears to have increased. Within the USA, about 50% of the people are known to have tried drugs at least once in their life while about 13 to 20 per cent of adults are known to have used illicit drugs during the last year. On the other hand, if we consider only the 18-29 age group, this percentage can be even above 33%. About 70,000 people died from drug overdose in 2019, the number increasing further significantly in 2020. In addition nearly 50% drink alcohol, nearly 17% indulge in binge drinking and nearly 12% of adults are affected by Alcohol Use Disorder. In all this data, the extent to which women are affected is only a little less than men.

Hence clearly the war on drugs, despite all its avoidable violence, clampdown on human rights and vast expenditure, has not been able to create those social conditions in which people have less need for intoxication—when people have a strong ethical compass and when they have very happy, enduring human relationships, when they are engaged in so many highly relevant and public welfare pursuits that they have no need, time and inclination for intoxication.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.

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