Why our leaders wage war on drugs
And why this war is doomed
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / May 26, 2010
Ted McLaughlin recently wrote an article for The Rag Blog (“Prohibition II: A Trillion Dollars Down the Drain“) that cataloged the failures of the “war on drugs.” Basically, it hasn’t met its stated objectives to reduce the use of illicit drugs, it has cost a lot of the taxpayer’s money, and it has fueled the development of organized criminal elements.
All true and I have no quarrel with his conclusion that the government needs to admit that the whole effort has been a misguided failure. However, this failure has been glaringly apparent for many years and yet the policy continues. The National Research Council studied the efficacy of the war on drugs and concluded that existing studies were inconclusive, inadequate, and provided no basis on which to carry out a public policy of this magnitude.
This study was ignored by policy makers, leading one observer to conclude “the drug war has no interest in its own results.” There must be other benefits that our rulers derive from the war on drugs that we are not taking into account.
In addition to its inefficacy, the war on marijuana in particular has suffered from mounting evidence of pot’s benign nature and its beneficial effects. Despite considerable effort to do so, the anti-drug forces haven’t been able to link it with lung cancer. Some studies even suggest that pot may have a prophylactic effect against it. A pulmonary specialist who I’ve seen, a member of a large group of doctors in the same field, told me that in 17 years of practice, he had never seen a patient with lung cancer who had just smoked pot.
We need to grasp the real reasons the war on drugs is maintained in the face of its obvious failures. What is the corporate ruling class gaining from this policy despite the fact it isn’t accomplishing the objectives that are fed to the general public as justifications? There are several answers.
The war on drugs is an important means of social control. It gives the state a reason to employ many more agents of social control — police, border patrol, prison guards, and the related bureaucrats. It gives these agents a justification for interfering in people’s lives. It allows the state to incarcerate and disenfranchise millions of those who have, by violating drug laws, shown disrespect for the state’s authority.
This is especially useful in controlling potentially dissident non-white male populations. It is no historical coincidence that the racist Nixon kicked off the war on drugs in 1970, in the wake of years of major rioting in African-American communities. The racist character of making marijuana illegal was quite overt when we look at the justifications originally put forth in the 1930’s.
The war on drugs has always had racist elements like the continuing gross inequities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine. African-Americans comprise nearly three fourths of those jailed for drug offenses although they are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else.
The money generated by the illicit drug trade eventually gets laundered and spent. It filters into the regular economy and ends up in legitimate financial institutions. This has the normal multiplier effect within the overall economy as the money ultimately becomes available to these financial institutions for their own investments. They make billions from their investment of drug money without ever touching the illicit drug trade.
Hence, the drug trade is an important pillar of the economy. Were drug money to magically disappear overnight, the shock would send the economy into a depression. In relation to the economy its illegitimate origins are largely irrelevant.
Like the “defense” industry, the war on drugs establishes a system of transfer payments from the general population to the corporate ruling class. We are all taxed to support this policy. If the government has spent a trillion tax dollars to support the policy, where did it all go?
Outside of salaries paid to the state’s social control agents required by the program, the money is sent to the corporate entities that supply the hardware for it — private prisons, guns, electronics, cars, airplanes, uniforms, fences, etc. And like “defense” spending, drug war spending provides government guaranteed profits to the capitalist class who own the enterprises that support it.
This government spending generates a constituency from among those to whom it provides jobs. They naturally support the prohibition’s continuation. California’s powerful prison guard association is doing all it can to defeat the marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot there this November.
Marijuana is the primary drug at issue with exponentially more users than any other illicit drug. The money involved in the marijuana trade comprises probably half of all the money in the illicit drug business, although this is hard to measure given its widespread domestic production, amorphous distribution, and ubiquitous consumption.
The problem for the capitalist class is that marijuana makes for a uniquely poor legitimate commodity. It’s a weed that is easily grown anywhere and you don’t need a green thumb to grow powerful pot. Were it legal, too many people would just grow their own. The state has no means to tax what is growing in a person’s back yard. The capitalist class can’t package and sell a significantly better product than you can grow at home. Its production cannot be monopolized and, therefore, the capitalist class can only make money from marijuana if it’s illegal.
Finally, we cannot forget the principal reason marijuana was made illegal in the first place back in the 1930’s, through the combined efforts of timber, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, alcohol, and other industrial and agricultural interests. The first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, an anti-marijuana zealot, was married to the niece of major industrialist Andrew W. Mellon. As Secretary of the Treasury under Hoover, Mellon appointed Anslinger — whose qualifications, besides his marital status, were a two year business degree and working as a cop for the Pennsylvania Railroad — to head the anti-drug agency he led for the next 32 years.
Industrial interests Mellon represented didn’t want to compete with products made from hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive form, possibly the world’s most useful and valuable plant resource. Hemp oil could replace most uses of petroleum including medicines and gasoline. (Diesel, which can be produced from biomass and is now used by over half the cars in Europe and gets 30% better fuel economy than gasoline.)
Hemp’s fiber can be used for paper, textiles, building materials, cordage, and biodegradable plastics. Its seed and the oil produced from it are highly nutritious. It grows like crazy (up to 25 tons of dry matter per hectare) almost anywhere without fertilizers or pesticides, and can be grown by small farmers just as well as by large agribusinesses.
Hence, in its multitude of industrial applications as in its more familiar psychoactive uses, it is poorly suited to being controlled and monopolized by large corporations. All these reasons to prohibit hemp production are more relevant today to capitalists involved in the exploitation of difficult to extract non-renewable resources than they were in the 1930’s.
So the war on drugs continues, but there are major fissures in the system. One is the medical marijuana movement, obviously a foot in the door for legalization. After several years of proliferating medical marijuana efforts that now include nine states, there is a very good possibility that legalization will tale place in California in November as a result of a popular initiative.
It easily achieved ballot status and most polls indicate it will pass, although narrowly. Every opponent of the war on drugs ought to be sending money or volunteering to help this legalization effort. Once it is legal in California, the dam breaks and the rest of the country will be compelled to react.
Another major problem for the capitalist class is how the enrichment of the criminal organizations supplying drugs has destabilized whole countries, particularly Mexico and Afghanistan. Having a virtual civil war taking place just across our southern border is extremely problematic.
They don’t so much mind the piles of corpses, because those are mostly expendable young men who have found employment with the “drug cartels” or easily replaceable police. But they like stability above all and this situation is progressively destabilizing and corrupting of normal political processes. Additionally, as in Afghanistan, it provides a means of support for elements which are the sworn enemies of continued Western cultural proliferation — and that includes Coca-Cola and its ilk.
These negative byproducts of the system require changes, especially since a popular domestic movement for reform is growing stronger and the prohibition forces weaker, making perpetuation of the current system impossible.
What is the capitalist class to do? They will be split, with many capitalists in resource exploitive industries still worried about competing with hemp products. But the compromise position they are being forced into will require them to give way on marijuana. The popular movement for its legalization and the growing evidence that it is largely harmless or even beneficial makes the marijuana situation uncontrollable.
But there may be some value for them in its legalization, even if they can’t make much money from its use as a recreational drug. Perhaps, marijuana can provide them with an alternative and more subtle means of social control, the “soma” factor, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Since one can learn to drive well enough while stoned, maybe the working class will become more complacent and be just as productive if allowed to have marijuana. Thereby, the system is modernized and they can devote themselves to controlling the smaller and more isolated problems associated with cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.
In any event, with the burgeoning medical marijuana movement spreading across the country, they need to develop a new policy that protects their most basic interests. The long-standing status quo of war on drugs is coming to an end and our rulers are now faced with the obligation to devise a new fall back position.
Mariann G. Wizard contributed to this article.
[David P. Hamilton is an Austin-based activist and writer.]