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Drug War

From dKosopedia

The phrase, "Drug War" is a metaphorical term, coined by Richard Nixon in the early 1970's, that is used to describe the United States governments effort to reduce or eliminate illegal use of controlled substances and narcotics amongst the general population (see DEA Drug Scheduling). In addition to criminal prosecution, the government has employed frequent and extensive media campaigns. What follows is a brief summary of a few different interpretations of the intent, effects, and history of the "Drug War".



The War on Drugs is fought on two fronts: the "internal" front, in the neighborhoods and on the streets of the United States, and the "external" front, in other nations around the globe. The War on Drugs, while ostensibly a global war, is partly financed and advocated by the United States.

The external war is further subdivided into two more fronts, from which two distinct strategies emerge. The first strategy- the Brute Force strategy, is used against poor, agrarian nations where the majority of drugs are grown or countries that serve as smugglers havens. Brute Force involves applying pressure on the governments of nations like Afghanistan, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico in order to induce them to clamp down on drug traffickers. These efforts can take the form of monetary or economic incentives (such as donations to politicians who otherwise would not be worthy of support, favorable trade deals, direct economic aid or the relaxation of tariffs) or military ones (grants of military technology or training) and often serve to bolster reactionary parties in these countries. The term Brute Force comes from the manner in which American organizations and foreign governments eradicate drug crops, often to the detriment of poor, local farmers, who choose to grow the crops for cultural reasons or because American farming subsides make it impossible for them to grow profitable food crops.

The second strategy involves soft but persistent pressure on the governments of Western nations, especially Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, to convince them to continue with their own drug policies. The fear is that once these nations liberalize their drug laws and experience the benefits of legalization and regulation, drug war opponents in the United States will have an almost airtight argument against prohibition. This strategy is carried out by donations to right-wing political parties, use of the drug war as a cheap bargaining tool in negotiations and pressure from international organizations like the UN.

Inside the United States, a campaign is directed against producers, distributors and users. Anti-drug advertisements are a major presence on television and in schools.

The major focus of the War on Drugs are the narcotics marijuana, cocaine (and its alternate form crack-cocaine) and heroin. Other specific drugs targeted, many of which have appeared as alternatives to the Big Three, are ecstasy, peyote, methamphetamines, GHB and black market prescription medications like OxyContin and Adderall. General categories of prohibited recreational substances include barbituates, opiates, inhalants, anaesthesiacs and phenethylamines.


Opium use was a major health issue for much of the 19th Century, especially in China, where the imperial government fought wars with the West over the United Kingdom's support of the Opium trade as a way to subvert the protectionist trade tendencies of the Chinese government. The defeat of China in this war was a much cited example of Western imperialism by the Communist party when it came to power. In the United States, the origins of the drug enforcement can be traced to a general reactionary backlash against vice so prevalent in he late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the War on Drugs did not develop until the 1910's, with the first campaign against opium, the sentiment that allowed for it was evident in campaigns against alcohol, pornography, contraceptives and homosexuality. The initial target of enforcement was opium, a common narcotic in the early 20th Century, but this issue was sidetracked in favor of alcohol Prohibition. Upon the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, the focus soon shifted to marijuana, which was effectively outlawed in 1937. The reasons for this are hotly debated, but theories usually highlight the influence of two men, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and bureaucrat Harry J. Anslinger. Hearst, most famous as the bitter rival of Joseph Pulitzer for control of the US newspaper market, either seized on marijuana as an easy target for sensationalist headlines, or, more likely, saw hemp as a substitute for wood pulp paper and thus his own timber holdings. Anslinger seems to have had no motivation other than ambition, as an agent in the Bureau of Prohibition, he had a reputation as an honest and effective agent. His appointment to head the Bureau of Narcotics brought an increase in anti-marijuana propaganda, much of which was embellished, exaggerated or flat out invented for the purpose of legitimizing the 1937 law. Racism played a large part in the propaganda, which implied marijuana caused white women to indulge in miscegenation and stripped blacks of their sense of inferiority. The lingering effects of the Great Depression, World War Two and the Korean War sidelined the WOD, but conservative backlash in the 1950's focused on the effects of marijuana as a gateway drug. The dramatic expansion of the WOD was about to begin.

The 1960's and 70's saw an ideological tug of war over the danger of drugs to society, with the two sides settling into their respective corners. Republicans linked drug use with the counterculture of the 1960's and with Communism, while the Democrats proved more lenient. Richard Nixon, in an attempt to distract from the unpopular Vietnam War, dramatically expanded anti-drug efforts and ignored or silenced government researchers who dared to challenge the popular line. The 1970's sees cocaine skyrocket in popularity, buoyed by its popularity among musicians, actors, athletes and other people of power. Heroin continues to plague poor, primarily minority neighborhoods. In the 1980's, drug use exploded. Marijuana, cocaine and heroin continue to remain popular, but the introduction of crack cocaine on the street of major cities makes war zones out of neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles and Chicago's South Side. Nancy Reagan's Just Say No slogan typified the shallow conservative response to the problem, by seeing drug use as a personal vice rather than a public health problem, it would become impossible to mount an effective campaign against the war. Since the 1980's the War on Drugs and the inevitability of drug use among Americans have become an acceptable contradiction in American society. Some politicians readily admit their past drug use while continuing to support drug prohibition, while others who speak out against drugs are found to be habitual users themselves.


Racism Strong evidence exists for direct racial discrimination in the drug war due to differences in sentencing (minorities tend to use crack cocaine, which carries longer sentences than does powder cocaine, a primarily white drug, although crack cocaine is derived from powder. The numbers of black and Hispanic men in the corrections system for drug related offenses are disproportionate to these minorities as a percentage of the population. Racist propaganda was used by early proponents of the drug war, and while this largely disappeared after the Civil Rights movement, drug related stereotypes about black and Hispanics still abound. Some see the illegality of drugs, and the resulting gang warfare caused by the black market, as a way for the government to keep minorities from accruing political and economic power.

While racism undoubtedly played a part in the genesis of the drug war in the 20's and 30's, some have questioned whether drug enforcement is not overtly racist, but simply hurts the lower classes in general, of which a disproportionate number are minorities.

Classism In the 21st Century, a stronger case can be made for systematic class discrimination when it comes to the victims of drug prohibition. Many drug crimes involving middle or upper middle class citizens, especially those related to marijuana, are simply overlooked or ignored. When these types of crimes do go to trial, upper class users can often afford high priced attorneys. Lower class citizens, however, do not benefit from financial resources and often rely on overworked public defenders. In addition, an upper class youth arrested on drug charges may be released due to family connections or an unwillingness on the part of the police or judge to give an otherwise promising teenager a criminal record that will haunt them when they apply to college or seek a job. Lower class youths are assumed to be on the wrong track already, and the justice system naturally wants to lock them up before they commit more severe crimes.

Infringement on Civil Liberties Libertarians claim the WOD serves to restrict the free will of an adult to use a substance of their choosing, and thus prosecutions for drug use are unconstitutional and illegal. The Constitution, obviously, is not explicit on the issue of drugs, so most of the arguments hinge on the the issues of personal responsibility vs society's right to control possibly harmful substances.

Anti-Drug War Strategies and Counter-Arguments

Gradualists vs. Radicals Within the legalization movement, a number of differing opinions exist on the extent and pace of the changes to be made in the WOD. Gradualists argue legalization must be accomplished slowly, through popular means, by rolling back individual drug prohibitions beginning with the least harmful/most popular drug, marijuana. Gradualists believe the American public is not ready to accept full legalization of all drugs until they first see the effects of legalization of marijuana and will not approve legalization of marijuana until they see effective decriminalization. Ultimately, the goal is full legalization, however, the change must come from the people so as not to be vulnerable to conservative criticisms of "activist judges legislating from the bench." Gradualists are a majority group because of a larger segment of the population who supports only marijuana reform. Radicals contend that the entire drug war is unjust, and that prolonging the WOD will only increase the suffering of those victims who are in prison or living in gang neighborhoods where crime is dependent to the black market provided by prohibition. Radicals question the effectiveness of decriminalization, which will not provide the government with tax revenue nor attack the problem of the black market (thus not demonstrating the positive effects of legalization) and seek a single sympathetic but powerful politician or a court precedent which will allow the entire WOD to be challenged in a legal setting.

The Historical Approach Proponents of a historical approach to drug use discuss the pre-WOD status of drugs in America, the causes and rationales for the historical drug war and the evolution of the war over time to argue against it. They will also draw parallels between drug and alcohol prohibition, and outline the obvious similarities between the causes, rationales and effects of the two policies, especially the failure of both to achieve inherent objectives, the elimination of the controlled substance. They will frequently cite the connections between hemp production and William Randolph Hearst's paper companies, racist propaganda connecting minority crime and miscegenation with drug use or the bureaucratic ambitions of Harry Anslinger as evidence that the WOD is founded on anachronistic principles and must be ended. Historians will often trace the shifts in drug propaganda as evidence that the government's prohibition is not founded on any concrete knowledge of the negative aspects of drugs and instead evolves to accommodate society's increased knowledge about the true nature of drugs. Historians have a strong case backed up by evidence, but often cannot penetrate the dogmatic propaganda of many WOD proponents. The Religious Right, for example, prove unable to reconcile the changing nature of their religious dogma (from a strict, literal interpretation of Bible law in the Middle Ages which led to persecutions to the modern view of the Bible as a thematic device used to impart subtle life lessons) so they simply ignore these arguments. This makes a historical approach to any accepted policy, from religious dogma to drug policy or gay marriage, futile. Others will argue that even if the basis for the WOD was false and the evidence misleading, the ultimate goal of the war was just and thus the indiscretions which brought it about can be forgiven (ironically, one approach used to justify the Iraq War) applying the principle of "the ends justify the means."

The Legal Approach Legalists assail the drug war on multiple grounds, including unconstitutionality, the existence of systematic racial discrimination and the idea that only an individual should be allowed to decide what substances to put into his body. Strict legalists stick to constitutional ideas, arguing the Constitution protects the rights of drug users or does not authorize the federal government to involve itself in drug prohibition. Other legalists point to the obvious racial disparities and the many violations of civil rights inherent in the WOD as evidence the laws can be assailed on the grounds of racial inequality. Others appeal to a higher universal law that holds government should restrict the freedoms of other humans only if those actions serve to harm an unwilling third-party.

The Fiscal Approach Citing the immense cost of the War on Drugs, especially in relation to current budget troubles, and the possibility for a drug tax levied on a legalized product is a strategy used often by fiscal conservatives or pro-drug advocates posing as fiscal conservatives. This is an effective strategy when arguing with non-users as it offers a benefit to legalization that can be shared by those who do not use drugs recreationally, however, for those who support the drug war on moral grounds (such as the Religious Right and law and order conservatives) the benefit of legalizing drugs will not outweigh the perceived social or moral costs.

The Medical Approach Medical marijuana has been growing in popularity, and has been legalized in 12 US states, although the federal government reserves the right to raid marijuana dispensaries. Some see the acceptance of medical marijuana as the first step in assailing the prohibition of marijuana as a whole, and point to the suffering alleviated by the drug as proof it can be used in a fashion not harmful to society. Medical marijuana activists also work against the popular perception that marijuana must be smoked and thus causes the same complications as prolonged cigarette smoking; while this is true, the ability to consume marijuana orally is a safe alternative to smoking. Drug War proponents will sometimes support the legalization of marijuana but argue this does not mean the drug should be legalized for recreational purposes. Others will suggest prescription medications as superior to marijuana, ignoring the possibility of harmful side effects and the ability for marijuana to be grown in the home.

The Utilitarian Approach Utilitarianism is a philosophy that states any action is only worthwhile if the social benefits of that action outweigh the social costs. This can be used to argue for legalization by pointing out the many unforeseen costs of prohibition, including the rise of street gangs and drug cartels, the explosion of the prison-industrial complex and the alienation of addicts who do wish to seek treatment. Utilitarians will not deny the adverse health effects of harder drugs and the possibility for abuse (for example, driving while under the influence on drugs) but maintain these costs still exist under prohibition.

The Analogic Approach Analogic debaters tend to restrict their point of attack to strict analogies, usually dealing with alcohol prohibition and the anti-smoking campaigns. This strategy seeks to place marijuana in a category with alcohol and tobacco rather than cocaine and heroin, the drugs with which it is usually lumped. They will point out the effectiveness of the anti-smoking campaigns and taxes on cigarettes vs. the failures of alcohol prohibition, and will compare the effects of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana on the human body.

The Progressive Approach Progressives adopt an approach that could be summed up best with the phrase "lighten up!" They see the War on Drugs as the relic of a bygone age and a less evolved moral code based on religious traditions of control. The worldview of Progressives, predictably, does not endear them to the religious right or law and order conservatives, and conversion to a Progressive mindset often entails the loosening of social mores ans customs.

Supreme Court Cases



Drug WarRant
Who's A Rat? Site Identifies Drug Informants
Nephalim's Drug War Revealed
Narco News
Drug War Facts
War on drugs clock
Cato drug war resources
The Media Awareness Project
Marijuana Policy Project
Dark Alliance. San Jose Mercury News Exposes CIA Complicity In Crack Epidemic
The Vaults of Erowid - Documenting the Complex Relationship Between Humans and Psychoactives
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Reform Groups

Drug Policy Alliance
Common Sense for Drug Policy
the American Civil Liberties Union
Educators for Sensible Drug Policy
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

See generally

Further reading

dKos diaries and discussions

[NOTE: This section created 1/9/2005. Please add links to relevant, substantive diaries as you see fit.]

BIG news! King County Bar Association asks Washington State to tell Feds to butt out. by nephalim Thu Mar 3rd, 2005 at 4:33:17 EST
(a VERY important diary especially for those in Washington State!)

Is AARP caving to Rightwing Pressure? by ben masel Fri Feb 25th, 2005 at 14:48:05 PST

What to do when Bush gets it right? by ben masel Tue Feb 22nd, 2005 at 20:37:43 PST

Challenge to Bill Bennet by ben masel Mon Feb 21st, 2005 at 20:45:32 PST

Bush Budget Downsizes DrugWar by ben masel Sun Feb 20th, 2005 at 20:38:35 PST

Alaska tries to re-criminalize marijuana by fuzzywolf Fri Feb 18th, 2005 at 16:16:43 PST

Aging Potheads: Seniors Support Medical Marijuana by Armando Sat Dec 18th, 2004 at 11:00:38 PST

Nephalim's Series on Drug Prohibition and Drug Use:

Note from Nephalim: I now have my own blog, and you can find far more (eventually) of this there, as well as this entire series itself. This list is largely in order written, except where categories impede that (only the case with "A Primer", "Liberty, Power, and Control", and History #3 ("Marijuana Special"). My writing refined a bit as I got further down the line.

Heroin Diaries:

Opinion/Personal/Other Diaries:

History of Drug Prohibition:

Political Diaries:

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