Politics of Drug Wars

Conservatives complain that government metastasizes like cancers. Programs create new demands for services even as problems grow. This critique hardly fits such popular and effective programs as Head Start or Social Security, marked by low administrative costs and demonstrated track records. Yet the familiar rant does describe one government program: the drug war.

Both in my home state of Maine and in many other regions citizens are advocating new or expanded police drug control task forces. They must be funded in part with local revenues, but even in these tight times federal matches are still available. A few skeptics worry that drug treatment will be slighted, but in many communities citizens seem convinced that greater police efforts against drugs "are at least a good first step." Yet if these initiatives follow the usual model, they will increase both public health and social problems.

Drug wars have a bleak history. Movements to ban alcohol consumption go back to the 19th century. Business leaders, often striving to force longer working hours on their immigrant employees, sought to ban the alcohol consumption associated with holidays and leisure hours. Rather than job safety their major concern was ensuring a world of work without end. Maine became the first state in the nation to ban alcohol in 1851.

Former drug czar Bill Bennett has argued that Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption. Evidence on that is mixed. Prohibition's most lasting contribution was to increase crime and fund the Mafia. Crime was then cited as further reason to ban alcohol.

Current initiatives began with Nixon administration effort to explain and redress growing opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also to the mainstream culture of work and consumption. In the years since Nixon, the drug war has morphed into broad efforts to interdict supplies of drugs, to "educate" the public about their risks, and to punish both users and suppliers.

Even the least controversial efforts to interrupt supplies have not only failed, they have also often been counterproductive. University of Maine economist Mel Burke, a student of both the drug war and international economic development, points out that in 1962 when opium plantations in Mexico were destroyed, production moved to Colombia. When marijuana in Colombia was destroyed in 1987, production migrated to Mexico and the US. Not surprisingly, when extensive efforts to stamp out marijuana were combined with exaggerated and distorted messages on marijuana, the illicit drug trade switched to cocaine, a substance both more dangerous and harder to interdict.

Burke reminds us that the drug wars have been accompanied by growing consumption and lower prices for targeted drugs, exactly contrary to the expectation of the drug warriors. And that war now consumes over $35 billion in government spending per year and gives the USA the highest per capita prison population in the world.

If it is hard to imagine a more clear-cut example of big government failure, why aren't conservatives up in arms? Unfortunately, the drug war is not about public health, though health arguments are invoked in that war. Since the 19th century, substance wars have focused on the particular drugs of those who lifestyles or views constituted dissent against mainstream politics and culture. Burke also points out that drug wars are often the harshest when those mainstream institutions are in greatest turmoil or are failing to deliver the goods even in their own terms.

Throughout our history, those groups that have been considered outside the mainstream have been disproportionately targeted for drug surveillance. Drugs associated in the popular mind with those groups have been the most heavily penalized. It is not accidental that crack -- a favorite of some inner city African Americans -- and powder cocaine -- the choice of many stockbrokers -- have been treated differently.

Groups associated with challenges to mainstream values can also be portrayed as more threatening to the extent they are connected with the consumption of drugs pictured as dangerous. And the danger of the drugs in turn is in part conveyed by reference to who uses the drugs. Thus in the 19th century, the American Psychiatric Association described marijuana as a primary stimulant to homosexual behavior, thus tarring with one brush both the drug and the sexual behavior.

Bill Bennett is a good example of this logic. He is comfortable with alcohol while ardent in his condemnation of pot. His logic is tortured but revealing. He argues that since the American people accept alcohol, we should not return to prohibition. Nonetheless, because alcohol's example shows that mind altering substances cause death and making them illegal saves lives, the government should continue to ban "drugs." But Bennett lets the rabbit out of the hat here. Alcohol is also a drug. Accepting alcohol while banning pot is really an attempt to foster and build upon a sense of a God-fearing, hard-working middle America versus deviant hippies and welfare bums. It is another part of ongoing cultural wars.

But some liberals have done their own funny dance around this issue. Some simply disregard these issues or seek to ape the conservative agenda in hopes of regaining their political prominence. Their notion of political prudence is to focus on class, not on the divisive and controversial life style issues. Or they even endorse punitive drug laws. After all, they argue, public health is a legitimate concern and they best not be caught on the side of drugs.

Yet this war has not advanced public health. In addition, the war squanders increasingly scarce public resources. Worse still, it builds upon and adds to a public climate that blames poverty and social inequality primarily on personal behavior. The discriminatory way in which particular drugs are targeted and existing drug laws enforced further deepen racial stereotypes and disable minority communities. Once classified as drug felons, millions of minority citizens find it increasingly impossible to get jobs and are denied the right to vote in many states. The drug wars play a major role in disabling the political coalition on which progressives depend.

Drug war rhetoric that blames pot and crack for inner city poverty may comfort some hard-working (alcohol-consuming) working- and middle-class citizens, but it does so at a cost even to them. The police may not harass and repress them as much as they do inner city minorities, but the very rhetoric or the drug war now feeds the corporate assault on the free time of middle class Americans. Hard work becomes the all encompassing moral value and the solution to all that troubles the economy. Civil liberties and privacy for all are increasingly challenged.

Mind-altering drugs will be part of any society. If our goal is to limit their damage, presenting honest information about risks and benefits, banning advertising of these substances, and providing ample resources for treatment of addicts would be our priorities. Punishment is appropriate when incapacitation -- for drugs or other behaviors -- causes death or injury to others.

Part and parcel of such an orientation is accepting -- indeed celebrating -- a world of more free time and free space for all, of growing social, cultural, and ethnic difference. We are far from that world and so our drug wars drag on.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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