Gustav Jönsson | 20 July 2018
The logic of the "war on drugs" is a war on addicts, writes Gustav Jönsson.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan gave a radio address to the nation: “I want all Americans to take heart, this war is not yet won, not by a long shot, but we are doing better and our nation is united against this scourge as never before.” Reagan was talking about the war on drugs, but as he continued it became clear that a war on drugs also meant a war on addicts. “When we say zero tolerance we mean simply that we have had it. We will no longer tolerate those who sell drugs and those who buy drugs. All Americans of good-will are determined to stamp out those parasites who survive and even prosper by feeding off the energy and vitality and humanity of others. They must pay.” He then followed up these chilling remarks with even more crude babble. “We want to kick the vermin out and keep them out.”
Words such as “vermin” and “parasites” are not words suited for an American President talking about American citizens. They seem more congruent in the diction of a Young Turk, a Hutu Interahamwe, or even someone like Julius Streicher. Not that Reagan is of that ilk, but it was significant that he condemned those “vermin” in the same speech as he dismissed their human rights as the “abstract rights of criminals” and advocated for the death penalty to he used against the “parasites”. This has been the tone in which drug dealers, and yes, drug users, have been addressed.
It was of course not Ronald Reagan who started the war on drugs, that was Richard Nixon. But as quotes from Nixon’s former aide John Ehrlichman show, it was less a war on drugs than a war on addicts. Ehrlichman explained that the Nixon administration had two strong opponents: the anti-war left and black people. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black,” said Ehrlichman, “but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.”
The war on addicts has continued as it started. It was aimed against the black communities and it shows. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that there is a “staggering racial bias” – blacks and whites use marijuana about as much as each other but blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession. Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that although blacks represent only 13 percent of the total US population, they account for 31.7 percent of all arrests for drug offences and 43.7 percent of federal defendants serving time for drug offences. But before we wag our fingers at America – as we Europeans are wont to do – we should first look at our own situation. In Britain, black men are ten times more likely than white men to be imprisoned for drug offences. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this disparity and not all are racial, but some surely are. Yet somehow society still cannot summon the appropriate outrage at this injustice.
The best introductory book on this issue is Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. Hari writes that the origin of the war on drugs lies before Richard Nixon, in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, after prohibition was ended, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, what was left of the old Department of Prohibition, needed a new role – a new drug to prohibit. The bureau was headed by Harry Anslinger – a man with the tenacity, appearance, and intelligence of a pit bull. Ignoring the scientific consensus of the day, he promoted the views of the one expert who considered marijuana a great evil. Anslinger, with pseudo-scientific backing, began propagating against marijuana.
As with Nixon, Anslinger was not just interested in criminalizing drugs, he was determined to make criminals out of the addicts. He used racial animosity to fuel his anti-drug campaign. Minorities were targeted as the source of the drug problem. Under the influence of marijuana, said Anslinger, blacks were getting white women pregnant; Mexicans were becoming insane, violent, and even murderous by smoking it; and Chinese were abducting women to opium dens where the women were subjected to “unspeakable sexual depravity” – or so Anslinger claimed.
In origin racist, in tone hysterical, the war on addicts has had terrible consequences. As Hari tells us in his book, Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has estimated that the US homicide rate could fall by between 25 and 75 percent if drugs were legalised. This should not surprise us for two reasons. First, if there is a demand that is not satisfied legally, it will be satisfied illegally – and the competition to sell will be violent. During Prohibition there was murder and extortion behind every dram of whiskey, but since Prohibition ended no one murders for a bottle of beer. Second, it is well established that increasing police enforcement against drug crimes leads to a higher homicide rate. The reason is obvious. Gangs fight for control over neighbourhoods. These fights can be murderous but when they are resolved the violence subsides. But just as a gang has established their supremacy the police come in and do a sweep, arresting the dealers. Thus the drug fight is renewed after every police raid. The gangs measure up against each other and there are violent power struggles within the gangs whenever the leaders are arrested. In short, the war on drugs has resulted in a war for drugs.
Another result of the war on drugs is that prisons are crammed with non-violent drug users and addicts. Human Rights Watch reported that over half of all prisoners in the US are incarcerated for non-violent offences. With around two million prisoners that means that there are circa one million persons imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Federal and state facilities experienced a 430 percent increase of prisoners between 1979 and 2009. One of the main reasons for this increase is the war on drugs. Although there has been a decrease in the number of persons imprisoned for drug crimes, the figures are still absurdly high – roughly one in five of US prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.
Doing drugs in the safety of one’s home harms no one except oneself. Yet it earns you years in prison. The state deprives the addict of his or her freedom and does not even guarantee the prisoner’s safety. In 2008 the Department of Justice estimated that 216,000 prisoners are raped every year. That is the number of prisoners who are raped; the number of counts of rape is doubtlessly much higher. There seems to have been some improvement since 2008 but the amelioration is too little, and for the victims, too late. This is America, but with numbers such as these can anyone believe that there are only a few hundred sexual assaults in British prisons, as the Ministry of Justice claims? Regardless of the numbers, if the government imprisons an addict then the government is responsible for the addict’s safety.
Criminalizing drugs means making addicts criminals. Addicts must purchase their products from dealers at extortionate prices. This often forces addicts to commit petty crime to sustain their addiction – and sometimes more serious crime as well. The drugs are almost invariably contaminated and diluted; the needles are infected and carry disease. This causes overdosing and illness, often HIV.
There is, however, a viable alternative to criminalisation: treatment for addicts, and legal regulation of the drugs. Two European countries have gone down this route with remarkable results. Portugal decriminalized all drugs and has seen death from overdosing fall significantly. Today the Portuguese death rate from overdosing is one fifth of the EU average. Switzerland used to have Western Europe’s highest HIV rate, but since drug addicts were provided methadone at treatment clinics, the HIV death rate has slumped. By treating drug addiction as a health issue instead of a criminal problem both Switzerland and Portugal are achieving results that the US, UK, Scandinavia and the rest of Western Europe have failed to achieve. In other words, winning the war on drugs requires giving up on the war on addicts.