A history of the ‘war on drugs’: how capitalism profits from prohibition

The existence of drug markets — and the struggles around them — raise a number of important sociopolitical and structural issues for analysis.

The expansion of markets for psychoactive substances was a strategic initiative by European companies in the development of capitalism, slavery and imperialism. Initially there were no illicit markets but the licit industries included the critical sugar (and rum) industry in Haiti, Jamaica, Colombia and other countries and the tobacco industry in the US South.

The use of military force to expand the opium market in China in the Opium Wars is an example of how this was a joint project of the companies involved and of capitalist states. Force, and in some cases the slave trade, were used to create and enforce the social relations of production in the tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco industries. In the case of Haiti, this led to a slave revolution with global repercussions.

More recently, as Dawn Paley’s book Drug War Capitalism details for Latin America, the drug war also facilitates profit making by making it easier to uproot peasants and farmers from land so it can be used to extract oil, gas or minerals; displaced agriculturalists must move to cities and become part of the exploited working class or the not-currently-exploited reserve labor force there.

The book also shows how the massive profits of the drug war assist corporate balance sheets and politicians’ wealth.


As capitalism developed over the centuries, it created a working class that was both its greatest need and its greatest threat.

Capitalism created many stresses in workers’ lives (including those working class people without jobs, whether classed as unemployed or as homemakers/wives). These include overwork, pain from industrial or domestic accidents, the economic difficulties of trying to work long hours for little pay while, in many cases, watching one’s children do without; and attacks on their dignity and the dignity of those they know and care about.

Capitalist imperialism, and its associated military and economic processes, also created or reshaped hostilities among peoples to create global patterns of racial and gender subordination that added to the burdens of workers and others who were members of subordinated groups and, in many cases, of workers in the non-subordinated groups as well.

Many members of the working class and of subordinated racialised or gender groups reacted to these conditions by using psychoactive substances to help them cope with these symptoms and still do what they needed to do. Others used these substances as a source of pleasure. Some, given their exclusion from legal work, turned to selling drugs and other underground economic activity for survival.

Critically, as Karl Marx argued, and as history since then has shown, time and again, the working class sometimes revolts — and it has the capacity to make a revolution that could displace capitalism.

Capitalism and the states that developed during the rise of capitalism have thus faced a political problem of how to contain the demands and the anger of workers, slaves and subordinated races. As has been shown, capitalists’ use of “divide and rule” through scapegoating people is a common strategy through which they succeed in weakening threats to their power and profits. The drug wars also serve as a mass distraction.

Indeed, this is part of the process of divide and rule. By pointing to drug users and drug use as the supposed sources of people’s miseries, they distract attention from the realities of oppression, war, alienation, dignity-denial and exploitation.

Many well-meaning people look at the ways workers and others use psychoactive substances as a “social problem” and thus become open to these campaigns to make their use stigmatised or even illegal. This is typified by the working class temperance activists and some of the activists in racialised communities who look aghast at money being spent on drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

In all cases, there are some people who cannot handle their use of these substances and thus have been classified as “addicts”.

Divide and rule

Politicians, rich people and the state, whether with good intentions or just out of a desire to divide and rule, often side with these temperance forces to make the use, or sale, of certain substances illegal. At the same time, they wage ideological campaigns that savagely attack the dignity and humanity of those who use these substances and define them as “drug users.” (Of course, the extent to which this happens as a planned strategy of divide-and-rule versus a morally-driven attack on vice that happens to attain the same goal varies between different episodes.)

Drug wars interact with other ways that divide and rule.

We have seen the way politicians and some preachers use the drug wars to heighten racism and sexism to heighten drug wars. The current mass incarceration of African Americans — many of whom are jailed for non-drug crimes as another manifestation of the drug war and racism working together — is one result.

The increase in the number and power of police is another — and these police are readily available to suppress strikes, demonstrations, or occupations of the squares like Tahrir Square, the Maidan or, more successfully, the indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the US.

Critically, capitalism and the state try to silence those whom they oppress, exploit or destroy. They do this by attacking their dignity, by claiming that they have nothing to say worth hearing, or, for people who use drugs, that it is not a person who is speaking but merely “an addict”, or, even worse, “an addiction” that is speaking through them. 

Many drug researchers, treatment personnel, front-line harm reduction workers and activists, “professional ‘ex-addicts’” and drug law reformers accept or even enact this perspective.


What repercussions of this “war on drugs” are being felt in Australia today?

There are many examples of how the “war on drugs” in Australia is disproportionately enforced on people who are already marginalised and functions as a form of social control. The use of propaganda, both paid and unpaid, makes organising and fighting back inherently difficult for people who use drugs because to do so they must identify themselves with widely-held and regressive social views.

One clear example of the failure of the political targeting of people who use drugs is the recent “war on ice” launched by former PM Tony Abbott in early 2015. That resulted in a costly federal inquiry, the findings of which have been largely ignored, as well as a costly media campaign that primarily served to stigmatise and further marginalise people who use drugs.

The campaign was, at best, a distraction from the larger political problems being experienced by Abbott and, at worst, was a concerted attempt to distract, repress and divide the working class.

The demonisation of people who use drugs in general and people who use ice in particular (who have often been described as “unpredictable”, “depraved zombies”, “prone to violence” and “not to be trusted”) has turned communities against themselves in a misguided attempt to eradicate this “scourge”.

It is important to see the ways in which this system is “functional” for the capitalist system as a whole.

It helps to divide potential oppositional forces among the working class and the racially subordinate. It provides a “spectacle” in the form of political arguments over how best to suppress drug use that distracts attention from other issues — which is how “social issues” politics is defined, among others by Kevin Phillips for the Richard Nixon war on drugs.

And to the extent that it leads members of minority and working class communities to support police and prisons that punish drug dealers and drug users, it strengthens the armed wing of the state that suppresses protests and potential rebellions.

The use of “illicit” substances is essentially an early 20th century concept whereby various drugs and even alcohol were criminalised.

The escalation of the “war on drugs” was an explicit form of social control. John Ehrlichman, US President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, has been quoted as saying: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, 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 the drugs? Of course we did."

[Mary Ellen Harrod has been working in public health for 16 years most recently as the CEO of the NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA). Sam Friedman has been active on the left for almost 60 years and has been a researcher on people who use drugs, and HIV and other diseases that beset them since 1983.]

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