Letter from the US: ‘War on Drugs’ means war on the poor, profits for the rich

Since Richard Nixon proclaimed the “War on Drugs” four decades ago, drug use around the world has skyrocketed.

From 1998 to 2008 alone, global opiate use rose 34.5%, cocaine 28% and marijuana 8.5%.

People in the US are the world’s largest users of cocaine, Colombian heroin, Mexican heroin and marijuana. When Nixon launched the “war”, his initial budget was US$100 million for the first year. This has ballooned year after year, until it was $15.6 billion for 2011.

Given this, here are many commentators who proclaim that the “war on drugs” has failed.

So why does this "war" continue likely into the far future like its cousin, the "War on Terror" Was its objective, perhaps, not drug use at all?

For an answer, let us look at its actual results, and leave aside the advertising used to sell it.

One result has been the mushrooming of the US prison population, due in the main to drug crimes. In 1980, 800,000 people were incarcerated in the United States. By the end of 2009, the number was 2.3 million.

If those on parole or probation are included, the figure jumps to 7.2 million.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, at around 740 per 100,000 inhabitants. Russia is next, with 575, followed by Rwanda, 560. In 2010, Australia had 133.

There is a big racial disparity among those in jail. Non-Latino Blacks account for about 40% of those currently jailed. The Census Bureau puts Blacks at about 13% of the population. Latinos comprise 21% of those behind bars, but make up just 16% of the population.

To understand all this, we should look at the nature of “crime”. To commit a crime means to violate a law, whether it is a law against workers’ striking, tax evasion or burglary.

“Organised crime” means some thing more. It refers to capitalist businesses that provide commodities such as drugs, or services such as prostitution, loan sharking, or certain forms of gambling which are illegal but in high demand.

Because they are illegal, the capitalist concerns engaged in these pursuits run the risks of being prosecuted. They deal with this risk in many costly ways. One is the use of armed force to defend their businesses against the various police agencies.

Related to the use of armed force is the use of part of their profits to corrupt the police and governments at all levels. Without this corruption, such businesses could not function.

There are other costs to running organised crime, including the hiring of attorneys, paying financial institutions to launder their money, among others.

All these risks and costs drive up the prices for the goods and services these groups provide.

These illegal capitalist firms, operating alongside legal ones, are also able to charge much more than the value of their goods and services. This results in super-profits.

The drug cartels are one aspect of these illegal capitalist enterprises. As in any capitalist enterprise, the big profits go to the top, and taper off down the hierarchy.

The police do make “drug busts,” and arrests. But they usually go after the little guys, and especially the drug users.

A key part of the operation is that the law makes not only providing illegal drugs a crime, but also using them.

Since the “war” was declared, the US has arrested more than 37 million non-violent drug offenders, mainly users. A high percentage of these is for marijuana use.

The big capitalists at the top of the drug syndicates are almost never arrested. In the rare cases they are, it is because the police have been paid by rival criminal groups.

Those at the top pay for their muscle and bribes. But they also reinvest part of their profits in legal capitalist enterprises, and become entwined with them.

They do not just bribe bankers to launder their money, they become bankers.

At the bottom of organised crime enterprises are the gangs that actually deliver the goods. It is these soldiers on the ground that look out for cop raids and defend their "turf" areas where they establish monopolies on the sale of the drugs.

Especially affected are the Black ghettos and Latino barrios. The high rates of youth unemployment in these communities that preceded the Great Recession and have skyrocketed since means there is a large pool of young people looking for some kind of way out. They can be recruited as foot soldiers by the capitalist drug enterprises.

The defence of their “turf” leads to gang warfare and shootings, including of bystanders. In a vicious circle, such violence leads to calls for “law and order” campaigns.

Many ordinary Black and Latino workers are affected by the violence and give partial support to such efforts. But they often fall victim themselves to the resulting police violence, which is often indiscriminate and racially motivated.

Of course, white people also use illegal drugs. And there are white drug gangs at the bottom doing the final sales. Many white users also drive into Black and Latino communities looking for drugs.

But in the racist US society, Blacks and Latinos are arrested disproportional to whites for the same crimes, and receive longer sentences.

Even the crimes are divided racially. For example, the sentence for using crack cocaine, which is cheaper and used more in poorer Black communities, is much stiffer than for powdered cocaine, favored by the more affluent.

The “war on drugs” thus intensifies racism, which has historically been used to divide the working class. That is one function it carries out well.

Another function is to expand the prison-industrial complex. The prison system has grown into a huge industry, which is being increasingly privatised and run for profit.

Those jailed are mainly from the working class, and are deprived of the vote, many even after they are released. This dovetails with current efforts to push back on Black voting rights won in the civil rights movement.

The last thing the drug cartels want is to legalise the drug trade. That would cut into their super-profits.

The vast network of corrupt officials who directly benefit are also opposed. The many legal businesses entwined with the drug cartels also would lose out.

The “War on Drugs” is in reality a “War to Keep Drugs Illegal.”

There is no question that many of these drugs are harmful. Many are less harmful, however, than alcohol and tobacco, which are legal. Drug abuse should be dealt with as a health problem, not a criminal one, and regulated along those lines.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]


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