Why do we have a drug war anyway?

Sam Smith

Given that the drug war has been a demonstrable failure why does it continue to be so strongly supported by the American political and legal establishment?

One reason that few want to touch is corruption, in both the moral and legal sense, which is to say the corruption that comes from political pressure – with its rewards and punishments – and the corruption that comes from hard cash.

For example, the Drug Policy Alliance notes that the war on drugs includes a $9 billion prison economy, not to mention more billions in homeless shelters, healthcare, chemical dependency and psychiatric treatment, etc. Each one of these industries – as well as the employment of cops, judges, probation officers, etc – would be severely hurt should America decide to give up its war on drugs. This doesn’t justify the madness but it is important to remember that we have created a multi-billion dollar economy based on our failed drug policies. Notes DPA, the beneficiaries of the drug war include:

“Prison architects and contractors, corrections personnel, policy makers and academics, and the thousands of corporate vendors who peddle their wares at the annual trade-show of the American Corrections Association – hawking everything from toothbrushes and socks to barbed-wire fences and shackles.

“And multi-national corporations that win tax subsidies, incentives and abatements from local governments — robbing the public coffers and depriving communities of the kind of quality education, roads, health care and infrastructure that provide genuine incentives for legitimate business. The sale of tax-exempt bonds to underwrite prison construction is now estimated at $2.3 billion annually. . .

“Corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial complex. Prison construction bonds are one of the many sources of profitable investment for leading financiers such as Merrill Lynch. MCI charges prisoners and their families outrageous prices for the precious telephone calls which are often the only contact inmates have with the free world. Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by U.S.-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly unionized workers to joblessness, many of which wind up in prison. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor. Nordstrom department stores sell jeans that are marketed as ‘Prison Blues,’ as well as t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons.”

Far more serious, however, is the role that illegal corruption plays. If one is to believe the media and scholars, it would appear that the drug industry – by UN estimate a $400 billion global business – is the only commercial sector in the country that doesn’t buy politicians. In other words, the drug trade is the only honest trade when it comes to politics.

Of course this is nonsense, but try to find the news story that even raises the possibility that some, if not many, of our politicians are beneficiaries of the drug trade either directly or through well laundered sources. To be sure, there are periodic reports of cops on the take, but any suggestion of political involvement is absent.

Further, the collateral beneficiaries of the drug trade – of which money-laundering banks would be a prime example – are exempt from examination as well, unless their misdoings occurred in some foreign land like Mexico or Colombia.

To cover such a story is exceedingly difficult and rarely rewarding. When the Review tried to report some of the connections between Bill Clinton and the Arkansas drug trade we discovered that even many journalists just didn’t want to hear about it. It was so much easier to describe the story as “just about sex,” one of the biggest media myths of the 20th century.

Mike Rupert, a detective turned writer, gives one example of the stories begging to be covered with the same energy as, say, the misdeeds of Jason Blair. In an interview, he was asked, “Who benefits most from an addicted inner-city population?”

Rupert’s reply: “It’s not just who benefits most; it’s how many people can benefit on how many different ends of the spectrum. We published a story in my newsletter, From The Wilderness, by Catherine Austin Fitts, a former Assistant Secretary of Housing [and Urban Development]. She produced a map in 1996, August of 1996 – that’s the same month that the Gary Webb story broke in the San Jose Mercury News. It was a map that showed the pattern of single family foreclosures or single family mortgages – HUD-backed mortgages – in South Central Los Angeles. But when you looked at the map all of these HUD foreclosures, they were right in the heart of the area where the crack cocaine epidemic had occurred. And what was revealed by looking at the HUD data was that, during the 1980s, thousands of middle-class African American wage-earning families with mortgages lost their homes. Why? There were drive-by shootings, the whole neighborhood deteriorated, crack people moved in next door, your children got shot and went to jail and you had to move out. The house on which you owed $100,000 just got appraised at $40,000 because nobody wanted to buy it and you had to flee; you couldn’t sell it, so you walked on it. And what Catherine’s research showed was that someone else came along and bought thousands of homes for 10 to 20 cents in the dollar in the years right after the crack cocaine epidemic.”

HUD, easily the second most corrupt government agency next to the Pentagon, is an extraordinarily comfortable ecosystem for would-be collateral beneficiaries of the drug war, but these days it’s hard even to get the legal things at HUD covered in the press.

There is, of course, a rousing business in corruption at the lower levels. For example, Drug Facts reports that half of all police officers convicted as a result of FBI-led corruption cases between 1993 and 1997 were caught for drug-related offenses. But far more significant corruption remains buried.

One way to get a hint of how the drug trade may have corrupted our political system is to look at other countries. For example, the UN Drug Control Program reported in 1998, “In systems where a member of the legislature or judiciary, earning only a modest income, can easily gain the equivalent of some 20 months’ salary from a trafficker by making one “favorable” decision, the dangers of corruption are obvious.” An World Bank survey in 2002 found that bribes are paid in 50 per cent of all Colombia state contracts. Another World Bank report estimated the cost of corruption in Colombia at 60 per cent of the country’s debt.

Marijuana plays a central role in the cruel and corrupt fantasy game called the drug war because (a)so many people use it and (b)it takes up more space than other drugs. Thus there are plenty of criminals and stuff to go after to give the appearance you are actually doing something. In contrast, all the cocaine America needs in a year could be stuffed into a few 18 wheelers. You can’t have a profitable war on drugs with such a tiny target.

The war on drugs is, in fact, a war to sustain the drug industry and its collateral beneficiaries. America’s drug czar is also the country’s biggest drug lord, because without his phony battle, the artificial economy of prohibition would collapse and with it the industry he falsely claims to be fighting.

While clearly, many of the drug warriors in politics and the law are driven by myopic, infantile evangelism, we must bear in mind that for many others, fighting drugs is as much as business as dealing them, a cash business never reported to the IRS. It is long past time to discover who amongst our leaders are merely stupid and who are themselves drug war criminals.


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