The War on Drugs Unhealthy For All Living Things: A History of "The WOD" by Tom Cahill
“Prohibition…goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes…A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” —Abraham Lincoln
“The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.” —Adolph Hitler
The War on (some) Drugs never, ever had anything to do with public health. It has been the single most misguided US domestic policy in the country’s history. It may well be the biggest rip-off by the government of its own citizens ever. Future historians might call it the Second Civil War. It has certainly been the Second Prohibition, with far more disastrous social consequences than its famous predecessor, The Prohibition (of alcohol), some 70 years ago.
From the very beginning, like all wars, the War on Drugs (The “WOD”) has been about politics and economics. And, like all wars, to protect “national security,” civil liberties are suspended, atrocities are committed, and health, education, and welfare are dangerously depreciated.
How did so much evil come to triumph in our nation? Edmund Burke’s insight of two centuries ago still applies: “enough good people…did nothing.” We, the good people of our nation, have allowed lies to pass for truth. We have allowed corrupt corporate interests to buy political influence. We have allowed the least educated and most mean-spirited office-holders to set the national agenda. While we, as individuals, were paying close attention to the physical, emotional and spiritual health of ourselves and our children, we ignored the health of the body politic. That body is now in a drug(war)-induced coma. It needs a strong dose of truth to bring it back to reality. We need to wake up.
In 1993, when U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, the nation’s top doc, tried to warn the country of the health hazards posed by The WOD, she was sacked by the President. Today, Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army general with credentials more aligned with The WOD, is America’s so-called “drug czar.” (I find it interesting that the word “czar” derives from the ancient Roman word “Caesar,” meaning dictatorial ruler. Don’t you?)
The history of The WOD makes a damning indictment of the world’s most affluent and powerful nation. It is a horror story that rivals anything concocted by Stephen King, but with a crucial difference: it’s true. And, as in King’s novels, there is a scream for help, only this one rises up from the millions of citizens betrayed over the decades by The WOD, this nation’s pernicious domestic “get tough” policy.
The Illegitimate Birth of a War Some historians date the beginning of The WOD to 1914, the year Congress passed the Harrison Act to regulate (by tax) certain drugs, notably cocaine. Few people were affected by this law at the time, though it created a precedent. One outcome was (as 20th century American history buffs know) that the racist Harry Anslinger became the nation’s first and, to date, most notorious “drug czar,” equal only in political villainy to his more famous contemporary, J. Edgar Hoover. He spent his 31 year career as the world’s top narc doing weird things like keeping secret files on jazz musicians, planning to discredit them all as “dope fiends.” More importantly, he was a liar and used the power of his office to threaten and bully all who crossed him. (Note: JFK fired Anslinger in ’62 and planned to “retire” Hoover after the ‘64 election.)
Others date the beginning of The WOD to 1937 with the passage of another tax law which prohibited the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana (read “hemp”). More than a skirmish, this was the first real battle of The WOD. What the citizens of our country did not know at the time was that this New Prohibition was a cynical ploy, artfully contrived to solve a ‘social problem’ invented by Harry Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst, and others to justify the New Prohibition in the first place. Few people smoked pot back then, yet to look at the media blitz pushing the new law, you’d think a violent epidemic had struck the nation from out of nowhere.
Demonizing Pot The real target for the New Prohibition was, of course, the rapidly growing hemp industry. Hemp (or “cannabis” or “marijuana”) is an amazingly versatile plant. Although hemp products (cloth, rope, medicines, oil, etc.) had been used for centuries, commercial processing for paper and plastic was economically un-feasable until the mid ’30s when machinery was invented to process hemp fiber and cellulose. This invention promised to be a revolutionary boon to international agriculture and industry. For example, it was now possible to produce paper of much higher quality and much more cheaply than paper made from wood pulp. If our nation’s inexhaustible appetite for paper was satisfied by a hemp-based industry, the wholesale logging of America’s (and for that matter, the world’s) forests could end.
That was bad news for William Randolf Hearst, the media giant of his day. He owned newspapers across the country and vast tracts of timberland. He didn’t want anything disrupting his vast machinery for personal wealth.
Hearst is best known as the father of “yellow journalism” for his sensationalist and profoundly unscrupulous news repor-ting to enflame public opinion against a host of his favorite evils over the decades. Hearst despised Mexicans, generally characterizing them as lazy stoners. Hearst newspapers smeared Chinese as the “yellow peril.” Jazz music was socially corrosive, and Hearst printed disparaging articles linking it with blacks, marijuana and the cultural low-life.
Hearst couldn’t smear the hemp industry directly, so he targeted “marijuana” for its psychoactive constituents (found in a few of the many varieties of cannabis). In the 1930s, pot was mainly smoked in the South by a handful of Black and Hispanic musicians, mostly to keep them energized during long gigs at low pay. But from Hearst’s newspapers and his connections in Hollywood came a huge nationwide media blitz unleashed to end the “epidemic” of Reefer Madness, (the name of Hearst’s infamous docudrama—now an underground classic, this movie showcases Hearst’s transparent deceit, hypocrisy, and racism). A favorite Hearst-inspired media fable, presented in his tabloid newspapers throughout the country, described Black or Hispanic men under the influence of demon pot seducing or raping white women.
Friends in high office went along for the ride. Cultivation of hemp was outlawed under the cover of purifying the national character through prohibition of marijuana. The result of the 1937 law regulating hemp production? Newsprint produced from wood fiber is still used by an overwhelming majority of newspapers. As many as a hundred acres of trees are used just to produce the Sunday edition of a major daily newspaper. Each weekend.
I was born in 1937, the same year hemp was outlawed. Eight years later, my family was broken-up by the alcohol abuse of my father. From 1968 to 1972, I smoked pot. I know, from very personal experience, about the effects of alcohol abuse and pot use. And now, when I consider that alcohol is not only legal but subsidized in this country, while pot smokers are severely punished and subjected to tortur in U.S. prisons, I cannot put into mere words my feeling of . . . . . disappointment . . . . . in the government.
Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors 1968 is cited by many as the true beginning of the War on Drugs. This was the year The WOD got its name. By that time, the War in Vietnam had so upset American voters that the front-running presidential challenger wanted to steer clear of the issue (apart from announcing he had a “secret plan” to end the war). In a master stroke of Machiavellian machination, this political candidate invented another issue, one so powerful, clever and mean-spirited, it’s still being used today by venal and hypocritical politicians. It was included as a plank of the Republican Party’s platform that year.
To “bring the people together,” this particular plank blurred the distinction between “hard” drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.) and the less easily abused marijuana.
The political rhetoric that followed linked race riots with anti-war protests and the growing counter-culture. Angry, street-active young Blacks and Hispanics from America’s blighted and intolerable ghettos were linked with the predomi-nantly white, politically-active college students and hippies who opposed the war and the status quo. Thus, America’s problem children were disingenuously lumped together in the hubris of right wing rhetoric. The political effect was to collectively identify a new Public Enemy Number One.
And what national action was called for to deal with this new domestic threat and to heal the nation? Did America need to make equal opportunity for all a reality? How about equal access to justice? Perhaps our nation needed to end its racist, murderous war in Vietnam?
No, proclaimed this candidate, these were not America’s problem! What these dis-respecters of law & order shared in common was drugs! Therefore drugs was America’s problem! The solution was elegantly suited to the agenda of the political right: a “War On Drugs.”
It was, of all places, in front of the Matterhorn (Disneyland, not Switzerland) two months before the 1968 election, that Richard M. Nixon, of all people, began the longest war in United States history.
In the summer of 1968, I was a 31-year-old anti-war activist and editor of the underground newspaper Inferno, in San Antonio, Texas. One hot day, I met with an FBI agent and confessed to smoking pot in order to take potential heat off my housemate and co-editor, Raul Rodriguez. Raul was a sick, elderly “political gadfly,” as local media called him.
“We’re not concerned with marijuana, Tom. We know you’re no threat to national security” said the agent with a chuckle and an expansive wave of his hand, signifying it was a petty issue, as if I was a Little Leaguer admitting to chawing tobacco.
That happened just weeks before I was incarcerated and gang-raped.
Ten years later, in 1978, I obtained my FBI files (with difficulty) under the Freedom of Information Act. I found two 1968 memos that indicate the Bureau’s COINTELPRO may have set me up to be raped in prison because of my activities.
The WOD since ‘68 Each succeeding presidential administration since Nixon has reinvented, then escalated The WOD. Example? Attorney General Janet Reno couldn’t have been more candid when addressing members of the military, the defense industry and the intelligence community in November, 1993. Remember, this is just months after Waco, when U.S. military forces aided local police, with deadly results. Reno urged, “And let me challenge you to turn your skills that served us so well in the Cold War to helping with the war we’re now fighting daily in the streets of our towns and cities across the nation.” Pray, which war was that, Janet?
Marijuana busts have doubled since Clinton took office and, in 1997 alone, 695,000 Americans were arrested for pot, about 90% for mere possession, according to R. Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijunia Laws (NORML), quoting the FBI’s own statistics. One in seven prisoners confined for drug offenses is in for marijuana. Of the almost two million prisoners in the U.S., nearly 300,000 of them are in for some kind of drug related offense.
A Lose/Lose Scenario Let’s get real here. The greatest hazard to health of any drug is its criminalization. As Margaret Mead pointed out long ago, criminalizing a substance that is relatively mild, obviously non-addictive in the literal sense, and highly available, sends a message. By lumping all presently illegal substances in the same category despite vast differences among them—especially lumping marijuana with far more dangerous drugs—we send the message that we cannot be trusted to tell the truth. And if we lie about drugs, what else do we lie about? No policy of “zero tolerance” can make a lie into a truth. What starts as a “war on drugs” soon escalates into a “war on people.”
The last time we (re-)discovered this timeless human truth was during the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. The crime and corruption generated by outlawing booze were far, far worse for society than problems associated with individual abuse of alcohol itself. It took a decade for the nation to acknowledge this fact and repeal the prohibition.
It is the profit motive artificially created by criminalization that incites sociopathic behavior, fracturing the social contract and eroding community standards. Such behavior presents a far greater health hazard to society than the individual smoking of pot or even snorting cocaine or shooting heroin. Dr. Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General, and Dr. Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, and others have been trying to tell the American public this for years.
What was true of alcohol prohibition is true of drug prohibition. The price our nation has been forced to pay during all the decades of this chicanery is beyond counting. We have become a cruel nation inflicting massive suffering on millions of people caught within the grinding system of a “get-tough” policy gone mad.
And we lose economically too. Our nation has been forced to relinquish a major economic boon in developing the environmentally benign products and practices of the hemp industry. Yet, all this has been deceitfully concealed from the public by the use of the most sophisti-cated techniques of disinformation. Why would our government do such a thing?
Collateral Damage As bad as the damage done to the country’s moral compass by The WOD, is the “collateral damage” of this bogus war. Examples are endless. Right here in Oregon, the Molalla police department has a program that encourages parents to bring in their children for free drug testing. The two-year-old program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, screens participants at police headquarters for various drugs, and reports its findings within 15 minutes. Word is, the program will likely expand statewide this year.
Just great! Now I can deliver my child to my local police station and instruct her to “just pee into this nice container here for this nice policeman so we can invade the mystery of your body to find out if you’re a criminal or not.” What a sensitive way to deepen the trust bonds between me and my child while introducing her to the realities of “civilized” adult life. And all at no charge!
NORML’s Allen St. Pierre remarked, “Parents intent on evaluating their children’s excrement for evidence of past drug use can go to any major drug chain store and purchase a private drug test, rather than expose their children to the criminal justice system and its structural infirmities.”
To understand our national priorities vis-a-vis The WOD and our children, let’s look at comparisons. Our children’s education fund is being literally looted by WOD warriors. In California, for instance, new prison spending has out-distanced that of new colleges by 19 to 1. And there’s no end to it. California predicts all its prisons will be filled to capacity by April, 2001. (What’ll we do? Build more!)
In California, prison guards—many of whom being high school drop-outs—receive higher pay than college-educated teachers. And with endless increase in prisoner population, we keep needing more of them. In recent years, thousands of the state’s teachers have been laid-off, with the savings going to the criminal justice system. I don’t mean to begrudge a guard his or her pay for such stressful, dangerous work in that horrific environ-ment. But what about society’s education needs, which so many politicians have given so much lip service to for so long?
An Investment Opportunity! America’s prison/industrial complex has grown so dramatically that America now has the highest prison population of any nation in the world.
And Good News for investors! Penitentiaries are being privatized! The latest “emerging market” exploited for profit by savvy corporations is the building and servicing of the new prisons required to keep up with demand for cells created by the supply of new prisoners.
We all know that corporations invest in “dependable” long-term profit ventures. And with the spector of millions of The WOD’s victims pencilled out as profits in the columns of corporate ledger sheets, the “smart money” rides with prison futures. Imagine the strength of your stock portfolio! Wall Street trades in the “futures” of the ruined lives of millions of America’s citizens, with the flow of prisoners guaranteed by The WOD!
But are we to invest in America’s future by such a betrayal of our citizens? No profit margin can justify the human cannon fodder, supplied by our nation generation after generation, to feed The WOD. This is a war directed against the civil population of our country during peacetime. It is obscene.
Protecting The Public What? To keep it all rolling, we have a burgeoning police state protecting the public health. Pre-dawn raids by ninja-suited, heavily-armed assault squads have already terrorized, maimed and even killed many innocent citizens. (Oooppps, sorry, wrong address.) Millions of dollars have been paid to informers and bounty hunters. Anti-drug hysteria has bred a culture of “snitching” that, in many cases, rewards the guiltiest and punishes the less guilty. Outright extortion is being practiced by both prosecuting and defense attorneys. Drug offenders are receiving longer sentences than those convicted for violent crimes like murder and rape. The Constitution has been all but suspended for drug offenses. Now it’s guilty until proven innocent for drug crimes. Forfeiture of property is used by local police departments as fund-raisers to balance their budgets, while the federal government currently holds $1 billion in seized assets from drug related forfeitures. The hysteria of McCarthyism in the Fifties pales against the heart of darkness created by The WOD.
A Republican Governor Speaks Out “We are spending incredible amounts of our resources on incarceration, law enforcement and courts. As an extension of everything I’ve done in office, I made a cost-benefit analysis, and this one really stinks .... I would like to see a discussion on this, A to Z. The reality of what might evolve … is that we could learn how to legalize or decriminalize. Politically, I can’t ascertain if there has been a positive or negative reaction. But publicly, I’ve found that people overwhelmingly want to talk about it.” — Gary Johnson, Republican governor of New Mexico.
An unlikely voice in the anti-prohibition movement, Governor Johnson admits to using marijuana and cocaine in college. He has come out in favor of the federal government decriminalizing, and perhaps even legalizing, drugs.
A Judge Rules and the Swiss Reply “We couldn’t design a system worse than the one we’ve got,” — James P. Gray, Superior Court Judge, Orange County, California
Judge Gray looked upon himself as a conservative Republican until he deserted The WOD a few years ago. Judge Gray’s alternative? Sell controlled doses of drugs with sterile needles and with it supply information about the danger of drug abuse and where help is available. He would maintain the price low enough so a black market wouldn’t be worthwhile, and ban all advertising and sale to minors. Then he would put money saved from drug law enforcement into treating the possible, but not certain, increase in drug casualties. As of this writing, Judge Gray is still on the bench in Santa Ana, California, despite his “treason.”
In response, Clinton’s zealot drug czar Barry McCaffrey recently went to Capitol Hill to call proposals for decriminalization of drugs “sheer buffoonery from an ivory tower.” Obviously, General McCaffrey prefers the “prison tower,” as he shamelessly bids for job security, like so many other administrators in the vast bureaucracies of The WOD and the Prison/Industrial Complex.
Lest the reader think Judge Gray’s remedy is too “out there” for community standards of western civilization, consider that Switzerland’s marijuana prohibition will soon be a thing of the past as that country follows a course very similar to what Gray proposes. Swiss officials have promised to decriminalize marijuana use and possession. A Swiss government study shows 27 percent of 15 to 35 year olds in the country use cannabis, a statistic not dissimilar to our own. “The consumption of cannabis can’t be avoided through prohibition,” the Swiss Department of the Interior said in its proposal. “We aim to adapt legislation to reality in the area of drug consumption.” The proposal stated cannabis, “does relatively little damage to health,” and under certain circumstances “can have a therapeutic effect.” The Swiss government has also suggested criminal penalties be eliminated for the use of harder drugs such as cocaine as well. In June, voters approved legislation to legally provide heroin to addicts if they have a prescription. Drug use will remain illegal for children under 18 years of age.
America’s Rape Camps In the first part of this two part series (Alternatives, Issue 10), I detailed the appalling conditions and practices, including the forcible rape of many prisoners, in many of our penal institutions. Such conditions “do more damage to a young person than his use of marijuana,” said then New York State Representative Ed Koch before he became mayor of New York City in the early ’70s. Prisoner rape was epidemic even back then. Today, this noxious practice has only worsened after three long decades of prison population expansion, thanks in part to The WOD. Side effects of prisoner rape are murder, suicide, AIDS, severe psychosis, and increased recidivism. Tens of thousands of mostly small, young, adult male prisoners confined for the first time for non-violent crimes, such as possession of a little too much pot, are being raped daily in America’s prison gulag. And now, with adolescent prisoners being placed with adults, there is a virtual guarantee of rape and sexual slavery, violations of two amendments to the Constitution.
Bosnia’s “rape camps” are surely trifling compared to those of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Many, if not most prisoners enter confinement with severe emotional problems and exit much worse, according to Dr. Terry Kupers in his newly published book, Prison Madness (1999). U.S. correctional institutions are producing sociopaths and psychopaths, notes Dr. James Gilligan in his book, Violence; Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (1996). Conditions in the American gulag have gotten so bad that this year, for the first time in its 37 year history, Amnesty International is putting aside its long-standing policy of only investigating human rights violations abroad to focus on the U.S. As a survivor, and president of Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc., I am on Amnesty International’s speakers bureau for its current campaign.
The Rules By Which We Live “Let’s treat every American like a presidential candidate: If you’ve ever used drugs, you shouldn’t have to answer questions about it. Not only would such a don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy save the $17 billion the federal government currently spends on drug prohibition, but it would also let hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders out of prison so they could lead productive lives—and maybe even run for president themselves as hypocritical Republicans.” —Steve Dasbach, National Director, Libertarian Party
Thus runs one solution to end the controversy over Governor George W. Bush’s alleged cocaine use. It’s funny, but it raises a very big question. Why not simply give every suspected drug user the same right to “privacy” the GOP presidential front-runner demands? Better yet, why accept such a distortion of the rules by which we live? If a youthful George W. Bush had been tried according to now Governor George W. Bush’s own unforgiving drug policy, he’d be a felon, and likely sent away to a maximum security prison for anywhere from ten years to life. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are doing hard time around the country—stays measured in decades if not life-spans—because of their youthful dabbling in the white stuff.
Look at it another way. If George W. Bush had been busted for his youthful use of drugs, he’d be unable to raise $50 million and capture the Republican nomination for President. And therein lies the difference. He didn’t get caught. The same applies to William Jefferson Clinton. He didn’t get arrested when he didn’t inhale that joint that one time. But he might have been, and if he had been, America would have been deprived of his leadership for the past eight years.
There is nothing moral or intelligent about a system such as this. Human dignity and potential should not depend on whether people get caught or not. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have received criminal penalties, including draconian prison sentences, for doing just what these two presidential actors have done. I think of the ones who get caught as being George’s and Bill’s personal Jesus Christs. It’s weird, but like Jesus, the ones caught in the system are made to suffer for the sins of these two hypocrites.
The point is, what’s good for our presidential candidates is good for the people of America. Right? Either our laws should be applied equally to all, regardless of class, wealth, position, race ..... or they should be changed to accurately and fairly reflect the behavior of our society. This is what was done in repealing Prohibition, and it is long past time to do it again with the rest of the drugs our society continues to use.
Campaign 2000 America is living in sin in a hide-away called The WOD. But it’s time for the affair to end. Even TIME, America’s mainstream weekly newsmagazine, called The WOD, in a bold, two-page wide headline, “A GET TOUGH POLICY THAT FAILED.” (Feb. 1, 1999).
Wars aren’t easy affairs to end. Even if the politicians came to their senses and called off the War On Drugs, we couldn’t proclaim to ourselves as a nation that we’ve shot our WOD, open the prison gates, and free all those brutalized men, women and children. They are casualties of this war and they’re going to need lots of therapy and other health care, lots of job training and decent housing, or they’ll be climbing through our windows with evil intent. It’s the least we can do to make restitution to them. We need nothing less than a domestic “Marshall Plan” to rehabilitate America from the self-inflicted wounds we suffer as a result of this War on Drugs.
In the final analysis, not everone who uses drugs abuses them, which is one of the great lies of The WOD. The truth is, as with alcohol, most people who use drugs do so in a fairly responsible manner.
When will the millions of people of all walks of life, in all social classes, and of all economic means of our society emerge from the peculiarly hypocritical “Don’t ask, don’t tell” state we find ourselves in after decades of The WOD, and simply tell the truth about it? When will the doctors and the lawyers, the police officers and the therapists, the teachers and the architects and the truck drivers and the students and the farmers and the engineers . . . when will we just admit in public that many of us use substances that are currently and unjustifiably illegal?
Earlier this century, Mahatma Ghandi exhorted the Indian people to openly break unjust laws and throw off the fetters of their oppression through non-violent civil disobedience. Individually, such actions only hurt the individuals and never could break the tyranny of the British empire. But when hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people “came out,” the justice and prison systems were soon overwhelmed with people no longer afraid of what the system could do to ruin them. The empire changed its laws.
Laws are human constructs. They come and they go, changing according to cultural shifts and economic/political “realities.” When a law is bad, enough dissent can dissolve the construct. It is time to speak out! Bush and Clinton have put the issue of personal use on the political map—let’s thank them for it! Campaign 2000 offers a perfect opportunity to resuscitate the body politic and go for national healing.
If we continue the course we’re on now, the words of Emile Zola in J’Accuse (1898), could eventually become an apocalyptic prophecy: “Truth is on the march, and nothing can stop it…When truth is buried in the earth, it accumulates there and assumes so mighty an explosive power that, on the day when it bursts forth, it hurls everything into the air.”
This article only begins to describe the position and the proportions of a very large and dangerous metaphorical iceberg that floats off our bow, menacing our human rights.
The following books and periodical were very helpful in the research for this article:
- The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer;
- Smoke and Mirrors; The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum;
- The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia,McCoy;
- Dark Alliance by Gary Webb
- The Progressive Review, an online zine edited by Sam Smith. s
Tom Cahill is a long-time political activist, and is currently president of Stop Prisoner Rape Inc. Tom lives on the Mendocino Coast of California. He can be reached at PO Box 632, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, or 707/964-0820. www.spr.org