Follow the Money . . . Focus on America’s Failed War on Drugs, Prohibition Laws - Why they must go by Shannon Floyd
The Drug War is itself an addiction for which our government demands more money and more lives every year. The Drug War is also itself a prison, a prison for which the foundation is laid in prohibition, the concrete walls set high by mandatory minimum sentences, and the barbed wire rigged by conspiracy laws which allow the innocent to be sent away with the guilty and the violent.
We will tear this prison down and we will do that by working together toward a saner solution. People need to care enough to talk about this issue publicly. You no longer have to be a lunatic or a martyr to use the words, “The Drug War isn’t working.”
It is time to change the laws in our country that make some drugs/substances illegal. I refer here to the Prohibition Laws. I use the terms “drugs” and “substances” interchangeably because the drugs come from plant substances which can be useful for many purposes unrelated to intoxication (medicinal, spiritual, industrial, etc.), but these uses are lost to us if we are denied the substances.
This nation doesn’t have a drug problem—people have drug problems. This nation has a problem with bad laws. The way people deal with drug problems is through counseling, treatment, education, and through living with hope and purpose. In contrast, the laws now in place push people into addictive lifestyles by taking funding away from positive government resources (such as education and health care), and then criminalizing people for crossing arbitrary governmental lines. We have a drug war on our hands alright, but it is a war in which the American people were never consulted.
Declaring War How Did The War on Drugs Begin? Interestingly enough, the roots of the Drug War were planted about 100 years ago, around the same time that large corporations were coming into existence. When Rockefeller and Carnegie and Mellon were amassing the most amazing fortunes in America, a backlash was orchestrated against the poor, mostly non-white workers who did the physical labor of the land, and against the substances which formed a part of their culture. The first substance to be outlawed in America was opium. That prohibition was in San Francisco in 1875, and it was only illegal if you were smoking it while Chinese (a classic case of racial profiling). The railroads had been built and there wasn’t another project of that scale in the works. There were too many Chinese laborers in a bloated labor supply, and so they were targeted with the first prohibition law.
Then, during the ’30s, a national hysteria was stirred up against Mexican immigrants in the Southwest. These people had come north to work, and during the Depression became competitors for jobs in a shrinking market and then for spaces in the soup kitchen lines. And so tales began to spread about how Mexicans became insane and thought they were bullfighters in a ring when they smoked something called “marihuana”. (A note on the word marihuana: Cannabis was described as a medicine in the medical pharmacoepias —the lists of medicines—but no one had ever heard of marihuana, and so that word became the vehicle for making the substance illegal.) The Marihuana Tax Act was passed through Congress with virtually no discussion or debate in 1937. The short debate that did occur in the House of Representatives included a bald-faced lie on the part of those pushing for the bill. One representative asked what the American Medical Association thought of The Marihuana Tax Act; a fellow congressman said that the AMA supported it “one hundred percent.” In fact, counsel for the AMA had expressly opposed the bill in committee hearings, saying that cannabis was not a harmful substance, that the hysteria around its use had been mostly raised by the media, and that he wondered why the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been secretly putting together this bill for two years without soliciting input from the largest association of physicians in the country. The response from the committee chair ran along the lines of ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t come down here and talk to us at all’. The story of this disastrously short consideration and the deception in the House debate was not brought forth for decades, and still most people do not know.
The Harrison Tax Act—regulating doctors’ ability to prescribe opiates and narcotics—had previously been passed in 1915. Together, that law plus the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 gave the U.S. Treasury the right to come between doctors and their patients, and between people and their own pain management or cognitive exploration.
Armed with this new power, the U.S. Treasury sent their men—basically IRS men—out to arrest people if they were caught prescribing a narcotic to an addict, or if they were found in possession of marihuana without the marihuana tax stamp. It was only years later, after people had already been sent to prison for tax evasion, that the substances themselves were made illegal.
It is clear that the origins of the mess we call the “drug war” were rooted in financial weapons and financial gain. This is still the case today.
Who Benefits from Making Certain Drugs Illegal? 1) Is it people with addictions? No, be-cause they can’t get treatment. Treatment funding has dried up as money for more and bigger prisons has increased tenfold. 2) Is it kids? No. Assuming that what’s best for kids is to keep developing bodies and minds pure, we have a system in which it is easier for them to get an unregulated substance than a regulated one. And regarding the danger to kids: if a young person of 16 or 18 or 20 experiments with different intoxicants, do we, as a culture, really believe this is more dangerous than the current “cure” for such behavior? Currently we pull such young people out of society, threaten them for years through probation, and put them into a jail cell with violent criminals. 3) Is it citizens who benefit? Not if you figure that most people want a peaceful society to live in. Society is more violent with a system of substance prohibition (choosing to make some things illegal) than without it. Look at a graph such as the one on www.prohibitionhasfailed.com and you will see that the murder rate in this country spiked during Alcohol Prohibition (1920-33) and fell when it ended. It rose again with the updated and upgraded Drug War of the ’80s. 4) Do taxpayers benefit? Not in the least. The federal government now spends $20 billion per year on the Failed Drug War. If you count state, local and indirect costs, that number shoots up to about $50 billion per year, not counting the billions that are starting to go to support a drug war in Colombia and elsewhere in South America. This is money that is lost forever and can never be used to care for our elderly, educate our kids, build our roads, or revamp our health care system.
Clearly, Substance Prohibition, i.e. making certain substances illegal, is not benefiting those it claims to benefit. Professor Noam Chomsky says that if something is not achieving its stated goal, and yet it continues, it must be achieving an unstated goal. So I ask again: who benefits from making certain drugs/substances illegal? 1) The prison industry 2) Law enforcement agencies 3) The military complex 4) The pharmaceutical industry 5) Alcohol & tobacco industries 6) Drug testing & enforced treatment industries 7) Banks (through money laundering) 8) Agricultural chemical companies (eradication efforts) 9) Oil, gas & timber industries (due to hemp prohibition) 10) All corporations who use prison labor and the stock market (which contains vast amounts of fast-moving, untracked cash).
For the above groups, the primary result of the drug war is profit. For you and me, the primary result of the drug war is the threat of incarceration and loss of social services. For the world in general, the primary result of the drug war—as with any war—is destruction. That is what wars do: destroy the “enemy” and whatever else gets in the way.
That “whatever else” is called collateral damage in military terminology. And let us be very clear that, although only a metaphorical war when declared in 1974 by President Nixon, this war has become very real. The drug war destroys families, communities, economies, social infrastructure, and the environment.
Personal Collateral Damage—One of Many Millions I was alerted early to the dangers of Drug Prohibition. My father went to prison under a prohibition law when I was eleven years old, and these drug laws form a part of a larger continuum in an American story that circles around the issues of peace and war and civil disobedience.
A decorated fighter pilot and the youngest captain in the Marine Corps of his day, my father grew up learning about God and country from the Baptist church and the John Birch society. He went to Vietnam in 1968 thinking he was saving the ideals of democracy and freedom. But in Vietnam, he found divisions that made no sense, a people who sought American-style independence, and a war in which high-tech bomb-dropping left no room for ideals of civilian immunity. When a cockpit injury left him convalescing in Japan, he confronted the reality of modern warfare in the Nagasaki museum.
My mother had protested the Vietnam War as early as 1965 and in some ways must have been deeply relieved when her soldier husband quit the Marine Corps soon after I was born in 1969. But what followed was years of unease, unrest, and financial and emotional upheaval, as my father traveled the country organizing actions and speaking on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and my mother struggled to raise two babies more or less on her own.
The first time my father went to prison, it was 1972. Hearts and Minds, a documentary about the war in Vietnam in which he spoke about his experiences, had just been released, and he and a dozen others blocked the entrance to Tinker AFB with their bodies. I wrote my first letters to my father in jail. Barred from Tinker for life, my dad was not present when my sister gave birth there to his first grandchild.
The second time my father went to prison, it was 1980. He had a farm in Oklahoma, was building a house with his hands and living in a tent. He had gone to town to pick up supplies for himself, his partner, and their week-old son. When he came back, he was met by a group of men with guns who barred him access to his home. The arresting DEA agent was another veteran he knew. The man knocked him down while the others watched, and every time my father got up, saying, “I’m not resisting!” he was knocked down again. He’d been growing marijuana on his land and some friend or acquaintance had turned him in.
What I find sobering (take that however you wish) is how lucky I was. The parent imprisoned was not, for me, my main support in childhood, and he wasn’t handed a 99 year sentence to serve like others who have been convicted since this war heated up. Millions of children have now lost parents and grandparents to prison, and how many others have seen spouses, siblings and good friends locked away?
The issue behind prohibition is not and never has been one of personal or societal health. The most dangerous substances are legal. The most dangerous substances, alcohol and tobacco and many pharmaceuticals, kill a combined total of about 800,000 a year as opposed to 15,000 killed by illegal drugs.
All of us struggle with different forms of addiction or unhealthy consumption. My father—more than some, less than others—is a mass of chemical dependencies. Of the fluid and smoky cocktail that regularly goes into his body, it is the cigarettes that cause him to cough in the night. Tobacco could be the primary cause of death for any number of my loved ones.
But do I wish cigarettes were illegal? Absolutely not! Do you cure someone of a headache by hitting them with a hammer? I’ve talked to my dad about his smoking, and to my mother who nearly died of a stroke two years ago, and now I let it rest. I respect their choices for their bodies, their lives. This is a hard thing to do when you love someone, but it is necessary. Otherwise your concern becomes just another jail, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally.
If Not Prohibition, Then What? The only law that ever made a dent in the problem of addiction was not a prohibition law at all. It was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. People who had unknowingly become addicted to the cocaine, opium, and morphine in the many “patent medicines” (mostly rural white women) during the late 19th c., could suddenly see right on the label what ingredients were in their favorite tonics, and use dropped precipitously.
That is an historical example of what we now need: • We need truth in advertising (who remembers the tobacco executives swearing before Congress that nicotine was not addictive?); • We need real drug education which encompasses all drugs and gives complete, factual information about possible effects and side effects (see www.mamas.org); • And we need a reallocation of our resources toward the Constructive (parks, schools, social services, living wage jobs) and away from the Destructive (guns, bombs, slave wages, and prisons).
My dad doesn’t talk much about prison and I don’t ask. I know enough of what it meant. He missed the first nine months of his son’s life, came out 25 pounds thinner (the result of a long fast), and to this day dislikes East Coast mafia types. But we do talk politics. And he has come to see, as I have, that the Drug War is a powerful political issue, an immense mechanism of social control and economic profiteering.
The base issues of fear and greed have been with us before and will be again. All we can do is address the current incarnation of social and economic and racial and environmental injustice. These things all come together in the prohibition laws.
Watching carefully for the past twenty years, I have seen the environment sacrificed, the educational system underfunded, African-Americans and Latinos jailed at rates up to 17 times higher than whites, and the Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties of every U.S. citizen suffer under policies which are differentially enforced, ineffective when enforced, and which are used to justify numerous and far more serious sins.
It is important to make these connections between the movement to end substance prohibition and the movements seeking to defend women’s rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, and the right to clean air and water. We cannot let them commercialize and then criminalize our culture and our environment any longer. Only a small sector of the population, generally those at the top of the corporate ladder, are being well served by current laws, and a very broad range of purposes and people will be served by changing this wrong-headed and brutally destructive policy.
Breaking the Silence The only thing holding us back from having a sane drug policy, and a more successful and peaceful society, is the silence we now share between us. It is as if we all collude in this madness. We are not talking enough about the destruction being wrought in our names and with our tax dollars, under the flag of the War on Drugs. We must begin a conversation among our families, our neighbors, our faith communities, our business communities and our governmental communities that tells the history and faces facts about the War on Drugs.
When we wave away the smoke from the guns of government and corporate-sponsored propaganda, and simply look around us, we can see clearly how out of balance is the scale that weighs the costs and the benefits of prohibition. We can see how out of balance are the scales of justice, with one million people in prison for drug offenses today. We can see how out of balance are energy policies which refuse to consider the impact of outlawing hemp, one of the most environmentally useful substances on the planet. We can see how out of balance are environmental policies which poison the most fragile and diverse of ecosystems with thousands of tons of toxic herbicides. We can see how out of balance are laws that tear apart families in the name of family values.
Once we start to see clearly, we will take the next step . . . and the next. It will not take long then to repeal these laws. When that happens, the peace, the energy, and the resources that we will feed back into our daily lives rather than into a war machine will truly add much to the common good.
Shannon Floyd is working to create a forum, the Common Good Drug Policy Forum, to discuss the issues and difficulties of the Failed War on Drugs. She serves on the steering committees of two peace activist groups focused on South America, the Peace in Colombia Action Group (local) and the Colombia Action Network (national). Shannon lives in NE Portland and works as administrative director of a political consulting firm that addresses a variety of progressive social and environmental causes. She can be reached at [email protected]