War On Drug Users –
Feb. 3, 2020 – For more than a century, the U.S. has worked through the U.N., and its predecessor the League of Nations, to build a harsh global drug prohibition regime – grounded in draconian laws, enforced by pervasive policing, and punished with mass incarceration. For the past half-century, the U.S. has also waged its own “war on drugs” that has complicated its foreign policy, compromised its electoral democracy, and contributed to social inequality. Perhaps the time has finally come to assess the damage that drug war has caused and consider alternatives.
Even though I first made my mark with a 1972 book that the CIA tried to suppress on the heroin trade in Southeast Asia, it has taken me most of my life to grasp all the complex ways this country’s drug war, from Afghanistan to Colombia, the Mexican border to inner-city Chicago, has shaped American society. Last summer, a French director doing a documentary interviewed me for seven hours about the history of illicit narcotics. As we moved from the seventeenth century to the present and from Asia to America, I found myself trying to answer the same relentless question: What had 50 years of observation actually drilled into me, beyond some random facts, about the character of the illicit traffic in drugs?
At the broadest level, the past half-century turns out to have taught me that drugs aren’t just drugs, drug dealers aren’t just “pushers,” and drug users aren’t just “junkies” (that is, outcasts of no consequence). Illicit drugs are major global commodities that continue to influence U.S. politics, both national and international. And our drug wars create profitable covert netherworlds in which those very drugs flourish and become even more profitable. Indeed, the U.N. once estimated that the transnational traffic, which supplied drugs to 4.2% of the world’s adult population, was a $400 billion industry, the equivalent of 8% of global trade.