America’s modern War on Drugs is actually an internalized continuation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, with the former being an even bigger quagmire than the latter. As Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg have pointed out, closing the door on Ho Chi Minh in South Vietnam meant opening the door to heroin in America. Evans and Goldberg explain:
“During the Vietnam War, the CIA aided the heroin producing Hmong tribesmen in the Golden Triangle area. In return for cooperation with the U.S. government’s war against the Vietcong and other national liberation forces, the CIA flew local heroin out of Southeast Asia and into America.”[i]
A decade later, Oliver North would use the lessons of Vietnam to bypass the U.S. Congress and provide support for the Contras in Nicaragua.
Having the CIA ship heroin into the United States allowed President Nixon to declare a “war on drugs” in June 1971. That declaration of war allowed him to dramatically increase “the size and presence of federal drug control agencies,” and push “through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.” He likewise “temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.”[ii] (Emphasis added)
Between 1973 and 1977, however, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession and in January 1977, "President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization'” Ten months later, in October 1977, “the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.” Within just a few years, though, the tide had shifted.[iii]
By the 1980’s, cocaine from Columbia was increasingly finding its way into the United States. That cocaine came by way of Central America, which was the strategic halfway point for air travel between Columbia and the U. S. The Contra War against Sandinista Nicaragua, as well as the war against the national liberation forces in El Salvador,” according to Evans and Goldberg, “was largely about control of this critical area.”
Oliver North, who was a platoon commander during the Vietnam War, decided that defeating the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua meant he would have to do with the Contras what the CIA had done with the Hmong tribesman of the Golden Triangle. In order to defeat Communism, in other words, America would have to deal drugs. As Evans and Goldberg explained further;
When congress cut off support for the Contras, Oliver North and friends found other ways to fund the Contra re-supply operations, in part though drug dealing. Planes loaded with arms for the Contras took off from the southern U.S., offloaded their weapons on private landing strips in Honduras, and then loaded up with cocaine for the return trip.[iv]
With drugs once again being brought into the U.S. by the U.S., Ronald Regan would follow Nixon’s lead, and again declare a “war on drugs.” The result, naturally, was the increase in spending to protect the American people from their own drug pushing government. Twice in the latter half of the twentieth century, in other words, the “war on drugs” was declared by presidents who presided over the shipping of drugs into America. And both times, the "war" on drugs was simply America’s internalization of a war on communism abroad.
The Racism of a Moral Imperative
Of course, all of this simply explains the mechanics of the war on drugs, not the moral justification that politicians used for pushing the war to win votes and re-institute slavery. That justification came, as it almost always does, in the form of racism masquerading as a means of national security and morality. As Maia Szalavitz pointed out in 2012:
[I]t’s useful to remember that the nation’s vehement anti-drug rhetoric is rooted in explicit racism. For example, the first state laws banning cocaine were passed in response to media reports about how the drug made black men homicidal, prone to raping white women and, worst of all to the police, impervious to bullets. An article about the issue in the New York Times in 1914 was headlined “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.”[v]
Unfortunately, such racism still exists, despite what many people believe. As Szalavitz further points out, “The American Coalition -- an anti-immigrant group -- claimed as recently as 1980: "Marihuana, perhaps now the most insidious of narcotics, is a direct byproduct of unrestricted Mexican immigration."[vi]
A media blitz that nightly prophesied about the coming of an almost apocalyptic “crime wave” would soon follow. And the only way to stop it, many were then duped into believing, was by means of prohibition and punishment. This meant protecting America’s moral virtues with a chastity belt and a bullwhip. Ensuring Americans would not become victims of this fantasy crime wave required victimizing poor African American’s and re-enslaving them by the thousands. However well-intentioned the War on Drugs may have been in theory, it amounted to nothing more than slavery by another name in practice. Eventually, the profit motive produced a momentum too hard to resist, and the propaganda machine such motives produced would surpass even the efforts of Joseph Goebbels.
“The corporate mass media had learned that drug war imagery was good for sales, and so the nation was hit not only with presidential warnings but with offerings such as “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” 48 hours on Crack Street,” and “Cocaine County.” Televisions and print media produced several stereotypical tropes in this era, notably the “crack house” the “crack mother” and “crack baby” to scare the reading and viewing public into demonizing the crack user as a diabolical criminal. In fact, the three major networks and the New York Times and Washington Post quadrupled their news coverage of crack between 1983 and 1986; at the height of this frenzy, in April of 1986, public opinion polls found 2 percent of the population who considered drugs to be the nation’s number-one problem, but six months later, in September, 13 percent of Americans polled by the same NY Times/CBS news poll said drugs were the number-one problem facing the country. That same month, ABC released its own poll that found 80 percent of respondents believed that U.S. faced a national drug crisis.
“Despite this hysteria, crack use was primarily isolated to just a few metropolitan areas, like Los Angles, and New York. Still, the message from the media and the White House screamed of a crack tide flooding across the shores of the U.S. Jimmie Reeves and Richard Campbell have studied this period of media bombardment, concluding that it produced a “siege paradigm” in which the drug user was “treated as an alien Other on the order of a space invader” This otherworldly invader was of course made proximate by drawing upon longstanding racial stereotypes, thus producing a “color-coded mob of dehumanized inner-city criminals [that] threaten the suburbs, small towns, schools, families, status, and authority of Middle America.”[vii]
Reagan’s declaration in 1986 that crack cocaine was an “uncontrolled fire” would be echoed by George H. W. Bush’s announcement in September of 1989 that “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation is drugs.” That the "threat" was mostly self-imposed was left out. Drugs in America is obviously an internal demon. But the fact that so many of those drugs were deliberately imported into the U. S. by the U.S. means the War on Drugs is like the final climatic scene from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
In the final scene of Blatty’s tale of demonic possession, a priest named Father Damien Karras, frustrated by the death of a fellow priest during the failed exorcism of a young girl named Regan MacNeil, attacks the girl violently while screaming at the demons inhabiting her to “Take me! Come into me! God damn you! Take me! Take me!” The demons oblige, and Karras, who subsequently manages to wrestle temporary control of himself from the indwelling spirits, saves the girl by throwing himself out of a window. Like Father Karras, America, frustrated by its inability to expel communist influences from places like Vietnam and Central America, opted to import heroin and cocaine into the United States. The only difference is that today, politicians boast of their moral superiority, not for their ability to exorcise the demon of drug addiction, but for their willingness to demonize those who suffer from such an addiction before gladly throwing them all out a window to win an election.
[i] The War on Drugs in The PID and the Global Economy by Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg. Pg. 10
[iv] The War on Drugs in The PID and the Global Economy by Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg. Pg. 10
[vii] Pg 90 of Challenging the PIC by Stephen Jon Harnett. Chap 3 and Daniel Mark Larson