As the drug war turns 50, the US is still public enemy number one

For five decades, the US government has wreaked havoc both at home and abroad with its violent ‘war on drugs’.

Protesters from the "Support, Don't Punish" campaign group wear masks depicting former US President Richard Nixon to demonstrate against the criminalisation of drug use in London June 26, 2013. [File: Reuters/Neil Hall]

Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1971, United States President Richard Nixon convened a press conference with a grave message for his fellow citizens: “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse”. To vanquish the enemy, he declared, it was “necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive”, which would be “worldwide” in nature and would naturally require “more money” from Congress.

To be sure, it was fortunate that Nixon included the geographic specification “in the United States” – lest Americans forget the terrible communist menace that was allegedly also imperilling their lives at every moment and that required, inter alia, a multitude of US soldiers to go kill and be killed in Vietnam.

As it turned out, part of Nixon’s professed motive for launching the so-called “war on drugs” had to do with none other than the Vietnam War, which had spawned an epidemic of heroin abuse and similar phenomena in the US military. It was hardly rocket science: if you are a poor American dispatched to kill and die for no other reason than imperialism, you are probably more likely to seek a narcotic-fuelled escape from said miserable reality.

Nor did it help, in terms of combatting “public enemy number one”, that the US had been up to its ears in the global drug trade for decades thus far, including – surprise surprise – in southeast Asia. A 1993 New York Times article, for example, specifies that during the Vietnam War and the attendant clandestine slaughter perpetrated by the US in neighbouring Laos, the products from a heroin lab in the Laotian north were “being ferried out on the planes of the CIA’s front airline, Air America”.

Granted, US hypocrisy is as old as the nation itself, but the whole “drug war” constitutes its own special level of hypocritical overdose. As the acclaimed American historian Howard Zinn noted in his book A People’s History of the United States, the CIA in the 1950s “administered the drug LSD to unsuspecting Americans to test its effects: one American scientist, given such a dose by a CIA agent, leaped from a New York hotel window to his death”.

And yet it was not only this scientist who might have been forgiven for thinking that it was in fact the US government that was public enemy number one.

Recall, for example, the explanation of the origins of the drug war that former Nixon adviser and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman provided to journalist Dan Baum. The Nixon White House, Ehrlichman said, “had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

And disrupt they did. After all, what is the point of capitalism if not to create a social hierarchy predicated on racism and discrimination that enables the obscene enrichment of an elite minority at the expense of the masses?

In another instance of acute hypocritical overlap in the 1980s, the US Contra War on Nicaragua also entailed a narco aspect, in which the US facilitated the enrichment-by-drug-trafficking of the right-wing mercenaries who were dutifully terrorising the country in question.

One byproduct of the arrangement: a crack cocaine epidemic that devastated Black neighbourhoods in Los Angeles.

Talk about public enemies.

This epidemic, in turn, helped spawn the Anti-Drug Abuse Act during the administration of Ronald Reagan, which established mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving certain quantities of drugs and wreaked disproportionate misery on poor communities of colour.

The law institutionalised a 100-to-1 disparity in prison sentence lengths for possession of crack – a drug associated with Black people – versus powder cocaine, associated with wealthier whites.

Indeed, the mass incarceration of poor Black people in for-profit prisons is a fine way of capitalistically “disrupting communities”.

Abroad, too, plenty a community has been disrupted over the past half-century of a “war on drugs” that has in actuality largely been a war on poor people. Colombia comes to mind, where the US has flung billions of dollars at right-wing governments thoroughly implicated in the drug trade, who have used their imperial backing to massacre peasants, leftists, social justice activists, and anyone else standing in the way of neoliberal dystopia.

And in Mexico, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the context of a domestic US-backed drug war that was officially launched in 2006. While accomplishing zero of its ostensible goals – thanks to the continuing US demand for drugs and the criminalisation that makes their trafficking so lucrative in the first place – the war has succeeded in rendering Mexican cities some of the most violent places on earth.

Back in the US, meanwhile, the drug war was given a new lease on life by penultimate President Donald Trump. Although optimistic observers have detected possibilities for improvement in the new administration of the less transparently sociopathic Joe Biden, Biden also happens to be one of the architects of obsessive drug-related over-incarceration in the US – including with regards to the 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack versus cocaine.

A Newsday article reminds us that, in 1991, Biden “lamented” that the death penalty was rarely applied to people who sold drugs.

But merely existing in the US can practically constitute a death sentence, in light of the country’s firmly capitalist commitment to denying its inhabitants proper healthcare and other basic rights of survival. Given the oppressive panorama, it is less than shocking that many people turn to drugs.

Now, as the US drug war turns 50 and an opioid epidemic rages in the US, thanks to lethally predatory practices by the pharmaceutical industry, one cannot help but think a vastly different sort of war on drugs is in order. Or better yet: a war on the war on drugs itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.