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April 23, 2008 -- Badger Herald (WI Edu)

OpEd: 'War On Drugs' Cloaks Oppression

By Kyle Szarznski

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In 2000, the leading cause of death in the United States was tobacco, killing an estimated 435,000 people, according to the American Medical Association. The No. 3 cause of death was alcohol, accounting for 85,000 deaths. Much further down the list were illicit drugs -- including heroine, cocaine, etc. -- resulting in the deaths of 17,000 people. Marijuana was not responsible for a single fatality.

The term "war on drugs" is a misleading one, as the above should have made clear. The battle against drug use applies to only a select number of body-altering chemical substances, specifically the less dangerous ones. More potent killers -- namely tobacco -- have been annually lavished with tens of millions in subsidies from the federal government, according to its own statistics.

And U.S. foreign policy has been, to say the least, less than helpful in inhibiting the growth of an international drug market. During the Vietnam War era, the CIA participated in the heroine trade in the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia to fund its anti-Communist military operations in the region, as documented by UW professor Alfred W. McCoy. He writes, "As an indirect consequence of American involvement in the Golden Triangle until 1972, opium production steadily increased."

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration's support for the Contras likely materialized in clandestine cocaine sales, much of which ended up in the streets of inner city America. During the same decade, the opium trade was again utilized by U.S.-backed Islamic fundamentalists -- -- the same types who are now the targets of the equally dubious "War on Terror" -- in their mutual campaign against the Soviets.

More recently, U.S. neo-liberal policies in South America, especially in Bolivia, have pushed many impoverished farmers into coca production.

Despite a long history of U.S. support for the international illicit drug trade -- though only when it suits its purposes -- and a more open tolerance for its far less dangerous counterparts, the official rationale still goes something like the following: The war on (certain) drugs is necessary to protect people from what they choose to put into their own bodies. And about $50 billion annually in taxpayer money is needed to carry out the policy, according to government statistics.

Obviously, the invasion of Iraq isn't the only war in recent American history based on faulty intelligence. The stated rationale for the drug war, along with the war itself, is an utter farce. If the government was truly interested in the health effects of illegal drugs, it might pay heed to the reports of the Rand Corporation and countless other studies: Education, prevention and treatment are far more effective than police enforcement in both limiting the number of users and curbing the most deleterious consequences of drug use.

But the real aims of the policy are something else entirely -- the war on drugs serves as a method of social control. Hard drug use, especially its trafficking, is most prevalent among the underclass. This group is largely marginal to the U.S. economic system, so the current drug laws do an effective job -- via aggressive police enforcement -- in containing a superfluous yet potentially rebellious population.

They also effectively demonize the often poor and largely minority cohorts associated with them, a necessary mechanism in justifying the existence of millions of impoverished people in the wealthiest country in the world. The results have been a massive influx into the stupendously profitable prison-industrial complex -- more than one in 100 adults are now behind bars -- many of which are nonviolent drug offenders.

For the rest of the population, the hysteria surrounding drug use induces fear and, consequently, malleability. Similar in effect to the bellowing about Islamic terrorism, the drug war forces people to look to the paternalistic and ever-benign state for protection, justifying the building up of the police state and military-industrial complex.

Drugs become illegal only when they come to be associated with the poor. This allows for their demonization and accounts for the current road toward the criminality of tobacco, a drug increasingly unpopular among the educated and affluent. It also explains the wildly disparate consequences for possession of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.

No one can really predict the effects of complete drug decriminalization. Illegal drugs are easy enough to obtain as it is, and the only way to completely prevent their use is to alter the need to experiment inherent in human nature. It is clear, however, that the current policy is futile, wasteful and blatantly immoral. If society is really interested in achieving the most humane and rational solution to drug use, a good place to start would be an honest discussion about the issue. For now, state policy and propaganda serve as the biggest impediment to the beginning of such a dialogue.

Kyle Szarzynski is a junior majoring in Spanish and history.

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