New Internationalist

The Needle & The Damage Done

October 1991

Persecuting peasant drug growers in Latin America and addicts in Western inner cities is wrong in principle and a failure in practice. David Ransom tells the story behind the international war on cocaine and heroin, at a time when the US finds its own cities besieged by drug-related violence.

Issue 224

‘We’re not really warriors in the war on drugs,’ Léon Wever readily admits. He is a senior official in the Dutch Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs. His office looks out over the pastoral calm of Rijswijk on the outskirts of The Hague. ‘After all,’ he continues, ‘it’s the first time people have ever waged war on, basically, a series of plants… No, the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs for personal consumption really is not a matter for the police.’

Difficult to imagine a government official saying such a thing in London or Ottawa, Canberra or Wellington, let alone Washington. But what if Léon Wever is right? The war on drugs and the Dutch alternative have both now been going for 20 years – long enough to compare notes.

In the Netherlands prohibitionist drug laws remain. But the public prosecutor can decide not to act on them if alternatives are considered ‘more appropriate’. That means help and treatment for people who get into trouble with drugs, rather than prosecution and imprisonment for those who offend against the law. It’s called ‘the expediency principle’. Perhaps only the Dutch can make a principle out of expediency. ‘But it works,’ says Léon Wever. And that is the first time anyone has felt able to make such a claim for any drugs strategy since I began researching this subject.

There is no shortage of evidence to back the claim. Drug-related violence in the Netherlands is minimal. An already low rate of drug-related deaths is actually falling – one of the few places in the world where this is true.1 Drug addiction rates, though hard to measure, are thought to be slightly lower than in the UK or France, and very much lower than in the US.2

Shopping for cannabis
‘Coffee Shops’ sell cannabis – though not heroin or cocaine – quite openly all over Amsterdam. But consumption of cannabis has not increased and its toleration has not encouraged customers to use more powerful drugs like heroin and cocaine.3 ‘Well, what more could you ask?’ adds Léon Wever pointedly. ‘The cannabis market is under control.’ The result is that the drugs issue is no longer exploited for political advantage in the Netherlands.

Peddling cannabis in Amsterdam.
DAVID RANSOM

I want to get some idea of what is happening on Dutch city streets. So I arrive early at an Amsterdam drug clinic for an appointment with Dr Kris Kanhai, who runs it. I am part of a general movement of people with limps or an uncertain sense of direction towards a closed door. These are the people, the drug addicts, who in most other cities around the world would be tagged ‘the enemy’. It’s a dispiriting sight. We stand dripping in the rain, in some cases urgently waiting for the methadone that is used as a safer substitute for heroin. A smart young man in a crew cut and blazer opens the door.

‘I have an appointment with Dr Kanhai!’ I cry as I’m bundled past him by the crowd.

‘Of course. Just wait with the others,’ says the blazered man knowingly.

‘In New York there are a lot of black people dying with AIDS,’ says Dr Kanhai when I eventually get to see him. ‘I’ve often wanted to go and tell the authorities there: “If you don’t give these people [who inject drugs] clean needles all of them will die”. In Amsterdam we operate a needle-exchange programme and that has helped to keep down the level of HIV infection. American policy is that if you give them needles you accept drug use. We never accept drug use in Amsterdam… But we have taken the excitement and most of the danger out of it. Ten years ago if you used drugs you were a clever kid – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, you know the sort of thing. Not any more. We try to bring people out of hiding. If they have some perspective on life, some future, some medical support, that is the best B52 bomber in any war on drugs that you can possibly imagine.’

Dr Kanhai is a Hindu from Surinam. He studies the Mahabharata, a story in which two related families fight each other. ‘The first principle of war,’ says Dr Kanhai, ‘is “Know your enemy”. It’s impossible to fight a proper war against drugs, against nobody quite knows what.’

Amsterdam is a delightful, prosperous, eccentric and cultured modern city preoccupied with making money. You really cannot say that it has a worse drug problem than places where the war on drugs has been fought with greater relish. For the most part it’s less violent, more relaxed and generally more sane. I leave Holland convinced that one fundamental premise of the war – that this kind of option encourages drug use and leads to chaos – is nonsense.

So too is another: that you can deal with the problems of drug abuse in the rich world by knocking hell out of drug producers in the Third World. Powerless, impoverished peasant farmers in countries wracked by debt and collapsed commodity prices are producing illicit drugs because they have little choice. The war tries to eradicate their crops and introduce a new choice for peasant families: between hunger and persecution. There is cruelty in forcing people to choose persecution, as choose it they surely must.

Strutting dictators
There is racism too, in a war that routinely makes all Colombians suspect drug smugglers or all Jamaicans potential Crack dealers. The war has resurrected crude stereotypes of Third World cultures, traditions and peoples to promote an updated version of the ‘Banana Republic’. ‘Drug Republics’ are peopled entirely by strutting dictators, flamboyant millionaires and conniving peasants, all conspiring to hook the finest bloom of Western civilization onto their nasty narcotics. Never mind that these dictators have usually been put there to look after the rich world’s interests – if need be, they can be turned into the perfect enemy too.

The fact is that the whole sorry story of drugs begins and ends in the rich world. Heroin and cocaine were both devised for medical use within the past 100 years by chemical companies in the West. Both were, until quite recently, used for ‘recreational’ purposes exclusively in the urban industrial societies of the West. The US itself is now the largest producer of marijuana in the world.4 Amphetamines (‘speed’), which are knocked together from chemicals made in the industrialized world, are by far the most widely used illicit drugs after marijuana.5

How is it then, that images of coca plants being torn up in Bolivia and cocaine factories being put to the torch in Colombia have become such an integral part of the war on drugs? It’s because they look good on prime-time TV in the US to people who were promised a ‘drug-free society’ in exchange for their votes. Such an electoral promise is politically potent because it provides an escapist explanation for the political crisis in the US, the devastated inner cities and the spiralling crime and violence on the streets.

The full extent of the dereliction, violence and despair that have overtaken the inner cities of New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington or Los Angeles in recent years is not fully appreciated outside the US, or even by many Americans themselves. There are no jobs, no decent homes, no health care and not much education worth the name. Infant mortality rates in the Black ghettoes approach Third World levels. In Harlem, New York City, 47 per cent of residents were living below the poverty line in the 1980s. When a few unionized, well-paid job vacancies in the Los Angeles docks became available, 50,000 predominantly Black and Chicano youth lined up for miles to apply for them.6

Promoting the mobsters
The Reagan era closed public services (including drug treatment programmes) on principle and left 30 million Americans living in poverty. These are the conditions in which crime and violence flourish, particularly if they occur in the heart of the most prosperous place on earth. Drug prohibition promotes the criminal mobsters by handing them control of the illicit trade, and creates the illusion that the war on drugs is really a war on crime.

The people who live in these places have now been tagged the enemy within. Gung-ho pronouncements by politicians and police-chiefs are quickly followed by aggressive police ‘swoops’, mass arrests and, to back them up, an assault on civil liberties and the US Constitution designed to give the police greater powers. ‘Drugs’ have been interpreted as the cause rather than the consequence of dereliction, the nearest thing to sin that a secular society can devise. ‘Drugs’ is set fair to replace ‘Reds’ in the demonology of post-Cold War America.

Coca producers are perched on a slippery slope between hunger and persecution.
JULIO ETCHART

Well, has it worked? Is the US today any closer to being a ‘drug-free society’? Has an anti-drugs enforcement budget that now exceeds $20 billion a year paid off? No. There are at least four million drug addicts in the US – more than the total number in the rest of the industrialized world put together. Consumption has not fallen significantly since the war was declared, nor has demand declined. Illicit drugs are no harder to find than they were – and worldwide production is actually increasing.4

It would be easier to view all this with equanimity from a distance but for the enormous influence the US exercises worldwide. Signing up for the war has become an essential qualification for international friendship with America.

Yet over and over again the huge US intelligence network overseas has been involved with arms dealing and drug running to produce a foul-smelling mixture of political, social and economic intrigue thought to favour US foreign interests. Without it the drug-trafficking business could not possibly have developed so fast.

The largest opium-producing area of today, the ‘Golden Triangle’ on the borders of Myanmar/Burma, Laos and Thailand, is run by drug barons whose careers began when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stimulated their activities during the Vietnam War.

In Australia, Frank Nugan, a Sydney merchant banker, shot himself in 1980. On his body police found a calling card from one William Colby, who had just retired as Director of the CIA. Six months later the Nugan Hand Bank, of which Frank Nugan was the boss, collapsed. From the ensuing scandal it emerged that the bank had close links with the CIA, employed an inordinately large number of retired CIA agents and had been heavily involved in drug-trafficking.7

Central America became the transit point for cocaine when the US was waging a covert war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. US Senator John Kerry’s subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism uncovered so many links between the US-backed Contra forces and drug running that it is questionable which was more important to the Contras, defeating the Sandinistas or dealing in drugs. And that didn’t include the Iran-Contragate scandal, when Colonel Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter, thinking they were doing President Reagan’s bidding, indulged in freelance drug dealing to get round a Congressional ban on funding for the Contras.8

The most recent evidence of the CIA’s involvement in drugs is emerging from the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Manuel Noriega, the former President of Panama, who is standing trial in Miami for drug trafficking, was instructed when he was employed by the CIA to open BCCI accounts through which money for the Contras in Nicaragua would pass. The Colombian drug cartels used the same BCCI offices in Panama to launder drug money. The CIA itself maintained BCCI accounts.

The London Economist reports that in Afghanistan ‘all parties knew some of the rebel groups were running their own drug-smuggling operations. It is likely that on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan BCCI was used both to finance the rebels and to launder drug money. The CIA seems to have known all about this… Some of the world’s most respectable governments have allowed their intelligence agencies to work with BCCI in the belief that doing so could serve those governments’ interests.’9

So, incredible as it may seem, in drug-producing areas around the world there are powerful friends of the US who owe their position to trafficking in drugs. When it comes to apportioning responsibility for the ensuing chaos the US’s own CIA has a lot to answer for.

Muddy waters
Implausible and unpalatable facts like this muddy the water. Critics can easily get lost, too. If you oppose the use of drugs you find yourself swimming with the redneck drug warriors. If you oppose the war on drugs you might have joined the school of Milton Friedman. He’s the economist closely linked with monetarism, who advised the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, provided the theoretical underpinning to the Reagan era itself and has now called for the legalization of drugs. With others on the libertarian right he believes in the free market as an article of faith. Drugs, they say, are a commodity like any other. Prohibition interferes with the sacred operations of the market. Decent entrepreneurs, not Third World cartels or Black gangs in Los Angeles, have the right to make an honest buck out of them.

Liberal US academics and civil libertarians also support the legalization call.10 But their case suffers from a possibly fatal flaw. Legalizing hard drugs and handing them over to a free market does nothing whatever to address the awful conditions in American inner cities and the Third World that gave birth to the war on drugs in the first place. Indeed, it replicates the same principles that helped to create them. A free market in drugs might remove one mask from the monster, but not the monster itself. There’s no quick fix on offer for the rethink about private greed and public squalor in the US that is so long overdue.

Drugs, whether they screw you up or not, make such a rethink that much more unlikely. And, when they have served their purpose, another mask to hide the monstrous deprivation will be found: perhaps the racism that lies behind the war will feel free to come up front.

What is missing is a constructive, humane and public response to the causes of the drugs havoc as well as to the havoc drugs cause. That means help rather than harassment, peaceful measures that work rather than warlike ones that don’t.11 The Dutch have given us a clue to what is possible, and we should be grateful to them for that.

In the meantime the war on drugs goes on. It has to be condemned for what it is – cruel and perverse. Cruel because it persecutes powerless people in the Third World who grow the drugs and vulnerable people in the rich world who use them; perverse because it creates and feeds its own enemies. That war has now become a political convenience. The rich world has, you might say, become hooked on it.

1 Information supplied by Peter Cohen, University of Amsterdam.
2 Léon Wever, Drug Policy Changes in Europe and the US, Dutch Ministry of Welfare, 1991.
3 The Drug Abuse Situation in the Netherlands 1991, Dutch Ministry of Welfare, and Ministry of Justice.
4 Mary H Cooper, The Business of Drugs, Congressional Quarterly Inc, Washington, 1990.
5 Drug Misuse in Britain 1990, Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, London.
6 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso 1990.
7 Alfred W McCoy, The Politics of Heroin, Lawrence Hill Books, 1991.
8 Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics, University of California Press, 1991.
9 The Economist, London, 3 August 1991.
10 James a Inciardi, The Drug Legalization Debate, Sage, 1991.
11 See for example Bruce K Alexander, Peaceful Measures: Canada’s Way Out of the ‘War on Drugs’, University of Toronto Press, 1990.

 

Pushing the Pentagon
So you thought the war on drugs was some speech-writer’s
metaphor? There’s a new drug strategy coming soon to
neighborhoods in the US: ‘Send in the Marines!’

The Pentagon now occupies a central role in domestic US drug-control policy. In the name of fighting narcotics, heavily-armed troops are doing battle in cities and countrysides. Under the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the Department of Defense is now responsible for gathering and sharing intelligence about drug trafficking on US soil. The Department reports directly to the US President and, unlike the FBI and the CIA, its domestic activity is not subject to oversight by Congress.

In Washington DC National Guard helicopter pilots chased drug suspects with floodlights and deploy police commanders to Crack-house busts.

On the Arizona-Mexico border US Marines engaged in a gunfight with unidentified horsemen suspected of drug smuggling.

In Northern California, while army pilots reportedly fresh from the Panama invasion flew gunships overhead, an infantry division in search of marijuana growers cordoned off two square kilometres of elk preserve and arrested everyone who trespassed.

In Kentucky bluegrass country the National Guard searched people’s backyards and buzzed them with helicopters.

A program called ‘Guard Against Drugs’ ordered weapon-toting Arizona National Guards to land their helicopters at schools and deliver anti-drug talks.

Last year Congress authorized $450 million to expand the Department of Defense’s drug war, a 33-per-cent increase over 1989. This did not include the cost of the National Guard’s new anti-drug law-enforcement activities.

The Pentagon spent $130 million last year on aerostats, tethered balloons equipped with radar on the southern border with Mexico.

Former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles authorized National Guard units to perform under-cover surveillance on suspected drug dealers in rural areas. The Pentagon has approved spying by Guard troops in other states.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has expressed interest in making military bases and ships available to house drug arrestees when jails and prisons are full.

Intelligence hardware items such as secure telephone transmission lines and new computers with broad database capabilities are being funded via the Pentagon budget. Any official can tie into this system and share otherwise classified material, including hearsay, political data and anything else any informant has to say about you. It all gets sifted through the El Paso Intelligence Center, a major US drug-data network. One of the Center’s many sources is Operation Alliance, another center established in 1986 by the then anti-drug czar George Bush. Whom did George Bush put in charge of his Operation Alliance? The Pentagon’s own Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Matthew Reiss/ Mother Jones


This special report appeared in the the crazy war on drugs - the needle and the damage done issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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