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The war on (certain) drugs

Noam Chomsky in What Uncle Sam Really Wants

One substitute for the disappearing Evil Empire has been the threat of drug traffickers from Latin America. In early September 1989, a major government-media blitz was launched by the President. That month the AP wires carried more stories about drugs than about Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa combined. If you looked at television, every news program had a big section on how drugs were destroying our society, becoming the greatest threat to our existence, etc.

      The effect on public opinion was immediate. When Bush won the 1988 election, people said the budget deficit was the biggest problem facing the country. Only about 3% named drugs. After the media blitz, concern over the budget was way down and drugs had soared to about 40% to 45%, which is highly unusual for an open question (where no specific answers are suggested).

      Now, when some client state complains that the US government isn't sending it enough money, they no longer say, "we need it to stop the Russians" - rather, "we need it to stop drug trafficking." Like the Soviet threat, this enemy provides a good excuse for a US military presence where there's rebel activity or other unrest.

      So internationally, "the war on drugs" provides a cover for intervention. Domestically, it has little to do with drugs but a lot to do with distracting the population, increasing repression in the inner cities, and building support for the attack on civil liberties.

      That's not to say that "substance abuse" isn't a serious problem. At the time the drug war was launched, deaths from tobacco were estimated at about 300,000 a year, with perhaps another 100,000 from alcohol. But these aren't the drugs the Bush administration targeted. It went after illegal drugs, which had caused many fewer deaths - over 3500 a year - according to official figures. One reason for going after these drugs was that their use had been declining for some years, so the Bush administration could safely predict that its drug war would "succeed" in lowering drug use.

      The Administration also targeted marijuana, which hadn't caused any known deaths among some 60 million users. In fact, the crackdown has exacerbated the drug problem - many marijuana users have turned from this relatively harmless drug to more dangerous drugs like cocaine, which are easier to conceal.

      Just as the drug war was launched with great fanfare in September 1989, the US Trade Representative (USTR) panel held a hearing in Washington to consider a tobacco industry request that the US impose sanctions on Thailand in retaliation for its efforts to restrict US tobacco imports and advertising. Such US government actions had already rammed this lethal addictive narcotic down the throats of consumers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, with human costs of the kind already indicated.

      The US Surgeon General, Everett Koop, testified at the USTR panel that "when we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the flow of cocaine, it is the height of hypocrisy for the United States to export tobacco." He added, "years from now, our nation will look back on this application of free trade policy and find it scandalous."

      Thai witnesses also protested, predicting that the consequence of US sanctions would be to reverse a decline in smoking achieved by their government's campaign against tobacco use. Responding to the US tobacco companies' claim that their product is the best in the world, a Thai witness said, "Certainly in the Golden Triangle we have some of the best products, but we never ask the principle of free trade to govern such products. In fact we suppressed [them]." Critics recalled the Opium War 150 years earlier, when the British government compelled China to open its doors to opium from British India, sanctimoniously pleading the virtues of free trade as they forcefully imposed large-scale drug addiction on China.

      Here we have the biggest drug story of the day. Imagine the screaming headlines: "U.S. Government The World's Leading Drug Peddler." It would surely sell papers. But the story passed virtually unreported, and with not a hint of the obvious conclusions.

      Another aspect of the drug problem, which also received little attention, is the leading role of the US government in stimulating drug trafficking since World War II. This happened in part when the US began its postwar task of undermining the anti-fascist resistance and the labor movement became an important target.

      In France, the threat of political power and influence of the labor movement was enhanced by its steps to impede the flow of arms to French forces seeking to reconquer their former colony of Vietnam with US aid. So the CIA undertook to weaken and split the French labor movement - with the aid of top American labor leaders, who were quite proud of their role.

      The task required strikebreakers and goons. There was an obvious supplier: the Mafia. Of course, they didn't take on this work just for the fun of it. They wanted a return for their efforts. And it was given to them: they were authorized to reestablish the heroin racket that had been suppressed by the fascist governments - the famous "French connection" that dominated the drug trade until the 1960s.

      By then, the center of the drug trade shifted to Indochina, particularly Laos and Thailand. The shift was again a by-product of a CIA operation - the "secret war" fought in those countries during the Vietnam War by a CIA mercenary army. They also wanted a payoff for their contributions. Later, as the CIA shifted its activities to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the drug racket boomed there.

      The clandestine war against Nicaragua also provided a shot in the arm to drug traffickers in the region, as illegal CIA arms flights to the US mercenary forces offered an easy way to ship drugs back to the US, sometimes through US Air Force bases, traffickers report.

      The close correlation between the drug racket and international terrorism (sometimes called "counterinsurgency," "low intensity conflict" or some other euphemism) is not surprising. Clandestine operations need plenty of money, which should be undetectable. And they need criminal operatives as well. The rest follows.

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