by Joseph Miranda


“The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.” ‹George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”(1)


Since at least the middle of the Reagan Administration, the United States has had a “war on drugs.” (2) The official objective objective of this “war” has been the creation of a “drug-free” America. And it seems like a real war, with televised reports of heavily armed police attacking the drug trade throughout the United States and the armed forces engaged in counterdrug missions both at home and abroad. Yet despite the fact that this “war” has lasted over a decade, the resources allocated have been woefully inadequate and there is no realistic strategy for victory. What precisely is the United States fighting for?

In order to understand the “war on drugs”, it is important to remember the definition of war. Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century military theoretician, defines war as “An act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” (3) When seen in this light, it becomes apparent that America’s “war on drugs” is not really fought against drugs. Drugs, after all, are inanimate objects and can not be compelled to do anything. The “war” is actually fought against the people who traffic in and consume drugs and, as will be seen, against society in general.

A War without Winning

The United States has implemented a national drug control strategy based on the following four objectives:(4)
€ Eradication of drug-producing crops at home and abroad
€ Interdiction of drug smuggling
€ Investigation and prosecution of drug traffickers
€ Penalization of drug users

Despite much rhetoric on the part of politicians and drug enforcement agencies, the amount of resources being devoted to the “war on drugs” is completely inadequate. The United States has deployed abroad several hundred U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and several thousand military personnel to fight drugs in one capacity or another. This is simply not sufficient to police the vast areas of the underdeveloped world where drugs are produced and the vast expanses through which they are smuggled. It is not even a fraction of the total number of troops required.

According to a Department of Defense analysis, a successful interdiction of U.S. borders against drug traffic would require 96 infantry battalions, 53 helicopter companies, 210 patrol ships, and 110 surveillance aircraft.(5) This is a greater number of maneuver units and support equipment than currently deployed by U.S. forces in North America. The total U.S. active armed forces strength after projected cutbacks will be approximately 150 maneuver battalions (organized into 10 Army and three Marine divisions, with approximately 10 maneuver battalions each; there are also several brigade level units with three or four maneuver battalions each). But the majority of these units are armored and mechanized infantry, which are generally unsuitable for police type operations. In order for them to be utilized in a war on drugs, they would have to be converted to infantry and retrained.

This analysis does not take into account the amount of personnel it would require to control the hinterlands of Latin America, the Middle East and Asia where the majority of the world’s cocoa, opium, and cannabis is grown. Two of the world’s largest opium growing areas, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, are remote locations with long histories of resistance to foreign military occupation. If the full might of the Soviet Union proved unable to subdue Afghanistan in the 1980s, it is beyond absurdity to think that drug enforcement personnel could occupy these areas in the face of guerrilla resistance.

Aside from the foreign areas, there are the massive amounts of drugs that are produced within the United States itself, from cannabis (a major cash crop) to home laboratories. And this evaluation does not leave any forces for defense against foreign military threats of any size or type, and would certainly preclude the United States from participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions and other such contingencies.

According to original Congressional mandates, the United States was to be “drug free” by 1995. Of course, this objective was not achieved. (6) It is apparent that the United States has failed to even remotely attain any of its stated objectives. Drug production abroad has not been stopped.(7) The destruction of one cocaine cartel in Latin America simply leaves the door open for another (and usually more ruthless) organization to take over the trade. Eradication operations in one region push coca growing to other parts of the world, or cause the substitution of one drug for another. While there have been numerous individual victories in drug interdiction, the overwhelming majority of smuggling succeeds. At home, use of drugs remains high and continues unabated.(8) Psychoactive substances like LSD are also making a comeback, especially among younger people, and heroin increases in popularity.(9)

Given all, this why doesn’t the United States government deploy the 96 infantry battalions, etc. that a victory in the “war on drugs” would require? Such a deployment has never been seriously proposed by the leaders of either major political party. Most debates revolve around increasing the number of troops and law enforcement personnel on the border by a few thousand, a force which, obviously, is totally inadequate.

A Real War?

Let us briefly consider what would be required to fight a true “war on drugs.” Such a national strategy would mean something like the following:
€ Mobilization and expansion of the armed forces and their retraining towards police-oriented missions.
€ Increased Department of Defense expenditures.
€ Deployment of combat troops for combat against drug producing nations.
€ Engagement drug traffickers through massive intelligence efforts and their destruction through full military power.
€ Permanent occupation of all drug producing regions and permanent sealing of the United States borders to prevent resurgence of drug production and importation.
€ Deployment of the armed forces throughout the United States and employing them to target American citizens with intelligence, security and military operations.

The first two objectives would require an end to Department of Defense cutbacks, the call-up of the National Guard and Reserves, and, quite possibly, a return to conscription. But the American people are in no mood to spend more on defense, or any other government program, for that matter. Increased taxation or deficit spending to support such a national war effort would provoke massive public opposition in a country which is already demanding a reduced national debt. There is also the political matter that a retooling of the armed forced for law enforcement would mean an end to the lucrative hi-technology arms industries which currently enjoy the patronage of the Department of Defense.

Deployment of U.S. troops in protracted combat missions might receive much initial support, but in the long run would prove to be politically disastrous. Unlike the 1990-1 Persian Gulf War, there would be no quick victory in a real “war on drugs.” The United States would not be attacking a conventionally armed enemy force conveniently concentrated in a relatively confined desert region where it could be targeted by superior American technology and firepower. Instead, the United States would be fighting over vast underdeveloped regions against underground infrastructures encompassing the various drug cartels, as well as their terrorist and guerrilla allies.

Experience in counterinsurgency has demonstrated that such unconventional opponents cannot be defeated by firepower alone, but only by protracted and integrated military, political, and economic programs. Once intervention occurred, the U.S. could not simply declare victory and withdraw. Unless full-scale occupation took place, the drug producers would move back into contested regions and resume operations. Deployment of U.S. troops would amount to continual warfare against the civilian population of the targeted regions, who in turn would reasonably perceive any large-scale U.S. military intervention as an overt act of imperialism and aggression. (10)

The final element of a true military drug control strategy would turn the armed forces into an internal security force, in the same manner as the military of many third world nations. Aside from undermining the armed forces’ ability to engage external threats, this would also mean, in effect, civil war as the military would be engaged in operations against American citizens.

The U.S. would then find itself fighting against many different insurgents simultaneously around the globe, as well as at home. This is the “nightmare scenario” that the Pentagon and State Department have worked long and thus far successfully to avoid. Fighting a real war to destroy drugs would risk America’s present and future position as world leader, as well as embroiling it in numerous hot wars worldwide. The political leadership of the United States has decided to avoid taking such a gamble.

The Pseudo-War

A peculiar situation‹the American public is told the nation is “at war,” yet at the same time the government refuses to mobilize for it! If the United States is not willing to fight a real “war on drugs,” what then is it up to? Why waste the tens of billions of dollars now being expended on operations which even the drug enforcement establishment concedes have a minimal effect? Why place law enforcement and military personnel at constant risk of being killed by drug traffickers? Why intervene abroad with limited military forces which achieves no result except alienation of so many people in the third world?

We have already demonstrated, albeit briefly, that the current drug war strategy can not work. The leadership of the United States is no doubt aware of this fact. The information about the numbers of troops needed to interdict America’s borders are from testimony given to Congress itself. Could it be possible that the “war on drugs” is being fought for purposes other than those stated, that the goal is not to suppress drugs, but to carry out some unstated political agenda? Is what we are dealing with here not a real war, but something else‹what I term a Pseudo-War?

I use the term “pseudo-war” because the type of conflict exemplified by the “war on drugs” requires a new definition. A pseudo-war is a conflict which gives a government all the benefits of war but few of the problems. This is also why I place the term “war on drugs” within quotation marks, to distinguish it from a real war.

I opened this article with the quote from George Orwell’s classic work “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In this book, Orwell describes how the totalitarian super-state of Oceania engages in a massive world war against the competing super-states of Eurasia and Eastasia. It turns out that this world war is not really happening, despite the reports from the omnipresent state run television. In reality, the fighting involves skirmishing in remote regions by small numbers of troops, but the resulting war hysteria gives the government the popular support necessary to maintain its rule. The point that Orwell makes is that in the 20th Century governments have utilized the full range of propaganda and military activities once reserved for war to enhance their own power. (11)

War, to return to Clausewitz, is fought for political objectives. It is the political objective which provides the guidance for the forces employed. The “war on drugs” can best be understood by examining the actual objectives which have been attained by the United States ‹as opposed to the surface rhetoric‹in pursuit of its drug control strategy. (12).

What has been attained by the U.S government? First, and most importantly, those in charge of the “war on drugs”‹politicians, law enforcement officials, corporate executives‹have posed as national heroes, saving the country from the drug “threat.” Not incidentally, they have gained power and privilege for themselves while doing so. In these cases the connection is obvious; politicians who are “tough on drugs” will be elected to office. (13)

The “war on drugs” has also come as a welcome opportunity for those involved in law enforcement who have long harbored a desire to disregard the Bill of Rights. Anti-drug operations are consistently linked with the de facto suspension of the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. People have had their persons and property searched and seized by government officials with no probable cause other than that provided by the deliberately broad guidelines of “personality profiles” of “likely drug traffickers.” Mandatory drug testing forces individuals to testify against themselves. Citizens have been denied their day in court through the use of civil penalties such as asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture allows the government to seize without due process the property of people who are suspected but not convicted or even formally accused of drug related activities. This prevents suspects from using their own money to hire lawyers for their defense. There has been a general relaxation of requirements for wiretapping and the like. First Amendment protections have been rendered useless by government agents deliberately harassing advertisers of publications like “High Times” (a magazine which advocates marijuana legalization), and pressuring Stanford University to fire Stuart Reges for openly protesting U.S. drug policy.(14) Even freedom of religion suffered a blow when the government has forbidden Native Americans the use of ceremonial drugs like peyote.(15)

There are more tangible rewards. Asset forfeiture programs permit law enforcement agencies to confiscate and use for their own purposes the property of accused drug users. There does not have to be a criminal trial or even a formal indictment for such seizures to take place; an accusation by a government drug enforcement official is sufficient. Not surprisingly, this conveniently broad definition of “drug crimes” has enriched a significant number of government agencies and personnel.(16)

Police agencies gain in several ways from asset forfeiture. First, by directly utilizing automobiles and other equipment seized from suspects. Second, by reselling the seized items, frequently sharing the profits with auction houses (thereby making the private sector complicit with government actions). And third, by using the threat of asset forfeiture to extort money or guilty pleas from suspects. (17) Moreover, the potential for abuse of asset forfeiture has been realized with corrupt law enforcement agencies frequently seizing money and property from innocent people. (18)

Asset forfeiture has to be seen in light of the tradition of corruption among narcotics officers. (19) Narcotics officers have a long history of accepting bribes, planting false evidence, and stealing drugs from suspects and evidence rooms and then reselling them on the streets. In effect, what asset forfeiture does is take the corruption that was in the past associated with narcotics enforcement and legalized it. (20)

The “war on drugs” has also been useful as an excuse for the repression of various sectors in society around which radical movements might have coalesced. Minorities are arrested and incarcerated on drug charges far out of proportion to their numbers. Those members of the underclass who once might have provided the cadre for radical civil rights activism find themselves jailed on drug or gang related charges. The precedent for this was set during the 1960s/1970s when many radicals (such as Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman) were arrested or forced underground over trivial drug charges.

Abroad, the U.S. uses the “war on drugs” as an excuse to support client third world governments in their assault on rebellious peasant populations, especially in the Andean nations. The security forces of U.S. client states conduct mass terror against anyone opposed to American domination of their countries. (As will be seen, these operations are, in the long term, counterproductive for the United States.)

Finally, the “war on drugs” has allowed many people in law enforcement to “play soldier” by dressing up in camouflage uniforms, toting assault rifles, crashing through the brush, kicking in doors, and the like‹all this without having to expose themselves to the risk of real war. One can become a “drug warrior” at low cost. While drug enforcement can be dangerous and occasionally fatal, casualties on the order of actual wars fought by the United States, where thousands of dead and wounded were often recorded monthly, are not a by-product of the drug war, at least not in the United States. The total number of law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty varies between 100 and 200 per year (and this number includes officers who were, obviously, killed in confrontations other than those involving arrests of drug traffickers). This situation is somewhat different in third world countries, where U.S. client forces frequently take large numbers of casualties in fighting drug cartels and insurgents. But these casualties do not impact on the American people, as their body bags do not come home to Middle America.

The interesting thing about the “war on drugs” is that while the people who support it and fight in its interests claim to be upholding American virtues, they are undermining the very principles of individual liberty, limited government, and constitutional rights which were the foundation for American values. This has not been lost on many people within the government itself. For example, there have been a number of articles and letters written by military personnel appearing in various armed forces journals expressing concern over the direction in which the “war on drugs” is leading the United States. One controversial article was Lt. Colonel Charles J. Dunlap’s, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” published in Parameters magazine. “The Coup of 2012” described a hypothetical scenario in which the United States military becomes sufficiently corrupted by participating in civilian law enforcement that generals take over the government and suspend the Constitution. (21)

On the home front, war rhetoric justifies suspension and abridgement of Constitutional rights on the grounds that “we have a war to win.” Similarly, attacks on innocent people by drug enforcement agents are rationalized with the claim that in any war there are civilian casualties. The government can justify even terroristic measures, such as kidnapping foreign nationals in defiance of extradition treaties who have committed offenses against U.S. drug laws.(22) The brutality associated with the war on drugs domestically has caused Amnesty International, the prestigious human rights organization, to initiate a campaign to examine human rights abuses in the United States itself. In countries like Colombia, the war on drugs takes a more deadly turn as U.S. supported police, military and paramilitary forces engage in a non-stop campaign of assassinations, torture, ecocide, and extra-judicial measures to attempt to suppress the drug trade. (23).

(In real wars, as opposed to pseudo-wars, abiding by international laws is very important, especially in the type of revolutionary warfare that has wracked much of the late twentieth century. Indiscriminate use of firepower, atrocities, and attacks on non-combatants inevitably lead to mass alienation of the people and collapse of the violator’s moral authority. (24)) But the subtlety required to win in an unconventional warfare (or “low intensity conflict”) environment is sorely missing from the U.S. “war on drugs” in favor of high profile operations which are designed to convince people that the government is “getting tough.”

No More Vietnams


If this is a war, then where are the demonstrators in the streets, the “concerned” scholars, the investigative journalists, the radical university students, all of whom have openly protested America’s wars of the post World War Two era? This is the other side of the coin in the drug warriors’ strategy. Since the government is neither conscripting young men and women, nor sending hundreds or thousands of Americans to their deaths on a weekly basis on foreign shores, there is little chance of a mass-based opposition developing, as happened in Vietnam. To be sure, people are being killed in the drug war, but these deaths work to the government’s advantage. The few Americans killed in combat by drug traffickers are largely members of professional drug enforcement organizations, and do not effect the mainstream public. Violence by the drug gangs and cartels is used as further evidence of the terroristic nature of the opposition, and the occasional law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty becomes a martyr. (25)

By calling the national drug policy a “war” the government neutralizes much of the opposition, since opposition in wartime is unpatriotic. Proposals to end the drug war (by decriminalizing and regulating drugs, for example) are dismissed as “surrender to the enemy.” Unlike other government domestic policies (e.g., health care, welfare, education) which are subject to vigorous national debate, there is only one “right way” of thinking about drugs‹the government’s way. Both major political parties support the “war on drugs” and only a handful of public officials have stood up to oppose it.

So it is with business and the media, both of which have been instrumental in aiding and abetting the government’s anti-drug policy. Use of mandatory drug testing as a prerequisite to employment has transformed private enterprise into an arm of the government, enforcing government policies by the most direct means possible‹either obey or starve! In the pseudo-war, government and business work as partners, and business does not even mind picking up the tab.

While often perceived as adversaries, business and media have actually teamed up successfully with the government for the pseudo-war. The “Partnership for a Drug Free America” is sponsored in part by alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies who, obviously, have a vested economic interest in suppressing illicit drugs. The Partnership has implemented a non-stop anti-illicit drug propaganda campaign throughout the media. (26)

There are other curious relationships. The same United States government, which has declared “war on drugs,” continues to subsidize tobacco, which is one of the most addictive and deadly drugs around.(27) Lately the U.S. government has even supported programs which pressure third world governments into accepting U.S. tobacco products. A cynic might claim that the “war on drugs” is nothing more than a move to make the world safe for the government’s brand of drugs. (28).

While it is easy enough to dismiss the Partnership’s drug-related corporate sponsors as exploiting law enforcement to neutralize the illegal competition, it does reveal a more fundamental relationship. Many of the non-drug related corporations in the Partnership have an interest in a “drug free” society insofar as drugs were associated with the radical activism of the 1960s in which many Americans questioned the validity of the corporate power structure and consumer capitalism. And more, fundamentally, the corporate-government alliance serves as a means to accelerate the decline in working class power in America. The corporations ensure that the working class complies with governmental drug prohibition policies by terminating the employment of drug using workers; at the same time, the government neutralizes potential dissidents by a campaign of police repression against minorities and the underclass under the cover of drug enforcement.

Consequently, the opportunities for political protest against corporate downsizing, export of jobs, diminished power of unions, violation of safety laws, and white collar crime (such as the Savings & Loan Crisis) are minimized as the working class and underclass are placed on the defensive. The rise of the “war on drugs” during the 1980s parallels the decline in enforcement of OSHA standards in the workplace. Despite the fact that many if not the majority of workplace deaths and injuries are the result of management violation of safety laws, corporate executives can scapegoat a handful of drug using employees for the casualties. (29) In effect, what has happened is that the corporate sector has exploited the pseudo-war on drugs to regain the initiative in America lost during the labor struggles of the 20th Century.

Via television, the citizenry is targeted by a barrage of news and tabloid broadcasts about the drug war. (30) And it provides a dizzying show, with heroic U.S. drug enforcement personnel on the offensive across the country, assault rifles in hand, deploying in armored vehicles and helicopters, storming “crack” houses, even taking the war to foreign shores, with the deployment of U.S. forces against drug traffickers. The average citizen can exult in great victories, as at least once a week it is reported that the “largest drug bust” has been made. (31). America, it seems, is on the march.

The Enemy

The government uses euphemisms such as “attacking the demand side” of the drug equation to justify not only police action but also military campaigns against the American people. In 1990’s Operation “Green Sweep,” federal and National Guard troops were employed against northern California marijuana growers. Except for urban riots, Green Sweep represents one of the few uses of military force against American citizens in recent times, and it differs from civil disturbances in that the federal government took the initiative and went over to the offensive rather than responding to a breakdown of local authority. Throughout the 1990s, the government has increasingly employed the armed forces to the Southwestern United States in order to prevent drug traffickers (among others) from infiltrating the border. (And, as indicated previously in this article, the numbers of troops, about 10,000, are ludicrously short of the numbers actually needed to fulfill the mission). (32)

The “enemy” is not just specifically identified and indicted criminals, but the citizenry as a whole, as everyone is a potential drug producer, trafficker, or user, and therefore a suspect whom drug enforcement agencies can target as they like. The “war on drugs” has, in effect, become a war against the American people themselves. Drug testing, asset forfeiture, and zero tolerance all make it possible for the government to attack anyone without regard for Constitutional niceties or even worrying about their guilt. Attacks on citizens have reached their purest form with drug enforcement task forces assassinating innocent citizens in order to seize their property, as happened in the case of Donald Scott of Ventura California.(33) All this seems natural to the citizenry who, in an atmosphere of war fever, are willing to surrender their rights and liberties to the government.

This explains the national mania for drug testing. Whether or not drug testing effectively identifies drug abuse is beside the point. The purpose of drug testing is not to identify drug users but to generate solidarity in which all “good” citizens participate. By participating in the ritual of drug testing, the average citizen proves he/she is patriotic. Everyone becomes part of the same mass movement‹government, police, business, media, and citizens. And‹it must be emphasized‹those people who freely march into their drug testing station and patriotically sacrifice their bodily fluids to the cause, can prove their patriotism without having to risk their life in a foreign war. And this is the critical point, for while many call for a “war on drugs,” the fact of the matter is there has been no demonstrable evidence presented that the people who want this war are willing to engage in sustained combat.

The government claims that drugs are a threat to America’s national security‹drugs are invading the country, drugs are increasing violent crime, drugs are breaking up families, drugs are undermining public morals, drugs are causing industrial malaise, drugs are supporting terrorism.(34) In this kind of situation, blaming every social ill on drugs becomes easy, and for some it become essential. Drugs become part of an international conspiracy to undermine America. Anti-drug operations turn the war into a national crusade. At the same time, frustrations with crime and an increasingly inequitable economy can be shifted away from the people responsible (politicians, police officials, corporation executives, government regulators, and the like) toward a shadowy network of drug dealers and drug users undermining America’s strength. These developments must be seen in light of the growing gap between executive and worker income, wealthy and underclass, in America. As more members of the middle and working classes are marginalized by economic dislocation, they too will be subjected to neutralization by police measures designed to “fight drugs.” Meanwhile, discipline can be maintained within the elite and surviving middle and working classes by the threats of impoverishment and imprisonment.

But, it will be claimed, are not drugs a threat to national security? Is it not true that drugs cause the majority of crime in America? While the government claims that drugs are behind the current wave of crime, this is not sustained by the facts. According to the Department of Justice’s own statistics, the percentage of convicted jail inmates who committed their offense for money to buy drugs is around 13%. This breaks down to 24% of property offenses and 12% of violent offenses. Additionally, 14% of prisoners committed drug offenses only, such as trafficking, which, obviously, are directly related to the illegality of certain drugs and are not offenses against persons or property. (35) Indeed, aside from alcohol, there is no scientific evidence that drugs generally cause otherwise law abiding people to commit crimes. (36)

The percentages of drug related crimes are actually lower than these statistics would indicate, owing to the tendency of American law enforcement to concentrate on “street” crime which has a higher relation to illegal drugs. Only a fraction of law enforcement is directed against corporate and white collar crimes, crimes which include fraud, cost overruns, regulatory abuses, environmental, civil rights and labor law violations, and the like‹this despite the fact that the costs of corporate crime are far greater in terms of money stolen, and deaths and injuries inflicted, not to mention the destruction of the social fabric due to loss of jobs and discrimination. (37) Nonetheless, perpetrators of corporate/white collar crime have a much lower chance of being arrested and, consequently, tend not to show up in criminal justice statistics thereby skewing the figures and making it appear as if a disproportionate amount of crime is drug related. (38)

Again, the role of the pseudo-war on drugs must be examined in terms of the political issue of whom benefits. The federalization of many crimes, such as drug possession and gang involvement, has tied up the federal court system with offenders who once were handled at the local level. This shift of criminal justice attention has diminished the capacity of the federal government to investigate and prosecute major corporate/white collar criminals. Similarly, enforcement of civil rights, labor and environmental laws within the federal government’s jurisdiction also must be deferred to make way for drug prosecutions. (39)

By the mid-1990s, United States law enforcement personnel were making approximately 1,000,000 arrests for drug offenses annually, compared to about 300,000 arrests for the white collar crimes of fraud and embezzlement. Corporate crimes such as environmental destruction and toxic dumping usually do not result in incarceration. Rather, a standard practice is for corporate executives to sign a consent agreement with prosecutors, promising to cease illegal activities (frequently in exchange for the payment of a nominal fine). The de facto result is that the corporate elite can get away with its own crimes against life and property. (40)

Similarly, crimes committed by law enforcement officials, such as civil rights violations, framing of suspects, and illegal assaults, all of which are routinely associated with drug enforcement, are not detected and punished to the same degree as “street” crimes. Obviously, if the United States were to declare a war on white collar crime (or corrupt law enforcement agencies), and concentrated criminal justice resources against corporate criminals (or corrupt law enforcement officers) to the same degree it now does against illegal drug offenders, we would see the statistics reflect a massive increase in the number of corporate executives and government officials incarcerated. Of course, it is doubtful that a war on corporate crime (or a war on corrupt law enforcement officers) would ever occur, inasmuch as no sane elite will ever declare war on itself!

Past Pseudo-Wars

There is nothing unique about pseudo-wars. In the first century AD the Roman emperor Caligula declared war on Neptune and sent the legions to the English channel to collect seashells as spoils of war. (41) Pseudo-wars have been a consistent feature of the 20th century, in which governments have manufactured various “threats” from among their own peoples and then exploited the ensuing hysteria to consolidate power. Germany’s National Socialists (Nazis) used the fear of a Jewish menace, and the Stalinists the specter of Trotskyite saboteurs. The German and Soviet governments’ actions were remarkably similar to those of the U.S. in its drug war‹scapegoating of a minority (Jews, counter-revolutionaries, drug traffickers), media propaganda campaigns, alliances with or complete control of the commercial sector, termination of employment of dissenters, suspension of due process, exploitation of children as informers, establishment of detention camps, paramilitary police activities, and victimization of the innocent. (42) One might even note the comparison in terminology. The U.S. government’s stated objective of making the country “drug free” is disturbingly similar to the Nazi government’s policy of making Germany “Judenfrei” (free of Jews).

And of course, it can be pointed out that the United States government has a long history of scapegoating the politically powerless. There have been wars against witches (17th century), subversives (the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early 19th century), immigrants (the Palmer Raids of the post World War One era), Japanese-Americans (following Pearl Harbor), leftists and homosexuals (the 1950s), and minorities in general. In each case, the American government declares that the targeted group is responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, subversion and social ills, must be denied civil rights, and then be removed from society by denial of employment, deportation, and/or mass incarceration. In this, the state is supported by the private business sector and much of the citizenry. One can look to the history of segregation, the Palmer Raids, the denial of security clearances to homosexuals, etc. to see how this process works. It is interesting to note that in all these cases, the “threat” posed by the targeted group inevitably turns out to be either the result of a small minority of miscreants within the larger group or, usually, a fabrication by the government or citizens. And, in each case, as soon as it turns out that the threat was in fact a canard, the national crusade moves on to some new group to be targeted.

War Without Armies

The great advantage of the pseudo-war on drugs is that there is no need for a real military mobilization, nor for serious combat. Were these to occur, society would be dislocated and serious dissent would inevitably commence. Conversion of industry to weapons production, conscription, increased taxation, call up of reserves, all would mean a reallocation of society’s resources, reduction in social program spending, and a disruption of society as young men and women became assimilated into the military and workers flocked to war industry. The experience of the two World Wars, and, especially, Vietnam, demonstrate that war leads to increased politicalization of the middle class and realignment of political blocs.

This explains the limited and desultory way in which the war has been waged. The war is intended to be fought, not to be won. For the “war on drugs” to end would mean an end to the powers gained by those who have benefited from this “war.” It is the very fact that the “war on drugs” can never be won that gives it its power. Since the war is continuous, the power and privilege which accrue to those in government (and its allies in the private sector) will be never ending. (43)

What if Something Goes Wrong?

The “war on drugs” has one potentially fatal flaw. The entire structure of the pseudo-war depends on there being no real enemy. But what happens if some group gets tired of the charade and fights back with armed resistance? We have already seen something like this develop in Colombia, where the drug cartels have engaged in a mounting campaign of insurgency against the government, a campaign which neither the U.S. nor its clients have been able to suppress. It has also come to pass in Peru, where drug eradication efforts have pushed the peasants into supporting the Shining Path Maoist insurgency. But so far the insurgents’ efforts have been directed against the local governments of these countries, not against U.S. forces‹at least not on a large scale.

What would happen if there were a series of major guerrilla attacks against Americans, such as happened when the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed in 1982? The drug cartels possess the requisite popular support and armed strength, and could become a major threat to American national security. The danger would in this case be real, and have little or nothing to do with drugs.

The irony is that such a situation, if it occurs, will have been made possible largely because of the inept policies conducted in the name of the “war on drugs” in the first place. (44) What has made the foreign drug cartels so powerful is the repressive anti-drug operations conducted in the name of the United States government. By attacking the peoples of coca and other drug producing regions, the peasants have been forced into the camp of the drug cartels for protection. Simultaneously, the cartels ally with leftwing guerrillas and nationalists against the real threat of United States intervention in their countries. (45) As America employs increasingly severe means to intervene abroad, it will only alienate more of its allies, who will resent such intervention as manifestations of American imperialism and, even, terrorism.(46) Nor is this move entirely unexpected. If the U.S. is going to criminalize and attack an activity which a major segment of a country’s population has considered legitimate for centuries, it should expect to encounter armed resistance.

The threat of real war is not confined to foreign shores. Within America’s cities the “war on drugs” has given rise to an increased militancy in urban gangs. These gangs have engaged in what amounts to urban terrorism and have gained de facto control of certain neighborhoods. This is the inevitable result of the state declaring war against a sector of its own people. As more citizens are criminalized and removed from society, the social fabric is disrupted. The standard response among minorities who have been targeted by police harassment is anger, violence, and the formation of urban gangs for self protection and to gain a sense of identity. This is very similar to the process that has been observed in insurgencies throughout the third world, where government assaults against the peasant sector leads to social disintegration which is then exploited by insurgents to create the conditions for guerrilla warfare. A common theme among social reformers in America today is the complaint that young men are not acting as responsible family members. The irony is that it is the very law enforcement policies engendered by the war on drugs that has removed literally hundreds of thousands of young men from inner city neighborhoods, leading to the consequent social breakdown. And the government’s response? More calls to “get tough.”

But “getting tough” is not a strategy. It is a slogan designed to make members of the shrinking middle class think the state is protecting them from the alleged threats of drugs (and urban violence, terrorists, undocumented aliens, etc.). Again, as demonstrated, the “war on drugs” can not be won within parameters acceptable to the drug warriors themselves. So the only answer is to make people think victories are being won by jailing more people and thereby running up statistics which make it appear the war is progressing towards a victory. The increase in repression can be seen in other areas, with the government promoting censorship (via the Communications Decency Act), surveillance (Digital Telephoney and Key Escrow Encryption) and other restrictions on individual liberties.

So far, the opposition to the war on drugs has been largely non-violent. The people of California’s Humboldt County met Operation Green Sweep with civil disobedience. (47) But there is an increased militancy within the United States, expressed in what is generally termed as “anti-government” politics. All these must be seen in light of the “war on drugs.”

When the government creates an “us” versus “them” mentality, the populace becomes polarized and takes an increasingly militant response to state actions. The lessons of the war on drugs are not lost on many non-drug users, such as gun owners, who perceive themselves (rightly or wrongly) next on the government’s list of groups to be attacked. Suddenly, many Americans have dusted off the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and have taken to practicing en masse with assault rifles. The mid-1990s saw the rise of the “militia” movement in the United States, where thousands of Americans spontaneously formed armed self defense organizations in response to their perception of alleged law enforcement abuses. The abrogations of the Bill of Rights the government needed to fight the “drug war” created precedents which are now being used against firearms owners, including searches without warrant or probable cause, suspension of due process, and the use of paramilitary type SWAT teams against citizens suspected of firearms offenses. Even the relatively pro-law enforcement National Rifle Association has taken a militant stand in its publications in opposition to the abuses of law enforcement.(48) Terrorist acts like the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City become acceptable to many in a public atmosphere of “war.”

Government attempts to suppress anti-government movements by harsh laws and prosecutions are doomed to failure because they do not deal with the underlying political motivations for the opposition in the first place. So the cycle of repression, alienation and resistance continues. More recently, the government of the United States, as well as those of several states, have expanded the pseudo-war on drugs to include attacks against the tobacco industry. The leaders of the tobacco industry now find themselves being held accountable for public health problems caused by people who smoke. The irony, of course, is that the very corporate sponsors of the pseudo-war on drugs (via the Partnership for a Drug Free America) now find themselves trapped by their own propaganda campaign. Yet while the spectacle of tobacco executives being pilloried by Congressional investigations may give illicit drug users some satisfaction, it only makes the basic problem worse.

The danger here is that as police abuse continues to grow, more people will be alienated and look to radical elements for protection and guidance. This was evident in the Los Angeles riot of 1992. The majority of public opinion was firmly against the verdict in the State trial clearing the four police officers who beat Rodney King, and thereby (whether consciously or unconsciously) promoted the civil disturbance. It is obvious that Americans are becoming increasingly willing to resist government attacks against their basic rights. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building indicates the federal government’s vulnerability to terrorist attack from disgruntled citizens.

Conceivably, the government could increase repressive measures to counter the opposition, but the majority of innocent people who will be victimized by an over-reaction will support militant resistance in response, as has happened in the majority of insurgencies worldwide. The U.S. government would be faced with a dilemma. In order to suppress armed revolutionary resistance the government would have to fight a real war. Yet a real war would completely undermine the purpose (and profits) of the pseudo-war. To win, the government would have to mobilize the people, but to mobilize the people would mean an end to the government’s monopoly on power. The government would find itself without a suitable political line to justify the war effort. The only other alternative is for the government to end the “war on drugs,” restoring civil liberties and making peace with its own citizens. But a “drug peace” has been ruled out by politicians as political suicide. So the war continues. (49)

Gaining the support of the people is the first prerequisite for victory in modern warfare. The United States could not have won World War Two without the complete mobilization of its people and industry. And certainly the American defeat in Vietnam was just as much due to the failure of political will at home as to armed resistance within Vietnam. Currently, the pseudo-war on drugs has given the government the support of significant sectors of the American people. But if this support were to change, or a real war were to emerge, then the entire pseudo-war would come crashing down in the cold light of reality.(50)

1. George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” New York: Signet Books, 1960, p. 164.
2. Any number of dates can be designated as the beginning of the “war on drugs.” The year 1986 saw a quantum leap forward in government and media attention on drugs and, indeed, the term “war on drugs” was first popularized during the Reagan administration (1981-89). Previously, the Nixon administration attempted to politicize drug prohibition and launched several largescale campaigns against drugs, none of which had any long term effect (see, for example, Edward Jay Epstein’s “Agency of Fear,” London: Verso, 1990). And, of course, there is a history of drug prohibition in the United States going back into the 19th century. President George Bush’s nationally televised speech on drugs, 5 September 1989, marks a major turning point because this made drug enforcement a primary focus for American national policy. Spending for the “war on drugs” has progressively increased since then ($1.5 billion in 1981, $2.3 billion in 1986, $13.3 billion in 1995).
3. Carl von Clausewitz, “On War.” New York: Penguin Books, 1981. pp.101-109.
4. “National Drug Policy Board Strategy Plans,” Hearings Before the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, House of Representatives, April 14, 1988, p.23.
5. “Review of International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Mid Year Update,” Hearings before the Commission on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Second Session, October 7, 1987, p. 339.
6. More recently, U.S. Congressional leaders have moved the target date for “victory” in the “war on drugs” back to the year 2001.
7. “Review of the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Mid Year Update, Second Session, pp. 2-24.
8. One reason is that many drugs, such as cannabis, have positive uses. Francis L. Young, “In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition, Opinion and Recommended Ruling, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision of Administrative Law Judge, Docket No. 86-22,” Drug Enforcement Administration document dated September 6 1988.
9. “Study Indicates Drug Use Among Teens Rising,” Los Angeles Daily News, April 14, 1993. p. 1.
10. See, for example, Sir Robert Thompson, “Revolutionary Warfare in World Strategy,” New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1970, for an analysis of the problems of fighting an unconventional foe.
11. Orwell. The discussion of the state’s permanent war strategy is found on pages 152-164 of the above edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
12. James Burnham, “The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom,” Washington DC: Gateway Editions, 1987. In his classic work on political theory, Burnham elaborates on how one must determine the true political objectives of a government in order to understand its policies. Burnham was a major influence on Orwell.
13. The 1996 U.S. presidential elections saw both major party candidates engaged in much posturing about how “tough” they would get on drugs.
14. Stuart Reges, “I Am A Casualty of the War on Drugs,” Liberty magazine, July 1991, pp. 38-40.
15. “Coalition Fights to Legalize Use of Peyote for Indians,” The Washington Times, August 22, 1992, p. B4. More recently, the right of certain American Indian groups to use ceremonial drugs has been restored.
16. In fiscal year 1991, the Drug Enforcement Administration made 18,946 domestic seizures of non-drug property, valued at approximately $956 million. “Drugs & Crime Data. Fact Sheet: Drug Data Summary,” U. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 1991, p. 2. It is interesting to note that one of the main rationales for drug prohibition is the claim that drug addicts steal to support their habit; yet drug enforcement agencies seem to have little moral problem with their own seizures of other peoples’ property. See also footnote 36, below.
1) Jacob Sallum, “A Vial Crime,” Reason magazine, May 1995.
18 See the Forfeiture Endangers American Rights web site, http://www.fear.org.
19 Gary S. Green, “Occupational Crime,” Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1997, p. 166.
20 For example, Robert Daley, in his book “Prince of the City,” describes how officers in New York City’s elite Special Investigative Unit began by stealing drug traffickers’ money, then went on to commit a series of increasingly corrupt activities. Robert Daley, “Prince of the City,” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978.
21. Lt. Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters (the magazine of the U.S. Army War College), Winter 1992-93, pp. 2-20. For another example, see Hance H. Hamilton, “The Drug War Flunks,” in Proceedings (the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute), February 1993.
22. Adam Starchild, “U.S. Imports Criminals to Fill Domestic Shortage,” Liberty magazine, November 1989, p. 25.
23. Amnesty International web site, http://www.amnesty.org; Colombia Support Net web site, http://www.csn.igc.org.
24. Thompson.
25. Such as New York City police officer Ed Burn, assassinated by drug traffickers.
26. Cynthia Cotts, “Hard Sell in the Drug War,” The Nation magazine, March 9, 1992, pp. 300-302. There has been much misinformation spread in the interests of the drug war. For example, politicians and the media frequently allude to “crack babies,” a supposed epidemic of children who were physically or mentally impaired by their mothers’ use of cocaine during pregnancy. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (“NIDA Notes,” January/February 1992) the “crack babies” are largely a myth; the majority of such children show no difference in development compared to non-exposed children. Most of the problems involved with these children were caused by a combination of malnutrition, alcohol abuse, and lack of prenatal care on the part of the mothers (in other words, the standard pathologies of the underclass). In effect, the persecution of “crack mothers” is the government not only blaming the victims of unequal economic and social policies, it is also the government jailing them. It will be interesting to see as more Americans become impoverished due to the cutbacks in welfare and corporate downsizing if the government will use similar laws to jail more of the disenfranchised.
27. In 1993, the Drug Abuse Warning Network reported 8,541 drug abuse related deaths to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (based on incomplete data). Opponents of drug prohibition frequently compare this to the estimated 350,000+ deaths caused annually by tobacco, and 150,000 by alcohol. This is not entirely accurate, as the drug abuse related deaths usually include only drug related emergency crises, not long term deaths as do the tobacco and alcohol statistics. On the other hand, 20% of the 8,541 drug related deaths were suicides (and, presumably, would have occurred anyway with the deceased using some other means than drugs), 40% were in combination with alcohol (a legal drug), and an uncertain number due to external factors, such as impure substances used to dilute illegal drugs. “Annual Medical Examiner Data 1991,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, DHHS Publication No. (ADM) 92-1956, 1992. p. iii.
28. For example, the 26 April 1993 issue of U.S. News & World Report magazine contains an editorial “Fighting the Right Drug War” on page 74, while running advertisements for Heineken beer, Johnnie Walker whiskey, and an individual medication tracking system.
29. There are various estimates of the number of workers killed/injured due to management malfeasance. Something like 10,000 Americans are killed annually due to industrial accidents, and another 100,000 die from occupation related diseases. About 45% of these deaths are due to managerial violations of the law. James William Coleman, “The Criminal Elite,” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.10. See also Russell Mokhiber’s “Corporate Crime and Violence,” San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.
30. For example, in one episode of the television documentary series “American Detective,” Oregon detectives are shown arresting a narcotics trafficker and lecturing a child on the dangers of drugs; later in the same episode, the same officers are shown celebrating by drinking alcohol.
31. Just as the telescreens in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” continually announce endless victories in Oceania’s war against Eurasia and Eastasia.
32. See my online article, “The Military and the War on Drugs,” on the Drug Reform Coordination Network web site, http://www.drcnet.org, for a more complete analysis of the involvement of the United States military in the war on drugs.
33. On 2 October 1992, a federal-led drug enforcement task force raided the house of Mr. Donald Scott of Ventura California in a marijuana growing investigation (apparently, the task force wanted to confiscate his considerable property holdings under asset forfeiture laws). The task force failed to find any illicit substances and, in an ensuing confrontation with Mr. Scott, shot him to death. The Ventura County District Attorney’s office later declared the raid illegal. “A Violent Confrontation Ends Man’s Colorful Life,” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1992, p. A3.
34. “Review of International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Mid Year Update,” Hearings Before the Commission on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, First Session, October 7, 1987, p.75.
35. “Drugs & Crime Data. Fact Sheet: Drug Data Summary” pp. 3-7.
36. Gregory A. Austin, “Drugs and Crime,” Rockville MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1976. More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice’s study, “Psychoactive Substances and Violence,” came to a similar conclusion (Jeffrey A. Roth, Research in Brief, US Department of Justice, February 1994). See also Epstein’s “Agency of Fear,” pp. 178-182 for one of the origins of the myth that drugs cause the majority of crime in America. Epstein blames President Richard Nixon for a propaganda campaign blaming drug addicts for crime in America so as to have an excuse for increased federal police powers.
37. Coleman presents an estimate of corporate crime costing $250 billion in antitrust violations alone, compared to $13.3 billion in conventional crime. There is perhaps $200 billion lost due to various types of corporate/white collar fraud and violations of various environmental, safety and labor laws. Medical fraud costs an estimated $100 billion a year. The exact amount lost due to corporate/white collar crime is difficult to estimate because of its clandestine nature and the fact that relatively few law enforcement resources are directed against it. Coleman, p. 10.
38. Approximately 60% of federal prisoners are drug offenders. 30% of state prisoners are drug offenders. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Connections Compendium,” the Sentencing Project, 918 F Street NW, Washington DC 20004.
39. Significantly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has a primary responsibility for investigating corporate/white collar crime, has shifted some of its operations away from white collar crime/civil rights violations and towards drug enforcement. David Burnham, “The F.B.I.,” The Nation magazine, August 11/18, 1997, pp. 11-24.
40. U.S. Department of Justice, “Uniform Crime Reports,” Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. The 1990s have seen about 11,000,000 arrests annually. Approximately 600,000 are for FBI Crime Index Violent Crimes (murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault); 1,700,000 were for Property Crime (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson). Fraud is not considered a Crime Index crime.
41. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, “The Twelve Caesars,” Harmondsworth, England, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 172.
42. Colonel Joseph Bergantz, “Military Support of the National Drug Control Strategy,” Military Review magazine, June 1992, pp.67-72, recommends, among other things, that the U.S. armed forces coordinate intelligence operations (presumably including domestic intelligence) and provide correctional facilities (i.e., detention camps) for American citizens.
43. Again, see Orwell’s analysis of the state’s permanent war strategy as a tool for repression.
44. Stephen Duncan, “Counterdrug Assault: Much Done, Much to Do,” Defense magazine, May/June 1992. The article announces various tactical victories won in the war on drugs without any relation to the deteriorating strategic situation.
45. Scott French, “Bum Trip in Bolivia,” Soldier of Fortune magazine, August 1988, pp. 28-35. French provides a front line view of how the U.S. “drug war” strategy is failing due to alienation of the peasant sector.
46. Auberon Waugh, “Some Reasons for Wanting a Democratic Victory,” The Spectator magazine, July 25, 1992, p.8. This article describes the illegal kidnapping of a foreign citizen by DEA agents.
47. Colonel William W. Mendel, “Illusive Victory: from Blast Furnace to Green Sweep,” Military Review magazine, December 1992, pp. 82-85.
48. This can be seen by examining the editorials appearing the the National Rifle Association’s official magazine, “The American Rifleman,” (National Rifle Association, 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax, VA 22030).
49. An issue raised quite frequently by supporters of a war on drugs is that the government is not doing enough to win. As demonstrated at the beginning of this article, the numbers of troops, weapons and equipment required to even begin to fight a “real” war on drugs are far beyond the capabilities of the United States to mobilize. For example, a 1994 U.S. Government Accounting Report, “International Efforts in Central America Have Had Little Impact on the Flow of Drugs,” has stated that drug interdiction efforts have been largely ineffective (a copy of this report can be found at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer). See also Peter Reuter, “Sealing the Borders,” Santa Monica: the Rand Corporation, 1988. These reports confirm the general failure of current drug war policies on the military level. Nonetheless, the pursuit of the pseudo-war on drugs has paid numerous political dividends to American government, corporate and law enforcement leaders.
50. It is interesting to speculate on what would happen were the “war on drugs” to come to an end (either by making America “drug free” or by decriminalization). Would a new scapegoat be found for American social problems, and would a new pseudo-war be launched against some new target?


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