This is part one of a series in which I use the American drug war to examine how we have turned social concerns into financial or criminal ones, and thus dehumanised society, oppressed minorities and exploited the poor. You can read the intro here.
There are five main lies that many of us believe about drugs and the war on drugs. I’m going to look more closely at each in turn.
Lie One – Drugs are the enemy
As we are told directly in the documentary The House I Live In “you have to understand that the war on drugs has never been about drugs.” (Charles Bowden – Investigative Reporter).
Drugs cannot be an enemy; a problem perhaps, but not an enemy. Drugs are inert substances – plants, liquids and powders. They do nothing of themselves.
This misuse of language, in calling drugs an enemy, gives the lie to the whole drug war. Only a person, only a living being can be an enemy – and the War on Drugs is in fact a War on People by another name.
Richard Miller, a Lincoln Historian, researched the reality of drug law in its historical context. He says, “historically, any drug laws have always been associated with race.”
A History of Drug(policy) Abuse
In the 1800’s you could buy heroin, opium and cocaine from a shop because drug use was considered ordinary and accepted. People who grew addicted to drugs were viewed sympathetically as in need of help, much as alcoholics today.
Then California made opium illegal. As Richard Miller makes clear, “it had nothing to do with opium itself.” A large number of Chinese immigrants had come to California and were willing to work longer and harder for less money than American workers. Unable to jail people simply for being Chinese, California instead criminalised opium, and then associated its use with the Chinese. The Chinese who continued their long tradition of smoking opium could be jailed – while those that didn’t could be made ‘potential drug-users’, and thus social pariahs. They are first demonised and then blamed for ills not of their making.
Then came cocaine. Like opium, cocaine was legally taken by average people without any fuss or opprobrium. Then, around 1900, propaganda began associating cocaine with blacks, who were alleged to be able to work all day and night thanks to cocaine. This fictional, prodigious ability threatened the jobs of white people, and so cocaine was criminalised. Then blacks could be arrested not for being black, but for using, holding or being ‘involved with’ cocaine. Using Cocaine as a disguise, Blacks were demonised and then blamed.
Hemp used to be a useful crop before it became ‘the demon weed’ around the 1930’s. Shock, horror – marijuana was associated with Mexicans – who were: guess what!? Considered to work longer and harder than whites and so threatened their jobs. Mexicans demonised and blamed. Are we seeing a pattern here?
Policy as Social Control
As Michelle Alexander (author The New Jim Crow) points out, in the modern era, segregation and other racially oppressive laws forced immigrant populations into ghettos. Then the government refused to underwrite FHA mortgages (social housing) in those areas – effectively cutting the immigrants out of the housing market. Finally, industry moved out of the city and took the jobs with it, leaving large concentrations of people, mostly Black, unable to find work. Excluded from legitimate modes of supporting themselves, ghetto populations were forced into illicit means of finding money.
However, while African Americans represent only 13% of crack users, they represent 90% of those convicted for crack. It is true that some black people have resorted to drugs, but so have white people! The reality is that drugs are still being used today as a tool to control black populations while avoiding accusations of segregation or direct prejudice.
How Rhetoric Disguises Other Areas of Policy
Drugs are not the only area where a rhetorical play of language covers the truth. In a recent interview I heard a conservative minister constantly refer to “the least well off people.” Who are these “least well off”? They are the poor. But calling them ‘less well off’ makes it sound as if they are still a little ‘well-off’ – so much better than ‘poor’. The minister can’t even state the reality of poverty.
Likewise we hear of bad-parents rather than poor social policy, of bad teachers rather than poor educational policy, and welfare-scroungers instead of bad business policy. In each case a demographic is being persecuted ‘by the back door’ – demonised first and then blamed.
The cumulative effect of poor political decisions is represented by a recent change in welfare structures in the UK. You can now only receive up to 75% of your council tax (rates) in benefits. This means the other 25% must be paid by you. If you are in receipt only of benefits, you must pay the 25% from those benefits. Since benefits are calculated by deciding the minimum it is possible to subsist on, the 25% must be subtracted from this minimum. So without directly taking the money, the government has ensured that people must live on less than that government has decided it is possible to live on!
In addition, welfare has been frozen at beneath the rate of inflation for several years, so is already less than was once considered the minimum to live on.
A similar bit of political shittery has seen a lack of social housing being built. There are now no single bed houses available, with waiting lists up to 20 years long or more. All that is available are two or three bed houses, though even here waiting lists are huge. But due to a recent change, if you have more bedrooms than you require, you will have your benefits cut.
What this means is that the government is saying – there are no one-bed houses, but if you don’t down-size to one, we will take money from you (and no, you cannot legally sub-let the extra room).
The minimum you need to live on could be reduced by 25% of your council tax, rises below inflation and a portion of your monthly rent. The effect of which will be either to push the poor into more expensive private tenancies (increasing the benefits bill) or homelessness (increasing the benefits bill) or benefit fraud (increasing the benefits bill) or crime.
Does anyone protest that people in a supposedly affluent nation are being forced to live below the poverty line? No. Why not? Because the government has labelled the poor as work-shy, and drawn a picture of benefit claimants as all lazy fraudsters stealing the working mans taxes. They are first demonised, then blamed.
Even while police budgets are being cut, you can guarantee that many more people will be attempting to make-up their welfare shortfall by cooking meth in the garden shed, leading to increased crime and increased government costs on policing and prisons.
All in all, much as the drug war has cost appalling amounts of money and failed to do any good, so the new ‘war on benefits’ will only cost more in the long run, especially as the poor turn to drugs to make money or to ease the misery.
But that’s okay – because higher crime is exactly what the government wants – as we will see as this series continues.