The war on drugs is a poison

By Simon Hannah

Since the 1970s countries around the world have been waging a war. It is a war across borders, across generations, a war against many government’s own populations, a war that has killed… we don’t know how many. 

We will probably never know. 

This is the war on drugs. Launched by Nixon in 1971, the US government used the excuse of the growth of drug cartels and narcotic addiction in American cities to flex its imperialist muscles. It led to extensive clandestine security operations in Central and Latin America, money pouring into military operations by pro US governments. It snowballed out of control as drug cartels armed themselves and an arms race began. This is what led to periods of violent instability in Colombia and the murderous state of societal breakdown along the Mexican/US border. 

The war spread as various embattled national liberation groups and guerrilla movements saw the lucrative money to be made in the drug trade and started to develop drug growing, manufacturing and smuggling operations. This gave those governments fighting the war on drugs an excuse to fund right-wing governments around the world to counteract these forces. Policies like these have led to the bloody carnage in the Philippines today as President Rodrigo Duterte has given the green light for the police to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of anyone even ‘suspected’ of being involved in drugs as part of the war against the New People’s Army.

The violence perpetuated globally by this ‘war on drugs’ is only an extension of the violence meted out domestically. The war on drugs was immediately racialised. It was about poor black men in cities taking heroin, then it was crack cocaine. Drug use among whites was higher but that didn’t matter – it was used as an excuse for the police to target black people, arrest them and imprison them. As the decades rolled on the prison sentences got longer and longer. 

The fact is that none of this is working. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure. If it was intended to stop being getting addicted to harmful narcotics, it hasn’t worked. Drug abuse is far higher now than it was in the 1970s. 

This is not just a US issue, what the US does the British government is often not far behind. 

The criminalisation of drugs in the UK began during World War One. The Defence of the Realm Act that made it illegal to sell cannabis and opiates as part of the drive to keep the population useful for the war machine. Now over 100 years later drug addictions are still with us. The danger is that because drugs are criminalised it makes it harder for people to get help – it makes drugs into an issue of crime, not public health. 

Some people think that arresting drug addicts and shooting drug dealers will solve the problem. But getting high has always been something humans have done. Since primate society we have been making beer and eating weird mushrooms. You can’t stop that kind of activity (any more than you can stop people having consensual sex) but if drugs are very powerful and addictive you can ensure they are as safe as possible and mitigate the social problems associated with them (for instance addicts becoming criminals to feed their habit).

And we have to have the tough argument. It is easy to call for drug addicts to be treated in hospitals and not prisons, but addiction is only one end of the issue. Around the world there are more and more calls for the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, to treat addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal matter, for the trade in drugs to be taken out of the control of gangs, to be regulated, taxed and properly checked. 

The war on drugs is a poison. It is a poison that is destroying communities and killing thousands every year. People are dying due to over policing, violent conflicts, taking bad drugs, overdosing, turf wars between drug gangs and everything else associated with the disastrous and fatal global war. It is time for it to come to an end and for common sense to prevail. 

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