Abergavenny Left

“Mountains, Markets and Marxists…”

Another deadly war

Afghanistan is not the only campaign to be escalated under Obama, writes Ted North

Barack Obama conveniently found god at the time he entered politics. Similarly, as he has risen in politics, his attitude to drugs has become ever more reactionary and opportunist. He was lucky the police did not kick down the door when as a youth he was experimenting with cannabis and cocaine. He might well have landed in a six by eight cell, rather than the White House.

In the election campaign Obama’s team were quick to iron out his past slightly off-message hiccups about drug policy. In this field, as in every other, he was firmly for the status quo; just look at his Senate voting record since 2004. Once in office, his administration approved the state department report on drugs for 2008, compiled under Bush.

The war on drugs

Richard Nixon was the first to use the provocative term ‘war on drugs’ in 1971. The Drug Enforcement Administration now has offices in over 60 countries. Since 1972 its staff has increased from 3,000 to 11,000, and its budget from $65 million to $2.5 billion.

Almost one in 30 Americans are behind bars, on probation or on parole. Indeed a quarter of the world’s prisoners are on American concrete. Many of these are there due to drugs charges, or indirectly relating to drugs (eg, theft to fund a habit).


A quarter of the world’s prisoners are in US jails

Young and poor black and Latino men are disproportionately affected: ‘white America’ consumes vast amounts of legal drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (not to mention gargantuan amounts of prescription pills) and middle class whites are likely to be less harshly treated if caught with illegal drugs.

And what America does, the world does. Through a mixture of political/ideological hegemony, economic dominance and direct military intervention the tentacles of America’s war on drugs stretch from the jungles of the South America to the mountains of Afghanistan.

Last year more than 6,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico. This year’s body count already stretches into the thousands. Thanks to the war on drugs, hippies bringing a few pounds of weed back from Mexico have been replaced by today’s ultra-violent cartels. Volkswagen vans and Timothy Leary books have been transcended by Kevlar body armour, automatic assault rifles, rocket launchers and submarines.

Late in Bush’s reign America launched the Mérida Initiative. This provides Mexico and central American countries with hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the flow of drugs. Voices calling for at least partial legalisation are trampled underfoot as American policy under Obama is centred on ever greater militarisation.

Tens of thousands of armed men have been sent by the Mexican government into ‘problem areas’. Torture and other forms of mistreatment are rife; indeed a video leaked in July 2008 showed police in Guanajuato being instructed in torture methods by American officers.

It was no coincidence that Mexican president Felipe Calderón was the first foreign leader to meet then president-elect Obama. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been in Mexico to assist the government. On March 25 the Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a meeting on the escalating violence.

Nearly a thousand people linked to the cartels have been arrested on drug charges in America in recent weeks in the strangely named ‘Operation Xcellerator’, under the control of new attorney general Eric Holder. Many tonnes of drugs have been seized. As a result drug prices have quickly increased. Of course, this merely means those still in the game will be even more competitive, ever more violent and cutting their products with unknown substances.

All of this echoes Plan Colombia; hailed by Mullen as a model of success. Never mind the rightwing death squads and resulting kidnappings, assassinations and massacres which were, and still are, funded by billions of American dollars. Indeed never mind the fact that Colombian cocaine production actually increased!

Reach for the lasers

Vice-president Joe Biden has long been hawkish on drugs, sponsoring the ‘crackhouse laws’ of the 1980s. He chairs both the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Caucus.

Biden also sponsored the appropriately abbreviated Rave Act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy). In the face of stiff opposition this was stalled, only becoming law by being tagged onto the Amber Alert Bill (dealing with child abduction) in 2003.

To understand this law we need to go back a few years. In January 2000 the DEA infiltrated a monthly rave at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans. They found ‘drug paraphernalia’ including glow sticks, bottled water and a ‘chill room’. The organisers were arrested on drug charges, although no narcotics were found. A somewhat convoluted legal case followed.

The DEA tried again the following year, this time targeting the Club La Vela in Panama Beach City. In addition to the dreaded glow sticks they found Blow Pops candy. It took a jury less than two hours to decide that this was in fact candy, and not drug paraphernalia.

The DEA was pissed off. The drug laws which have seen millions imprisoned were just not tight enough. So Joe Biden potters into our story. He drafted the new law which specifically targets events with “loud, pounding dance music”. Things like glow sticks are now de facto evidence of organisers allowing drug use. They face fines and long jail terms.

In Britain the 1997 Criminal Justice Act similarly targeted events playing “loud, repetitive beats”. The police regularly break up raves with force. For example, 250 police in full riot gear attacked a rave of some 3,500 people near Newport, south Wales in 2007. Many people were injured by police batons and arrested. It seems like the police use such events as training sessions.

The rave (‘free party’) culture is a reflection of people rejecting hyper-commercialised ‘superclubs’ – violent, over-priced, over-policed and playing crap music.


Another crucial cog in the American war on drugs is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The ONDCP is, unsurprisingly, a model of bureaucracy. In 2000 the Federal Communications Commission was strongly critical of it for pumping millions of dollars into networks which integrated anti-drug messages into television programmes.

Likewise in 2005 the Government Accountability Office found that the ONDCP had violated laws by circulating pre-packaged news stories to television networks. In both cases the ONDCP failed to give any indication that they were coming from a government source.

Bill Clinton’s director of ONDCP was Barry McCaffrey. This retired general and business consultant has been accused of war crimes for his role in the first Gulf War. It is alleged that he ordered his troops to attack retreating Iraqi forces after a ceasefire had been signed. He dismisses the story as “revisionist history”. Thanks to McCaffrey’s opposition to needle exchanges thousands of people contracted HIV.

Obama continued the Democratic Party tradition in good style with his apparent choice of man for the job: recovering alcoholic and unrecovered Republican Jim Ramstad. Talk of Obama’s gestures towards this anti-drug crusader and opponent of needle exchanges and medical cannabis led to more than 40 healthcare organisations writing to Obama to complain.

Ramstad was quietly dropped. The man who is now in the job, pending Senate approval, is former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske. He is actually, in relative terms, something of a moderate; but the whole debacle provides another illustration of the opportunism of those on the left who advocated support for Obama.

Notorious Zionist Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, has long being considered another hawk on drugs. As a narcotics advisor under Clinton he infamously attacked even the “notion of legalisation”. We have little reason to expect better of other Obama appointees like Janet Napolitano. Eric Holder, now attorney general, pursued a strict approach to drugs when attorney in Washington DC (see, for example, Washington Post September 9 1996).

Free the weed

In Britain the 1999 Runciman report called for the downgrading of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD. Cannabis became a class C drug for a few years, but once again the government ignored the moderate conclusions of its own commission and recently raised the drug to class B in another victory for the Daily Mail lobby.

The news is full of horror stories about the effects of ‘skunk’. This is used as a generic name for any powerful weed; the original skunk was actually a particular and specific blend of Afghani, Colombian and Mexican strains. It is one of many combinations of the two main subspecies, cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.

Aside from the illusion/lie that strong weed was not around in the past, few discuss the real reason for the increasing strength: its illegalisation. In the face of the economic laws of capitalism, concentrated through strident prohibition, cannabis breeding has largely been driven by the need to produce compact, quick flowering and potent plants. Thus there is a trend towards cannabis indica dominant strains, rather than the less ‘couch-lock’ inducing, but tall and slow flowering cannabis sativa.

In Britain the large number of raids on growing operations means many smokers face dealers adding tiny glass beads to their mass-produced herbs to bulk up the weight; presumably not too good for the lungs. Hairspray is another unwelcome additive. Oil, lumps of plastic and other unknown niceties are found in low-quality Moroccan hashish (‘soap bar’). Commercial pressure means that hydroponically grown cannabis is not properly ‘flushed’ of fertilisers, possibly posing more of a health issue than pure cannabis itself.

Even if we accept the ‘scientific’ arguments (eg, a link to schizophrenia) this is no grounds for illegalisation. The damage pales into insignificance compared to that caused by, for instance, fatty foods and cars. Precise statistics are superfluous when considering the massive harm caused by tobacco and alcohol.

Followed to its logical conclusion, the prohibitionist approach would see the state dictate every breath and every twitch of our short lives. The simple fact is that millions of people enjoy smoking cannabis and have done so for thousands of years, whilst many find it medically beneficial.


The war on drugs has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Yet it has clearly failed. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Prohibition simply means higher profits, and therefore a propensity to violence by the gangs and cartels. It also means dealers cutting their products with all sorts of crap, leading to many deaths.

All this became clear with attempts at alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that the murder rate in America peaked in the final year of prohibition. Neither was there a decline in alcoholism during this time.

In Britain both the Westminster and Scottish governments are targeting cheap alcohol. It is, of course, impossible for them to actually address the cause of ‘drug problems’ like alcoholism because these reflect alienation produced by the capitalist system they defend. Attacks on cheap drink are attacks on the working class. One hears little mention of the epic drinking sessions around London’s financial district.

The Campaign for Real Ale claims that, on average, six pubs a day are closing. Most of those that remain sell second-rate, overpriced beer – the beer halls run by the early German Social Democratic Party provide a far better model.

Meanwhile, the American ruling class wins out from the war on drugs. The flow of prisoners into overcrowded prisons justifies sweeping police powers and maintains the ‘dictatorship of the lawyers’. The war also serves as a justification for imperialism – witness the American invasion of Panama in 1989. The Iran-Contra scandal reveals the hypocrisy of key sections of the American elite.

Many people’s opposition to the legalisation of drugs hinges on little more than crude distrust of the working class. Communists, on the other hand, fight for the rule of the working class. It must be able to understand the most complicated questions of science and politics, not to mention decide what it should consume.

We need to separate drug use from ‘drug abuse’; and the latter must be seen in a medical and social context, and not a moral and political one. This does not mean that we think that on finishing this article you should go and get off your face on methamphetamine. In fact I would strongly advise against it.

As I write, negotiations are continuing in Vienna on the updated UN declaration on drugs. Obama’s America and Russia, whose anti-drug policies are leading to a huge rise in HIV, are pushing for the continuation of the hard line. Other governments want a more moderate approach. Across the world there are splits in the bourgeoisie and the police on the question.

The working class and its political representatives must stand together in rejecting the war on drugs. Communists call for the complete legalisation of all drugs and their socialisation.

(Weekly Worker March 12 2009).

March 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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