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South of the US Border, the War on Drugs Is Really a War on People

(Image: AK Press)

In a sweeping and thoroughly researched analysis, Canadian journalist Dawn Paley debunks the alleged war on drugs south of the US border. Paley exposes it is a pretext for extending US militarization to and control of nations in order to enhance transnational business opportunities and to prevent populist uprisings. It isn’t a war to improve civil society and prevent drug trafficking; it is a violence-centered policy to broaden the reach of global capitalism. Get the book “Drug War Capitalism” now from Truthout.

The following is an excerpt from chapter two of Drug War Capitalism:

If there really was a war on drugs, it wouldn’t make for very good media fodder: bullet-riddled packets of cocaine (or cigarettes, for that matter) don’t bleed, and following the newspaper industry rhyme, they probably wouldn’t lead. “War on drugs” is a misnomer, as war is defined as an armed conflict between at least two groups, and not between one group and a substance. As we shall see, in Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere, the primary victims of the so-called war on drugs are poor people, migrants, and Indigenous and peasant farmers.

Since the Nixon administration declared that the United States was embarking on a “war on drugs” in 1969, the phrase has been part of the popular imagination.[1] Nixon’s declaration of war was followed by the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which serves as the legal basis for US drug policy today.[2] Nixon’s war was based on policies passed at the outset of the twentieth century, including the Harrison Act in 1914 and the Hague Convention for the control of opium sales in 1912. The Boggs Act, passed in 1951, put marijuana on the same rank as heroin and cocaine, and introduced the mandatory death penalty as punishment for selling it to a minor.[3] At the end of the nineteenth century, San Francisco banned opium smoking, and New York banned opium dens—laws that targeted primarily Chinese migrants.[4] Similarly, early attempts to control marijuana use and distribution in the United States were guided by an anti-Mexican sentiment. Legislation passed in 1969 was followed, on July 6, 1973, by the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a new national anti-drugs force that would wage “an all-out global war on the drug menace,” according to Nixon.[5] Beriah Empie and Lydia Anne M Bartholow use a Trojan horse analogy to describe the purpose of the war on drugs. “Despite the lack of evidence of a national narcotics issue, the war on drugs was the White House’s Trojan horse for intensified federal involvement in policing. It allowed Nixon to deliver on his campaign rhetoric of being tough on crime while stifling organized political rebellion.”[6]

The war on drugs kicked off on the heels of 1968, when worldwide protest and student movements shook the world, from Mexico City to Paris to San Francisco. It came at a critical moment of the United States war in Vietnam (by the fall of 1971, half of all US soldiers in Vietnam had tried heroin, and two were dying of heroin overdoses each month),[7] and at a time when youth were experimenting with legal and illegal drugs “to a degree unprecedented in American history.”[8] The 1960s and ’70s marked high points in anti-war and anti-imperialist activism, and existing anti-narcotics efforts were adapted to quash protest. “Strict anti-drug laws, punitive sentencing procedures and harsh enforcement made it possible to suppress and curb dissent,” writes Julia Buxton in her book The Political Economy of Narcotics.[9]

It wasn’t just the US that rolled out anti-drugs measures as a way to get protesters, hippies, and radicals off the streets. Buxton explains that anti-drug measures during that period “served to unite systems as diverse as the communist governments of China and the Eastern Bloc, the right-wing authoritarian military regimes in South America, Spain and Portugal and democratically elected governments in Australia, the USA and Scandinavia.”[10]

The United States has focused its drug-control efforts internationally on supply reduction, which proposes that an attack on the supply of narcotics will reduce availability, causing prices to rise, and thus fewer people will use them. Take, for example, Operation Intercept, which was touted by the Nixon administration as aiming to stop the flow of marijuana from Mexico. Even this early in its existence, the war on drugs was interwoven with border control and controlling the migration of people from Mexico to the United States. According to Kate Doyle of the US National Security Archive, “Intercept was plotted in secret to produce an unprecedented slow-down of all plane, truck, car and foot traffic—legitimate or not—flowing from Mexico into the southern United States. In order to achieve their goals, the president’s top enforcement advisors deployed thousands of extra Border, Customs and Immigration agents along the 2,000 mile line that separates the countries, from just north of Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas. Once in place, the agents were charged with stopping and inspecting anything that moved.”[11] G. Gordon Liddy, a senior Nixon administration advisor who would later be convicted for his role in Watergate, wrote, “For diplomatic reasons the true purpose of the exercise was never revealed. Operation Intercept, with its massive economic and social disruption, could be sustained far longer by the United States than by Mexico. It was an exercise in international extortion, pure, simple, and effective, designed to bend Mexico to our will.”[12]

Over the next decades, the DEA would carry out various experiments in drug interception and crop destruction in Mexico, which will be described later. Domestically, Ronald Reagan revived the war on drugs a decade later, in 1982, which kick-started crop eradication and interdiction in South America. In 1986, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221; from then on drug trafficking was legally considered a threat to the national security of the United States.[13] That directive was updated in 1989 by George Bush Sr., and broadened the role of US troops in anti-narcotics activity in Latin America, allowing them to go on patrol instead of being restricted to their bases.[14] In an address following the invasion of Panama in 1989, Bush said: “The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty. Many attempts have been made to resolve this crisis through diplomacy and negotiations. All were rejected by the dictator of Panama, General Manuel A. Noriega, an indicted drug trafficker.”[15]

Under Reagan, a new wave of racialized mass incarceration began in the United States, one that continues today. “Between 1980 and 2005, the number of people in US prisons and jails on drug charges increased by 1,100 percent. By 2010 there were 2 million people in prisons and jails across the country,” according to writer John Gibler.[16] “The use of prohibition for racialized social control is the genesis of the modern drug-prohibition era,” he concludes. According to Michelle Alexander, a law professor and author of The New Jim Crow, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.”[17] As of February 2014, 50.1 percent of all federal inmates in the United States were imprisoned on drug charges.[18] The number of prisoners in the United States soared along with increased budgets for the drug war. So have the number of drug users. The DEA admits as much, noting in a 2008 report that “in 1960, only four million Americans had ever tried drugs. Currently, that number has risen to over 74 million.”[19] Meanwhile, the DEA enjoys a budget of over $2 billion (up from $75 million when it was created) and employs over 5,000 agents (compared with its 1,470 agents in 1973).[20]

Drug users are sentenced to prison on the pretext of protecting communities from the impact of drug use. But in his groundbreaking work on drug abuse, Dr. Carl Hart emphasizes that drug addiction is not in fact what is devastating communities, as we are often led to believe. “The problem was poverty, drug policy, lack of jobs—a wide range of things. And drugs were just one sort of component that didn’t contribute as much as we had said they have,” he said in an interview in January 2014. “One of the things that shocked me when I first started to understand what was going on, when I discovered that 80 to 90 percent of the people who actually use drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana—80 to 90 percent of those people were not addicted. I thought, ‘Wait a second. I thought that once you use these drugs, everyone becomes addicted, and that’s why we had these problems.’ That was one thing that I found out. Another thing that I found out is that if you provide alternatives to people—jobs, other sort of alternatives—they don’t overindulge in drugs like this.”[21]

Experiments in ending prohibition are taking place around the world: from legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington states in the United States, to full decriminalization of narcotics in Portugal, and supervised safe injection sites, including one in my long-time home of Vancouver, Canada. In 2014, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production, sale, and use of marijuana, in an open challenge to the United Nations’ international drug control conventions. Time and again evidence shows that addiction is a health issue, and that criminalization of drug users and people dependent on drugs exaggerates social and personal harms. There is virtually no compelling proof that the war on drugs has worked to cure addiction or meaningfully reduce the supply of narcotics over the medium or long term. A comprehensive study by The Lancet found that crop eradication did little to reduce the supply of cocaine in the United States, that expensive interdiction campaigns only provide a temporary reduction in supply, and there was “some evidence but diminishing returns from imprisonment beyond specific levels.”[22]

Rather than actually dealing with controlling illegal substances, the war on drugs is a concept invented and promoted by the US government, and a motto that has also been adopted by other states to serve their interests, both domestically and abroad. According to drug historian Paul Gootenberg, “Although its genealogy has not been rigorously researched, the contemporary metaphoric idea of a ‘war on drugs’ followed: a universal progressive reformist version before World War II; a socially rooted, hard-nosed Cold War ideology version of the 1950s through 1970s (akin to containment); melding into the Reaganesque total victory ‘Star Wars’ drug war fantasy of the 1980s and beyond.”[23] As mentioned, the Obama administration has made an effort to move away from the terminology of the war on drugs, and Gil Kerlikowske, the former director of the White House’s National Drug Policy, disavowed the term in his first interview on the subject. Though discourse has shifted, and the Holder memo modifies mandatory minimums in certain drug cases, little has yet concretely changed in terms of US federal policy.[24]

When it comes to the drug war and militarization domestically, it is worth pointing out that it was Colombian drug cartels that served as a pretext for the 1981 modification of the US Posse Comitatus Act, which forbade the military from participating in domestic policing. Amendments to the Act “allow [the Department of Defense] to support civilian law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard. Although not explicitly stated, congressional intent was clear: the military needed to support law enforcement officers in combating drug smuggling.”[25] Outside of the fifty states it is clear that the drug war is the means by which states are waging a war against poor people, workers, migrants, and others. The drug war model inside the United States provides a mechanism of social control through criminalization and mass incarceration, which targets communities of color. In Mexico, Central and South America, the drug war model relies on the use of terror in order to impose social control.[26]


1. Julia Buxton, The Political Economy of Narcotics: Production, Consumption & Global Markets (Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2006), 62.

2. David Courtwright, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 163.

3. Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen, Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 25.

4. “Historians agree that efforts to limit opium smoking grew out of an effort to control Chinese immigrants and their influence on (white) Americans.” Ibid., 20.

5. Drug Enforcement Administration, “DEA History.”

6. Beriah Empie and Lydia Anne Bartholow, “Raze the Walls,” in Kristian Williams, Lara Messersmith-Glavin, and Will Munger, eds., Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (Oakland: AK Press, 2013), 189.

7. Courtwright, Dark Paradise, 168.

8. Ibid., 165.

9. Buxton, The Political Economy of Narcotics, 61.

10. Ibid.

11. Kate Doyle, “Operation Intercept: The Perils of Unilateralism,” National Security Archive, April 13, 2003.

12. Ibid.

13. Ted Carpenter, Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America, (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2003), 29.

14. Ibid., 37.

15. Robinson and Scherlen, Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics, 31 (emphasis in original). 235 notes.

16. John Gibler, To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011), 43.

17. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 15.

18. Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Offenses,” February 22, 2014.

19. Drug Enforcement Administration, “A Tradition of Excellence: 1970– 1975.”

20. Drug Enforcement Administration, “DEA History.”

21. Amy Goodman, “‘Drugs Aren’t the Problem’: Neuroscientist Carl Hart on Brain Science & Myths About Addiction,” Democracy Now!.

22. John Strang, Thomas Babor, Jonathan Caulkins, et al. “Drug Policy and the Public Good: Evidence for Effective Interventions,” The Lancet 379, no. 9810 (January 7, 2012): 71–83.

23. Paul Gootenberg, “Talking About the Flow: Drugs, Borders, and the Discourse of Drug Control,” Cultural Critique 71 (Winter 2009): 36–37.

24. Holder, Eric. “Retroactive Application of Department Policy on Changing Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases.” Office of the Attorney General. August 29, 2013.

25. Evan Munsing and Christopher Lamb, “Joint Interagency Task Force– South: The Best Known, Least Understood Interagency Success,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, Strategic Perspectives 5 (July 2011), 7–8.

26. Paley, Dawn. “Repressive Memories: Terror, Insurgency and the Drug War.” Occupied London. Fall, 2013.

Copyright (2014) of Dawn Paley. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, AK Press.

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