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May 10, 1999
Author: Salim Muwakkil.
America’s war on drugs strongly confirms the adage that truth is war’s first casualty.
While we’re fed scare stories and outright lies about the “controlled substances” our government has demonized, more dangerous drugs are being pushed legally through a pharmaceutical industry that is reaping huge profits by offering the same kind of chemical relief.
But that shouldn’t be surprising: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, that group responsible for those demonizing ads (“This is your brain on drugs . . .,” et al.), receives most of its funding from that very same pharmaceutical industry.
They certainly can afford it; the inflation-adjusted revenue of major pharmaceutical companies in 1998 was $81 billion, more than four times what it was in 1970. About 24 percent of that growth derives from drugs designed for pleasure, vanity or convenience.
These companies’ advertising budgets have been soaring in sophisticated attempts to hook Americans on the legal drug habit, even as they lavishly fund propaganda urging a drug-free society.
That particular contradiction is central to the argument made by Joshua Wolf Shenk in an article entitled “America’s Altered States” in the May edition of Harper’s. “When does legal relief of pain become illegal pursuit of pleasure?” is the article’s subtitle, and Shenk examines that question at great length. He finds that contradictory attitudes about drug use are widespread in this culture. We appear to believe, he writes, “that altering the body and mind is morally wrong when done with some substances and salutary when done with others.”
For example, Shenk explains, there is little difference between the physiological affects of the drug MDMA (street name: ecstasy) and that of Prozac. “Both drugs work by increasing the presence of serotonin in the brain,” he notes. His article explores the social calculus that approves Prozac and makes money for its makers, Eli Lilly & Co., but demonizes MDMA and jails its purveyors. He finds racial biases deeply implicated.
Those biases allow us to criminalize the urge for chemical relief among members of minority and countercultural groups, while tolerating it in the mainstream. And that’s nothing new, as Shenk explains; this country’s restrictive drug policies have always been inspired by a mixture of xenophobia and commercialism.
Prohibitive drug laws “were all, in part, a reaction to inflamed fears of foreigners or minority groups.” Theodore Roosevelt’s drug adviser warned, for example, that “cocaine is often a direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes,” he notes.
“Opium was associated with the Chinese. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act targeted Mexican immigrants,” Shenk says.
Legal drugmakers with markets to protect inflamed those fears, and the dual forces of lucre and racism still fuel the current drug war. According to Justice Department figures, the number of incarcerated drug offenders increased 12-fold from 1980, when the drug war began in earnest, to 1995.
The U.S. now imprisons more of its citizens percentage-wise than any country on Earth, and this burgeoning jail population is disproportionately composed of young, minority drug offenders. A 1996 Justice Department study found that while 12 percent of the nation’s drug users were black, they represented 60 percent of those in state prisons for drug felonies.
America’s drug war is producing global cartels of illicit drug dealers while fueling crime, racial animosity and assaults on civil liberties at home. It is diverting untold resources from more productive social investments.
But there may be hope; war propaganda has failed on at least one front. Americans in six states–Arizona, Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington–have passed ballot initiatives favoring medical use of marijuana and six more states are being targeted this year.
Since marijuana prohibition is central to drug war strategy, those referenda represented serious battlefield losses. Voters emphatically rejected drug czar Barry McCaffrey’s attempt to dismiss medical pot as a “cruel hoax.”
The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine vindicated the electorate’s wisdom when it released a report in March finding that marijuana has clear medicinal value for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses, including cancer and AIDS. The report also refuted the argument that marijuana serves as a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin.
It might have added other substances to that dangerous list. “Legal medications are the principal cause of between 45,000 and 200,000 American deaths each year,” Shenk notes. “Marijuana, though not harmless,” he adds, “has never been shown to have caused a single death.”
It’s clear we would rather indulge our addiction to war metaphors and racial biases than seriously address the problem of drug dependency. Because of those unfortunate fixations the American people have become the drug war’s ultimate casualty.
Record Number: CTR9905100170