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Drug Wars: the 50 Year Challenge, Part I

It stuns me when I see a statistic that says how much one of our forever wars is costing in dollars per day, or per hour, apart from the incalculable human loss. That part gets reported in numbers too, but I think “incalculable” is probably truer. The Cost of War project at Brown University estimated the 20 years’ wars after 9/11 as costing $8 trillion, and over 900,000 lives. This human toll does not, the researchers noted, “include the many indirect deaths the war on terror has caused by way of disease, displacement and loss of access to food or clean drinking water.”


The modern Drug Wars, now over 50 years long, have been even costlier and deadlier, and we’re all paying the price.


The term “Drug Wars” is commonly used to describe the series of government-led initiatives to stop illegal drug use and trade. Their main strategy has been to dramatically increase prison sentences for drug dealers and users, and to direct police department budgets towards seeking out and capturing these individuals.

In our previous post, Founding Member, Eric Schwartz, rightly pointed the finger at O.G. Harry Anslinger and his Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 as what led to cannabis not being considered agriculture today, when once American farmers had been required to plant hemp – botanically identical to marijuana – or face penalties. Yet, the father of our modern Drug Wars was Richard Nixon, who declared it in a 1971 speech. Although Ronald Reagan made these wars a top priority for government agencies, every subsequent president “surged” them for political purposes in his own special way.


As with all wars, the Drug Wars have intended consequences and (to the charitably minded) unintended consequences. The intended consequences were made plain by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator in 1994 during an interview for Harper’s Magazine:


"You want to know what [the War on Drugs] was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


At its stated goals the Drug Wars were quite successful. Black and brown families and their neighborhoods, along with progressive social movements associated with “hippies,” were devastated. Through the use of mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminating the possibility of parole, prosecuting juveniles as adults, and exponentially multiplying the number of federal crimes on the books, the US prison population increased by over 500% in the forty years after Nixon’s speech – accounting for about a quarter of all the prisoners on Earth. It’s hard to question that drug war casualties accounted for a major share of this.


Our violent programs were exported around the globe through foreign policy, military aid and boots on the ground. Drug wars were and continue to be waged in Mexico southward and every country between Morocco and The Philippines. At home we implemented mass incarceration, and turned millions of citizens into criminals. We have destroyed untold families and neighborhoods. Popular opposition to the influence that militarism exerts on our country has been stifled. And these were just some of the intended consequences.


In a later post, we’ll raise some of the unintended consequences of our ongoing Drug Wars, like how small farmers today aren’t allowed to grow one of the most powerful plants on the planet.


J Jasper, Farm Bug Co-op Founding Member

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