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Articles : War on Drugs
 How you gonna come? 
How the Drug War and the Prison-Industrial Complex connect in a vicious cycle of violence, vice, and profit

Editor’s note: Charles Shaw, editor-in-chief of the Chicago-based Newtopia Magazine, enters the Illinois state penitentiary Friday to begin serving a one year sentence for possession of less than ¼ ounce of marijuana and 1.4 grams of MDMA (or about a dozen pills). Shaw, a popular writer and activist, will be writing a prison diary for GNN chronicling his time as a prisoner of America’s ongoing drug war. GNN wishes him the best. Stay strong.

In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus

In the United States government’s “War on Drugs”, the rules are simple enough to grasp. Since drugs are bad for you, foster crime, and destroy people’s lives, they are illegal, and those that are involved with them are criminals who belong in jail. In this paradigm, drug dealers are violent and dangerous, and despite the emergence of a recovery culture, addicts are still considered morally bankrupt “others”. Removing these elements from the streets is generally considered a good thing, and whatever it takes to accomplish this, even if it means bending the Constitution, should be encouraged and permitted in the interest of our general safety and well being.

Every day Americans have these views reinforced by elected officials, the corporate media, and a pervading culture of addiction that is hardly limited to these denizens of society, but rather infiltrates millions of American lives. Everywhere you turn, people are warning you of the dangers of some drugs, while pushing others relentlessly. Everywhere you go, someone has a story of how addiction or violence ruined someone close to them.

And most people end up thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful of our government to try and protect us.”

But within this simple world is another more complex world. It is a world where everyone is addicted in one way or another and the profits from their addictions fuel the economy. A world where lethal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, Vioxx, and Oxycontin are legal and readily available, while relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, psilocybin, and MDMA are designated dangerous and highly addictive, without any tangible health benefits, and marginalized into a dangerous illicit market. It is a world where, in some neighborhoods, the police protect and serve while in others they are the threat and the enemy. It is a world where the rich go unpunished, and the poor go to prison.

And what may be even more shocking is that it has become progressively more serious to have been caught with drugs than to kill someone. In his 1999 Progressive Populist essay, “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” UNLV Criminal Justice professor Richard Shelden cites that between 1980 and 1992 the average maximum sentence in federal courts declined for violent crimes (from 125 months to 88 months) and almost doubled for drug offenses (from 47 months to 82 months).

This is the hidden world that no one has to see or think about except those on the inside. Thus most popular opinion about the Drug War is compacted down into a few, easy to swallow, demagoguish stereotypes. These are the hardest views to change, so naturally, changing opinion about the Drug War is a tough racket. But there is one thing that is undeniable: In both of these worlds, a small number of people make a hell of a lot of money.

Few see this war for what it really is, a class war, or more simply, a war on the poor.

Race and Class in Drug Crime

When we speak of American culture we must commingle race and class, because racism is the way American classism is manifested. And so, what is actually a race and class based disparity that exposes a corrupt system, lies obscured by corporate media reporting which focuses on the violence and sensationalism of the Drug War; COPS, a “huge” international bust, a drive-by shooting which killed an innocent child, a new “designer drug” ravaging the nation, the meth-addict pervert kidnapping a cute blonde woman, and the obligatory celebrity fallen from grace. What is almost never reported are the egregious inequities in the system.

In June of 2000, Human Rights Watch published a study of racial disparities in the “War on Drugs” in which they stated chillingly:

“The racially disproportionate nature of the “War on Drugs” is not just devastating to Black Americans. It contradicts faith in the principles of justice and equal protection of the laws that should be the bedrock of any constitutional democracy; it exposes and deepens the racial fault lines that continue to weaken the country and belies its promise as a land of equal opportunity; and it undermines faith among all races in the fairness and efficacy of the criminal justice system.”

Part of effectively prosecuting the “War on Terror” is the active demonization of Muslims. By the same token, the U.S. government demonizes Blacks, other minorities, drug users, and poor people, and uses the drug trade as a pretext to justify a domestic war against them. Our wars in the Middle East are purported to serve one purpose, battling terrorism, while in fact serving something altogether different: future energy commerce and geostrategic control. In the “War on Drugs”, we claim to be fighting crime and drug use, but while the budget for the “War on Drugs” increases every year and the number of prisons and prisoners increase every year, the amount of drugs consumed and the number of drug users also increases every year. According to Common Sense for Drug Policy, a drug reform think-tank, overall crime has gone down by more than 40%, or just under 200,000 less crimes a year in the 12 years since the Bush 41 Administration, but drug arrests have more than doubled in the same period.

Shelden asserts, “we have witnessed in the 20th century the emergence of a “criminal justice industrial complex.” The police, the courts and the prison system have become huge, self-serving and self-perpetuating bureaucracies, which along with corporations, have a vested interest in keeping crime at a certain level. They need victims and they need criminals, even if they have to invent them, as they have throughout the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on gangs.’”

In 2002 there were 1,538,813 total drug arrests, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, an astounding number, particularly when you think about all those that didn’t get caught. A full 80% of these were for mere possession of a controlled substance, and 50%, of those, 613,986 people, were for nothing more than possession of marijuana.

This Rise of the Drug War and Prison-Industrial Complex

Over the last twenty-five years the “War on Drugs” and the prison industry has been steadily built up into a Leviathan which has steamrolled across our culture with such force that it is hard to envision what might ever stop it. Today, as Shelden writes, “the size of this system is so huge that it is almost impossible to estimate the amount of money spent and the profits made.”

While tacitly skirting the metaphysics of how one wins a war waged against a plant, it is prudent to understand that the international illicit drug market generates anywhere from $500 billion to $1 Trillion in annual trade. The United Nations Drug Control Program gave a figure of $400-$500 Billion for 2004, which is considered to be a conservative estimate.

How much money is this? Canadian professor Michel Chussudovsky wrote in Global Outlook that by 1994 narcotics profits were “on the order and magnitude of the global trade in oil.” He goes on to state, “the multi-billion dollar revenue of narcotics are deposited in the Western banking system. Drug money is laundered in the numerous offshore banking havens in Switzerland, Luxembourg, the British Channel Islands, the Cayman Islands, and some 50 locations around the globe.”

Sociology professor James Petras goes further: “Over a decade [1991-2001] between $2.5 and $5 trillion criminal proceeds have been laundered by U.S. banks and circulated in the U.S. financial circuits.” In Dirty Money Foundation of U.S. Growth and Empire – Size and Scope of Money Laundering by U.S. Banks, Petras outlines the path money takes from the narcosyndicates through the private banking system into the publicly traded stock exchanges of the NYSE and NASDAQ.

Consider that the last market crash of mid-2002 perfectly coincided with the 2000 decision by the Taliban to halt poppy production in Afghanistan, the world’s largest supplier of opium which provides roughly one third to one half of the annual trade in narcotics. Keeping in mind the cultivation and harvest cycle which is about 9 months to a year, the UN Drug Control Program reports that 2001 saw a 94% decrease in Afghani poppy cultivation from 3300 metric tons down to only 185 (the remaining 185 metric tons was from poppies cultivated by the Northern Alliance in territory they controlled), a loss of somewhere between $100 and $300 Billion. However, by 2002, after the U.S. invasion in late 2001, poppy cultivation rocketed back up to 3400 metric tons, returning a badly needed estimated $300 billion in cash to the financial markets. Coincidentally, over the next two years the economy has somewhat stabilized and markets have gone back up in value. It certainly isn’t the sole cause of the last recession, but the evidence clearly points to it being a major force within it.

Back home in the States, it isn’t just drug profits propelling this system, there is also a whole vast enforcement and incarceration industry spending billions.

According to the Office for National Drug Control Policy, the Federal Government spends $30 Billion a year waging the “War on Drugs”, and over $4 billion incarcerating drug offenders.

Nationwide, the Urban Institute reports that more than 40% of the 1,000 state prisons now in operation opened within the last 25 years, coinciding with the full scale launch of the “War on Drugs.” Author Christian Parenti wrote in his 1999 book, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, “Nationally, the tab for building penitentiaries has averaged about $7 billion annually over the last decade; in 1996 alone contractors broke ground on twenty-six federal and ninety-six state prisons. Estimates for the yearly expenses of incarceration run between $20 and $35 billion annually, and one report has more than 523,000 full-time employees working in American corrections—more than in any”.

But maybe the most frightening fact is that, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, a nation with only 4.6% of the total world population has a full one-third of the world’s prisoners, an estimated six million people, three million currently incarcerated in federal and state penitentiaries and county jails, and another roughly 3 million under “correctional supervision” on house arrest, probation, or parole. Half of these arrived in the last 10 years, and many now work as unpaid laborers for the government’s 100 prison factories under a program called UNICOR, and those of private corporations like Wackenhut, whose publicly traded stock is valued based upon how much “inventory” they posses. Their “inventory” is prisoners.

The phenomenal growth in the prison population is directly attributed to the War on Drugs. Shelden states, “a recent estimate is that convictions for drugs accounted for almost one-half of the increase in state prison inmates during the 1980s and early 1990s, as prison sentences on drug charges increased by more than 1,000 percent!... Prison populations have been increasing from between 5 percent and 7 percent each year. Figuring an average annual increase of 6 percent, by 2020 there will be around 6.5 million in prison!

This Can’t Be A Coincidence

Common Sense for Drug Policy reports that nationwide one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison, and in five states the ratio is 13 to 1. This is compared to 1 in 180 White men. But Blacks aren’t doing more drugs.

Douglas Husak, author of Legalize This!: The Case for Decriminalizing Drugs, says that White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin. But according to the US Department of Justice, Blacks comprise 56.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons while Whites comprise only 23.3%. The bulk of the drugs consumed in this country are not sold on the street by minority-run gangs, they are sold by affluent Whites to other affluent Whites, who avoid the dangers involved in street dealing by getting their supply from higher up the food-chain, off the street, in private. Street dealing creates visible perpetrators, and since White people aren’t targeted in the same way by the police, because they aren’t visible to the police, one can only conclude that the enforcement community is primarily concerned with arresting the most visible, not necessarily the most influential, drug dealers. This theory is reinforced by the knowledge that bodies in cells equals dollars to the prison industry. Can you imagine the same police presence in the suburbs, trying to ferret out drug use in White subdivisions?

Add to that that there are completely different sentencing guidelines (see “Miscarriage of Justice”) for possession of powdered cocaine versus possession of rock cocaine even though they are the same exact substance. Crack is generally cooked and dealt on the street by minority gangs, whereas powder generates from further up the chain.

Based upon these numbers, the U.S. Dept. of Justice goes on to estimate that 30% of Black Americans will see time in prison during their life, compared with only 5% of White Americans, even though as of the 2000 Census, Whites made up 69% of the total national population while Blacks only accounted for 12%.

These racial distinctions often obscure the fact that almost everyone who ends up in prison on a drug charge is poor.

Even though there is virtually no way to divorce race from the “War on Drugs”, it would be all too easy, and all too lazy, to blame it simply on racism. The main component is and has always been economic, and the real story behind the “War on Drugs” is one of radical economic transformation like that which the United States underwent in the 1980s and 90’s. Many of those left behind in this transformation, unable or unwilling to find work in the new “service economy,” have turned to drugs, and the fight against them, for economic sustenance, and so a natural vice economy has grown up to replace some of the lost income from exported jobs, while others barely eke out a living earning minimum wage.

The low-income violent ghettos that exist in most cities were not always there, but today they are the most stark and direct symbol of this economic transformation. As law professor Richard Sander notes, blacks in early 20th century cities did not live in as segregated areas as they do today. His research shows that ghettoes today are mostly concentrated in those cities with large numbers of blacks who came north via the Great Migration.

The modern state of the Black ghettoes came from the combination of the industrial jobs that drew millions of Black Americans north being exported to other countries, and drugs being imported, most notably during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic. But it is important to note that the crack epidemic was merely the continuation, the escalation, of a pre-existing narcotics problem in the ghettos.

Twenty years earlier heroin flooded the same streets, right at the same time the U.S. government was waging a war in Southeast Asia around the golden triangle, the world’s other major supplier of opium, and riots were breaking out in the major American cities in a widescale Black uprising. Yet, again we are supposed to view this as coincidence.

The hopelessness pervading the inner cities perpetuates to this day. Kelsa Rieger, a community organizer in Chicago who works closely with gang youth laments, “When there are no jobs, the schools are in deplorable condition, college is out of the equation for most, and racism permeates every aspect of society, in order for many people to survive, they get involved in drugs and gangs. Our society worships money and the access it grants, and gang members and drug dealers who have respect on the streets and money to spend become the idols that these young people aspire to be.” Most of the youth Rieger tries to help are caught up into the system at a very young age, and once they have a conviction record, regular employment (even if there were jobs available) becomes a near impossibility.

Unlike the 1960’s when Black communities began to come together, by the 1980s American cities were in the grips of violent Black on Black turf wars between street gangs. Crack cemented an historically tragic policy of “divide and conquer” that has kept these communities fractured. It also gave the police entrée to sweep into those neighborhoods with a disturbing, occupation-like finality and begin a steady process of eroding long and hard fought Constitutional civil rights.

Racism and entertainment propelled an overwhelmingly sensationalist corporate media which cravenly followed the trail of violence while rarely investigating why these conditions arose, or where the drugs were coming from. Public opinion was reinforced with daily tales of gang wars, ‘crack babies’ abandoned to dumpsters, suburban teenage overdoses, and victims of AIDS. In response, White people stampeded to the polls to vote for elected officials who would continue to implement harsher drug laws and expand police forces.

Underlying the clarion call for increased crime fighting, forever embedded in the national consciousness, was the raised fist of 60’s Black militancy. Ironically, that fear was never taken to its logical conclusion: no one seemed to point out to Whitey that the Black community couldn’t possibly unite for Revolution against them while they were steadily murdering each other.

Concordant with the “War on Drugs was a steroidal expansion in size and power of our federal policing agencies, the DEA, FBI, and ATF, and the widescale militarization of municipal and state police departments across the country using Federal money, a policy embraced by both major political parties as “crime” became a critical election-year issue. Through multi-billion dollar appropriations of taxpayer money, our government effectively did an end run around the Posse Comitatus Act and turned our domestic law enforcement agencies into mini-armies tasked with the control of its own citizens and the policing of morals. It is a job with no ostensible end.

Moreover, the Patriot Act privacy violations are really nothing more then the extension of changes to the criminal code that were made in the 90’s, like the power of the government to seize property and assets without a trial and use the money to fund the Drug War, or the intensification of surveillance practices and technology.

These were easy enough policies to implement while obscuring the truth and politics behind them. To the American public, the “War on Drugs” was about Law and Order, plain and simple. The effects of the crime wave were so bad that their causes were somehow rendered moot, and never really brought up again, which leads us to where we are now.

The Coming Paradigm Shift

Drug dealing is the very paradigm of the capitalist free market, unregulated and completely driven by supply and demand, but drugs and prisons are sorry replacements for productive work, thus, creating new opportunities seems the most logical order of business, and a legal and regulated drug economy could not only provide cities and states with badly needed revenue, it could also easily fund a series of infrastructure improvement projects that could potentially employ millions, provide badly needed health care for the 40+ million uninsured in this country, a comprehensive prevention and treatment program, and train and educate many others for a variety of other skills in the workplace. $500 Billion goes a long, long way, but bear in mind it is also what the US government spends annually on “defense”.

To achieve this, our culture would need to be prepared for a profound shift in attitude towards the role of drugs in our society, but it’s nothing we aren’t familiar with. People drank before, during, and after the Volstead Act, and when it was repealed, there was a stampede by government and business to regulate the legal liquor market, and fortunes were made. The “War on Drugs” has taught us that people use drugs in an identical manner, and no matter what the US government tries, they keep on using them. All prohibition has done in both cases was escalate violence, create a massive criminal economy, and a permanent underclass of drug users. Remove prohibition, and the power is returned to the government, and hence the people, to make good with it.

Since 9/11, the “War on Drugs” seems almost forgotten, the hidden world no one sees. But it continues, escalating year after year as high profiteering, an economic engine driven by the limitless harvest of drug users, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised. We often hear that the “War on Drugs” has “failed”, but it hasn’t failed at all. It was never winnable in the first place, and winning was never the goal. It’s time we concede defeat in the “War on Drugs”, which in itself is a glorious victory for compassion and common sense.

Additional reading:

Race, Prison, and Poverty: The race to incarcerate in the age of correctional Keynesianism,” by Paul Street, Zmag

The Drug Economy series by From the Wilderness.

GNN contributor Charles Shaw is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Newtopia Magazine.


Posted by anthony
Anthony Lappé is GNN's Executive Editor. He's written for The New York Times, Details, New York, Paper, The Fader and Vice, among many others. He has worked as a producer for MTV, Fuse and WTN. He is the co-author of GNN's True Lies and the producer of their Iraq doc,...