Drug War Has Hidden Agendas, Says Report
Published by Associated Press – December, 2002
Copyright: Associated Press
A new report argues that ulterior goals motivate the war on drugs. The governments of struggling nations around the world prohibit the use of certain drugs not only to protect public health and safety, but also because launching and maintaining a war on drugs enables governments to expand their police powers, create enticing political rhetoric, and attract much-needed foreign aid, according to a recent report from an influential California think tank.
And governments are not the only ones who benefit from the war on drugs, says the report.
“Lots of governments, institutions within government, independent originations and some portions of the medical profession and media have gained benefits from telling scary stories about drugs and advocating a criminal response to drug problems,” Harry Levine, the author of the paper and a professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York, told United Press International.
The paper, “The Secret of Worldwide Drug Prohibition: The Varieties and Uses of Drug Prohibition,” appears in the most recent edition of The Independent Review, which is published by the Independent Institute, a non-partisan think tank that focuses on government reform.
Other drug policy experts — who are also critical of national drug policies like those of the U.S. government, which criminalize illicit drug use and focus on interdiction and incarceration — say Levine’s analysis lacks supporting evidence and flies in the face of historical fact.
In his paper, Levine argues that few people are aware of the global scale of drug prohibition ( every country bans at least some recreational drugs ), or of the political and bureaucratic pressure that blocks reforms of drug policy in many nations.
An advocate of drug law reform, Levine said that governments, politicians and the news media gain political advantages from supporting the anti-drug rhetoric that accompanies drug prohibition. He said that these forces together produce systemic pressure against reforming drug policies.
“There is no doubt that governments throughout the world have accepted drug prohibition because of enormous pressure from the U.S. government and a few powerful allies, but U.S. power alone cannot explain the global acceptance of drug prohibition,” writes Levine.
He says that world governments have found their anti-drug forces useful as a means to expand police and military power, because they can conduct surveillance operations and military raids under the guise of the war on drugs that might not have been possible otherwise.
He said that at the local level, drug war policies enable police squads to gain equipment to which they would otherwise not have access, and which benefits other law enforcement efforts.
Mark Kleiman, professor of policy studies at the University of California Los Angeles and a proponent of drug law reform, told UPI that Levine fails to provide any evidence proving that the drug war expands state power.
“What you are supposed to understand by this ( paper ) is that drug prohibition as promoted by states is used to increase their power, but he doesn’t provide any evidence of that,” said Kleiman. “While it is true that there are advantages to be gained by state cooperation with this international effort, I am not sure that we are using it to elevate state power,” he said.
He added that Levine’s analysis ultimately misses what is needed to improve public policy regarding illicit drug use.
“There is a tendency of people who are writing about drug policy to do social analysis or psychoanalysis to show how silly their opponents are, rather than asking about what policies would best serve the public interest,” said Kleiman.
Beyond his ideas on state power, Levine argued that because drug prohibition is a true “mom and apple pie issue,” typically skeptical media outlets and politicians have gained advantages by promoting anti-drug rhetoric.
“I think there are fundamental problems that are underreported and that people don’t talk about,” he said. “It has not been in anybody’s particular interest to talk about international drug prohibition.”
Adele Harrell, principal research associate at the Justice Policy Center of the liberal Urban Institute, said that although Levine is correct that the drug war is used as a political tool, his main thesis is unrealistic.
“I think that crime and drug use are routinely used to appeal to people,” said Harrell.
“People are afraid of harm from unknown others,” she said. “But arguing that drug policy might be due to some sort of secret cabal is almost bizarre. It lacks sound analysis and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Like Kleiman, she said Levine failed to provide any solid evidence for systemic opposition to drug policy reform, although she said there is some research showing that drug policy has, to a certain extent, been used as a tool of social control.
Harrell cited studies demonstrating that through history, criminal penalties have tended to be focused most heavily on particular illicit substances that were associated with problem populations of lesser socioeconomic status and power.
She pointed out the liberalization of marijuana possession laws in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s — when use of the drug became prevalent among college kids — as proof that social factors affect the criminal penalties attached to drug use.
“It is the reason we don’t do more about alcohol, because it has social and cultural accepted status,” said Harrell, noting that peyote and opium are other drugs that have achieved a level of social acceptance in different cultures at various times.
But Harrell said the long history of drug prohibition is mostly directly related to the dangers associated the use of illicit drugs, not attempts to control society.
“It is all about social normalcy,” she said. “But the bottom line is that psychoactive substances have a potential for harm, and most societies establish some sort of regulations over their use through formal law and informal social rules. This has been the case throughout the sweep of history.”
According to Kleiman, one reason there has been little real progression in drug law reform is that the current public policy debate has been hijacked by competing and sometimes-dishonest ideological forces that fail to look at the issue pragmatically. He said that there is fundamental lack of recognition that while drugs are dangerous and need to be controlled, their use cannot be completely stopped.
“The people who are against the drug war are just as guilty of a big lie as people who are for it,” he said. “They keep repeating the same false claims.”
Kleiman said that anti-drug war forces perpetuate lies regarding the status of drug offenders in the U.S. prison population. Contrary to popular belief, American prisons are not filled with non-violent drug offenders, he said. The reality is that the majority of people in prison on drug charges are not incarcerated for simple possession but for possession with intent to distribute — which involves larger amounts of drugs — or on even more serious trafficking charges.
He added that the substantial number of people incarcerated on simple possession charges have violated their parole and are therefore in prison due to earlier, often harsher crimes.
On the other side of the debate, he said that advocates of the drug war repeat lies, such as the claim that like marijuana is the most dangerous drug in the world because it is a gateway substance that leads users to harder drugs.
Kleiman also said that although Levine is correct for criticizing the media’s role in the drug war, he has cited the wrong reason.
“The best move to making the debate over drug policy better would be developing a skeptical press corps,” he said. “We have no body of reporters in this country who are experts in drug policy,” said Kleiman. “Most of the people that write about drug stories are general assignment reporters and policy reporters, and you can tell them things and they will simply write them down.”
He added that the media’s focus on the opposing ideological camps in the debate over drug policy leaves the middle ground out of the public discussion. He said the correct path for drug policy is in that middle ground.