In my last essay, I delineated the racist origins of the war on drugs. There were casualties galore even in the previous essay —from Billie Holiday to Chinese immigrants. However, the plague of prohibition extends much further; it does not merely end with minorities in the United States. The reach of prohibition extends to doctors, the UN, the Mafia, the Cartel, and effectively the whole world. In order to understand the prevalence of prohibition, one must go back to Harry Anslinger and the origin of the war on drugs.

Harry Anslinger was the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. When he took office, there wasn’t much for his department to do —many doctors prescribed drugs to addicts and there wasn’t a precedence of arresting them for doing so. Anslinger, hell-bent on establishing prohibition, used the Harrison Act to arrest doctors for prescribing drugs to addicts. There were many doctors who were against Anslinger. For example, Henry Smith Williams, a renowned doctor, after observing his brother Edward Williams’ patients came to the conclusion that those who could buy morphine from a store did not take high doses and that most were not addicts. Even addicts had steady and respectable jobs. 22% of addicts were wealthy; only 6% poor. Yet, Anslinger justified prohibition by arguing that there were fewer addicts after he took charge. This was later found by historian David Courtwright to have been entirely made up, or as the Treasury Department’s top officials had privately said: “[it was] absolutely worthless.” (40)

Furthermore, Anslinger had received 30 responses from scientists —29 of whom said the media misrepresented marijuana and argued that it shouldn’t be banned. (15) Henry Williams argued that Anslinger worked for the Mafia — “prohibition created an army of gangsters to smuggle drugs into the country and sell them to addicts. In other words: Harry Anslinger was transferring a massive and highly profitable industry into their exclusive control.” (36) However, none of this stopped the cunning Anslinger. He arrested twenty thousand doctors for violating the Harrison Act including Henry and Edward Williams. “At the trial, every single one of the seventeen doctors who testified supported Edward Williams, yet he was found guilty of violating the Harrison Act — in effect, of being a drug dealer.” (39) He also used the one response from a scientist who claimed that marijuana makes African Americans go on a murdering spree as official evidence; the media ate it up. Hence, the United States entered the era of prohibition.

What were the results of decades of prohibition that followed the reign of Anslinger? Jeffrey Miron, the Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, found that murder rates skyrocketed first from 1920-1933 and 1970-1990 when the prohibition of drugs dramatically escalated. (81) Miron also argues that statistical analysis shows that more police enforcement causes more homicides. (93) Officer Leigh Maddox found that arresting 80% of the street dealers did nothing to the flow of drugs — there are hundreds of others willing to take part in this billion-dollar industry. In fact, she found that arresting dealers increased homicide: take out the head and now the gangs battle to see who’s going to be in charge (90-91) Milton Friedman calculated that 10,000 murders a year was caused by the drug war in the United States. Miron argues that Friedman underestimated the casualties. He claims that homicide rate would drop by 25-75% if we took the drug trade away from criminals. (81)

As I have mentioned already in my last essay, 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. At any given time, 40 to 50 percent of black men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five are in jail, on probation, or have a warrant out for their arrest, overwhelmingly for drug offenses. The US imprisons blacks at rates higher than South Africa during the apartheid. In addition to this, 216,000 are raped every year in prison in the US, mostly men. (109) Much of this is due to the crack down on drugs, which increased the prison population by 40%[1].

The war on drugs poisoned more than just the United States. Harry Anslinger served as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission. He urged Europe to adopt his strategies, citing his fabricated statistics as evidence. Thailand resisted the push from the UN to spread prohibition, spearheaded by Anslinger — that is, until Anslinger threatened to cut off foreign aid and importing Thai goods. (43) Mexico also resisted the push in the 1930s. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, chief of the alcohol and Narcotic Service, found through a 14 year study that cannabis does not cause psychosis and that “it is impossible to break up the traffic of drugs because of the corruption of the police and also because of the wealth and political power of some of the traffickers.” He believed that this could all be averted if we prevented criminals from controlling the market. (140) Harry Anslinger demanded Salazar to be fired. He told Mexico’s representative to the League of Nations that addicts “were criminals first and addicts afterwards. (140-141) Mexico tried again a few years later by resuming to provide narcotics legally to addicts who needed them. Anslinger responded by cutting off Mexico’s supply of opiates for pain relief in hospitals. (141) The US government approached Mexico with a deal: receive aid and wage the war on drugs, or we can wreck your economy if you don’t. (141) In the 1990s, the US trained a group of Mexican men to fight the war on drugs. They were trained by the 7th Special Forces but later defected, en masse, creating the Gulf Cartel — these men became the Zetas, Chapo Guzman’s fiercest rivals. (120-121) The Zetas commit horrible crimes such as sewing a face on a soccer ball, raping and murdering the relatives of rivals. (126) 90% of cocaine used in the US comes from Mexico. 600,000 were killed in 5 years due to the drug lords in Mexico. (116-117) The Mexican government is now so corrupted by the cartel that the government refuses to imprison criminals if they are members of a powerful cartel like the Zetas, or as the police officer told the mother of a victim who was murdered by a Zeta:

“If he’s with the Zetas, we’re not going to be able to do anything, because they run the state. If we do a bust, it’s because they allow us to do it. We don’t bust people like that.” (137)

What are the alternatives to this deadly war? This will be the next topic of my next essay. The essay will investigate the nature of addiction and the alternatives to prohibition provided by countries like Switzerland and Portugal.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari



One thought on “The War on Drugs: Casualties

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