The Legal Rackets Behind the Drug War

Last month, the National Drug Intelligence Center at the U.S. Department of Justice released its “National Drug Threat Assessment” for this year. No doubt hoping no one will notice or care, the report itself observes that “[t]he abuse of several major illicit drugs, including heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, appears to be increasing, especially among the young.”

Nevertheless, the report, like the statistical insanity emanating from the telescreens in Orwell’s 1984, emphatically insists on the overall success of the so-called “War on Drugs.”

It’s easy, maybe even intuitive, to conflate opposing drug use and supporting the War on Drugs. The two positions, at first blush, seem to go hand in hand, forming a logical pair framed by common sense, and condemning something that seemingly no reasonable person would celebrate. After all, there’s no disputing the harmful effects of so many of the drugs that are today illegal, or the deleterious social consequences of the drug trade itself.

The inception and intensification of the War on Drugs have coincided with a full-fledged militarization of municipal police forces, arming them with high tech weaponry and equipment, and witnessing unprecedented levels of police impunity. Documenting the meteoric rise of “no-knock” or “quick-knock” raids, criminal justice scholar Peter B. Kraska argues that SWAT teams and “the military special operations model” are largely no longer employed in “forced reaction situations.”

“[P]olice departments,” his work shows, “are choosing to use an extremely and highly dangerous tactic, not for terrorists or hostage takers but for small-time drug possessors and dealers.” These escalations, transforming America into an Orwellian police state, represent contracts for the implements of repression and murder totaling in the millions.

And the ranks of the imprisoned in America, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, reflect the determination that characterizes the Drug War. So when the United States’ Gestapo isn’t killing citizens outright, they’re making quite sure that America preserves the oft-cited record of housing one quarter of the globe’s prisoners (even while it has only about one twentieth of its total population).

For the companies that, for example, operate the prisons and transport the prisoners, the Drug War is a cash cow that they never want to stop milking — a godsend in the form of communities devastated by the victimless crimes of prohibition. These huge companies, titans in the world of Washington lobbying like Corrections Corporation of America, do everything in their power — spend as much as they can — to protect their bottom lines from the mere possibility that the federal government might amend the Drug War in any significant way.

The Drug War’s complete and categorical lack of success, then, can be overlooked or ignored because they make sense (or, more accurately, dollars and cents) for America’s corporate-political elite; its failures have very successfully been recast, in Minitrue’s specious Newspeak, as a series of decisive steps toward the chimera of drug-free society.

It’s easy to see, though, that a drug-free United States would ruin the game for the ruling class, for whom public policy is actually, quite serviley formulated. Incidentally, it would also ruin the artificially high prices that the immense drug cartels are today able to charge, the result of a supply constricted by the very fact that drugs are a “black market” commodity, conspicuously outside of legitimate commerce.

Still further, the Drug War provides a convenient, useful justification for furtive military interventions into the domestic affairs of other countries. And if anything motivates the interests mobilized at the capital, it’s imperialism, and anything that makes it easier to account for as a practical matter.

We’ve likely all heard the phrase “there are only so many seats at the table.” Well, for the powerful people at the table, at the nexus where the state’s coercive power meets corporate deep pockets, the class instrument of the War on Drugs is indispensable. Literally billions of dollars are at stake, a fact that we shouldn’t ignore next time we hear the moralistic, anti-drug language that characterizes the overt assault on private life and civil liberties that passes for good public policy.

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