Toward a radical politics of legalization

By Phil Smith
April 1990; pages 10-11; Volume 1, No. 5

The prohibition of certain recreational drugs to suppress their non-medical use has become a dead end. The wars against drugs proclaimed by administration after administration have only worsened the social ills they claim to combat. And under the direction of President George Bush and Drug Czar Bill Bennett, the cure may well become worse than the disease.

Drug War

This country has spent a century in vain attempts to suppress drug use through police action. California made opium smoking illegal in 1889 as part of a racist campaign against Chinese immigrants. Heroin and cocaine were banned by the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1916. Marijuana was criminalized in 1937, and the ill-fated prohibition of alcohol lasted from 1919 to 1930. LSD was banned under federal law in 1967. Amphetamines, barbiturates and sedatives came under the purview of the Controlled Substances Act in the early 1970s. The process continues to this day with designer drugs - Ecstasy, Eve and other synthetics - joining the index of prohibited substances as they are developed.

In the two decades since Nixon's Operation Intercept shut down the U.S.-Mexican border, the war against drugs - or more precisely, against drug users and dealers - has expanded in scope, expense and ambition. As the bankruptcy of the law enforcement approach becomes increasingly apparent, the anti-drug frenzy has taken on an unprecedented shrillness. It has also become more ferocious as Bush and Bennett, the nation's anti-drug cheerleader, unleash police-state measures on the entire population in an effort to justify the continuation of a failed and counterproductive policy.

And despite a full-blown propaganda offensive and such repressive measures as Zero Tolerance, harsh prison sentences, mandatory drug testing of students and workers, the militarization of our borders, and now even military intervention in Latin America, the War on Drugs is increasingly viewed as a dangerous failure.

Tens of millions of Americans in effect scoff at Bennett's and Bush's fundamentalist vision of "a drug-free America" by continuing to choose to use illegal drugs despite an army of cops, informers and piss testers. For the most part, the "Great Refusal" of the drug users is inchoate; they provide no eloquent rationales for disobeying the drug laws, they merely ignore them.

And most drug users are not social revolutionaries. On the contrary, they embody mainstream values. Unlike participants in the 1960s drug boom, these people espouse no counterculture. Instead, they personify the entrepreneurial myths of American capitalism. They have no fundamental quarrel with our society; they only use unaccepted means to achieve conformist ends.

But the glaring failure of prohibition symbolized by the "crack epidemic" is sparking a growing chorus of systematic dissent from widely divergent perspectives. Bennett's demagogic appeals to save our "Judeo-Christian ethic" notwithstanding, economic conservatives and liberal reformers alike are elaborating arguments in favor of legalizing the illegal drug economy.

Legalization and the ravages of the market

The free-market right, led by economist Milton Friedman, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, and the arch-conservative Bill Buckley, attacks drug prohibition as being contrary to human nature, which by their definition means market behavior obedient to the inexorable laws of supply and demand.

They argue that state interference with attempts to supply the apparently unquenchable thirst for dugs is not only futile, but socially destructive. They quite correctly point out that many of the social ills falsely attributed to illegal drug trafficking are, in fact, the direct consequence of attempts to suppress it.

Consider, for example, the street crimes committed by addicts desperate to finance their habits. The free marketeers logically point out that drugs are overpriced because of their black market status. The price of legalized drugs, they argue, would be much, much lower, reflecting only production costs and normal profit needs.

They also argue that legalization would end the bloody turf wars among drug-selling gangs. These gangs are Frankensteins created by the mad scientists who dictate prohibition; their very raison d'etre is to supply banned substances and reap the vast profits inherent in an underground economy. By legalizing the drug markets, both the violence and the windfall profits would disappear. In the free market view, drug gang violence is a tax, paid predominantly by inner-city dwellers, for the continuation of prohibition.

The free marketeers also point out that legalization would break the power of the cartels, or at least allow them to take their rightful place among multinational capitalist organizations. They argue that the Ochoas and their ilk would gladly trade "narco-terrorism" for legitimacy, and there is historical evidence to support the assertion.

These arguments are logical indictments of drug prohibition, but they also highlight the social-Darwinist calculus of economic conservatism. This ideology of old, wealthy, white men shows little concern for the real-world, destructive impact of drug addiction - especially when addicts are members of repressed minority communities far from the protected daily reality of wealthy, white America. The free-market critique, then, cannot by itself serve as the basis for a radical and progressive approach toward a politics of legalization.

The liberal critique and its failings

The liberal-reformist critique of drug prohibition does address some of the concerns left untouched by the free market conservatives. Public officials such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Federal District Judge Robert Sweet of Manhattan, and Detroit's Rep. George Crockett, Jr. (D-MI), call for legalization on humanitarian and public-resource allocation grounds.

"Our courts are burdened down with these drug cases ... and here we are talking about spending additional billions to build jails and prisons to send people to. Decriminalization is the only solution," Crockett told the Detroit News last December.

His concerns about imprisonment as the primary response to drug use and trafficking are well-grounded. The state and federal prison systems are in crisis, largely due to overcrowding. According to the Justice Department, the rate of drug arrests has risen nearly 400% in the last two decades. In 1988, 850,034 persons were arrested for drug offenses, and that number undoubtedly grew even higher last year. More and more drug offenders are being sentenced to prison. Between 1970 and 1986, 10-20% of state prison admissions were drug offenders; now the figure is 20-35%, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

It's obvious that heightened drug law enforcement will lead to a mushrooming prison population. Not counting county jails, there were 673,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons in mid-1989. (Incidentally, this gives us the distinction, along with South Africa and the Soviet Union, of leading in prisoners per capita among the industrialized nations.) The NCCD estimates that by 1994, the number will have increased to 1.1 million.

Last summer, Czar Bennett shrieked that, "A massive wave of arrests is a top priority for the War on Drugs." To pay for Bennett's authoritarian mania will cost $1.2 billion in federal funds this fiscal year, but Bush and Bennett also want the states to spend $5-10 billion to expand their prison capacities. That covers construction only; at an average operating cost of $25,000 per inmate per year, the states will need $35 billion for prisons in the next five years.

This policy will subject hundreds of thousands of non-violent people to the dangers and degradations of imprisonment, and cost the public dearly, but there is little evidence to suggest that it will lessen drug use.

Liberal reformers also note the lack of emphasis of education, treatment, and rehabilitation. Despite the lip-service paid to progressive components of the War on Drugs, the education and treatment infrastructure is unable to cope with the scope of problematic drug use. Of course, treatment - like most medical services - is available for those with large incomes.

Treatment professionals tell The New York Times that in New York City, persons seeking treatment face a six-month waiting list. Similar situations exist in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detriot and across the nation. Federal Judge Robert Sweet, in calling for the controlled legalization, urges that the $9 billion Bush and Congress allocated for the drug wars be used instead for treatment and rehabilitation. Sweet also calls for taxing drug sales to finance treatment programs.

The reformist critique presents a more socially conscious appraisal of the nature of the problem than either the War on Drugs or its free market critics. But by remaining squarely within the liberal "good government" tradition, the reformers remain blind to the insights provided by a fundamental, radical analysis of American society.

Legalization: a radical agenda

The growing public furor over drug policy opens new political space for radical critics. This radical dissent must be firmly grounded in an overarching critique of late capitalist American society - the larger context of the War on Drugs. This critique has at its base a vision of a society founded on economic as well as formal political democracy, but it must also take into account the anti-authoritarian impluse deeply ingrained in our society.

Get Stoned! This method can't fail!

Within such a critique, and given the authoritarian political project embodied in the War on Drugs, legalization of the use and traffic in illegal drugs becomes not only thinkable, but also desirable as the most progressive means of addressing the problem, and as a method of unmasking the attempt by the late capitalist state to increase its sphere of domination and hegemony. Bush and Bennett are pushing a project of class domination, racial division, and U.S. militarism.

Further, we must note the difference between recreational drug use and self-destructive drug abuse. No one advocates a nation of junkies; what is is needed is an informed - not propogandized - population that understands both the pleasures and the dangers of various intoxicants. The radical position must therefore support drug education, treatment programs and rehabilitation.

But beyond promoting an enlightened, and responsible attitude toward drugs, radicals must challenge the Bush-Bennett drug hysteria on the following grounds:

  1. The anti-drug frenzy serves the interest of reactionaries by obscuring the underlying conditions - based on the economic-political structure - which impoverish our cities and their residents. As long as the focus is exclusively on "Crack Street," no one asks why drug abuse is such an attractive alternative to the straight life.

  • The War on Drugs is racist, both in its genealogy and in its willingness to sacrifice black and brown communities. Historically, drug laws served as instruments for oppressing minorities, from the anti-Chinese opium smoking ban in California, to the hysterical racist propagand accompanying the criminalization campaigns of the 1910s and 1930s. Government officials plied an acquiescent mass media with vile propganda of the "dope-crazed niggers are raping our white women" variety - the lineal predecessor of the Bush campaign's Willie Horton ads.
  • The War on Drugs is a cover for U.S. adventurism and intervention abroad. As Scott Henson pointed out in the October Polemicist, the drug war takes the place of anti-communism and the struggle against terrorism as a means of drumming up support for international adventures. The invasion of Panama is a recent, glaring example of this, but by no means the only example.

    U.S. troops are training the Colombian, Peruvian and Bolivian armed forces for ostensible drug interdiction purposes, but all of these countries face internal opposition - serious guerrilla movements in Peru and Colombia - which is opposed by the United States. The War on Drugs obscures very real imperialists motives for American intervention on behalf of reactionary civilian and military regimes in Latin America.

  • The War on Drugs is a means of class domination and threatens the rights of American workers. Twenty-two million Americans have now had to undergo demeaning urine tests, according to SmithKlineBeecham, one of the booming drug testing concerns. Drug testing of workers must be viewed as part of a full-fledged onslaught on the American labor movement, and as an attempt to extend employer control over the private, off-duty lives of workers.

    And, in a sad irony, drug tests do not measure impairment or intoxication, merely the presence of chemical substances. Thus, workers are fired or disciplined for off-duty acts that bear no relation to their ability to do their jobs. Nor do most tests include alcohol, the most commonly abused drug in the country.

    The class aspect of drug law enforcement is also evident in its emphasis on poor minority communities and its lack of interest in going after bankers, realtors and other "respectable members of the community."

    Drug Czar Bennett chooses to ignore white middle- and upper-class entrepreneurs in favor of flooding our inner cities with more armed men. He ignores massive increases in cash entering the banking system in Miami or Los Angeles; instead, he crows over evicting poor black families from public housing in Washington, D.C.

  • The War on Drugs brings the police-state ever closer. Under the cover of waging war on drugs, Bennett serves as pointperson for a concerned assault on American civil and constitutional liberties. Property seizures, mandatory drug tests, increasing numbers of police, use of the armed forces for law enforcement, tighter scrutiny of financial records, searches of students, the encouragement of the informer culture, attacks on the Fourth Amendment, the seizure of subscriber and/or customer lists from legitimate businesses and the harassment of criminal defense lawyers - the list of encroachments by the repressive apparatus of the state goes on and on.

    The drug warriors wage a never-ending propaganda campaign designed to persuade the public to voluntarily give up its right to privacy. Bennett also attempts to intimidate this crusade's opponents by portraying them as "traitors" or "morally bankrupt." Actually, it is Bush, Bennett and their bullet-head buddies who betray traditional American freedoms by attempting to curtail our rights in the name of their holy crusade. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: "Those who surrender their liberty to preserve their security deserve neither."

  • These notes on a radical politics of legalization are necessarily telegraphic; much ground has been covered in a sketchy fashion. This piece should be viewed as a contribution to the emerging debate on drug policy, and it is hoped that it will stimulate further discussion and criticism within the left and radical communities.