The “War on Drugs” – the ultimate monument to capitalist corruption

Ever since the presidency of Richard Nixon – almost 50 years ago – the world has been in thrall to what is known as the “war on drugs”. Participation in this campaign, although not required by any UN resolution, has been widely regarded as mandatory for all nations, a view encouraged by successive US administrations, although their own policy measures have been primarily targeted – ostensibly at least – at the reduction of drugs use within the United States. By 2019, however, it is increasingly conceded – in both official and unofficial circles in the US and throughout most of the rest of the world – that the “war” has been lost and that the undoubted scourge of addiction to narcotic drugs must be addressed by other means – i.e. abandoning reliance on criminalisation.

The essential feature of the war on drugs is the criminalisation of possession, which obviously by extension puts any form of trade in illegal substances outside the law. For most of the time the policy of criminalisation has been in force the substances targeted have been largely confined to those three – cannabis {marijuana), heroin and cocaine – that constitute the bulk of the illegal trade. However in recent years there has been a proliferation of newly formulated substances on the market offering new experiences to users – in addition to more harmful derivatives of the existing drugs such as crack cocaine and skunk (a stronger form of cannabis) – and at the same time intended to escape classification as an existing designated substance. This obviously makes enforcement of the law increasingly difficult.

At the same time supply of illicitly produced opium-based painkillers (opioids), which are highly addictive but legally available on prescription, has mushroomed, particularly in the United States, where they have accounted for as many as 50,000 deaths a year through overdose.

The effect of prohibition

The result of criminalising possession for any purpose, it is well understood, is effectively to introduce a degree of scarcity into the market – and consequent price inflation – which otherwise would not exist, bearing in mind the evident need felt in any society to consume narcotic (addictive) substances of one kind or another. If there were any doubt about this the experience of the United States with the prohibition of alcohol (the Volstead Act) from 1919 until it was repealed in 1933 should provide a good illustration of what to expect.

During this period the absence of legal sources of supply was sufficient by itself to push up the market price, which in turn attracted the interest of those criminal elements willing and able to meet the illegal demand. At the same time the illegality of the business also made it inevitable that criminal gangs would become involved, particularly in order to limit territorial disputes between suppliers and to assure protection from the law – through corruption of law enforcement authorities.

A re-enactment of this process in the drugs market has created an explosion of crime, resulting in a situation where a huge number of prisoners in gaols all over the world – almost certainly the majority – are being held, at enormous public expense, for drugs-related offences. At the same time many other crimes are associated with the compulsion to obtain drugs to satisfy addiction:

  1. A notorious instance of this in Britain was the case of the so-called Suffolk Strangler, who in 2006 murdered five women in the vicinity of the city of Ipswich, all of whom had resorted to prostitution in order to finance feeding their addiction.

  2. A more serious symptom of drug-related crime is the epidemic of lethal knife crime and trafficking of juveniles entrapped into “county lines” drug gangs that has been ongoing in Britain for the last several years;

  3. In Mexico, where the war is far more a reality in what is still a relatively poor country – next door to the United States, the main market for drugs – the number of drug-related murders perpetrated by organised crime since 2007 is put at over 100,000 (according to Wikipedia).

Such are merely the extreme manifestations of the immeasurably huge social costs of the “war”, not to mention the vast but scarcely quantifiable costs to the public purse. Given the scale of the problem, it is surely a matter for the utmost astonishment that there is so little public concern or political questioning over the performance of governments in dealing with the issues raised.

Signs of surrender

The utter futility of continuing this “war” – as well as its extreme danger to society – has at last begun to be recognised across the world. This is indicated by the fact that as many as 30 countries have now either decriminalised the possession of cannabis or signalled their intention to do so. Among these is Malaysia, a country where most of the 70,000 prisoners in the country’s gaols have been convicted of drug-related offences and as many as 10 per cent of the national population have been estimated to be addicts. This despite the fact that, as in other South East Asian countries, the death penalty for drug dealing has remained theoretically in force until very recently (though seldom applied).

In Europe, meanwhile, it is notable that since the turn of the century Portugal has effectively decriminalised the possession, but not the supply, of all drugs, thereby enabling the encouragement of addicts to apply for treatment without fear of prosecution, as is the case for alcoholics elsewhere. The result is that Portugal has gone from having the highest incidence of heroin addiction in Europe to the lowest. At the same time Scotland – a nation made notorious as a hotspot of heroin addiction by the movie “Train-spotting”, and where prohibition is still in force – has now taken Portugal’s place at the bottom of the heroin addiction league table.

In the United States, remarkably, there is manifest division between the Federal government (including both houses of Congress), which remains staunchly opposed to any relaxation of prohibition, and a rapidly growing number of individual states – led by Colorado and including California – which are moving swiftly towards decriminalisation (at least of cannabis). Interestingly, it appears that the latter tendency is driven not least by the realisation among states on the brink of fiscal bankruptcy (probably the majority of them) that it would be possible to raise substantial tax revenues from duties levied on legal drug sales – as, of course, is already done in the case of alcohol and tobacco.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, in 2015 the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a briefing paper “Rethinking the War on Drugs” which clearly favoured decriminalisation, though this has evidently been downplayed by the mainstream media and most governments.

Given these developments and the unanswerable arguments against continuing to criminalise drugs, what obviously cries out for explanation is why there has not been a more general move towards decriminalisation and why so many leading supporters of the “war” – notably including the British government – refuse even to discuss the matter, beyond repeating incontestable but irrelevant arguments about the potential harm caused by drug abuse.

A hidden agenda?

In seeking an answer to this conundrum it is obviously appropriate to consider which powerful sections of global society have a particular interest in perpetuating the status quo (cui bono?) – especially bearing in mind the huge costs, budgetary and otherwise, that continue to burden already bankrupt states across the globe. Since governments are the ones who are still resisting demands to end prohibition it is reasonable to ask who in government or close to it are benefiting from maintaining the status quo. The obvious answer is that it must be a group or groups who gain from keeping drug prices high.

Since the most obvious beneficiaries from continuing drug prohibition are those with links to organised crime this would seem to point inexorably to the conclusion that such criminal elements have effectively infiltrated the highest levels of government all over the world. Equally, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this malign influence permeates the entire global establishment, given that the mainstream media appear uniformly reluctant to raise such obvious questions.

However, it is perhaps not necessary to conclude that such shadowy interest groups are personally direct beneficiaries of the criminal drugs trade. Rather, they may perhaps have been persuaded that the number of those in high positions in government and the corporate sector across the world who are substantially dependent for their livelihood on the continuing high market value of hitherto illegal drugs – and would stand to lose much personally from their general devaluation – is so large that any general moves in such a direction could prove both economically and politically destabilising on a large scale. Given such a presumption it follows there may be a perceived collective establishment vested interest in maintaining the status quo, however unsatisfactory that may be for the wider public interest. While such a hypothesis may seem far-fetched, it needs to be borne in mind that the vast majority of countries in the developing world probably fall into the above category, including most if not all of the former Soviet bloc states (some now members of the EU).

Furthermore, the ramifications of the drugs business are so vast that many ostensibly respectable sectors of activity which themselves have no direct links to organised crime may nevertheless see themselves as having an interest in perpetuating the war on drugs. Aside from the obvious example of operators of private prisons (notably in the United States) by far the most substantial interest group in this category is undoubtedly the global financial sector. This is because the major banking institutions have evidently come to depend for a large but unquantifiable part of their business on flows of laundered money from illicit sources.

While a small number of banks – notably Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo – have been identified as conspicuous money launderers, remarkably it appears that there is scarcely a single major global bank that has not been found guilty of it. It is striking, however, that – as with fraud and other contemporary forms of financial crime – instances involving such large institutions are generally only punished by large fines, almost never by prison sentences, so that the individual perpetrators escape sanction while the only pain is that felt by shareholders (although that is typically small enough to be accepted as a cost of doing business and hence hardly much of a deterrent). Equally, there are many non-bank corporations – such as Chelsea FC and other sports clubs – who have become dependent on the ability to finance themselves with laundered money.

Whatever the real balance of forces in this inevitably murky world, it is clear that, to the extent that the continued stability of the global economy depends on such criminal relationships its future prospects are exceedingly fragile. In particular, it is well known that the financial sector, to the extent that it recovered at all from the crash of 2008, is still hugely in debt and teetering on the brink of mass insolvency, while at the same time continuing stagnation in the wider economy means the scope for banks to write profitable new loan business is restricted, while speculative investment is ever more risky. Hence the temptation to engage in dubious or downright illegal activities such as money laundering.

As readers of this blog may be aware, one of its consistent themes over the years has been the growing incidence of the application of double standards and institutionalised hypocrisy at the highest level of both government and corporate life throughout the world. A parallel theme has been the failure of the capitalist profits system to overcome its chronic inability to restore its stability based on a pattern of sustained, if cyclical, economic growth and matching demand for investment capital.

This fundamental flaw in the system was first identified by the author over 20 years ago in his book The Trouble with Capitalism. Sadly, despite continuing catastrophic contradictions and crimes such as those identified in this blogpost there is still little, if any, willingness to recognise this reality on the part of those who should by now know better.

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