In 1936, a church group commissioned a film “to strike fear in the hearts of young people tempted to smoke marijuana.” But it was not until the 1970s that Reefer Madness — billed as “the original classic that was not afraid to make up the truth” due to its grotesque portrayal of the supposed dangers of marijuana — obtained cult status.
After the scare tactics of the 1930s, U.S. marijuana policy varied depending on the political climate, even as scientific research consistently debunked extreme claims that the plant caused uncontrollable violent behavior, physical addiction, and insanity.
Then on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon launched his signature “war on drugs.” The new crackdown on illegal drug use shifted the issue from a local health and public safety problem to a series of federal agencies under the direct control of the president. President Ronald Reagan later doubled down on the drug war, ushering in an age of mass incarceration.
Like the film before it, the drug war model not only criminalized but also demonized illegal drug dealing and use — and the individuals involved — in moralistic and military terms. In many states, selling marijuana carried longer sentences than murder. Although the abuse of legal drugs now kills more people than illegal drugs, the architects of the drug war continues to promote the view that it is some inherent evil of the substance, rather than the way individuals and groups use it, that determines whether a drug is a threat to society or an accepted social custom.
The Drug Policy Alliance has revealed that U.S. authorities arrest some 800,000 people a year for marijuana use. Two-thirds of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses are black or Hispanic, even though consumption rates for whites are equal. Largely because of drug laws and draconian enforcement, the United States has become the world champion in imprisoning its own people, often destroying the hopes and futures of its youth. The United States spends more than $51 billion a year on the domestic war on drugs alone.
Exporting the War
The export version of the drug war has an even darker side. It makes the implicit racism of the domestic war overt. Foreign drug lords are stereotypically portrayed as the root of an evil enterprise that, in fact, takes place mostly in the United States, where street sales generate the multibillion-dollar profits of the business. Under the guise of the drug war, the U.S. government has sponsored military responses in other countries that the Constitution prohibits domestically — for good reasons.
Attention is diverted from the social roots of drug abuse and addiction at home to a foreign threat to the American way of life — a way of life that, regardless of one’s moral beliefs, has always been characterized by the widespread use of mind-altering drugs. The false war model of good vs. evil, ally vs. enemy precludes many community-based solutions that have proven to be far more effective. U.S. taxpayers pay billions of dollars to fumigate foreign lands, pursue drug traffickers, and patrol borders as well as land and sea routes to intercept shipments.
None of this has worked. More than a decade and $8 billion into Plan Colombia, that Andean nation is the number-one cocaine producer in the world. Mexico has exploded into violence as the arrests and killings of cartel leaders spark turf battles that bathe whole regions in blood.
Last month, 52 people lost their lives in an attack on a casino in Monterrey, Mexico. The news shocked Mexico since it represents yet another escalation of violence, but it’s become almost routine alongside daily drug-war deaths. For U.S. citizens, it was further proof that Mexico is under an assault by organized crime.
According to some Mexican researchers, the sudden rise in violence in Mexico correlates directly to when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown in the war on drugs by sending troops and federal police into the streets in 2006. Meanwhile, Mexican citizens have also taken to the streets to proclaim the war on drugs directly responsible for the growing bloodshed in their country and demand a change in strategy. Calderon has refused to consider alternative models.
Obama’s Drug-War Failure
This year the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report that concludes that “Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.”
Instead, the Obama administration has added fist and firepower to the drug wars. Ignoring 40 years of policy failure, Obama has broken campaign promises to seek a more humane and effective drug policy. His administration has failed to support international harm reduction models, reversed a decision not to go after state medical marijuana regimes voted by popular referendums, reaffirmed marijuana’s classification as a schedule 1 controlled substance with no medical value, and expanded drug wars in Mexico and Central America.
The government reprehensibly continues to expand the failed drug war in the face of the budget crisis and drastic cutbacks in schools, healthcare, and basic social programs. A good example is the multimillion-dollar boondoggle called the “Merida Initiative.” Under this ill-conceived regional security cooperation measure, the United States sends intelligence and defense equipment and provides military and police training for Mexico and, to a lesser degree, Central American countries. This drug-war strategy has increased violence in Mexico and led to a severe deterioration in public safety, rule of law, and human rights. The resources go to Mexican security forces notorious for corruption and even complicity with organized crime.
The results of the drug war in Mexico have been nothing short of catastrophic. Since it began, nearly 50,000 Mexicans have lost their lives in drug-war-related violence. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes, children have been orphaned and traumatized, men, and thousands have been kidnapped and still missing.
The attacks on cartels — including the killing or capture of leaders — spark turf wars that rage throughout Mexico, with the worst concentrated along the northern border. In response, some cartels have reorganized, with splinter groups frequently employing far more violent tactics than their parent organizations. Military operations have pushed the violence around the country in what experts call a “whack-a-mole” strategy that shows no signs of letting up.
The invented threat of reefer madness has been replaced with the real disaster of drug war madness —government perseverance with lethal and ineffective policies. The drug war, with its exaggerated claims and mistaken focus on confronting drug trafficking with police and military force, has cost the United States and its targeted suppliers like Colombia and Mexico millions of dollars and thousands of lives.
In Mexico, a peace movement has arisen against the drug war. It has opened up dialogue with the government but been met with an absolute refusal to consider other options. In the United States, drug-policy reform turns up at the top of lists of issues for town-hall discussions, but politicians dismiss the issue because it’s taboo or too risky for their political aspirations.
Policymakers must come to their senses regarding the madness of the drug-war strategy. If they don’t voluntarily propose reforms, then citizens will have to force them to do so.