Next month, UN members will take part in the biggest discussion of drugs policy this century. So the revelation last week that Richard Nixon's war on drugs was supposedly a political tool crafted to clamp down on "the anti-war left and black people" is a timely one.
It's the kind of villainous plan you'd find in a pulp novel: a weapon of oppression, candy-coated as a mission to save the world's children from the evil of narcotics. It's not too far-fetched, as far as conspiracy theories go, because as the Watergate scandal proved, Nixon did have a soft spot for KGB-style politics (and, as multiple recordings proved, he was a big old racist.)
However, Nixon didn't invent the racist war on drugs. Many of America's early drug laws were specifically aimed at immigrants, a class of people—it was alleged by those in charge of the fledgling war on drugs—more prone to drug abuse than white people.
Harry J. Anslinger, head of the US Narcotics Bureau during the 1930s, said at the time: "There are one hundred thousand total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers, and any others."
You get the impression this guy felt he was missing out a little.
It's accepted that the war on drugs in America has disproportionally targeted black people, who are searched, arrested, convicted, and jailed—mainly for possession—at far higher rates than their white counterparts. The same can be said in the UK, where black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
Oppression isn't just defined along racial lines, though. In the war on drugs—as we know from the case of the Rausings, the superrich couple with a $14 million Chelsea mansion who were let off with a police caution after being caught with a large stash of heroin, crack, and powder cocaine—the poor are also victimized by the drug laws. Research by the LSE found those in the highest socio-economic class—people like bankers, doctors, and lawyers—are three times more likely to be let off with a caution for drug offenses than the unemployed.
If you are a lowly drug user in Britain, you are fair game. A former undercover cop who disguised himself as a crack addict in order to gain access to top end dealers told me: "It made me realize how bad cops can be to drug addicts. I was abused, assaulted, and threatened with being fitted up by having drugs planted on me on a regular basis."
In Russia, home to the highest number of injecting drug users in the world, trumped up drug offenses are used by police as an excuse to beat, torture, and rape vulnerable drug users and sex workers.
In Thailand in 2003, thousands of "undesirables" (mainly the homeless, orphans, drug addicts, and petty dealers) were rounded up and locked in rehab centers or prisons up as part of a national war on drugs by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who later had a spell as owner of Manchester City football club. During the purge, there were 2,800 extrajudicial killings, although half the victims had no connection to drugs.
In Iran, the war on drugs is used as a way to quietly bump off enemies of the state or helpless Afghani refugees by planting drugs on them and then hanging them. Research by human rights charity Reprieve found evidence in Iran—whose drug police are part funded by the UN—that "drug charges may be used as a pretext for persecuting and executing political dissidents." It said exiles and human rights monitors allege that "many persons supposedly executed for criminal offenses, such as narcotics trafficking, were political dissidents." In the first half of 2015, according to a report by drug charity Harm Reduction International, there were an estimated 570 executions in Iran, of which 394 people (69 percent) were allegedly drug offenders. After anti-government protests in 2009 and 2010, execution doubled, with most killed under the banner of being drug criminals.
"The global drug enforcement system is disproportionately penalizing vulnerable and marginalized people," says Dan Dolan from Reprieve, which assists those facing the death penalty. "These people are never the drug barons or kingpins governments claim to be targeting. In most cases, they are low-level drug carriers or mules, selected for their expendability. In almost all cases, they suffer from intellectual disability, addiction, or severe economic disadvantage."
Considering the systematic failings of the war on the drugs, it's no surprise that some politicians feel they have become contaminated and need to confess their guilt, or their newfound opposition to it. There's been a steady stream of senior politicians who have admitted, after leaving office, that the drug laws they helped put into action are, on a human level, a disgrace.
Despite spending three years as Britain's senior minister in charge of drug policy between 2001 and 2003, the former Labour MP Bob Ainsworth surprised everyone in 2010 when, as a back bencher, he declared that the war on drugs was a failure and that we needed to legalize drugs instead. Labour officials quickly branded his comments "extremely irresponsible." When asked why he did not speak up when he was in a position of power, Ainsworth said: "As you can see from the reaction this morning, if I was now a shadow minister, [then leader] Ed Miliband would be asking me to resign."
Once a politician drifts away from the seat of power towards the back benches, the symptoms of this strange form of drugs omertà—where senior ministers are banned from speaking out—appear to dissipate.
Mo Mowlam, a former Labour cabinet minister responsible for drugs policy, called for total global legalization in 2002. Labour Cabinet ministers Clare Short, Tony Banks, and Roy Jenkins turned. As did former Tory Cabinet ministers Michael Portillo, Alan Duncan, Ken Baker, Nigel Lawson, and Peter Lilley, who said: "The young, the ethnic minorities who come into contact with these laws, who know they are ridiculous, would look at us in a different light if we had the realism to do so."
Some, like David Cameron, have to rein in previously held liberal views when they gain power. However, former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, during his time as deputy prime minister in the last government, was able to speak out. So I asked Clegg—who has written a chapter, alongside Sir Richard Branson, calling for wholesale reform in a new book called Ending the War on Drugs—why most politicians in government feel they are unable to talk honestly about drug policy. "The basic dynamic is fear—of the tabloids, mainly," he said. "But I would say a bigger problem now is not fear, but complacency—ministers tend to feel there's no pressing need to change things."
Unsurprisingly, the most fervent anti-drug war campaigners on the global stage are former senior politicians from countries that have been ruined under prohibition, such as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has called for the legalization of drugs to end violence and corruption.
Sorry if I'm shattering any illusions here, but the global war on drugs has never really been a massive laser gun fight between Team America–style heroes and an army of evil-eyed, hairy monsters called Cocaine, Cannabis, and Heroin. The language of public discourse is that drugs are given beast-like qualities: They take over entire villages, creep into schools, and enslave the vulnerable. Their powers of persuasion are legendary, a living, breathing scourge.
Back in the real world, the war on drugs is—as those who have been beaten, jailed, oppressed, and executed as a result—a war on people. The decision makers at the UN's global drug policy discussion in New York next month would do well to have a little think about that before they—like the vast majority of the UK's politicians—agree that the status quo is a reasonable place to be.
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