Another hard-to-end war that has been waged for 40 years is the war on drugs. Begun by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, it was a war forced on the rest of the world. For all its moral overtones, researchers connect it to a similar thrust for economic growth and what is called the Prison Industrial Complex.
Like the Military Industrial Complex, the war on drugs stimulates economic growth through increases in prison populations and the need for larger jails, staff, technology and the like, which in recent times has been taken up by the private sector.
Then there is the massive military and law-enforcement aid provided by the US for foreign governments like our own, as well as the emergence of whole new industries such as drug testing and drug rehabilitation.
In this sense, the drug war generates billions for government agencies and employs millions. Capitalists love the war, as the laundering of billions of US dollars through first-world banks indicates. For example, between 2004 and 2007, one of America’s largest banks, Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo, laundered US$378 billion of Mexican drug money. That is just one bank.
Opinions about the war on drugs cover the whole spectrum, from members of the business community like our own Chamber of Industry and Commerce who herald the need to keep fighting the war to advocates for social change who point out the war on drugs is a form of imperialism directed mostly against non-white populations and involving massive neo-colonial military intervention.
That overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates there is a hierarchy of drugs, with some having far more serious side effects than others (marijuana vs cocaine for example) is ignored for the production of a fear that all drugs are evil.
For anthropologists, this view conflicts with widespread evidence that across time, nearly all societies and communities have widespread cultures of intoxication, involving substances prohibited only in the 20th century. When you think about it, that isn’t that surprising. Modern living is drowning in legal drugs.
Coffee, cigarettes, sleeping tablets, steroids, and alcohol are a few examples of the drugs people take to get through the day. The war on drugs is also discriminatory across class and race. Countless US government studies show young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks or Latinos.
Yet, throughout the US, young blacks and Latinos get arrested and jailed for marijuana possession at much higher rates. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites.
The situation in T&T is not much different, with members of all our different groups, including our elites and upper classes, using drugs but the criminal penalties falling disproportionately on our low-income group members. Yes, “nice” people take drugs too. They just don’t suffer the same social and criminal penalties.
With marijuana legalisation initiatives passing in Colorado and Washington during the US election, the situation has now gone full circle. Citizens (mostly “nice” white ones) of the number-one investor in the war on drugs have voted to legalise drugs (in this case marijuana).
Yet those states are not the first to suggest social change is needed in how society handles the question of drug use. In the context of marijuana, Holland has long had a policy of decriminalisation. Portugal adopted one recently. And Uruguay has also recently decriminalised.
Meanwhile, the UN Global Commission on Drug Policy publicly came out in favour of ending the war on drugs by decriminalising the use of illegal substances. In December 2011 a majority of Latin America’s leaders meeting in Caracas also called for decriminalisation.
In the Caribbean, Jamaica pushed to decriminalise marijuana following the 2000-2001 National Commission on Ganja chaired by the late anthropologist Barry Chevannes. The commission’s recommendation was a change in national law. Yet under economic threat to cuts in aid from the US Government, the Jamaican Government was forced back from what the majority wanted and what Dr Chevannes showed was essentially a local cultural practice.
Clearly, overwhelming scientific evidence refutes what political leaders and the media say about the evils of marijuana. And while there may not be a solid case for the legalisation of all drugs, there is certainly one for marijuana. Not least because wars without end hurt more people than they save.