Gwynne Dyer: U.S. will not end its "War on Drugs" until a different generation comes to power
It’s too early to say that there is a general revolt against the “war on drugs” that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening. European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalising personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimize harm to their own people, but it’s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.
Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The United States can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic U.S. policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.
In mid-August, the Mexican government declared that it will no longer be a punishable offence to possess up to half a gram of cocaine (about four lines), five grams of marijuana (around four joints), 50 mg of heroin or 40 mg of methamphetamine.
At the end of August, Argentina’s supreme court did something even bolder: it ruled that, under the Argentine constitution, “Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state,” and dismissed a case against youths who had been arrested for possessing a few joints.
In an ideal world, this ruling would have a powerful resonance in the United States, whose constitution also restricts the right of the federal government to meddle in citizens’ private affairs. It took a constitutional amendment to enable the U.S. Congress to prohibit alcohol in 1919 (and another amendment to end Prohibition in 1933), so who gave Congress the right to criminalize other recreational drugs nationwide by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970? Nobody—and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue.
A million Americans a year go to jail for “crimes” that hurt nobody but themselves. A vast criminal empire has grown up to service the American demand for drugs. Over the decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the turf wars between the gangs, the police-dealer shoot-outs, and the daily thousands of muggings and burglaries committed by addicts trying to raise money to pay the hugely inflated prices that prohibition makes possible.
Most users of illegal drugs are not addicts, let alone dangerous criminals. Legalization and regulation, on the pattern of alcohol and tobacco, would avoid thousands of violent deaths each month and millions of needlessly ruined lives each year, although psychoactive drug use would still take its toll from the vulnerable and the unlucky, just as alcohol and tobacco do.
But there is little chance that American voters will choose to end this longest of all American wars any time soon, even though its casualties far exceed those on any other American war since 1945. The “War on Drugs” will not end in the United States until a very different generation comes to power.
Elsewhere, however, it is coming to an end much sooner, and one can imagine a time when the job of the history books will be to explain how this berserk aberration ever came about. A large part of the explanation will then focus on the man who started the war, Richard Nixon—so let us get ahead of the mob and focus on him now.
We can do that because of the famous Nixon tapes that recorded almost every word of his presidency. It turns out that he started the war on drugs because he believed that they were a Jewish plot. We know this because researcher Doug McVay from Common Sense on Drug Policy, a Washington-based NGO, went through the last batch of tapes when they became available in 2002 and found Nixon speaking to his aides as follows:
"You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists."
Nixon had much more to say about this, but one should not conclude that he was a single-minded anti-Semite. He was an equal-opportunity paranoid who believed that homosexuals, Communists, and Catholics were also plotting to undermine America by pushing drugs at it.
"Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags....You know what happened to the popes? It's all right that popes were laying the nuns, that's been going on for years, centuries. But when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell in, I don't know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual....
"Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no....You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They're trying to destroy us."
The reason for this 39-year war, in other words, is that President Richard Nixon believed that he was facing a “Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope” conspiracy, as Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten put it in a gloriously deadpan article in 2002. But that is just plain wrong. As subsequent developments have shown, it is actually a Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope-Latino conspiracy.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.