5.2 The Real Reasons for the Selective Criminalization of Drugs
According to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, (21 USC 321) drugs are “articles recognized in the official United States Pharmacopeia, official Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States, or official Natural Formulary…and articles intended for the use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease in man or other animals and articles other than food intended to affect the structure of any function of the body of man or other animals.” While tobacco and alcohol are drugs too, they are not recognized as medicine and they are not even considered drugs in this piece of legislation.
There is also an odd distinction made between drugs and food (and beverages), not just in this Act but in most cultures worldwide. Most people believe foods are somehow distinct from drugs, but most drugs can be absorbed by the digestive tract, meaning they can be eaten or consumed in liquid form. Raw opium, psychedelic mushrooms, marijuana extracts, and many other drugs that grow naturally can be eaten. Many products that are officially recognized as foods or beverages can have equally profound neurochemical impacts on the brain as so-called “drugs.” Bovine milk and its products like cheese, for example, contain casein, which breaks down into casomorphin, an opioid peptide, once ingested. (Aged, expensive cheese usually contains more casein than regular cheese.)
Certain sugars and chocolate also can have significant neurochemical effects. Chocolate increases neurotransmission of serotonin. Theobromine, the alkaloid of the cacao plant found in chocolate is a phosphodiesterase inhibitor. It is also made naturally by the body when caffeine is consumed. Caffeine, another drug/beverage, is a white crystalline alkaloid in its pure form and a psychomotor stimulant (like cocaine) that acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Caffeine increases neurotransmission of acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, glutamate and other neurotransmitters. Chocolate and caffeine both have medical uses and effects on health. Of course, alcohol is another beverage with significant neurochemical effects. It affects GABA, serotonin, nicotinic acetylcholine, and glycine receptors. It also inhibits NMDA and other channels. Exercise also releases natural endogenous opiates. Does this mean we should outlaw cheese, caffeine (this has been done), physical exercise or the very chemicals naturally in our bodies? Of course, we shouldn’t. (Everyone would have to go to prison.) The distinction made between legal and illegal substances is not a rational or consistent one, but one forced on us.
More than one billion people on Earth smoke tobacco or nearly 1 in 6 people, and about five million people died from tobacco-related illness in 2010, which is about the same number of people who died in the Second Congo War. Almost two million more died from alcohol in 2011. Tobacco is the cause of 1 in 10 adult deaths, and it is the single most preventable cause of death according to the World Health Organization, yet every illicit drug combined only kills about 200,000 people per year. This disparity in the death tolls is not caused by the legal status of either drug or even by differences in their potential to cause physical harm. The real reason legal drugs kill far more people is because they are aggressively marketed and people are misinformed about their health effects by greedy corporations and politicians who will talk endlessly about the dangers of marijuana, a drug that no one has ever died from (because it is impossible to do so) and not say a word about alcohol or tobacco because they generate tax revenue.
Anti-drug crusaders believe that if illicit drugs were made legal they would kill just as many people as licit drugs but this is a fallacy. They would only kill as many people if corporations sold these drugs in the same ways that they do liquor and cigarettes and politicians supported them with subsidies, as they do with tobacco and alcohol companies.
Anti-drug powers fundamentally misunderstand why people use and abuse drugs, and there is a difference. People know they shouldn’t regularly consume something that could eventually kill them. The only reason they do is because they either do not know how dangerous it is or they are in pain and they don’t care about their health. We don’t need a law about meth addiction anymore than we do a law about drinking bleach. We do not declare war on cleaning products just because some are potentially dangerous. People who very much need a coping mechanism abuse drugs, both licit and illicit, and the only reason licit ones are more often abused is because they are widely regarded as safer and more socially acceptable. But making certain substances illegal doesn’t prevent people who do not care about their health from using them.
There is no reason anyone should be incarcerated purely because of an addiction. Alcohol and tobacco addiction are treated as public health concerns, not criminal problems, (even though alcohol consumption significantly increases crime rates as well,) and all drugs should be treated as public health concerns. Free information ought to be available about every drug, their effects, and their potential consequences as well.
Just as drug laws don’t prevent people from using them, they also do not prevent their sale. The threat of jail time means nothing to a hardened drug dealer living in a slum with no other clear opportunities. Good education is costly and a necessity to get a good job, so poor drug dealers can either risk their freedom and lives and make good money or work at retail chains for minimum wage. Those are the two most available, evident options in many poor regions across the world. They are not offered the abundance of lucrative and satisfying opportunities that those with money are afforded. Selling drugs is hardly the “easy way out” because of the risks involved. I don’t believe it is fair to judge them so harshly when they are faced with such grim options. It is hard to say with complete certainty that you would choose the legal route if put in that position if you have not been put in that position.
Crime is not deterred by threatening or punishing people in pain. It is deterred by showing compassion and reducing the will to commit crimes by improving people’s lives, and we need to take the crime out of the drug trade in order for there to be less violence and addiction. In order to reduce illicit and licit drug abuse people need to be better informed about drugs, their effects and their differences, and they need to be given a reason not to want to destroy themselves by improving their wellbeing. Not all drugs are the same, and the cause of most of the deaths is the widespread misperceptions about licit and illicit drugs. If alcohol and tobacco remained legal, but were never advertised or glorified, casual usage and addiction would decline. But when people imagine the legalization of drugs they picture billboards for heroin and TV ads for methamphetamine and certainly no one would advocate that, (except for current drug kingpins perhaps).
Police efforts to reduce drugs do sometimes reduce their availability in some regions, but it is impossible to completely eradicate something that there is global demand for. It is fairly easy to get any illicit drug right now wherever you live, unless you are reading this in the mountains of Siberia. They are almost as available, (and in many inner-cities they are more available) than tobacco or alcohol. (Tobacco is usually slightly more available and cheaper than illicit substances in some places, however.) The major difference is there isn’t much of a stigma attached to liquor or tobacco and they are widely regarded as safer than illicit substances because they are advertised and glorified while illicit substances are demonized (by some of the very same alliances of corporations in many cases).
A person can enter a liquor store without shame, but because illicit drugs have been forced underground obtaining them has become somewhat of a more degrading, dangerous process. The cleanest and nicest bars usually are best at preventing excessive drinking and the same would apply to facilities that could offer drugs. If they were social, supportive environments instead of poor street corners, we would see less usage. We could make safe, clean environments that offer drugs but that discourage users (and addicts especially) from buying them and offer guidance and treatment when necessary. This would be far more progressive than any current drug policy.
Reducing drug availability through police eradication is often counterproductive. When a government agency makes a large bust in an area that already has a high population of addicts, this is generally detrimental to the addicts and society as a whole because the demand and price for the drugs seized increases, which causes addicts to be more prone to committing crimes. The worst way to get sober is by discontinuing use abruptly because the withdrawal can be extremely painful and even fatal with drugs like heroin and alcohol. Rehabilitation is often most successful with the support of friends and family, support groups, counselors, and medication.
Illicit drugs could become legal but remain taboo, and usage would stay the same or decline as a result if done in conjunction with efforts to reduce people’s will to abuse addictive drugs. Medicine and drugs are public health concerns, not products to be profited from. Both should be free for those who cannot afford them.
Many people believe that those who support the legalization of drugs are in favor of drug use. But the opposite can be true. One can be staunchly against drugs and support their legalization because if drugs are legalized and distributed in responsible ways this would prevent drug abuse, addiction and crime from spreading.
Alcohol and tobacco have different effects on people’s lifestyles than illicit drugs do, and it is actually the only reason they are legal. Tobacco and alcohol have been legal almost worldwide throughout history because the rich, powerful people who have criminalized certain drugs preferred tobacco and alcohol over other drugs for three reasons: these drugs have predictable effects; they don’t usually don’t affect your ability to work or fight, and they transcend all class levels. Rich governments need their constituents predictable to keep them working and fighting or else they would cease to be powerful nations.
Alcohol and tobacco are used by both the rich and the poor. But the more debilitating drugs that people use mostly to escape their lives can prevent users from being productive in the traditional sense or from being violent, so they often become associated with the poor. The rich need to keep their intellect in order to keep their wealth and stay in power. They usually have no reason to want to escape their lives because they generally have easier, more enjoyable lives than poor people, and they need to keep the masses violent and fractionalized to stay in power. In 18th century England, gin was made illegal while whiskey remained legal because gin was cheaper and poor people used it more often. These kinds of trends exist the world over.
Tobacco is not usually used by individuals to escape their lives and work, but is more often used to help maintain lifestyles, get through the day and continue working. Tobacco can have stimulant effects in low doses, and improve motor skills and concentration, which is why some people say that smoking cigarettes helps them perform certain activities. China is the number one tobacco consumer in the world and they have one of the most productive, fastest growing economies in the world right now. While alcohol may impair motor skills, casual use doesn’t affect your ability to do your job as much as most illicit drugs do.
Most tobacco addicts have jobs and most people who drink have jobs too. There are even functioning alcoholics with jobs, but there are almost no functioning crack or meth addicts because it is nearly impossible to be one, much less a meth addict who is also a CEO or politician. Most are unemployed and this is the reason meth is illegal. But the illegality of their addictions ensures they stay unemployed and that their problems only worsen.
Governments fear that people will ultimately stop working and lose their will to fight if illicit drugs are made legal. But they make it harder for former and current addicts and even occasional users convicted of drug crimes to get jobs. There are more addicts now than ever because of very severe drugs laws, and most are poor and unemployed. Even marijuana, a non-addictive drug that does not impair your ability to work (depending on your job) so much as other drugs do is illegal for the same reasons. Rightly or wrongly, marijuana is often associated with pacifism and lethargy, unprofitable attributes which governments do not want people to have. It is also far more potent than tobacco and its effects last much longer, which makes it a less lucrative commodity than tobacco. It only becomes extremely profitable if efforts are made to eradicate it because the black market will inflate the price due to the risk involved in selling it. The same applies to all drugs.
Our political and corporate rulers did not criminalize drugs because they thought it would help people. They do not want to stop addiction or lower the death toll from drugs. If they did they would constantly lobby against the harms of legal drugs. Nearly all of them criminalize drugs out of self-interest. However, they don’t always get what they want. There is inevitable damage on all sides. Cops and federal agents die every day too in the line of fire from a war our politicians say we must wage.
When governments criminalize drugs, the intention is almost never to increase public safety. Their true intentions are usually to “protect” their (mostly) white, upper-class and their profits by keeping them away from drugs while generating revenue for corporations and themselves by exploiting the poor and their drug use. By criminalizing and demonizing drug use and minority drug users, this also serves to keep the majority disconnected from minority groups and justify the exploitation of minorities in other ways.
Even when governments do criminalize drugs because they genuinely believe it will cause people of all classes to abuse drugs less and increase public safety, it never has this effect. It was thought opium criminalization in China, for example, would have this effect, but it had the opposite effect. Britain was able to use opium to weaken China, and this is another habit of rich governments. They have tried to use drug addiction as a way of weakening their enemies abroad and their economies even while they have been criminalized, and they only get away with it today because they have been criminalized.
It should be evident that the public safety justification for the criminalization of drugs is just a façade. Cops usually react to these problems with their more primitive instincts, not with their minds or hearts and most politicians lack both. By criminalizing drugs governments can control the huge illicit market with “eradication” efforts and thereby dictate the demand, and the price of drugs, the severity of drug related crime, and the number of addicts. It is all in their hands. Ostensibly, it looks like they are fighting drugs, which they claim, but in reality they are fighting against struggling people who they have no intention of helping and making money in the process. Bags of drugs are not indicted. But people are, and they end up suffering because of it.
Many cops who bust addicts may believe they are helping society, but the people at the top who make the laws know exactly what they are doing. Lawmakers who lobby for stronger drug laws know they are just fighting struggling poor people, for the most part, because they have no respect or consideration for them. They just want to have drugs as another resource they can exploit like oil.
After the American Civil War the usage of tobacco became associated with power, wealth and capitalism and this is part of the reason it stuck here. Tobacco growth was only restricted briefly in America to decrease supply and thereby increase the demand and price. Tobacco fueled America’s economy before it even became independent from Britain, and it fueled Britain’s economy. There was no reason to ever criminalize it since it was never thought to render anyone unable to work or fight. It eventually killed millions of people, but it wasn’t known tobacco was the cause until more recently in our history.
5.3 Drugs and Terrorism
The criminalization of drugs is often justified by claiming the most dangerous middle men who peddle drugs like “terrorists”, gang members and drug cartel members are responsible for all of the violence in the drug war. But these criminal groups are not created by drugs; they are created by the laws that put drugs on a market that is inherently bloody. They are also created by the socioeconomic disparity that we see globally that leads people to lives of crime.
The propaganda narrative about “drugs funding terrorism” from the DEA and other administrations is very misleading. Some drugs users do fund some drug-peddling terrorists indirectly, but they would not if drugs were legal. Foreign criminals are truly created by rich powers, and they unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) fund their enemies with illegal drug trade.
Governments create enemies at home in the same way. They ignore the largest socioeconomic problems and they continue to spread them for their own benefit. Terrorists and gang members and everyone else involved get to be the scapegoats, and the largest agencies and corporations end up with the most drugs and money. The richest empires generally have very strict drug laws, and they fund terrorism with these laws by turning drugs into big business.
By criminalizing drugs in rich, industrialized nations, politicians (the individuals who impose the most real terror by sending millions into wars) create huge illicit demand that is filled partly by terrorists because they are willing to put themselves and others in harm’s way. But what is important to know is that terrorists do not generally grow drug like poppy or coca plants. It is poor farmers who grow them and they do not usually get rich, because these drugs are worth little in their countries of origin.
In Afghanistan where most of the world’s opium is grown, the drug is worth a small fraction of what it is worth in rich countries like America. In a 2009 interview with a female opium farmer conducted by Integrated Regional Information Networks News headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009, she admitted she only makes about six kilograms of opium per year, which she sells for $3000.[i] That is $500 per kilo. In America one kilogram of opium is worth up to $35,000 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2009 Drug Report, which is equivalent to about 1.5 million Afghani dollars.
Poppy plants grow in Afghanistan because they are extremely drought resistant crops. They can survive with very little water and Afghanistan is very arid. Other edible crops that require more water don’t thrive there as well, so growing, transporting and selling food is not very sustainable or practical.
If destitute people in poor countries were given more opportunities, resources and advantages, they would have no reason to contribute to a market that is soaked in blood because of its legal status. The farmers don’t generally see where the drugs end up or all of the people hurt and killed by drug abuse and the violent drug market. However, even if they were able to see this, it would be still be hard to judge them if they continued to grow drugs when they are trying so hard just to survive. Many poor people can choose to either grow drugs or live legally and risk not being able to afford good education, food, water or other basic necessities of life.
When drug enforcement agencies spray coca fields and poppy fields in foreign countries they are not hurting terrorists or drug dealers the most; they are hurting poor farmers, and ultimately driving up the price of these drugs in rich countries by reducing the supply, which makes addiction more costly. Our governments have no authority to destroy poor farmer’s crops on their own land. Far more people die from tobacco-related illnesses in developing countries than Americans do from overdoses on illicit drugs, but developing countries are not spraying American or Chinese tobacco fields or advertising their drugs here, so we should not be destroying their crops and their forests. Noam Chomsky referred to this as “biological warfare” in Necessary Illusions:
“Another question lurks not too far in the background. Just what right does the US have to carry out military operations and chemical-biological warfare in other countries to destroy a crop it doesn’t like? We can put aside the cynical response that the governments requested this “assistance”; or else. We therefore must ask whether others have the same extraterritorial right to violence and destruction that the US demands.
The number of Colombians who die from US-produced lethal drugs exceeds the number of North Americans who die from cocaine, and is far greater relative to population. In East and Southeast Asia, US-produced lethal drugs contribute to millions of deaths. These countries are compelled not only to accept the products but also advertising for them, under threat of trade sanctions. The effects of “aggressive marketing and advertising by American firms is, in a good measure, responsible for … a sizeable increase in smoking rates for women and youth in Asian countries where doors were forced open by threat of severe US trade sanctions,” public health researchers conclude. The Colombian cartels, in contrast, are not permitted to run huge advertising campaigns in which a Joe Camel counterpart extols the wonders of cocaine.”
Frequently after coca fields are sprayed in South America, the poor farmers and land owners are forced into urban ghettos while their land is taken over by American corporations that mine the land for its resources. This is similar to what happens to poorer people in richer countries when their neighborhoods are overtaken by drugs, except they are driven to more rural areas. These are two forms of urban apartheid driven by the drug war.
Opium addiction is less of a problem in Afghanistan than in neighboring countries, largely because it is seen as just another crop. Most Afghanis can fairly easily obtain opium or hash. They are not socially taboo in most regions there and some drugs are even considered sacred by some. Ceremonial or religious use that is infrequent is welcomed in many regions, but drugs are not blindly glamorized. Overindulgence and hedonism are not respected there largely because of religious ideologies. They are forced to be mature about drugs and if they do become addicted, it is less likely they will end up impoverished since drugs are everywhere (and many already are impoverished). The same is true of cocaine and cocaine producing countries. However, these governments hardly have model drug policies. Violent and corrupt militias and corporate armies and “police” forces often control the drug trade in these countries. They wreak havoc on the general population, arrest growers, cut down and burn drug fields without anyone’s consent. This all furthers the instability and volatility of the drug trade and economy.
Afghanistan’s total revenue from illicit opium harvests was $3 billion dollars in 2006, which was about 35% of the country’s gross national product that year.[ii] Neither the Afghani nor the American government wants to end such a profitable trade, because it mostly hurts the poor to their benefit. The vast majority of drug farmers are nonviolent, but the drugs they make do harm mostly because of the irrational drug laws enacted by governments.
The value of illicit drugs in different geographical areas is determined by supply and demand, which is controlled by many factors including the proximity of drugs to the area, social norms and standards, economic disparity, population density, and the severity of the drug laws. The drug laws are usually most severe in the wealthiest countries, (the fairly wealthy country of Holland is one notable exception). America is the clearest example. It is the richest country on Earth and it has the largest prison population. The wealth of America attracts drugs and it has the money to carry out a full-scale “war on drugs,” while many poorer countries do not.
Most countries that produce addictive, illicit drugs are very poor, and they do not become valuable until they reach rich countries with strict drug laws. It is not lucrative to have strict drug laws in Afghanistan because most people there are so poor. If the drug farmers remain poor, governments and other middle-men profit the most. It is most lucrative to have the strictest drug laws in the richest countries with the greatest class gap, and criminalizing drugs exploits the poor people who make the drugs in Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Afghanistan and Myanmar (to name a few) as much as it exploits the slightly less poor people in rich countries who want to escape the difficulty of their circumstances by abusing drugs.
The individuals who get drugs from the poor countries to the rich countries are generally less scrupulous, (although many are victims of circumstance as well). They have to risk their lives and sometimes be willing to kill to make these trips. They are often more desperate to get to the top, and they will do anything to get there. But these violent groups are created by the government’s own offensive approach to drug users and dealers. Desperate people take desperate measures, and the drug issue cannot be dealt with using violence or force or else the war will never end.
These richer countries have created drug wars globally with death tolls rising every day, especially in Mexico where mass killings over drugs are very common. Some rich politicians, reporters and executives have the gull to suggest that border security is the solution. They want to build fences around their borders to keep poorer people out because if they can’t be seen they don’t have to helped or dealt with. But this is not the answer. The solution to humanity’s drug problem is to fund the poorest countries and reduce poverty globally. If poor countries are allowed to use their own resources in ways that benefit everyone in them, then they won’t resort to crime or drugs. In other words, we have to treat people like actual human beings deserving of basic rights.
The so-called “war on terror” has nothing to do with terrorism in actuality. It is far more likely to be killed in a car accident or by legal prescription than in a terrorist attack in America, yet we hear more about the threat of terrorism than we ever do about prescription drugs or car accidents and we also don’t amass armies to try to prevent these deaths. The threat of foreign terrorism in America is essentially non-existent, and it would be even less of a threat if we were not using force to fight it.
Drugs are one of the greatest methods of controlling the public’s actions, thoughts, beliefs and their wealth than almost anything that exists. If drug criminalization were to function exactly as the ruling elite would like it to, there would be a global, medicated, police-state. What our rulers do not understand is that we need to give to individuals who feel they have nothing to lose or else they may always feel this way and all of society could suffer as a result. By “give” I do not just mean resources or money; I also mean friendship, affection, sweat, energy, time and love. If you tell people in pain they cannot have something that they believe will make them feel better they are only going to want it more and take more desperate measures to get it.
Politicians and corporations need to be honest with people about all drugs. Drugs have real, demonstrable differences. They all have different addiction potentials and mental and physical effects. But if we generalize and lie about the effects of drugs, no one will be able to determine which drugs really are most harmful and which drugs should be avoided entirely, and many will become and remain addicts because they are unaware of alternatives.
It is a complete waste of time to try to eradicate all currently illicit drugs. For this to be even remotely possible all human freedoms would have to be taken away and people would have to be constantly monitored. And even in such a dystopian, police state, people would probably still find a way to get drugs. Prisoners in maximum security prisons can get drugs, so unless we want to live our lives with more restrictions than maximum security prisoners do, we cannot consider complete drug eradication as a possibility or even a desirable objective. Addicts and drug dealers need to be given a reason not to be self-destructive and risk their lives, and the threat of punishment does not serve that purpose and often only makes them more self-destructive.
Instead of arresting drug addicts, we should legalize drugs and create legal drug distribution centers that educate people about the effects of drugs, care for them, provide them with rehabilitation if needed, and encourage them not to buy the most harmful substances and instead try to reduce their will to use them by giving them guidance. Addiction would then decline greatly if done in conjunction with providing poor communities the funding, opportunity and education they need, and there would no such thing as black market drug crime. This would also reduce terrorism and violence worldwide.
 It takes a very large amount of THC, the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, to kill an animal. Cannabinoid receptors also are not located in the brainstem, which controls respiration, so it is practically impossible to die from the drug. According to the 12th edition of the Merck Index, THC consumed orally has an LD50 of 1270 mg/kg for male rats and 730 mg/kg for female rats. (There have been lower reports in different tests.) Although rat cannabinoid receptors are different than humans (and probably less tolerant of THC), we can estimate from this information that an average, healthy male who weighs 77 kilograms (169.75lbs) would need to consume 97.79 grams of pure THC (or 1955 grams of marijuana containing five percent THC) to die, which would be an enormous dose. It takes less ibuprofen than THC to cause death. THC causes loss of consciousness at fairly low doses, so it is physically impossible to smoke that much. A lethal dose amount could be eaten, but in order to die, one would need to eat the lethal dose all at once, because if not, the person would again lose consciousness far before nearing the toxic dose. The point being it is very hard to die from cannabis or its components. Cannabis is also self-regulatory in a sense because absorption is limited by serum lipids and some cannabinoids have opposing effects that balance each other out like THC and CBD.
[i] IRIN: “Bitter-Sweet Harvest: Afghanistan’s New War.” Pg 37. July 2004. PDF.
[ii] Glaze, John A. “Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counter Narcotics Strategy.”) Strategic Studies Institute, US ArmyWarCollege. October 2007. Pg. 5. Journal.