During Prohibition, Kansas City mob boss and politician, Thomas Pendergast was asked by reporters why he so blatantly disregards the law. His response? “The people are thirsty.” However, the war on fun started well before prohibition, and it didn’t end there either. The U.S. has a long and unfortunate history of attempting to control what people do with their own bodies. And that’s why on this issue of Essay Wednesday, we’re going to be discussing the fruitless war on drugs.
“J, why did you start talking about the sauce when the topic is the war on drugs?” Thank Nancy Reagan for her “Just Say No” campaign, which treated all substances from liquor to heroin as the same in the war on drugs. So when did the country start deciding what is okay for others to put in their body? In 1909, the “Smoking Opium Exclusion Act” made it illegal to posses or smoke opium. Then in 1920, the notorious 18th amendment, better known as the National Prohibition Act was passed. A new law enforcement agency, the Bureau of Prohibition (later becoming the ATF) was tasked with enforcing it.
Prohibition law was widely ignored. But the increased demand for booze in a newly formed black market brought large scale organized crime across the country. And, despite the situation, the government didn’t learn it’s lesson. Adding to the mix, the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act was passed in 1922. An effort to stop the recreational use of drugs, the law had no real teeth. Later, the Boggs Act of 1951 was passed to set mandatory sentences for drug crimes, adding severe punishment to the war on drugs.
Much of the Drug War Was About Suppressing Minorities and Anti-War Activists
Then in 1971, President Nixon declared that drug abuse was “Public Enemy Number One”. John Ehrlichman, advisor to Nixon at the time, was actually quoted in Harper’s Magazine years later:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”John Ehrlichman, Harper’s Magazine, 1994
Many remember Nixon for Watergate, but how could this go unnoticed?
The CIA and Kingmaking
The government didn’t just use drugs as an excuse to arrest “degenerates”. In 1982, Nancy Reagan — who’s only job by the way was to be the spouse of a President — took the reigns for the “War on Drugs”. Her creedo? A simple three word phrase: “Just Say No”. Meanwhile, the CIA, led by her beloved husband, was backing a rebel group in Nicaragua named the Contras.
It was the height of the Cold War. And the right-wing Contras needed cash to fight against the evil socialist Sandinista Junta of the National Reconstruction Government. The U.S. and CIA were helping, but the Contras were by no means the ‘good guys’. They raped women, executed children, and committed terrorist attacks against Nicaraguan civilian targets. Congress decided this left a bad taste in their mouths, and banned US involvement with the Contras.
Suddenly, the CIA needed a new cash cow to fund the Contras’ war against socialism. In 1984, reports started coming in of Contras smuggling cocaine into the United States. Several reports surface, and suggest the Contras are being aided or at least provided amnesty by American government actors. Then, in 1996, the famous “Dark Alliance” series written by a San Jose Mercury News journalist, Gary Webb, is published.
Exposure and Coverup
For those unfamiliar, a quick summary is in order. Webb accuses the CIA to turning a blind eye to Contra drug smuggling into the U.S.. Effectively, the CIA is green lighting the Contras to sell cocaine to several big drug dealers in the U.S. in order to fund their operations against communists in South America. Those drug dealers then turned the cocaine into crack, so that they had more of it to sell. This caused the wide spread epidemic of crack in the inner cities, starting with Los Angeles. Not so easy to “just say no” when the CIA allows your streets to be flooded with crack.
Outrage and calls for investigation follow the release of these articles. Some fellow journalists called his accusations baseless, and his evidence weak. After the accusations, Mercury News did an internal investigation and turned on Webb. The paper assigned him to an obscure, nowhere branch of the paper to write fluff pieces. Webb, unhappy, resigned.
Justice Department investigations found several questionable issues, including one of the drug dealers attaining permanent resident status “in a wholly improper manner.” They also stated that they were “not certain whether to prosecute Meneses [a different drug dealer], or use him as a cooperating witness.” The CIA conducted an investigation and to much surprise, found no evidence of any agent being involved with the entire incident. The House Investigation also found no strong evidence to support the claims.
Gary Webb’s Death
The government, having investigated itself and found itself innocent of wrongdoing, ignored the matter. Webb’s career is in ruins. And, years later, Gary Webb is found dead in his home. An overachiever, Webb ‘killed himself’ by shooting himself twice in the head. You do the math.
At least President HW Bush was open about tolerating drug trafficking operations in Panama..
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The Military Parties Too
The military is another example of the government picking and choosing when to care about drug use. ( I know when I care about veteran suicide, it’s only when it benefits my political beliefs; ain’t that right Dan Helmer? -J.)
In 1950, the CIA conducts an experiment called Project BLUEBIRD. The military drugs 7,000 unknowing soldiers with LSD in order to study the effects and see if it would act like a truth serum. In 1953, the CIA conducts a similar project called Project MKUltra on, according to one agent, “people who couldn’t fight back,” such as prostitutes, mental patients, and of course soldiers. This experiment is aimed at wiping a subject’s mind to create a “Robot Agent”. Many of these victims go on to suffer from depression, epilepsy, or attempt/commit suicide years later.
Army biochemist and CIA operative Dr. Frank Olson jumps to his death from a hotel window after unknowingly being dosed with LSD. It’s as if for years the CIA were run by Bill Cosby. If you think the time of military using drugs “for the service of the nation” is over, you’d be wrong. It’s still going on today.
Drugs in Military Operations
The Air Force uses a highly addictive drug called dextroamphetamine. Pilots are required to take it in pill form before conducting operations and take a separate pill when mission complete to come down from their high.
In 2002, Canadian forces were conducting training operations in Kandahar and two U.S. Air Force pilots — high on dextroamphetamine — seeing gunfire from the ground, believe they are being attacked. Although the pilots are told to stand by and hold their fire, they lay waste to the Canadians below. This becomes known as the Tarnak Farm incident. The Air Force believes that the drugs have nothing to do with the incident. Long term exposure to these drugs can cause hallucinations and disorganized thinking via Amphetamine psychosis, and so it’s likely these drugs play a role in this deadly blue-on-blue incident.
I could go on and on and on about historical incidents and hypocrisies. Things like overlooking narcotics trafficking in Panama. Experimenting with PCP on soldiers in the Second World War. Forcing drugs on enemy POW’s in the first Gulf War. But honestly, if I haven’t convinced you yet on the hypocrisy of this “Drug War”, then what will?
It’s not the government’s job to watch over you like a parent watches her child. It should ultimately be your choice what you put in your body. Or, in regards to the CIA, don’t put in your body. But then again, if we legalized all drugs and hurt the cartels, who would we give automatic weapons to? And with that question, a pause. I light a blunt, pour a glass of whiskey, and toast to the late great Tommy Pendergast. The people are thirsty.