This week marks the debut of a new History Channel miniseries that many are calling a landmark cultural event in terms of popular discourse about the failed and disastrous drug war. “America’s War on Drugs” takes viewers on a 50 year journey that chronicles everything from the military’s early MKUltra experiments with LSD, to the CIA’s involvement in narcotrafficking, to the post-911 world of Afghani poppy production and ruthless Mexican drug cartels. The show is full of interviews with primary sources who played different roles in the drug war, including DEA agents, CIA officers, drug traffickers, and notable experts and insiders.
For many viewers, this documentary will be the first time they are confronted with the real facts behind the war on drugs. Long relegated to the back alleys of conspiracy websites and obscure internet forums, the harsh truth about government collusion with drug suppliers and the real motivation behind initiating the war on drugs is finally reaching the mainstream, and it is not a pretty story. While outwardly the American government was demonizing illegal drugs and instigating harsh punishments for drug offenders (many of whom were targeted for their political beliefs) secretly it was responsible for bringing huge amounts of those drugs across U.S. borders and protecting key dealers, suppliers, and beneficiaries of the illegal drug trade.
From Conspiracy to Cultural Literacy
As “America’s War on Drugs” outlines in detail, the central conceit behind the war on drugs was that communism was an existential threat that needed to be dealt with by any means necessary, not just by attacking it abroad but also by consolidating power at home. Our political leaders in the 60’s and 70’s decided that this end goal of stopping communism at all costs justified the means of making countless deals with the devil around the world and compromising the health, safety and human rights of American citizens. Flooding our streets with heroin and cocaine in concert with narcotraffickers was considered acceptable as long as it meant the continued rule of American puppet dictators in foreign lands rather than the rise of another communist regime. It could be argued that this approach was necessary, even successful, but it certainly wasn’t anything the American public signed up for.
Say what you will about the war on drugs, but one has to admit that it was one of the most successful authoritarian political maneuvers ever conceived. On the domestic front as progressivism was growing through the hippy movement, anti-war movement, black rights movement, women’s rights movement, and labor movements, Nixon and his team realized that they could clamp down on a huge swath of these political opponents through the insidious misdirection of a war on drugs. As Nixon’s counsel and Assistant on Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman himself admitted, the vilification of drugs and drug users in the public eye was actually a strategy to disrupt progressive activists:
“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.”
Changing the Conversation
The stigma placed on illegal drugs by the Nixon administration and later reinforced by Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s massive propaganda campaigns has lodged itself in our cultural perspective for decades, not just in the US but also around the world. To this day, the ‘drug warrior’ mindset still persists and is exemplified in people like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Large segments of the population still believe that illegal drugs like marijuana and psychedelics are dangerous, while condoned drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and prescription painkillers are somehow better. This perspective, conceived as a means to control dissent while paired with massive hidden support for the illegal drug trade, is finally being brought to light for what it is and needs to be dispelled forever.
The collateral damage of the war on drugs has been staggering, and in many ways has molded what America is today- deeply mistrusted around the world, plagued by racial injustice, having unprecedented incarceration rates, and being and slow to adopt a science-based approach to drug policy. The long uphill battle faced by highly effective treatments like medical marijuana and psychedelic therapy is largely due to the deeply ingrained propaganda of the drug war, which is slowing down the process of giving much needed help to millions of people in need. As countless scientific studies, peer-reviewed research papers, real world examples, and even UN councils describe, cannabis, psychedelics, and drug legalization policies will become some of our greatest allies in fighting addiction, overdose deaths, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, yet these facts are still hard for many people to swallow because they run counter to the drug war narrative. Now that the shadowy origins of the drug war are exposed to the light in “America’s War on Drugs”, one can hope that people will maintain a healthy mistrust of the official line on mind-altering substances and look to science rather than a failed and duplicitous Cold War ideology for answers.