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News (Media Awareness Project) - UK: Richard Nixon's 'War On Drugs' Began 40 Years Ago, And The
Title:UK: Richard Nixon's 'War On Drugs' Began 40 Years Ago, And The
Published On:2011-07-24
Source:Guardian, The (UK)
Fetched On:2011-07-26 06:00:40

Despite decades of battling against narcotics,
the levels of addiction, trafficking and violence
continue to rise. The war on drugs has failed.
Now, politicians in Latin America are calling to
review all options =AD from full legalisation to a new war

Ed Vuillamy
The Observer, Sunday 24 July 2011

President Nixon
In 1971, President Richard Nixon, motivated by
addiction among US soldiers in Vietnam, told
Congress drug abuse was `public enemy number one' Photograph: AP

Four decades ago, on 17 July 1971, President
Richard Nixon declared what has come to be called
the "war on drugs". Nixon told Congress that drug
addiction had "assumed the dimensions of a
national emergency", and asked Capitol Hill for
an initial $84m (UKP52m) for "emergency measures".

Drug abuse, said the president, was "public enemy number one".

But as reported the following morning in our
sister newspaper, the Guardian, the president's
initiative appears to have been primarily
motivated not by considerations of the ghettoes
or Woodstock festival, but by addiction among
soldiers fighting in Vietnam: the first and
immediate measure in the "war on drugs",
implemented 40 years ago this weekend, was the
institution of urine testing for all US troops in
Indochina. The Guardian's "sidebar" story to the
news bulletin was not from Chicago or Los Angeles
but the Mekong Delta, with soldiers laughing:
"You can go anywhere, ask anyone, they'll get it
for you. It won't take but a few seconds."

Nixon signed his war on drugs into law on 28
January 1972, Adam Raphael quoting him in this
newspaper as saying: "I am convinced that the
only way to fight this menace is by attacking it
on many fronts." The catchphrase "war on drugs"
mimicked that of Nixon's predecessor Lyndon B
Johnson, who had declared a "war on poverty"
during his state of the union address in 1964.

Four decades on, in a world (and an America)
accursed by poverty and drugs, there is almost
universal agreement that the war on drugs has
failed as thoroughly as that on poverty. In the
US and Europe, the war has been fought on the
streets, in the courts and through the jail
system, to no apparent avail. In the world that
has "developed" since 1971, it has been fought in
the barrios; it has defoliated land and driven
peasants into even worse poverty. The war in the
so-called "producing" countries has ravaged
Colombia, is currently tearing Mexico apart, and
again threatens Afghanistan, Central America,
Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela. In places such as
west Africa, the war is creating "narco states"
that have become effective puppets of the mafia cartels the war has spawned.

The drugs themselves have wrought misery and
havoc across the planet, and continue to do so.
According to the United Nations, in an exhaustive
report by a global commission on drugs published
this summer, worldwide opiate consumption
increased by 34.5% between in the two decades to
2009, and that of cocaine by 25%. The UN
estimates the drug business to be the third
biggest in the world after oil and arms, worth
UKP198bn a year. The former head of its office on
drugs and crime, Antonio Maria Costa, posits that
the laundered profits of the narco-trafficking
underworld by the "legitimate" financial sector
is what kept the banks afloat for years before they finally crashed in 2008.

But while Costa (and I, for what it's worth,
after three years covering the Mexican drug war)
advocates going after the money as the most
urgent priority, most of the lexicon in the now
burning debate about what to do in the wake of
the drug war's manifest failure concerns
decriminalisation, or even legalisation.

There has been a campaign for the legalisation of
drugs in the US ever since the first state ban on marijuana in 1915.

Now President Barack Obama's drug tsar, Gil
Kerlikowske, carefully describes America's own
war on drugs as "unhelpful". Last month, former
president Jimmy Carter wrote in the New York
Times that "excessive punishment" has "destroyed
the lives of millions of young people and their
families"; drug policy, he said, should be "more humane and more effective".

Obama has entirely changed the language of the
US's relationship with Mexico, conceding
"co-responsibility" for the dual catastrophe of
violence south of the border and addiction north
of it. Experts such as David Shirk, of the
Trans-Border Institute in San Diego, say that
"the legalisation of marijuana in the US within 10 years is an

The UK has traditionally been a hardline
participant in the war on drugs, but in
opposition David Cameron said: "Drugs policy has
been failing for decades." Professor David Nutt
of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs,
who has become synonymous with the
anti-prohibition movement, says that "the
obscenity of hunting down low-level cannabis
users to protect them is beyond absurd".

In Europe, the Netherlands famously refuses to
criminalise cannabis users, while Portugal became
the first European country, in 2001, to abolish
criminal penalties for personal possession of all
drugs, sending addicts for counselling instead.
Italy has decriminalised possession of less than
half a gram of most illegal substances.

Prohibitionism, however, remains strongly
supported by most law enforcement agencies in the
US and UK. But prohibitionism has its creative
and radical exponents too, not least Costa, who
argues: "Why open the floodgates to addiction by
increasing access to drugs?" He wrote for this
newspaper: "Maybe western governments could
absorb the health costs of increased drug use, if
that's how taxpayers want their money spent. But
what about the developing world? Why unleash an
epidemic of addiction in parts of the world that
already face misery and do not have the health
and social systems to cope with a drug tsunami?"

Costa proposed that "drugs should be regarded as
a health issue"; he wanted to "reduce
vulnerability to drugs in regions of the world
where governance is weak", and =AD calling the
bluff of rich countries that host the big banks =AD
"get serious about organised crime".

The most compelling and sophisticated initiatives
in the debate 40 years on from Nixon's
declaration come from the region that has
arguably suffered more than anywhere from the
ravages of drug production, trafficking and now addiction, too =AD Latin

Last August, Argentina's supreme court ruled it
unconstitutional to punish people for using
marijuana for personal use. Even Mexico, which
has since 2005 been the theatre for a singularly
vicious drugs war, has elected to legalise
limited amounts of all drugs for personal use,
for example: 0.5g of cocaine, 40mg of
methamphetamine and 50mg of heroin. Felipe
Calderon, the president, has called for "a
fundamental debate on the legalisation of drugs",
even though he opposes such a policy himself.

A landmark proposal was made by three former
presidents: Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar
Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso
of Brazil. It opened with the salvo:
"Prohibitionist policies based on eradication,
interdiction and criminalisation of consumption
simply haven't worked =85 The revision of
US-inspired drug policies is urgent in the light
of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics."

Of the three, Colombia =AD which has just emerged
from a ferocious drug war =AD is the most
impatiently adventurous in its call for a
complete global overhaul of drugs policy.
Colombia's ambassador to London, Mauricio
Rodriguez, says that this should be "based not on
anyone's political or ideological agenda, or any
media agenda, but on the economic and social data
and information we do not yet have, and must acquire"

"Our president has said very clearly that this is
the time for a deep analysis of what has happened
over the past 40 years, and to learn the lessons
of the mistakes that have been made," Rodriguez
said in an interview with the Observer last week.
"And we have to evaluate every alternative,
without excluding any possibility =AD from complete
legalisation to a second, different, war on drugs."

The discourse, he says, "can no longer be that of
this country or that, but a serious global
discussion". It cannot even, he says, make the
conventional distinctions between "producing" and
"consuming" nations, "since we now have
widespread consumption in the so-called
'producing' nations and, with synthetic drugs,
significant production in the 'consuming' nations".

The global horizon is necessary, he says,
"because we want to be sure that what is good for
Colombia is good for the rest of the world, and
vice versa. We are not saying that we have a
solution; we are saying that we do have some
moral authority because we have lived 24 years in
hell =AD been through a painful experience which
has cost us thousands of lives lost, hundreds of
millions of dollars lost, the reputation of the
country lost. We are now re-establishing that
reputation, and stabilising the country, but the
problem has moved elsewhere =AD to Central America, Mexico and West Africa.

"And so we realise," Rodriguez continues, "that
we need to start afresh with a global and
entirely different approach, different analyses
which are social, economic =AD and different
solutions. I've been studying this for 25 years,
and have heard too many superficial analyses:
that this is to do with leisure, or this is a
problem of mafia. We need a more complex analysis
of the deep roots of this problem =AD we cannot
fool ourselves about the root causes of the
tragedy of drugs in both the developed and
developing world, they are to do with poverty and
deprivation, young people without access to
employment, with no access to education. They are
about alienation, fear and anger."

Among the strategies he wants to see pursued are,
first, "detailed economic work on these causes
and the ways of combating them". Second: "Let's
be serious about where the big money is. If you
look at the trail of cocaine, you'll find that 5%
of the profits remain in the producing countries;
95% is in the distribution networks and
laundered. The big money is in the big banks in
the big countries; the big money is in the US,
Europe and Asia." And third: "Let's talk about the human rights issues."

Rodriguez discusses a programme his embassy has
launched in collaboration with the police in
Scotland called "Sniffing the rainforest". "We
tell the young people that one gram of cocaine
involves the destruction of four square metres of
rainforest. That it costs hundreds of lives =AD and
although they are taken to drugs by economic
alienation, the response to this kind of language
has been positive." We also tell them, he adds,
"what else is involved in sniffing cocaine:
gasoline, cement, sulphuric acid =AD and they listen to that".

It was while working along the US-Mexican border,
in an inferno of violence and addiction, that I
came to see the wisdom of the proposed Colombian
strategy. In the rehab clinics and wretched
outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, where drugs are legal
for personal use and easier to obtain than soft
drinks, I developed a problem with the scope of
the lexicon in the UK and, to a lesser extent,
the US, which too often presumes that people take
drugs for reasons of "recreation", rather than out of desperation and

This view of drugs as stimulating entertainment
may hold true of Camden Lock in London and the
capital's West End clubs, but not of Sao Paulo or
even the valleys of south Wales, let alone the
US-Mexican border. What may work for Notting Hill
might not work in Rhondda, let alone Tijuana.

In Tijuana in 2009, addicts could not believe
their luck =AD those arriving at a Narcoticos
Anonimos session were amazed that possession of
up to four lines of cocaine or 50mg of heroin was
now legal. Juan Morales Magana, 17, a
windscreen-washer and registered methamphetamine
and heroin addict, was working out how many hits
the legal limit of 40mg of meth would get him,
though his counsellor, an evangelical pastor, was
ambivalent: "I wouldn't want anyone to think that
just because it is legal, one should live like
this for fun. Drugs are the scourge of our
society. All this can do would limit killing
between small-time cholos [gangsters] for
street-corner turf. The danger is that kingpins
will accelerate the domestic market if possession
is legal and smuggling into the US more difficult."

"Personally, I sometimes wish drugs would be made
legal so that the gringos can get high and we can
live in peace," said Tijuana police officer
Elisio Montes, whose two best friends, his former
boss and assistant, were murdered by executioners
for the cartels. "Then I say to myself: no =AD
these drugs are addictive after one single hit.
They're terrifying, they destroy lives, they
destroy our young people. If they're legal, they'll buy more."

Writing in the Times, Antonia Senior insists
that: "Drugs policy must start from the premise
that teenagers like taking drugs, because drugs
make them feel good." I would rather it started
from the premise that life in most places is so
awful that it leads to catastrophic addiction
such as that in the barrios of Honduras or,
indeed, the back streets of Naples or Swansea.
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