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This Is American History On Drugs

02.25.2002 | POLITICS

Viewers of the Super Bowl, and there were a lot of them, were probably surprised to learn they had been helping the terrorists win. Not all of the viewers, of course, just those who might have occasionally sparked a joint, or dropped some acid, or perhaps plunged themselves into the irreclaimable abyss of heroin addiction (not that a lot of your hard-core junkies watch football's finest day, but you know, if they did). They learned they'd been helping the terrorists win during the third quarter, and then again during the fourth, when the Office of National Drug Control Policy ran an ad that linked drug money to terrorism, and that suggested, therefore, that anyone using drugs wasn't just hurting themselves but could also accept blame for exploding courthouses in Colombia and child warriors in the tropics. Goodbye, methodological individualism, hello social conscience. We've gone from "Just Say No" to "Drugs: it's not just masochism anymore!"

The ads were nothing if not dramatic. They feature close-cropped, All-American looking children--presumably recreational drug users--saying things like "I taught kids how to murder," and "I helped kill a judge." Made by the New York advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, and directed by British filmmaker Tony Kaye (who has made such films as "American History X", and who, bizarrely, occasionally appears at comedy clubs dressed as Osama bin Laden), the TV spots cost $3.4 million and represented the largest single advertising purchase in the history of the U.S. government.

They also represented the opening of a new ONDCP campaign, "Drugs and Terror," which has its own web site, its own ads, and assorted other propaganda fixings. The Office calls the program a valuable new aspect of its "prevention toolbox." Critics call it a cynical attempt to link the wildly popular War on Terror with the wildly ineffective War on Drugs. It is hard not to believe the cynics. The War on Drugs could badly use a new friend. It is much older than the War on Terror, but where the latter has the Army Rangers and solid victory in Afghanistan, the former is a $20 billion albatross whose dubious heroes include the LAPD's Ramparts Division, an elite gang unit seduced by corruption, which took over and controlled the distribution of crack in a large downtown neighborhood for the latter part of the 1990s. The ONDCP, of course, would prefer to see the world in somewhat simpler terms. "Drug use hurts our families and our communities," Drug Czar John Walters said in a press release that announced the ads' airing. "It also finances our enemies. To fight the terror inflicted by killers, thugs and terrorists around the world who depend on American drug purchases to fund their violence, we must stop paying for our own destruction and the destruction of others."

As evidence, the press release points out that twelve of the 28 international terror groups recognized by the State Department engage in drug trafficking, and that many drug cartels use terrorism to gain market share and deter law enforcement. The release also has a nice quote from Rep. Mark Souder, (R-Il), who states that "Americans who buy and sell illegal narcotics are lending a helping hand to people like those who attacked America on September 11."

This is not an entirely unreasonable statement. "Those who attacked America on September 11," would, of course, be Al Quaeda, and Al Quaeda certainly has a history in drug trafficking. The world's main highway for heroin runs straight through Afghanistan, and money derived from heroin sales certainly helped the Taliban--Al Quaeda's chief benefactor--maintain its hold on power. That is beyond dispute, and skeptics need only visit the Drugs and Terror website, where the ONDCP has helpfully compiled a list of major media articles ("Taliban accused of creating 'super heroin'" for example) to have their doubts dispelled.

Unfortunately, the ONDCP has never been above the occasional use of subterfuge (more on that later), and the archive does have a few glaring omissions. No mention is made, for instance, of the fact that the Taliban spent a good portion of last year as an official ally in the War on Drugs. The Bush Administration went so far as to send $43 million to the Taliban in 2001, in exchange for the group's eradication of Afghanistan's opium crop, and for its declaration that drug use is "against God's will." (Big deal. A far bigger challenge would be to find something the Taliban didn't consider "against God's Will," since during its reign it managed to outlaw anything that could be remotely construed as fun--i.e. women's faces--along with a good handful of things that couldn't.) The ONDCP archive also forgets to include stories like the one CBS News aired in January, which pointed out that the Taliban's downfall might lead to a larger heroin trade, and which also noted that while the Taliban had outlawed opium, our friends in the Northern Alliance had continued to traffic in it heavily.

Of course, the logic of the ONDCP campaign is hobbled in other, more obvious ways too. Al Quaeda has been funded far more by oil than it has by drugs, but our government has bent over backward since September 11 to ensure that we continue buying oil. The archive dodges this fact, and it misplaces as well any news stories about the Clinton Administration's early support of the Taliban, and its efforts--along with Unocal--to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan. Which raises the question: why should a 14 year-old care if his $30 in pot money is going to a terrorist, if his government is sending millions of dollars in the same direction?

"The point isn't that if you buy a joint, you're automatically supporting terrorism," an ONDCP official told me. "The point is that you know where the money is going."

Well, okay. But I have a suspicion that if I buy a joint, my money will be going to a guy who scored some righteous bud a while back and now grows it using lamps in his basement. The illicit cash I give him will probably help fund sinister activities like paying rent (the one drug dealer I knew well in high school used his ill-gotten earnings to fuel a very ugly blue pickup truck) or buying mad stereo equipment. So although I don't know where my money goes, I have a decent idea. On the other hand, I really haven't a clue as to where most of my tax money goes, and if I decide to ask about some of its more interesting uses, my government's first inclination is usually to tell me to buzz off. But the world is full of people more persistent than me, and some of them have lawyers. As a result, I can now peruse a veritable bounty of declassified documents, and many of them indicate that a fair portion of my tax payment ends up with drug runners and terrorists. So I wouldn't be opposed at all if the ONDCP opened put a new web page called "Drugs and Your Government: A Blowback Story." The drug war is paralyzed by an absurd schizophrenia--the purpose of our domestic policy is the mitigation of our foreign one.

* * *

The most common criticism of the War on Drugs--and it is a valid one--is that it is lopsided far too heavily toward eliminating supply. Witness the $1.02 billion "Plan Colombia"--essentially money to fund an all-out war in a nation that does not need further encouragement to violence, or the fact that almost 70 percent of the nation's drug budget is directed toward "interdiction." Compared to this amount of money, the amount spent to reduce demand is indeed pathetic. But the true dysfunction of the drug war may lie more in its geographically distorted priorities; what is considered an unforgivable sin within our borders is often regarded as a transgression of secondary importance beyond them. Our government has no greater priority than the protection of our children from the waste and depravity of drugs, unless the dealers of those drugs can make themselves useful in other ways.

In 1982, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration set up Sonia Atala, one of Bolivia's most powerful cocaine traffickers, in a sting operation. She was lured onto U.S. soil, arrested, and then--to the DEA's astonishment--moved immediately into the witness protection program, because she was a CIA asset. She was eventually allowed to return to Bolivia, with all her American property holdings intact. It should be noted that during this time, from 1980-83, Bolivia was producing 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. The nation's ascendancy as a narco-state had begun in 1980, during the bloody "cocaine coup" engineered by Klaus Barbie (a Nazi war criminal and another CIA asset), Argentine secret agents, and a military officer named Luis Arce Gomez (a graduate of the US Army's School of the Americas). Gomez seized control of the government and then abetted the narcotics trade with Barbie's help, and the help of the murderous paramilitary forces under Barbie's control.

Contrast that charming tale with the story of Oklahoma computer company owner Will Foster, who used marijuana to treat his rheumatoid arthritis. He was arrested for having 70 marijuana plants on his property and sentenced to 93 years in prison. A parole board twice granted him parole, but despite the nonviolent nature of his crime, and despite the healthy amount of evidence regarding marijuana's effectiveness as a painkiller (it is endorsed by, among other sources, the New England Journal of Medicine) Oklahoma's governor vetoed the decision both times. Foster remains in jail.

It is hard to imagine a more asinine approach to public policy. But this very approach will likely continue, thanks to a seam in the national awareness that has opened up and swallowed most of the CIA's role in moving narcotics. There simply isn't room in this article to fully detail the Agency's past with drug running. It began as early as 1947, the first year of the CIA's existence, when the fledgling agency pumped money to the heroin-running Corsican Mafia, which was battling Communist union workers for control of Sicily's docks. It continued in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Agency worked with mobsters like Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante (the latter of whom controlled both a cocaine route from Colombia to South Florida, and an opium route that ravaged US servicemen in Southeast Asia). It helped install Bolivia's narco-government. It assisted the heroin running warlords of Central Asia. And it funded the Nicaraguan Contras.

From 1981 to 1987, the CIA conducted a vicious war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were Marxists who in 1979 overthrew the brutal U.S. backed dictatorship of Antonio Somoza. One would be remiss not to say that they were not angels, they were not elected, and their government was not a democracy. Most observers believe the Nicaraguan people were better off under them than under Somoza, but in the interest of fairness I will say that's open an question. Even given all that, however, it would be charitable to call the response of the United States disproportionate. Nicaragua, a state roughly the size of New York, with a population about 60 percent of New York City's, a debt burden (in 1979) of $1.6 billion, and governments friendly to the United States on all sides of it, was declared a threat to regional stability and--amazingly--a threat to America itself. So an embargo was slapped on the country. Its harbors were mined. And an army of outlaws was recruited by the CIA, trained everywhere from Honduras to Indiana, and loosed in rather indiscriminate fashion on the country's populace. An estimated 30,000 civilians died in the ensuing civil war. The CIA suffered a minor back eye when it was learned that the contras had been given manuals instructing them in the arts of torture and civilian "pacification," and the US suffered a bigger black eye when the World Court ruled it had violated international law by mining the harbors. These were the Nicaraguan contras: Ronald Reagan called them the moral equivalent of our founding fathers. Most everyone else called them terrorists. They were funded by our tax money until Congress prohibited any further aid for them. After that they were funded by, among other things, cocaine.

The number of people who remember the Kerry Committee is probably very small. Few people noticed it when it did exist, and almost no one paid attention to its final report, which yielded only four stories in major newspapers, and none on the front page. One would think, given these facts, that the committee had little to say. One would not think, given these facts, that in 1989, during the era of anticommunism and Just Say No, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts released a 1,600-page report that detailed almost excruciatingly the connections between the Nicaraguan contras, the CIA, and the trafficking of cocaine into the United States.

"It is clear," the report's executive summary stated, "that individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

Kerry's report, while admittedly a bit long and now 15 years old, still makes for interesting reading. His committee got its hands on some interesting pages from Oliver North's diary (one entry about the Contras reads "$14m to finance came from drugs") and notes that the State Department, between January and August 1986, gave over $800,000 to four companies that sent "humanitarian aid" to the contras. These four firms--Diacasa, Setco, Vortex and Frigorificosoe Puntarenas--were all "owned and operated by narcotics traffickers."

For those who like their evidence a bit less subtle, the report also contained the following exchange, under oath, between Kerry and a CIA asset:

SENATOR KERRY: What did you do with those drugs?

MR. MORALES: Sell them.

SENATOR KERRY: What did you do with the money?

MR. MORALES: Give it to the contras.


It doesn't get much clearer than that. Or at least it didn't seem like it could at the time. In 1996, however, the San Jose Mercury News released a painstaking--though sometimes hyperbole-prone--series called "Dark Alliance," which outlined the connections between the CIA, the contras, and international cocaine smuggling. Specifically, "Dark Alliance," which was written by News staffer Gary Webb, dealt with the Nicaraguan connections of "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the onetime high school tennis star who rose to become America's premiere dealer of crack cocaine. It is also recounted the weaponization of American inner cities, an appalling side effect of street gangs buying drugs from gun-runners. The contra-cocaine connection helped put Tec-9s, Uzis and other hi-tech military equipment onto street corners--an effect that helped South Central Los Angeles descend into a dystopic urban battleground.

The controversy that formed over Dark Alliance might have been funny, if it hadn't resulted in everyone forgetting about the story's substance, and if it hadn't ended with Webb being all but hounded out of his job. Webb's charges embarrassed other newspapers that had missed the story, and rather than picking up where the story left off, the LA Times, New York Times and the Washington Post immediately set about trying to discredit it. The LA Times, scooped in its own backyard, was particularly audacious. One of its reporters told the Colombia Journalism Review that he'd been assigned to the "get Gary Webb team," and another was overheard saying, "We're going to take away that guy's Pulitzer."

Which they did: large investigative pieces are rarely flawless, and the big papers seized on some of the holes and misleading language in Webb's articles and tore them apart. That most of the series was valid was lost along the way, and the News, writhing under pummeling from its peers, took the rather extraordinary step of disavowing its own work, and then exiled Webb to do beat reporting in a small agricultural community. And while the newspapers turned on their own (not a fair fight, by the way; the Washington Post picking on the San Jose Mercury News is sort of like the US picking on, well, Nicaragua) the CIA investigated itself and happily declared it had played no role in drug smuggling. The press dutifully reported this. As an afterthought, under oath in front of a Congressional committee, the CIA's Inspector General noted that from 1982 until 1995, the Agency had a formal agreement with the Justice Department that said it did not have to tell Justice if its assets were involved in drug smuggling.

Now, a thoughtful person might wonder why a government agency with no ties to drug trafficking would need a blanket exemption from the nation's drug laws for its assets. Fortunately for the CIA, thoughtful people as a rule do not rise up the ranks of the national media, and this story, too, was lowballed. But it hasn't disappeared. It's all out there: the Kerry Committee's report; the Iran-Contra Report (Oliver North intervened on behalf of the drug-smuggling Honduran General Jose Bueso-Rose, who acted as a major conduit of aid to the Contras, and got him a lenient prison sentence); the CIA's self-investigation following "Dark Alliance." It is rotting in prison with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, imprisoned for drug trafficking but for years a US ally against Nicaragua. What are also out there are the transcripts of the World Court's case against the United States, the cascades of documentation on Contra atrocities, and--to swing us back around the enemy of the moment--the records of the U.S.'s involvement in promoting the Taliban. It is in the National Security Archive, in countless Freedom of Information Act requests, and in scholarly texts. It is the archives of the Costa Rican media, since that country's government expelled Oliver North for coke trafficking. Where it is not is available is the public discourse. There, instead of history, the government serves fried eggs that are supposed to be our brains and Super Bowl ads that ask how terrorists get their money, and suggest that if we buy drugs, maybe they get it from us.

"In my thirty year history with the DEA," said Dennis Dayles, who spent the 1980s as that agency's chief of enforcement in Central America, "the major targets of my investigations almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA."

* * *

Given the amount of leeway the US government has afforded drug traffickers, one might think the ONDCP would be slightly uncomfortable with the sheer audacity of its ads. The ONDCP, though, is rarely uncomfortable with its own audacity. In 2000 Salon magazine discovered that then-Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey (a man known for, among other things, allegedly ordering a massacre in the closing days of the Gulf War) had gotten a bit creative with advertising purchases. Specifically, the ONDCP had arranged to buy TV time, at a discounted public service rate, from major networks, in order to air anti-drug ads. Then, however, in a bit of creativity, he gave the ad time back to the networks, so they could sell it at a higher price to for-profit customers, and all he asked in exchange was that the networks alter the scripts of popular TV shows to reflect the ONDCP's anti-drug message. Under this program, the scripts of ER, Chicago Hope, and Beverly Hills 90210 were all doctored, in what was essentially government-funded subliminal advertising. (In retrospect, none of this should have been surprising. While discussing his prevention programs in 1999, McCaffrey said their goal was to increase "mind share" and that to that end he had employed "experts in behavior change.")

So it is a bit of step forward that the Office is actually buying ads, and not going Clockwork Orange on Super Bowl viewers. Still, the questions nagged, so a few days after the Super Bowl I called the ONDCP and spoke to Jennifer de Vallance, a Public Affairs spokesperson, about the new campaign. I decided to skip the Contra subject, and asked instead how the Office reconciled the ad campaign with the fact that the Bush Administration had given $43 million to the Taliban last year for its help in fighting drugs. Her reply was that the ad was not necessarily about the Taliban. This was true--most of the ad's lines ("I helped kill a judge") refer to actual events that took place in Colombia. Nevertheless, I said, it seemed apparent that ads were designed to play upon fears of Islamic terrorism post-9/11; the Colombian FARC, reprehensible though it may be, has never attacked New York. She didn't say much to that. So I asked if it might be disingenuous to suggest that buying drugs sends money to terrorist groups, when the US government sometimes sends money to those same groups. She said it was not disingenuous at all, because the ONDCP was in the business of drug prevention, and that questions of foreign policy were thus not its purview.

From here the conversation took a profoundly weird turn.

"But as an office in the business of drug prevention," I said, "doesn't the ONDCP have a position on those aspects of American foreign policy that abet regimes who traffic in drugs?"

"You would have to ask the State Department about that."

"That's not my question. My question is whether the ONDCP, as an agency in the business of drug prevention, has a position on those aspects of American foreign policy that abet regimes who traffic in drugs."

"I can't answer that question."

"So the ONDCP, which is in the business of drug prevention, can't say whether it has a position on those aspects of US foreign policy that send money to regimes that traffic in drugs?"

"I didn't say that."

"I'm pretty sure you did."

"I've answered your question."

And on and on. At one point I switched directions and asked if the Northern Alliance traded in heroin. She said she didn't know but could find out. Since I can read a newspaper as well as she can, I declined. Finally I gave up and changed the subject entirely, asking what kind of feedback the ads had gotten. The answer--surprise!--was that everyone loved them. To be fair, Ms. de Vallance recognized my exasperation, and offered to get me a more comprehensive reply if I would email her more queries. I jotted down her email address, but it hardly seemed worth the effort.

Because what it comes back to, in the end, is the central lie about drugs and terror, and indeed the central lie about drugs themselves. There is a fundamental absurdity that lies at the heart of the War on Drugs, an absurdity that has been noted by the raggedy editors of Cannabis News and by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. Oil and drugs both help fund and arm terrorists, and if the US government to chooses to battle drugs and coddle oil, then so be it. But oil, at least, suffers from a certain degree of scarcity, and the costs of finding and extracting it are often prohibitive. It is also, for better or worse, intrinsic to America's national security.

The same cannot be said for drugs. Cannabis and poppy plants are more than bountiful. The former can and is grown almost anywhere--from backyard gardens in Connecticut to fields in Northern California. These plants are, in other words, worthless. Or at least they should be. What the drug war does, more than anything else, is inject scarcity into a market that has none, and this is what makes the business so lucrative, and what makes them worth killing over. According to Stanford University's Hoover Institute, outlawing narcotics has made them 1,700 percent more expensive. The drug economy is as artificial as it is illicit; we have used our laws to construct an enemy, and now we use our laws to fight it. Not since Prohibition have we engaged in such large-scale shadowboxing, have we, in our desire to fight crime, created a massive criminal class and fought it.

The War on Drugs is a mirage; the closer you get to it, the more you understand that it was never there at all. The United States mediates, far more than it fights, the $400 billion international traffic in illegal narcotics. Almost all of the CIA's covert wars have been enmeshed, to some degree, with the drug trade, and it is our very illegalization of drugs that have made them such a useful tool for funding the more violent and sordid aspects of our foreign policy. This in turn makes our foreign policy dependent on what our domestic policy abhors, and reduces drug enforcement within our borders to little more than a reactionary exercise against the byproduct of what we do overseas. If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. If it sounds ridiculous, it isn't. It might be, but lives are laid to waste every day by such grandiose ambivalence.

If drugs were legal, the vast balloons of cash they promise would quickly deflate, and it would be nice to say that once that happened, the militarism and terror that have become standard parts of drug trafficking would likewise collapse. But history, again, teaches us otherwise. Prohibition's end did indeed curb the worst aspects of the bootlegging trade, but one need only read Sally Denton and Roger Morris' horrifying The Money and the Power to see how a generation of men made into criminals found themselves, once liquor was legal, uninterested in the prospect of aboveboard business. They had been conditioned to see the law as an enemy and an impediment, violence as a tool. A stupid law had started this, but it couldn't put it in reverse.

Put it another way: if you're ever in Los Angeles, drive downtown and then go east, across the concrete bed of the LA River, and out through East LA. There, hanging over this low-rise city like dull mountains, are the West Coast's twin towers, built by the War on Drugs just as surely as the East Coast's were knocked down in the War on Terror. They are high-rise prisons, 4,100 beds, and filled for the most part with drug offenders. California now imprisons more people than do France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined. It has more people in jail for drug offenses than were in jail in the entire United States in 1978. Most of these inmates are not violent--even though America has built over 1000 new prisons and jails since 1980, the proportion of violent offenders entering them has steadily fallen. But of those who went in nonviolent, you can bet many are violent now. And of those who never felt considered themselves criminals, many now think like them. What will happen if they are let out? When they are let out?

And yet the war winds on, over and over and in on itself. It is a parade without spectators, marching in lockstep toward disaster while the public looks at something else entirely. The true empire of opiates is not the drugs but the war itself, the vast machinery of distraction aimed at building for Americans an enemy that does not exist. People should not abuse drugs, just as they should not abuse alcohol or smoke cigarettes. But they do, and they will. There will never be a world without drugs. There could, however be a world where people no longer fight and die for them, and where if you bought drugs they would be taxed, and you would "know where your money is going." Today drugs aren't taxed, and your taxes build prisons. They sprawl across the Southwest, the rural Northeast, and the Heartland. Forget Colombia and Afghanistan. Our own country is the true landscape of this war, and we are decorating it with the architecture of failure.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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