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Why do states make war on drugs?

States use the war on drugs as a political tool, manipulating the real need to limit problematic drug use in order to achieve various aims. Drugs are treated as a cause of society's ills rather than a symptom. It is possible to point at data that when drug use increases, so too does violent crime. However what if whilst they are linked, they are not causal? Instead they may both be symptoms of unemployment, lack of social mobility, racial issues and inequality. Why then do states continue to make war on drugs? Drug policy can be used to mask a state's failings in reducing social deprivation. The war on drugs can be used to create an ‘ideal citizen’, cloaked in moral and universalist language, the worthy differentiated from the unworthy; the ‘traditional’ from the ‘foreign’. Government rhetoric, reinforced by the media, fuels myths about drugs and drug users which entrench the idea of ‘us and them’. States do not make war on drugs because they are racist, but the disproportionate incarceration of poor and ethnic minorities for drug offences, whilst it is continually shown that all sections of society use drugs (Chatwin 2011, Stevens 2011) means that the war on drugs is anything but fair. It is the poorest members of society who are most likely to have problematic drug use, yet it is they, through moralising rhetoric, who are painted as 'evil', 'morally corrupting' and responsible for their own ills. States make war on drugs because to recognise that drug use is not immoral in itself would require them to tackle the deep underlying social inequality that underlies problematic drug use. The current 'war on drugs' can also be seen in its historical context. Drug laws are not based on any absolute moral principles, they serve a useful political purpose. This 'war' has developed gradually over time, particular 'problems' that drug policy has sought to correct have reinforced the stereotypes and inequality seen in the war on drugs today. A moralisation of the drug issue; the tendency for politicians, the media and the public to associate drug use with the 'evil' characteristics they disdain; a lack of evidence in public policy, and the political advantages of portraying large swathes of society as responsible for their own social ills have become typical of the 'war on drugs'. Mind altering drugs have always been used in one form or another, it is only relatively recently that drug use has been seen as a problem worth solving. States now differentiate between 'domestic' and 'foreign' drugs (Stevens 2011). Alcohol and cigarettes in the West are not, by the majority, seen as foreign or evil, whilst in many regions of India, marijuana is common while alcohol is prohibited. A drug's moral status is dependent on history, tradition and context. Large scale immigration, and the culture that came with it, created new problems related to integration and habits with which states were inexperienced. The 'war on drugs' was one solution in which particular groups could be targeted without appearing to be racist or discriminatory. Whilst the actual phrase 'War on Drugs' was coined by Nixon in 1971, its origins lie deeper. In 1875, the San Francisco Opium Den Ordinance banned the public distribution of opium on the basis of racial prejudice against the Chinese (Maccoun & Reuter 2001). During the gold rush a large number of Chinese emigrated to America to take advantage of the employment. As the Chinese diversified away from gold mining, they were

it was ignored. a method to covertly target the Chinese was to target the opium dens which they disproportionately owned. In what the media termed as the 'crack epidemic' of the 80s. from 'white. and the rhetoric of a Chinese corruption of American society was promoted in order to justify the crackdown. not the drugs themselves. and therefore. an Oregon court recognised the racial nature of the act: "Smoking opium is not our vice. Fabrications like the increased potency of crack cocaine. aside from some baking soda. social structure. and drug users. A perceived change in the demographics of drug users. can rapidly spread through the general public. The dens were often frequented by white men and women. American women] were ruined morally and otherwise" (Kane 1882). water and heat 2 Donna M. After an 1887 federal law outlawed the import of opium. with little perception of it being either immoral or dangerous. 31:4. Hartman & Andrew Golub (1999): The Social Construction of the Crack Epidemic in the Print Media. Powdered cocaine was glamourised by movie stars and sports heroes during the 1970s. an attack on the characteristics of specific drug users. they will cement themselves in general discourse. The 'crack epidemic' of the 1980s was little different. The banning of opium dens was a means to fragment society into 'desirables' and 'unwanted'. it may be that this legislation proceeds more from a desire to vex and annoy the 'Heathen Chinese" in this respect than to protect the people from the evil habit" (Brown 1993 in Maccoun & Reuter 2001). Furthermore that the government intentionally used this media frenzy to their advantage. It was only in the late 1980s. and 'crack-heads' committing more property crime to fuel their habits. specifically by the Chinese. marijuana smoking college kids' to 'black. when crack cocaine use became more visible with the 'lower classes' and their accompanying 'evil' characteristics (despite little difference between 'crack' and 'powdered coke'1) that a problem arose. and racial inequality"2 Myths about drug use. As the Chinese were believed to have brought opium with them. race and status" (Duster 1970). utilising the moral rhetoric surrounding drug use to distract from high levels of social inequality: “Armed with a sense of moral superiority. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. all suffer from limited supporting evidence (Morgan and Zimmer 1997 in Hartman and Golub 1999).racially stereotyped as stealing American employment. urban men' altered how drug use was perceived (Reinarman 1997). and that when evidence was produced which countered their claims of the epidemic. Hartman and Golub (1999) argue that the crack epidemic was socially constructed by the media to sell papers. and if there is political and economic capital in maintaining them. 423-433 . crack smoking. it is not true that their reported levels of property crime in1 Crack cocaine is the same base narcotic as powdered cocaine. this coverage made it easy to dismiss the disadvantages experienced by the urban poor as self inflicted matters of individual choice and self indulgence as opposed to recognizing them as matters of economic history. 'crack babies' addicted at birth. Whilst it may be true that individuals who are addicted to crack cocaine commit more property crime than other members of society. except it was AfricanAmericans rather than the Chinese seen as responsible. We have not moved on. free-loving. "they [white. "the new users were a different social class.

Very few would argue that states should do nothing to limit the harms of drugs. despite little difference between white and black usage rates. funded through the drug trade. social. and moral dynamics. Yet in the light of overwhelming evidence suggesting the war on drugs causes more harm than good. The entire apparatus of the 'war on drugs' targets those who need help the most.crease as a result of a crack cocaine addiction: they report broadly similar levels of property crime both before and after their addiction to crack (Johnson. there should be no difference in sentencing at all. versus 10% who were white. By painting their problem as one of voluntary choice and self-indulgence. Crack cocaine was. or who do not fit the image of an 'ideal citizen'. It is also true that poor. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act did a little to reduce the disparity (down to 18-1). class. but on myth. Drugs can cause real harm. without ever having to examine why it is that the conditions in which these portions of society live still exist. as well as the many social problems associated with problematic drug use. The genuine need to reduce the harms and evils that can arise from problematic drug use is utilised to fuel an unchallengeable moral . a legalised differentiation between perceived users. however it is the way in which the war on drugs is conducted which causes alarm. The 'war on drugs' is a useful tool to target the sections of society that cause us discomfort. and that anything other than ‘all out war‘ is conceding defeat. The oft heard argument in favour of a tough drug policy is that drugs are dangerous and should not be tolerated. whilst at the same time exacerbating social inequality. but a state cannot make war on the disadvantaged or the young. the government demonstrates that they are targeting characteristics of drug users rather than the drugs themselves. not drug users as a whole (Christie 1986). from an ever increasing number of sources. whilst powdered cocaine usage is still seen. political. and is. whether at home or abroad. Golub and Faman 1995). Selective enforcement of drug laws. the failures of the state are scapegoated by drug use. on the whole. both to the individual and to society. has resulted in massive racial and class based fragmentation. seen as predominantly a 'black' drug of choice. "Crack in black neighborhoods was a lightning rod for a complicated and deep-rooted set of racial. but if the laws were really intended to target drug users equally." (Beckett 1999 in Fellner 2009) So why is it that states maintain drug policies that appear to be so racially motivated and unequal in their enforcement? We target 'problem drug users'. Many countries suffer from powerful and wealthy cartels. According to the US Sentencing Commission figures: 79% of sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were black. By maintaining the false differentiation between 'crack' and 'coke'. for affluent white users. unemployed and younger generations are more likely to commit property crime when compared to the general population. An example of this is the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine (the same mandated 5 year minimum sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine would require 500 grams of powdered cocaine) in America. why do states continue to make war on drugs? It is because government policy is not based on evidence. never intended for those members of society with the means to manage their drug usage. The war on drugs does little to reduce demand either domestically or abroad.

This can be seen in states drug policies in many parts of the world. Jacqui Smith in 2009 re-classified cannabis upwards to Class B again. despite public opinion opposing any change in classification. Mulholland. it is a political tool with many uses. the UK and Sweden. and in a BBC Radio 5 interview in 2012. The UK. Like America. Nutt's comment that alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis caused outrage. intended to reflect harm. 10. if governments wanted to reduce the harms of drugs. with a similar cultural background as the US. public opinion seems to be evolving. Despite alcohol and tobacco being consistently shown to be more dangerous and detrimental to society than many other drugs. leaving the question as to why they acted at all. Newspaper headlines reporting a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee’s call for a royal commission to examine UK drug policy in December 2012 generally supported the committee's findings. David Nutt. states do not make war on drugs to simply reduce drug use. David Blunkett moved cannabis from Class B to Class C.12. There are two states in Europe that deserve specific attention. In October 2012. a move which reflected the evidence of harm as well as public opinion. was sacked for publicly criticising the government's ignoring of ACMD's recommendations of cannabis classification. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act created three classes of drugs in the UK: A. then chair of the ACMD. Yet despite relatively harsh penalties for drug use. and is a country which is currently undergoing a debate about drug policy both in academic discourse and in the media.rhetoric. represents a country which has some of the highest levels of drug usage in the EU.3 The most publicised aspect of UK drug policy in recent years was the classification of cannabis. a UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) 6 year study into government policy found that the strict law enforcement approach was doing little to solve the harms and dangers from drugs.12 4 Smith's decision was pure political posturing. and UK drug policy has in the last few years attracted significant criticism. In reality. Nevertheless. Yet David Cameron rejected an inquiry out of hand. In 2004. a move in which Nick Clegg responded that the Prime Minister had "missed an opportunity". despite a broadly restrictive drug policy. even when adjusting for the far greater number of users (Nutt 2011). Any deviation from the ‘tough on drugs’ message is seen as tacit approval of drug use. The Guardian. the UK government has succumbed to many of the myths surrounding drugs. they would listen to evidence and accept that the ‘war on drugs has failed’. Unfortunately. the UK has some of the highest rates of drug use in the EU (EMCDDA 2012). However. B and C. This was significant as the government could neither claim to be acting on expert advice nor public opinion. and that a new ap3 "David Cameron rejects call for royal commission on drugs". with a range of criminal penalties attached to each class. as well as ignoring scientific opinion4. based on evidence from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). she admitted that she was wrong in her decision to reclassify the drug (BBC 2012) . Sweden represents one of the strictest adherents to the 'tough on drugs' message in Europe. controversially. and is upheld as a model state in the war on drugs.

what have you got? You've got massive increases in the number of drug offenders. Tony Blair.. said that he would be "tough on crime. he confused causality with correlation when thinking of the link between drugs and crime. Blair made the same mistake that most politicians and the media make. ghettoisation. but which act together: that the politicisation of the issue has meant a change of policy is difficult. Instead. It is not just for politicians that it is intrinsically useful to promote the causal link between drugs and crime. Put simply. the Secretary of State for Justice of the United Kingdom.7. This same false connection is happening today. By painting the ills of society on drugs.html . demonstrated in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 2009 that it was disproportionately poor and vulnerable members of society who “face the biggest challenges in their lives [and] are also those most at risk from the threat of crime and violence”. yet then proposes harsher penalties as a solution. As he said in a BBC interview: "If you sat down and looked at issue of drugs and crime. 6 http://www. a public supportive of a change in policy. and of some of the highest drug usage rates in the EU? There are three main reasons I will offer for this rejection of scientific advise."6. Why does the UK maintain a 'war on drugs' in light of academic criticism from three different reports in the last three months. there is little political capital in removing the ‘plague of drugs’ from social and political discourse. meant that the approach taken with the issue of drugs was not seen in other policy areas (UKDPC 2012). 5 The UKDPC in October 2012 surveyed UK politician's views on current drug policy. he portrayed drug use itself as the problem. The moralisation of drug use portrays those in need of help as responsible for their own ills. Instead of highlighting the root causes of inequality. you've got clear links between drug use and crime. and many other failures of social policy that can lead to increased drug Blair correctly understood that strict penalties and law enforcement alone was not enough to significantly reduce crime. and most crucially. If this had been realised then we would not have the drug policies that we have today. none of which can be taken in isolation. that the political benefits of an idealistic divide within society between the upright and the immoral outweighs the political costs.93.. Chris Grayling. that the media has a role. in his 1997 Labour manifesto. through the propagation of myths (just as was the case with the 'crack epidemic').uk/otr/intext92-93/Blair4. yet he wrongly stated that drugs were a cause of crime. tough on the causes of crime". They found that 77% of MPs disagreed with the statement that current policies are effective in tackling the problems caused by illegal drugs. the lack of employment. They argued that many members of the public and politicians5 did not believe that the current drug policy was with an added moral and emotional aspect. it creates a scapegoat with which to divert attention from failing social policies which either do not address inequalities. as self-inflicted suffering. or worse exacerbates them. Even drug users themselves benefit from absolving their responsibility for the crimes committed in society by transferring guilt to a ‘suitable enemy’ of drugs. and that the polarisation of the debate. if not undesirable for governments. poverty and racial divides.proach was badly needed. (Radcliffe & Stevens 2008).

2 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs.The UK wages a war on drugs because it is politically beneficial to do so. why it is that racial minorities appear to have higher 7 . and a Daily Mail headline read "Party drug meow meow kills one young briton a week"7.1 times more likely to be arrested. By maintaining the moral rhetoric surrounding drug use. despite comprising only 2. in The Guardian http://tinyurl. when in fact they had taken the heroin replacement ‘methedone’. or are most likely to get caught. The Sun newspaper falsely stated that a 'man had ripped off his own scrotum whilst using mephedrone' (Davey et al 2010). with a general election three weeks after the report of the two boys' deaths. The media had created a storm based on false evidence. Afro-Caribbeans make up 25% of the prison population for drug offences (Riley et al 2009 in Stevens 2011). the impetus on the government to help is shifted from the 'problem individual' to the innocent victim. the government does not have to address why it is that racial minorities are more likely to be arrested for drug use. two boys were reported to have died from taking the new drug ‘mephedrone’. and the government had reacted by banning all new legal highs. Two members of the ACMD quit in protest. with Eric Carlin stating that the decision to ban mephedrone was "unduly based on media and political pressure" (Nutt 2011).4 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white compatriots.2% of the population aged over 10. By stigmatising drug users as responsible for their addiction and their social ills. Drug policy is not intentionally racist. all while there was little evidence that ‘mephedrone’ had itself caused any deaths. as with the crack epidemic of the 80s in America. Government and the media create a myth of an 'ideal citizen' who would not touch drugs or commit crime. not the drugs themselves. was keen to be seen to be acting quickly. in The Daily Mail http://tinyurl. 29 March 2010. the dangers of appearing weak on crime as well as the ability to use drugs as a smokescreen to hide social inequality make drug reform uninviting for any government. Black people in England and Wales are 9. a problem which the state would then be expected to resolve. and even more importantly. The government. The Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has argued that the media hype may actually have contributed to the greater number of people trying the drug (Nutt 2011). 6. Furthermore. The 'immoral attributes' that are associated with the 'drug user' becomes the real target. Once we have stigmatised the type of person who uses drugs as immoral and undeserving of our help or 8 Travis. creating a symbolic distinction between those who we want in society and those who we do not. a state's drug policy no longer has to address the prevalence of drugs across the board. the media's role in creating 'epidemics' and panic has not disappeared. instead it only has to tackle the associated evil characteristics associated with certain drug users. the government need not promote the idea that problematic drug use can be a consequence of a harsh and unequal social environment. and 11. but the consequences of targeting those who are least able to deal with their addiction. make it so. The same racial disparity seen in America is also present in the UK. Despite the mistake. and said that the 'drug would be banned within weeks'8. Unfortunately. a media frenzy ensued. In 2010. 21 October 2011. As soon as this transference has taken place.

does not demonstrate the war on drugs’ effectiveness. unquestionable even when shown to be both ineffective and unfair. David Cameron's choice of 'broken Britain' and 'broken society' as terms to describe the social state of the UK reflects this paradigm of blame and self-inflicted problems. even states regarded as a model of the war’s success have politicised drug policy for their own advantage. If the moralistic language of drugs and crime. but would address the causes of the inequality which can lead to more crime and drug use. the war on drugs has become a moralistic cause with which to protect an idealised vision of Swedish society. Yet the distinction between the 'ideal victim' and 'suitable enemy' is a false one. has created a discourse in which. The Social Democrats incrementally brought in stricter drug policies. albeit aimed at dealers. Under increased pressure from conservative parties who were painting the Social Democrats as soft on crime. evil and damaging are what is either symbolically or empirically evident as contaminating the values of society and culture (Douglas 1966 in Stevens 2011). traffickers and producers . Instead. The framing of the drug user as the ‘suitable enemy’. and the lefts abandoning of crime’s social roots (Tham 1995b).drug related problems despite similar usage rates as other sections of society. Sweden had rising levels of drug use throughout the 1950s and 1960s. What a society prioritises as dangerous. Aided by the media. The false causality between drugs and crime reinforces existing prejudices. The successes of the right in politicising and moralising crime. the atmosphere surrounding drug policy was altered. The individual that is painted as the 'suitable enemy' can at the same time be a victim of the system. in contrast to the ‘ideal victim’ of those that drugs effect. then the USA. not untypical of European states at the time. with harsher penalties than Sweden. and evidence can be ‘cherry-picked’ to support the rhetoric (Stevens 2011) until it becomes gospel. would show similar low prevalence rates. 'Broken Britain' would not result in tougher penalties. and media outrage at isolated events (such as the death of a 17 year old girl in 1967 due to being given drugs intended as part of a government trial in rehabilitation by medically distributed drug treatment). which characterises an individual as 'evil' and 'self-indulgent'. as well as one of most restrictive drug policies (Chatwin 2011). The use of the war on drugs as a political tool is not limited to just the USA or the UK. distinguishing between the traditional and ‘local’. to oppose strict drug policy is to oppose traditional values. One would expect that if drug use was dependent on strict government policy. like the US and the UK. government policy would undergo a huge transformation. I will show how Sweden’s 'war on drugs' is a political tool to reinforce a threatened Swedish identity. Government and media rhetoric can become self-fulfilling (Radcliffe & Stevens 2008). a young drug-researcher who wanted a drug free society. the work of Nils Bejerot. Sweden. and the subversive and ‘other’. which has some of the lowest drug prevalence rates in the EU (EMCDDA 2012). and the Social Democrats championed a liberal approach in reflection of this attitude (Tham 2001). make strong public policy possible (Christie 1986). Drug use was largely associated with an anti-establishment and anti-authority public mentality. was removed from political discourse.

410 . drug usage had already begun to fall in the early 1970s. which was widely reported in the media. it is claimed. In reality. Cloaked in the moralistic language of Bejerot's National Organisation for a Drug Free Society (RNS) and the perceived advantage of being tough on crime. and a perceived foreign corruption of Swedish society. During the 1980s in Sweden. 10 Law and Order as a Leftist Project? : The Case of Sweden Henrik Tham 2001 Punishment & Society 3:409 pg. the trend for young experimenters with drugs to naturally reduce their usage with age. the government stressed the success of the 'Swedish Model' (a zero-tolerance. "the law breaker was no longer seen as a poor victim of circumstance but rather as a psychopath or an exploiter"9. 415 . and the historical attitudes of temperance to alcohol. created an idealised notion what it meant to be Swedish. they had won by portraying the Social Democrats as soft on crime and drugs (Chatwin 2011). While Sweden may have low drug prevalence rates. The association of crime and drugs. not a corruption of Swedish morality. Despite criminalisation of personal possession of drugs only coming into force in 1988. It is inequality and social deprivation that leads to 9 Henrik Tham . Whilst there may be no single cause of Sweden’s low drug prevalence rates. The increase in drug usage in the 1990s. in 2002 Sweden had the fastest growing drug related mortality rate in the EU (EMCDDA 2002). Decreasing drug usage rates throughout the 1980s were utilised by drug prohibitionists and the government to create the impression that it was a result of stricter laws that had reduced drug rates. are a powerful political tool. foreign to Swedish life and culture"10. Tham argues that facing a diminishing welfare state. some factors that have been suggested is low youth unemployment. In 1976.Swedish Drug Policy. public opinion seemed to reflect the government's assertions.European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 6:395–414. The politicisation of drug policy ‘ring-fenced’ drug policy from further alteration. The National Council for Crime Prevention in 2005 reported that 25% of crime in Sweden was committed by immigrants. whilst attempting to stay relevant in Swedish politics. "This more active drug policy also seems to contain an element of fear for all things foreign. ‘drug free society’ model) in lowering drug usage rates (Chatwin 2011). when a centre-right coalition defeated the Social Democrats. despite increasing severity of punishment. the political advantages gained from portraying 'foreign' drug users as corrupting traditional values. Sweden brought on the spot urine and blood samples for drug presence into law) was a result of their economic crisis. Despite flawed evidence. Sweden maintains its traditional values in part through targeting what it portrays as 'foreign' and threatening.1998. Whilst less overtly racial. disproportionately affects those most in need. just as in the UK and USA. are under attack from new and dangerous substances. and subsequently doing something about it. and even tried to export their 'success' internationally (Tops 2001). before a restrictive approach was adopted.rather than the user. whilst simultaneously portraying them as undermining traditional Swedish values. Sweden’s war on drugs. A Successful Model? pg. it was also in the left's interest to promote a moral imperative to protect the drug user from both the state and himself. drug policy in the 1980s was highly politicised (Tham 1995). (in 1993. Traditional values.

D. Houndmills. the family. • Goldberg. demonstrated by the three states looked at in this essay’s unwillingness to conduct reviews into their policies. (2005) Understanding attitudes to immigration: The migration and minority module of the first European Social Survey. Drugs.423433. Journal of Drug Issues . ghettoisation. (1999) The Social Construction of the Crack Epidemic in the Print Media. Centre for research and analysis of migration . (2009) Race. and Law Enforcement in the United States. . Stanford Law and Policy Review. (2004) The Evolution of Swedish Drug Policy. Only those in power know the answer. A. Lisbon. • EMCDDA (2011) National report 2011: United Kingdom. However at worst they are intentionally utilising moralistic rhetoric to mask deeper social issues. even before the unequal application of drug laws. The creation of an 'ideal citizen'. et al. is too powerful a political tool to warrant reform. family hardships and lack of support networks can all lead to increased drug use. whether for the individual. and just as with alcohol and tobacco. the society or a whole nation. not causes. D. Social factors such as unemployment. Drug use can be dangerous. not an overly liberal approach to penalisation (Stevens 2011). The moralistic rhetoric employed by both government and media surrounding drug use creates a smokescreen to hide the real issues at the heart of society. Drug Policy Harmonization and the European Union. irrespective of the damage they cause. Basingstoke. A lack of evidence in support of the war on drugs. however I hope it is the former. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. • Fellner. The war on drugs is a political tool. T. 34 (551). There is a genuine need to reduce as far as possible the harms associated with drugs. and Golub. Bibliography • Card. At best governments are stubborn and ignorant. It is undoubtedly those most disadvantaged who bear the brunt of the harms of drugs. Caroline.increased drug use. They can also lead to increased crime. • Chatwin. 31 (4). 2011. which divides those worthy of support and sympathy from those whose problems are self inflicted. suggests that governments do not make war on drugs to reduce drug related harms. despite there being so much evidence that they should. Lisbon.Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. and an ever growing array of expert criticism against current policy. • EMCDDA (2012) 2012 Annual report on the state of the drugs problem in Europe. should not be encouraged. Yet both drugs and crime are symptoms of social inequality. unintentionally fragmenting society into the worthy and unworthy in the mistaken belief that this is the only course of action. J. • Hartman. p.

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