The Politics of Heroin

Self-ownership is the bedrock of property rights; to deny this is to imply that someone else has a higher claim upon your life than you do. Any actions by the State that infringes upon the individual ability to homestead, own, and trade property is violating the very purpose of the Law, that is, to promote an absence of plunder. But plundering is all that happens when particular commodities have been arbitrarily decreed “illegal” by government agents who have something to gain at the expense of the free market.



American President Richard Nixon declared, from on high, the War on Drugs in 1971. Initially, it seemed little more than an attempted reestablishment of Prohibition (albeit with some types of drugs rather than with alcohol) by doing a run-around Congress, since executive orders and rulemaking were used rather than constitutional amendments. According to the author:


“Nixon’s motivations for this impassioned effort were a mix of hardball politics and genuine, if misplaced, idealism. From his private and public statements, Nixon appears deeply concerned about America’s loss of moral community like the one he had known growing up in small-town U.S.A…[a]rmed with such moral certitude, Nixon led his domestic drug war in increasingly partisan and repressive directions…[p]roudly, Nixon proclaimed: ‘We are winning this war. The raging heroin epidemic of the 1960s has been stemmed.’ To back his claims, Nixon cited the doubling of the global heroin seizures in 1972. In the future, Nixon promised new laws with tough ‘mandatory sentences’ to stop ‘permissive judges’ from giving suspended sentences to heroin pushers. Above all, Nixon promised to halt ‘the erosion of moral fiber in American life’ and to defend what he called ‘the citizen’s first civil right: the right to be free from domestic violence.’”


Perhaps not surprisingly, flowery rhetoric was given more weight by the government than actual facts. McCoy elaborates:


“In the campaign’s last weeks, Democratic candidate George McGovern countered by calling for emphasis on treatment, education, and poverty – in effect, outlining a future Democratic drug policy. He dismissed Nixon’s claim that heroin was ‘drying up,’ arguing that his evidence was based on bogus street-price statistics. Indeed, later studies have argued that the epidemic of rising addition from 68,000 users in 1969 to 559,000 in 1971 was, in fact, a fabrication – a crude one that Nixon drug warriors had crafted by manipulating the ratio between the number of ‘reported’ and ‘estimated’ addicts to produce that frightening half-million figure. If these critics were correct, Nixon’s White House had manufactured addict numbers to create a heroin crisis, then declared war to fight this supposed epidemic, and finally manipulated figures on heroin prices to claim victory – all in time for the 1972 presidential elections.”


So, it would appear that the claim of degenerating “family values” or “national moral fiber” as a result of supposedly illicit narcotics was just simply a smokescreen to dupe clueless voters into keeping Nixon in power by reelecting him. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there; Nixon’s successors not only took up the phony “anti-drug” banner, but also used it as a way to expand government power even further:


“Most importantly, the Bush administration militarized the drug war…the Bush administration enlisted the US Defense Department in the drug war, expanding its scale far beyond the limited resources of the State and Justice departments.”


I don’t remember the Framers’ federal Constitution permitting the central government to use the military against a tradeable commodity. Even if that leap of logic could be sustained, what is absolutely criminal about all of this is that the Congress would have to declare war pursuit to Article 1, Section 8 (this requires that there be an actual country to be the enemy). Obviously, involving the military in enforcing drug prohibition, even if for overseas campaigns alone, is unconstitutional on its face.

Why would Nixon get the ball rolling on coercive enforcement over a phony non-existent problem (and that even if it were, is completely wrong for the federal government to handle anyway) that violates property rights (which is ostensibly the very purpose of the night-watchman State)? You must remember that whenever any government declares a certain economic good to be illegal, this artificially inflates what would have been a reasonable price, because now only the black market can handle it (and since they are inherently trading risk for profit, their just compensation is factored into the price). Of course, the black marketeers involved in the global narcotics trade are, for the most part, not adherents of laissez-faire; they are essentially little more than wannabe corporatists who are more than happy to cheat in order to “get rich quickly.”

But how can these wannabe corporatist street thug types “get away” with moving tons upon tons of illicit narcotics around the planet? Consider that politicians in the host countries (ranging from Laos to Marseille) must be bribed, undue favorable government protection secured, and rampant poverty all serves to keep narcotics smuggling a well-oiled machine. For instance:


“In the opium highlands of Southeast Asia, there are certain structural givens of land, economy, and politics that have inclined the CIA toward complicity in the opium trade. In most cases, the CIA’s role involved various forms of complicity, tolerance, or studied ignorance about the trade, not any direct culpability in the actual trafficking. With its vast budget, the CIA has no reason to handle heroin. Instead it was the agency’s tactics of indirect intervention through local allies, some of them drug lords, that led to the similarly indirect involvement in drug trafficking. The CIA did not handle heroin, but it did provide its drug-lord allies with transport, arms, and political protection. In sum, the CIA’s role in the Southeast Asian heroin trade involved indirect complicity rather than direct culpability.”


Ah, another one of those Administrative (alphabet soup) Agencies doing something unconstitutional and blatantly illegal? I’ve never heard of that before! Or maybe I have?

The $64,000 question here seems to be, that if American drug prohibition is unconstitutional, illegal, and also immoral, then why does the federal government (and their state-level crony governments) continue to prosecute citizens for use, or even possession of, what it arbitrarily deems to be forbidden goods? McCoy postulates:


“In reviewing this century of narcotics prohibition, it is impossible to overlook the mix of idealism and cynicism in America’s drug war. Throughout the twentieth century, the anti-drug crusade has attracted impassioned social reformers and dutiful civil servants who have built a global prohibition regime of treaties, laws, and enforcement. Yet these same simple ideals have often been co-opted by politicians with other, less lofty, agendas – racial repression, colonial dominion, partisan politics, covert operations, or most recently, mass incarceration of unemployed minority males. How can a clear, narrowly focused policy, grounded in law and treaty, girded with budget and bureaucracy, be so easily hijacked to serve other ends? As a concept rooted in late-nineteenth-century Protestant social movements, drug prohibition retains, at its core, their Social Darwinist ideals of coercive controls and social eugenics, making it a ready vehicle for racial and imperial policies. In the early twentieth century, ideas about the unique Chinese inclination to opium smoking justified colonial opium monopolies in Southeast Asia, just as American stereotypes of Irish drinking, Black cocaine use, and women’s narcotics abuse inspired US domestic drug prohibition. Rhetoric about the drug evil and the moral imperative of its extirpation has been matched by a paradoxical willingness to subordinate or even sacrifice the cause for more questionable goals. The same governments who seem to rail most sternly against drugs, such as Nationalist China in the 1930s and the United States since the 1940s, have frequently formed covert alliances with drug traffickers.”


Damn, that would suggest that the governments involved are, at best, idealistically naïve, and at worst, hypocritical. McCoy continues:


“Nowhere is this contradiction between social idealism and political realism more evident than in the clash between prohibition and protection during the cold war. Throughout these forty years of global conflict, Washington seemed ready, whenever the need arose, to sacrifice its drug war to fight the cold war. Indeed, conservative administrations that house the most militant drug warriors have often sanctioned, formally or informally, CIA alliances with drug lords. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in Asia while his emissaries tolerated heroin trafficking in Indochina. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan extended this drug war into Latin America with ringing rhetoric while his CIA director… allied with the Caribbean’s top cocaine smugglers. In 2001 – 2002, George W. Bush diverted the massive $500 million in antinarcotics funding for Plan Colombia to a counter-guerrilla campaign that includes protecting a private oil pipeline. Indeed, Bush’s war in Colombia may yet prove the ultimate contradiction between prohibition and protection. After winning this antinarcotics appropriation from a Congress wary of any involvement in civil conflict, he shifted these funds to fight leftist guerrillas in ways that may strengthen Colombia’s rightist paramilitaries and expand their control over the cocaine traffic. If the DEA’s drug warriors appeared, at times, to tilt naively against the power of a global commodity, then the CIA’s operatives served its covert operations. This clash between prohibition and protection, idealism and cynicism, reveals a certain moral hollowness at the drug war’s core that overshadows even its dubious economic logic.”


Hmmm… might that just mean that decriminalization of narcotics would actually be hitting two birds with one stone? Might it just be possible for there to not only be a rollback of State power, but also a natural tendency to emerge of lessening narcotics use, just like what happened with the first round of Prohibition (that was thankfully ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment)? Of course, the State has no incentive to lessen the increased levels of power it arbitrarily gave itself by providing a flimsy pretext to violate both the Law and the Constitution, so it would be foolhardy to expect this government to decriminalize narcotics anytime soon.

Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade is a fascinating history of drug prohibition, and not just here in America. Apparently, it would seem to be the case that foreign governments have been trying to ban opiates and other types of narcotics since at least the First Opium War. Perhaps if any limited government took their own legal duties seriously, they would actually do their fucking job of protecting our lives, liberties, and property by focusing on real criminals instead of incarcerating citizens for carrying a leaf (or even a baggie) in their pockets as some sort of “victimless crime.”