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MODERN WAR ON DRUGS
Presidential access to the media, in conjunction with the media’s capacity to make or break a politician, is a dynamic not to be overlooked in setting the stage for a mobiliza- tion of public opinion. So even though drug use was on the decline in the 1980s, political leaders moved to place illegal drugs on the public agenda (Robinson & Scherlen, 2007). The war against other drugs was waged on legal fronts, sometimes by means of well- publicized semimilitary–style operations.
Controlling drug use was an attractive political issue for conservatives because it drew attention to individual deviance and immorality and away from questions of eco- nomic inequality and injustice. The drug scare was played up in the media with an orgy of news coverage to create an image of inner-city explosion centering on crack cocaine (Robinson & Scherlen, 2007). Public opinion changed dramatically following the barrage of news “exposés.” Richard Nixon was the first American president to declare what he metaphorically called a “war on drugs,” a strategy he devised to separate himself from Lyndon Johnson’s liberal “war on poverty.” His metaphor grew into a reality as the Reagan, the elder Bush, and Clinton administrations poured billions of dollars into a massive military operation to fight the enemy (drug suppliers) at home and on foreign
soil. The political rhetoric connecting youth, violence, minorities, and crime has persisted in the minds of Americans for two decades since the Reagan administration, largely due to the crusading efforts of politicians. A lesson we can learn from the drug wars is that many of them have been inspired by racist sentiment and ethnocentrism because they are directed at marginalized groups; they are not based on empirical evidence from scien- tists on best practices concerning harms caused by drug use (Kelley, 2015; Robinson & Scherlen, 2007) (see Chapter 13).
Media campaigns often follow government pronouncements concerning surging drug epidemics. According to Robinson and Scherlen, there have been only three times in his- tory when there was anything like an epidemic of drug use. These were the popularity of heroin in the 1960s, the heavy use of powder cocaine in the 1970s and early 1980s, and crack cocaine use in the 1980s. Compared to outbreaks of physical disease, these epidemics in U.S. history, these drug use epidemics, according to Robinson and Scherlen, are not alarming. Yet, media antidrug campaigns can lead to public panics. As the media campaign under President Reagan really got underway, for example, surveys taken in 1986 showed that the American public saw drugs as the most important problem facing the American nation.
In the 1960s, the horror stories concerned heroin; in the 1980s, crack cocaine was the focus. Concern about crack cocaine led Congress to write the antidrug statutes of 1986 and 1988, which legislated everything from mandatory drug testing to funding interna- tional interdiction and domestic treatment (Stern, 2006). These statutes continue to dom- inate the way the federal law books address drug-related crime.
In the 1990s, the drug scare was about designer drugs such as Ecstasy and later the focus was on methamphetamine (meth) (Miller, 2014). Although there may be a growing problem with the drugs of the day, and the media and political campaigns against them, the choice of which drugs are the focus of the antidrug campaigns are often prompted by a shift in political priorities rather than an increase in drug misuse (Encyclopaedia Britan- nica, 2005).
Like its predecessor, Prohibition, America’s war on drugs is directed toward the poor, especially those associated with urban social disorder. Also as with the criminalization of alcohol, criminalization of these drugs represents a desperate attempt to curb the unstoppable desire for mood-altering substances. Harsh laws that require lengthy min- imum sentences for the possession of even small amounts of drugs have created a boom in prison construction. With around half of the federal government’s $26 billion expen- diture on the drug problem going to law enforcement agencies and just another half to prevention and treatment (Kelley, 2015), the focus is clearly not on rehabilitation but on punishment. And like antidrug legislation in the past, much of the blame is aimed at foreign forces, namely, the drug suppliers. If the supply can be stopped, whether through the use of weaponry or economic sanctioning, so the reasoning goes, illegal drug use on the streets can be curbed. Media accounts focus on foreign governments—for exam- ple, Mexico—to increase their commitment to work with the United States to eradicate the problem. Recently, Mexico has complied with mixed results. The battle against drug suppliers in Mexico, which is largely financed by the United States, has resulted in over 100,000 deaths and has greatly affected the tourist trade (Gordon, 2015). This drug war against the Mexican cartels has been a dismal failure as the cartels are as strong as ever; they are responsible for the majority of the methamphetamine sold in the United States. Heroin is their other big product. The legalization of marijuana in several American states has helped reduce the market for the transportation of that drug. Recently the Mexican Supreme Court legalized marijuana for personal cultivation and use (Malkin & Ahmed,2015). Mexican political leaders have repeatedly urged the United States to decriminalize marijuana to reduce the Mexican drug cartels’ profits. They also urge a tightening of U.S. gun control laws to clamp down on the flow of weapons into Mexico.
Billions of dollars have been spent in drug eradication projects in other parts of Latin America as well. The U.S. government poured some $4 billion over the years into fumi- gating coca crops and arming the military in Colombia (Stokes, 2005) and 2.4 billion to fight the cartels in Mexico alone (Gordon, 2015). Colombia is the world’s leading exporter of cocaine. Because the coca fields are far apart, aerial spraying when applied to a wide surface area harms crops and all other life in the region. Warning labels on the chemicals used in these spraying efforts explicitly caution against the health risks to human life (Mosher & Akins, 2007).
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