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The American 'war' on drugs and the expansion of domestic state power

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‘War’: for years various American administrations have claimed to have waged it on their own people, all in the name of eradicating the evil and menace to society that is drugs. In 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Tax Act which was used to restrict the sale of heroin. Up until that moment the drugs market had gone mostly unregulated and this can be seen as the opening salvo in what would eventually evolve into a full-scale ‘war on drugs’. Now in this the centenary year of the start of the fight against drugs in America, it still seems that no end is in sight. The purpose of this article will be to show how the 'war on drugs' has been turned into a political weapon with which to legitimate the vast expansion of domestic state power. I will argue that the media has been used to create such a fear and panic within the majority of its citizens that the country has now, in the name of this war, gutted its own fourth amendment and introduced racially based profiling and ‘stop and frisk’ police tactics with the most minimal cause. Yet this ‘war’ still seems to be producing no end or even progress.

Various administrations in America have continued to escalate this war of occupation in their own inner cities until more than half of the adult black male population of lower-class areas such as the Bronx, Western Baltimore and South Central L.A. are now, in some way, under the supervision of the criminal justice system (Simon and Burns, 2009: 541). This article will show that through this remarkable expansion of domestic state power, facilitated by a culture of fear nurtured by a pawn-like yet all-too-willing media, American society has deserted some of its poorest, most vulnerable, citizens, leaving them to be swallowed up by this 'war'. American government can no longer claim to have the interests of citizens at heart if it continues with the ruthless policy that, over the last fifty years has encouraged racial profiling and bias, turned lower-class urban zones into virtual battlefields and shredded constitutional and even basic human rights to the point that the proud phrase ‘the land of the free’ has become a mockery that would almost be ironically comical if it wasn’t so ultimately tragic. America is no longer, if it was ever, at war with drugs. It is very much at war with itself.

Before embarking upon any thorough analysis of the 'war on drugs', I believe that the first issue that needs consideration is the name given to this crusade. The over-used terminology classing America’s efforts to enforce drug prohibition as a ‘war’ may have long ago seeped into public consciousness but can America really claim that the ‘war on drugs’ is a war in the true sense of the word? Wars are governed by the laws of war, whereas the police and governmental actions of the war on drugs are not. To recognize another in war is to recognize him, in certain respects as an equal, governed by common rules, the rules (and laws) of war (Dubber, 2004: 56). But, as they said in The Wire: "you can't even call this shit a war.... Wars end". If this crusade on drugs is not a war in the true sense of the word then why have several American Presidents declared it as such to the point that the phrase ‘the war on drugs’ has become ingrained in American culture? Instead of a true war, the word becomes a metaphor applied to a national crime suppression campaign which advocates the remarkable expansion of federal criminal law and the close co-ordination of federal and state criminal law. The use of something as extreme as the war metaphor is particularly useful as it serves the purpose of promoting the use of extremes. The war metaphor has been used to generate so great a perception of this internal threat as to create a panic around drugs. Governments have then nurtured the resulting culture of fear that grips the majority of the population until concern about illicit drugs is to such an extent that that there is an increasing tolerance for the expansion of state power into all phases of social life and the erosion of democratic freedoms. As Tom Wicker aptly put it; ‘a war on drugs emphasizing combat, arrests and jailing’s could produce a wartime mentality - the spirit that anything goes, including the sacrifice of constitutional freedoms in this battle against drugs’ (cited in Johns, 1992: 89).

It is important to understand fully just how vital the topic of drugs and the idea of the drugs war were as political weapons. Political discourse on the drugs war could literally make or break an election, and often drugs became an easy fall-back option for politicians unwilling to tackle harder subjects in campaign agendas. This was evident in Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs as his main campaign agenda when running for President, meaning that he could neatly sidestep the Vietnam issue which was at the time dividing the nation. However, the 'war on drugs' is just part of the explanation for excusing what has become the social regulation of the underclass in America. Drug use and its related activities are crimes, but it is not just the poor that generate crime nor are drug offences the only crimes that exist. Yet the morals of the State tend to censure the lower class and not the middle or upper classes. Seeing as drug dealing, particularly low-level dealing has long been associated with the lower classes, coupled with the fact that it is a very visible crime, often taking place on street corners and doorsteps, it becomes an easy target for politicians trying to make good on promises to tackle crime. The government, if they wish to remain there, have to find a way to harness public opinion, and in the case of the American governments from the 1960s right up to present day, many found their answer in fear of crime. Fear affects public opinion and as such the American government created and nurtured the drugs panic, instilling into public perception every reason to fear drugs.

War on drugs is black and white, by Kirk AndersonTo explain these inflated public perceptions, we must turn to the media. As Stuart Hall and his colleagues (1978) have argued, the media relies heavily on official ‘claim-makers’ from academia and government who have a built-in bias towards supporting hegemonic discourses, and thus reinforcing state policies. In this manner, the media have been a primary vehicle through which illegal drugs and the drugs trade became viewed as a pandemic inner-city black problem. For example, public concern about drugs in general, or crack in particular, reached their highest points (1981, '86 and '88) during the significant media drug coverage corresponding to President, Congress and other claims-makers who were, at those times, calling for a renewed war on drugs. The media played a vital catalytic role in defining this inner-city drug abuse as a cause of crime and as a pandemic problem and most importantly in shaping the public’s perception of random drug violence. The media have focused disproportionate attention on drug-related random violence, particularly black-on-white crime, such as car-jackings and drive-by shootings, which has helped perpetuate the image of a drug-infested black inner-city that is a pervasive threat to white middle class suburbia. In 1988 George Bush Snr. ran his infamous and irresponsible ‘Willie Horton’ television advertisement during the presidential campaign, which features images of a black male viciously raping a white girl as emblematic of the contemporary ‘crime problem’. It was after this year that African-American men began to supply the majority of prison admissions for the country as a whole (Wacquant, 2009: 197). Both government irresponsibility and sensationalist media coverage of shadowy figures, such as the Central Park Jogger and the Long Island Commuter Train gunman, among other notable examples of random black-on-white violence, have ensured that this bias portrait has become firmly embedded in America’s collective social conscience (Raup, 1996: 132-3).

The state then used the media as their instrument in order to create this panic which neatly deflected from larger issues such as economic instability and gave them licence to take certain countermeasures. Developing the moral panic around the 'war on drugs' became a means for government to circulate their own propaganda which served to control public opinion for, as Young puts it, moral panics are ‘a propaganda of a very sophisticated sort, playing on widespread discontent and insecurities’ (Young, 1973: 316).

Drug panics have historically been used in America for centuries as part of larger campaigns against the marginalised populations; to legitimise their oppression or regulation. Prejudice against the Chinese was largely behind legislation prohibiting opium smoking in the latter 19th century. In the early 1900s, both Jewish and Italian communities were portrayed as leading the slide towards moral degeneracy through drug use. The rhetoric that accompanied these previous campaigns against both drugs and minorities is strikingly similar to that presently used in America’s current ‘war on drugs’ (Johns: 1992: 74). The result of these drug panics was a relaxation of concern about civil liberties amongst a frightened public and a new emphasis on security and control. The call for protection from the state becomes rapidly replaced by a demand for protection by the state (Garland, 2001: 12). In this way, the state uses and controls the media to harness this culture of fear in order to secure consent for the introduction of increasingly repressive legislation, which, due to the heightened culture of fear, is not as opposed as it might have been and, in many cases, is widely welcomed (Mythen, Walklate, 2006: 565).

America is now at a stage with the current ‘war on drugs’ where almost every social problem (especially crime) is being portrayed as and perceived as a drug problem. Almost every homicide, assault and robbery is now presented in the media as drug-related. Almost never, however, is the concept of drug-related crime defined. There is no uniform definition of drug-related crime among criminal justice agencies, much less among the media. Through the labelling and stigmatisation of drug-related crime the survival strategies of the underclass in their desperation to escape the vast array of social and economic problems have become further marginalised. News media imageThe media again plays a vital role in this marginalisation. For example, the moment the cocaine problem seeped its way down to the poorer segments of society the media shifted the way in which it portrayed the problem. Until then the typical coke user had been portrayed as white, rich, attractive and ultimately tragic. Now, almost all of those shown snorting or smoking the drug in the media are either black or Hispanic, they are no longer tragic, but menacing and their neighbourhoods are seen as a domestic war ground (Baum, 1996: 222).

Such regimes of distorted truth through the apparatuses of both the state and the media not only serve to construct a particular version of reality, which in turn creates a culture of fear, but they may also serve to construct and perpetuate dominant censures of particular social groups. These hegemonic censures, having dehumanised their target, are able to legitimate and mobilise political forces against that target. Thus a regime like the one seen in the drugs war not only labels a group as deviant but also identifies that group as the cause of certain social evils and legitimates state violence against them in the eyes of larger society (Raup, 1996: 127). By primarily focusing on drug use and trafficking by members of the lower class and minority groups, the 'war on drugs' has allowed the legitimisation of the virtual abandonment of minority and marginalised segments of the population and has assisted in making them appear not as a lower or even an underclass but as an enemy class deserving of this marginality, impoverishment and in many cases imprisonment (Johns, 1992: 58).

The apparent ease with which this abandonment of the new ‘enemy class’ within American society took place is largely due to the rhetoric of several Republican administrations that constantly put the responsibility for crime on the criminal and not on society as a whole. This rhetoric has reinforced a culture of individualism which operates within America as if the fate of individuals is an individual problem. The choice has been made in America to ignore widespread social and economic inequality and to focus on the use, abuse and trafficking of illegal drugs as if it were the most damaging and severe social problem the country faces (Johns, 1992: 73). This American culture of individualism creates a receptive climate within public opinion for harsher prison policies and more stringent law enforcement. As exemplified by being the only industrialised nation to not have universal healthcare, the adoption or promotion of more collective approaches to social problems is far less ingrained into American culture than others. This culture makes it easier to have ‘solutions’ that punish individuals rather than addressing underlying social problems (Mauer, 2000: 9).

Drugs become a convenient veil with which to hide these social problems that are not being tackled. On 9 April 1988 the city of Los Angeles declared war on its poorest citizens, sending more than a thousand police officers into South Central under the guise of the 'war on drugs'. ‘Tonight’ a police spokesman told reporters, ‘[w]e pick them up for everything and anything’. More than 1,400 people, mostly young black men, were arrested and booked on charges from illegal weapons, to loitering and unpaid parking tickets. The city, having examined all the problems facing the people of South Central – businesses closing, the flight of the middle class, the decimated school budgets - decided that drugs were the sole source of the neighbourhood’s trouble (Baum, 1996: 251).

The law-and-order policy of the United States has been built on this basis of focusing mainly on the visible delinquency of the lower class as opposed to the veiled, white collar crimes of the upper classes. Among these lower-class offences, it first and foremost targets the retail sales and consumption of drugs in segregated black and Latino neighbourhoods/communities, where this trade has filled the void created by the withdrawal of the legitimate wage-paying businesses. The time, resources, and energy devoted to policing drug use deflects police time and resources away from other more serious and costly crimes such as the white collar crimes of corporate crimes, environmental crimes and political crimes. This move towards a focusing of law enforcement efforts onto the country’s new ‘enemy class’ is exemplified by President H.W. Bush’s budget proposals for 1990 which would mean that the FBI (which had traditionally been at least partly involved in investigations of crimes of the powerful) would experience a 4% cutback in manpower while the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) would experience a 12% increase (Johns, 1992: 16-17).

Not in prison for taking drugsThe growing expansion of this state power under the veil of the drugs ‘war’ has ultimately led to the rise of the punitive state. This means that nearly 1 in 50 people, excluding children and the elderly, are in prison in America, and there were, in 2010, more persons in prisons for drug offences than there were persons in prisons for all offences in 1975 (Zimring, 2012: 89). These factors amongst others mean that the United States with 5% of the world’s population now has over a quarter of its prisoners (Gottschalk, 2006: 2). The reinforcement and extension of the punitive apparatus throughout these years has continued, in line with previous flawed policy, to centre on the dispossessed districts of the inner city and urban periphery. Here it concentrates on the situation created by the retrenchment of the state from both the economic and social front and has spawned the emergence of an unforgiving state that seeks to rectify social problems with punitive measures.

This punitive swing, which heralded a new government of social insecurity, sought to use imprisonment as a means for providing reassurance and security to middle- and upper-class sectors from the panic that it had created. This meant the sacrificing the poor, especially the black urban sub-proletariat, to be a scapegoat for all the country’s problems. One of these problems was the significant rise in urban dislocation, and American government responded by developing their penal functions to the point of hypertrophy. Its disciplinary net was flung throughout the lower classes of the USA so as to contain the disarray and turmoil spawned by the growth of their socio-economic exclusion and intensified marginality. This in essence has meant the deployment of a state policy of criminalization and consequent imprisonment upon the consequences of what in reality is state-sponsored poverty (Wacquant, 2009: 58).

The ethnic composition of the inmate population of the United States is also staggering having virtually inverted in the past half a century, going from about 70 percent white (Anglo) in 1950 to 30 percent white today (Ibid, 195). The most vivid example of this overt discrimination is that abuse of crack cocaine, a drug used primarily by poor urban blacks and Hispanics, is punished one hundred times more severely than abuse of its powdered counterpart, the drug of choice for middle and upper class whites even though their harmful effects are similar (Gottschalk, 2006: 31). Also, whereas the difference between arrest rates for whites and blacks remained stable, the amount of blacks incarcerated after an arrest increased dramatically. This is even more shocking when we consider that at this time significant numbers of African-Americans were entering and rising through the ranks of the police, the courts and the corrections administrations and at a time when the more overt forms of racial discrimination were actually been eradicated. Lastly, the lifelong cumulative probability for ‘doing time’ in a state or federal penitentiary is 4% for whites, 16% for Latinos and a staggering 29% for blacks.

The ultimate achievement of any administration pursuing a policy which allows the expansion of its domestic power is creating a balance between this goal and political viability or sustainability. The punitive policy based on the drugs war achieves not only the satisfaction of the white middle- and upper-class voter base due to the reassurance this policy gives in relation to the state-created fear of crime but also means that, as of 1997, nearly one black man in every six was excluded from the ballot box due to a felony, often drug-related, conviction (Wacquant, 2009: 198).

While administration after administration casts the drugs trade as the enemy, the usefulness of the trade and the resulting moral panic for government should not be underestimated. Marx described the criminal as ‘one of those natural equilibrating forces which establish a just balance and open up a whole perspective of useful occupations’ (Marx, 1993: 53). The advent of the DEA, the constant budget boosts to local law enforcement and the rise of the drug-testing market are all examples of how the ‘war on drugs’ has become a multi-billion dollar business creating mass employment within the middle and upper classes. The war on drugs made the criminal justice system one of the top growth industries during the eighties and nineties and well into the opening years of the 21st century with police jobs at all levels of government swelling, and prison jobs increasing by 86% during the Reagan years alone.

For those in the enforcement business, the war on drugs meant boom time (Baum, 1996: 306). As Gore Vidal put it ‘fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them’ (Duke and Gross, 1993: 232). The drugs panic also serves to diffuse potential protests from black and other marginalised populations in terms of distribution of wealth and opportunity in America, because the widespread involvement in drug trafficking and drug abuse functions to defuse opposition and political pressure for change. It functions to turn what sociologists would class as ‘social dynamite’ into ‘social junk’. Simply put, instead of demonstrating, rioting and burning down Washington in protest over the very conditions of their existence, many minority youths are selling drugs, abusing drugs, sitting in prison, or dead. The latter is certainly preferable to the former from the standpoint of the bourgeois (Johns, 1992:76).

The huge range of laws and censures against drugs, and their rigorous over-implementation, only within certain communities reflects the desire and the need to keep ‘public order’ in these particular urban lower class areas, i.e. to control and prevent the emergence of working-class resistance to bourgeois society (Sumner, 1990: 33). The conditions that forced the lower classes to choose crime and delinquency as their only alternative within such a social, economic and political vacuum become a vicious cycle which not only serves to further alienate them but also serves to authorise and legitimise their over-policing and constant state intervention/ supervision. Even the members of these lower-class communities who break no laws are cast in the same shadow of the delinquent label of their area and are subject to the same state supervision. Delinquency in this way serves to function ‘as a political observatory’ (Foucault, 1977: 271). This form of supervision does not just stop with the police but has entrenched itself deep within social services so that any remaining welfare has been re-organised into an instrument of surveillance within which the welfare recipient fundamentally forfeits any rights to privacy or freedom of choice within the realm of work.

Such welfare reform measures also extol and embody the new paternalist conception of the role of the state in respect to the poor, according to which the conduct of dispossessed and dependant citizens must be closely supervised and at times be corrected through rigorous protocols of surveillance, deterrence, and sanction, a process which is scarily similar to those routinely applied to offenders under criminal justice supervision. Lyndon Johnson’s dream of a ‘War on Poverty’ has finally reached its inverted climax by essentially criminalising the act of being poor to the point where one is treated more like an offender rather than a victim when seeking aid from the state. These new welfare measures mean that the state now treat the poor as, what Wacquant describes as, ‘cultural similes of criminals’ who have violated the civic law of wage work. The move from welfare to workfare means that recipients must now accept any work that is suggested to them or risk the termination of their benefits even if the job is under-paid and ill-suited to them. This system is instrumental in embellishing the statistics of public aid offices by ‘dressing up’ social welfare recipients as workers while trapping the assisted population in the urban wastelands set aside for them (Wacquant, 2009: 58-60). It should not be surprising then, that those at the bottom of society’s ladder, finding that the bottom rungs have been chopped off so that little to no social progression is possible, turn to the opportunities that the drugs trade can provide them with. The fact that administration after administration in the U.S. not only allows but in many ways nurtures this vicious cycle of poverty and hopelessness amounts to the effective sacrificing of the poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden at the altar of the drugs trade, all in the name of their drugs ‘war’.


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Steven Robinson has a BA in History and English and an MA in Criminology, both from University College Cork. He is also the editorial assistant for CrimeTalk and secretary of UCC's Criminological Association.

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