Source: High Times Magazine
Pubdate: April 1998
Author: John Veit

The War on Drugs

April 1998 by John Veit

HT: You've defined the War on Drugs as an instrument of population control.
How does it accomplish that?

CHOMSKY: Population control is actually a term I borrowed from the
counterinsurgency literature of the Kennedy years. The main targets at the
time were Southeast Asia and Latin America, where there was an awful lot of
popular ferment. They recognized that the population was supporting popular
forces that were calling for all kinds of social change that the United
States simply could not tolerate. And you could control people in a number
of ways. One way was just by terror and violence, napalm bombing and so on,
but they also worked on developing other kinds of population-control
measures to keep people subjugated, ranging from propaganda to
concentration camps. Propaganda is much more effective when it is combined
with terror.

You have the same problem domestically, where the public is constantly
getting out of control. You have to carry out measures to insure that they
remain passive and apathetic and obedient, and don't interfere with
privilege or power. It's a major theme of modern democracy. As the
mechanisms of democracy expand, like enfranchisement and growth, the need
to control people by other means increases.

So the growth of corporate propaganda in the United States more or less
parallels the growth of democracy, for quite straightforward reasons. It's
not any kind of secret. It is discussed very frankly and openly in business
literature and academic social-science journals.  You have to "fight the
everlasting battle for the minds of men," in their standard phraseology, to
indoctrinate and regiment them in the way that armies regiment their
bodies. Those are population control measures. This engineering or
manufacture of consent is the essence of democracy, because you have to
insure that ignorant and meddlesome outsiders -- meaning we, the people --
don't interfere with the work of the serious people who run public affairs
in the interests of the privileged.

HT: How does the War on Drugs fit into this?  

CHOMSKY: Well, one of the traditional and obvious ways of controlling
people in every society, whether it's a military dictatorship or a
democracy, is to frighten them. If people are frightened, they'll be
willing cede authority to their superiors who will protect them: "OK, I'll
let you run my life in order to protect me," that sort of reasoning.

So the fear of drugs and the fear of crime is very much stimulated by state
and business propaganda. The National Justice Commission repeatedly points
out that crime in the United States, while sort of high, is not off the
spectrum for industrialized societies. On the other hand, fear of crime is
far beyond other societies, and mostly stimulated by various propaganda.
The Drug War is an effort to stimulate fear of dangerous people from who we
have to protect ourselves. It is also, a direct form of control of what are
called "dangerous classes," those superfluous people who don't really have
a function contributing to profit-making and wealth. They have to be
somehow taken care of.

HT: In some other countries you just hang the rabble.  

CHOMSKY: Yes, but in the U.S. you don't kill them, you put them in jail.
The economic policies of the 1980's sharply increased inequality,
concentrating such economic growth as there was, which was not enormous, in
very few hands. The top few percent of the population got extremely wealthy
as profits went through the roof, and meanwhile median-income wages were
stagnating or declining sharply since the '70's. You're getting a large
mass of people who are insecure, suffering from difficulty to misery, or
something in between. A lot of them are basically going to be arrested,
because you have to control them.

HT: It's absolutely true, but how do you prove it?  

CHOMSKY: Just by looking at the trend lines for marijuana. Marijuana use
was peaking in the late '70's, but there was not much criminalization. You
didn't go to jail for having marijuana then because the people using it
were nice folks like us, the children of the rich. You don't throw them
into jail any more than you throw corporate executives into jail -- even
though corporate crime is more costly and dangerous than street crime. But
then in the '80's the use of various "unhealthy" substances started to
decline among more educated sectors: marijuana and tobacco smoking,
alcohol, red meat, coffee, this whole category of stuff. On the other hand,
usage remained steady among poorer sectors of the population. In the United
States, poor and black correlation -- they're not identical, but there's a
correlation -- and in poor, black and hispanic sectors of the population
the use of such substances remained steady.

So take a look at those trends. When you call for a War on Drugs, you know
exactly who you're going to pick up: poor black people. You're not going to
pick up rich white people: you don't go after them anyway. In the
upper-middle class suburb where I live, if somebody goes home and sniffs
cocaine, police don't break into their house.

So there are many factors making the Drug War a war against the poor,
largely poor people of color. And those are the people they have to get rid
of. During the period these economic policies were being instituted, the
incarceration rate was shooting up, but crime wasn't, it was steady or
declining. But imprisonment went way up. By the late '80's, in terms of
imprisoning our population, we were way ahead of the rest of the world, way
ahead of any other industrial society.

HT: Who benefits from incarcerating young black males?  

CHOMSKY: A lot of people. Poor people are basically superfluous for wealth
production, and therefore the wealthy want to get rid of them.  The rich
also frighten everyone else, because if you're afraid of these people, then
you submit to state authority. But beyond that, it's a state industry.
Since the 1930's, every businessman has understood that a private
capitalist economy must have massive state subsidies; the only question is
what form that state subsidy will take? In the United States the main form
has been through the military system. The most dynamic aspects of the
economy -- conputers, the Internet, the aeronautical industry,
pharmaceuticals -- have fed off the military system. But the crime-control
industry, as it's called by criminologists, is becoming the fastest-growing
industry in America.

And it's state industry, publicly funded. It's the construction industry,
the real estate industry, and also high tech firms. It's gotten to a
sufficient scale that high-technology and military contractors are looking
to it as a market for techniques of high-tech control and surveillance, so
you can monitor what people do in their private activities with complicated
electronic devices and supercomputers: monitoring their telephone calls and
urinalyses and so forth. In fact, the time will probably come when this
superfluous population can be locked up in private apartments, not jails,
and just monitored to track when they do something wrong, say the wrong
thing, go the wrong direction.

HT: House arrest for the masses.  

CHOMSKY: It's enough of an industry so that the major defense-industry
firms are interested; you can read about it in The Wall Street Journal. The
big law firms and investment houses are interested:  Merrill Lynch is
floating big loans for prison construction. If you take the whole system,
it's probably approaching the scale of the Pentagon.

Also, this is a terrific work force. We hear fuss about prison labor in
China, but prison labor is standard here. It's very cheap, it doesn't
organize, the workers don't ask for rights, you don't have to worry about
health benefits because the public is paying for everything. It's what's
called a 'flexible' workforce, the kind of thing economists like: you have
the workers when you want them, and you throw them out when you don't want

And what's more it's an old American tradition. There was a big industrial
revolution in parts of the South in the early part of this century, in
northern Georgia and Kentucky and Alabama and it was based mostly around
prison labor. The slaves had been technically freed, but after a few years,
they were basically slaves again. One way of controlling them was to throw
them in jail, where they became a controlled labor force. That's the core
of the modern industrial revolution in the South, which continued in
Georgia to the 1920's and to the Second World War in places like

Now it's being revived. In Oregon and California there's a fairly
substantial textile industry in the prisons, with exports to Asia. At the
very time people were complaining about prison labor in China, California
and Oregon are exporting prison-made textiles to China.  They even have a
line called "Prison Blues."

And it goes all the way up to advanced technology like data processing. In
the state of Washington, Boeing workers are protesting the exports of jobs
to China, but they're probably unaware that their jobs are being exported
to nearby prisons, where machinists are doing work for Boeing under
circumstances that the management is delighted over, for obvious reasons.

HT: And most of these prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders.

CHOMSKY: The enormous rate of growth of the prison population has been
mostly drug related. The last figures I saw showed that over half the
federal prison population, and maybe a quarter in state prisons, are drug
offenders. In New York State, for example, a twenty-dollar street sale or
possession of an ounce of cocaine will get you the same sentence as arson
with intent to murder. The three-strikes legislation is going to blow it
right through the sky. The third arrest can be for some minor drug offense,
and you'll go to jail forever.

HT: The Drug Czar's office estimates that Americans spend $57 billion
annually on illegal drugs. What effect does this have on the global economy?

CHOMSKY: Well, the United Nations tries to monitor the international drug
trade, and their estimates are on the order of $400 to $500 billion -- half
a trillion dollars a year -- in trade alone, which makes it higher than
oil, something like 10 percent of the world trade. Where this money comes
and goes to is mostly unknown, but general estimates are that maybe 60
percent of it passes through US banks. After that, a lot goes to offshore
tax havens. It's so obscure that nobody monitors it, and nobody wants to.
But the Commerce Department every year publishes figures on foreign direct
investment -- where US investment is going -- and through the '90s the big
excitement has been the " new emerging markets " like Latin America.  And
it turns out that a quarter of US foreign direct investment is going to
Bermuda, another 15 percent to the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, another
10 percent to Panama, and so on. Now, they're not building steel factories.
The most benign interpretation is that it's just tax havens. And the less
benign interpretation is that it's one way of passing illegal money into
places where it will not be monitored. We really don't know, because it is
not investigated. This is not the task of the Justice Department, which is
to go after a black kid in the ghetto who has a joint in his pocket.

HT: What do you think of the US policy of offering trade and aid favors to
countries who promulgate so-called antidrug initiatives?

CHOMSKY: Actually, US programs radically increase the use of drugs.  Look
at the big growth in cocaine production that has exploded in the Andes over
the last few years, in Columbia and Peru and Bolivia. Why are Bolivian
peasants, for instance producing coca? The neoliberal structural-adjustment
policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are run
by the US, try to drive peasants into agro-export, producing not for local
consumption but for sale abroad.  They want to reduce social programs, like
spending for health and education, cutting government deficits by
increasing exports. And they cut back tariffs so that we can pour our
highly subsidized food exports into their countries, which of course
undercuts peasant production. Put all that together and what do you get?
You get a huge increase in Bolivian coca production, as their only
comparative advantage.

The same is true in Columbia, where US "food for peace" aid, as it is
called, was used to destroy wheat production by essentially giving
food---at what amounts to US taxpayer expense---through US agro-exporters
to undercut wheat production there, which later cut coffee production and
their ability to set prices in any reasonably fashion.

And the end result is they turn to something else, and one of the things
they turn to is coca production. In fact, if you look at the total effect
of US policies, it has been to increase drugs.

HT: Well, anybody who looks into the history of American drug policies in
this century...

CHOMSKY: I'm putting aside another factor altogether, namely clandestine
warfare. If you look into the history of what is called the CIA, which
means the US White House, it's secret wars, clandestine warfare, the trail
of drug production just follows. It started in France after the Second
World War when the United States was essentially trying to reinstate the
traditional social order, to rehabilitate Fascist collaborators, wipe out
the Resistance and destroy the unions and so on. The first thing they did
was reconstitute the Mafia, as strikebreakers or for other such useful
services. And the mafia doesn't do it for fun, so there was tradeoff:
Essentially they allowed them to reinstitute the heroin-production system,
which had been destroyed by the Fascists. The Fascists tended to run a
pretty tight ship; they didn't want any competition, so they wiped out the
Mafia. But the US reconstituted it, first in southern Italy, and then in
southern France with the Corsican Mafia. That's where the famous French
Connection comes from.

That was the main heroin center for many years. Then the US terrorist
activities shifted over to Southeast Asia. If you want to carry out
terrorist activities, you need local people to do it for you, and you also
need secret money to pay for it, clandestine hidden money. Well if you need
to hire thugs and murderers with secret money, there aren't many options.
One of them is the drug connection. The so-called Golden Triangle around
Burma, Laos and Thailand became a big drug-producting area with the help of
the United States, as part of the secret wars against those populations.

In Central America, it was partly exposed in the Contra hearings, though it
was mostly suppressed. But there's no question that the Reagan
administration's terrorist operations in Central America were closely
connected with drug trafficking.

Afghanistan became one of the biggest centers of drug trafficking in the
world in the 1980s, because that was the payoff for the forces to which the
US was contributing millions of dollars: the same extreme Islamic
fundamentalists who are now tearing the country to shreds.

It's been true throughout the world. It's not that the US is trying to
increase the use of drugs, it's just the natural thing to do. If you were
in a position where you had to hire thugs and gangsters to kill peasants
and break strikes, and you had to do it with untraceable money, what would
come to your mind?

HT: Where do you stand on drug legalization?  

CHOMSKY: Nobody knows what the effect would be. Anyone who tells you they
know is just stupid or lying., because nobody knows. These are things that
have to be tried, you have to experiment to see what the effects are.

Most soft drugs are already legal, mainly alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco is
by far the biggest killer among all the psychoactives. Alcohol deaths are a
little hard to estimate, because an awful lot of violent deaths are
associated with alcohol. Way down below come "hard" drugs, a tiny fraction
of the deaths from alcohol and tobacco, maybe ten or twenty thousand deaths
per year. The fastest growing hard drugs are APS, amphetamine-type
substances, produced mostly in the US.

As far as the rest of the drugs are concerned, marijuana is not known to be
very harmful. I mean, it's generally assumed it's not good for you, but
coffee isn't good for you, tea isn't good for you, chocolate cake isn't
good for you either. It would be crazy to criminalize coffee, even though
it's harmful.

The United States is one of very few countries where this is considered a
moral issue. In most countries it's considered a medical issue. In most
countries you don't have politicians getting up screaming about how tough
they're going to be on drugs. So the first thing we've got to do is move
out of the phase of population control, and into the sphere of social
issues. The Rand Corporation estimates that if you compare the effect of
criminal programs versus educational programs at reducing drug use,
educational programs are way ahead by about a factor of seven.

HT: But alarmist drug-propaganda programs like DARE and the Partnership for
a Drug-Free America's TV ads have been found to increase experimentation
among teenagers.

CHOMSKY: The question is, what kind of education are you doing?
Educational programs aren't the only category. Education also has to do
with the social circumstances in which drugs are used. The answer to that
is not throwing people in jail. The answer is to try and figure what's
going on in their lives, their family, do they need medical care and so on?
This very striking decline in substance abuse among educated sectors, as I
said, goes across the spectrum -- red meat, coffee, tobacco, everything.
That's education. It wasn't that there was an educational program that said
to stop drinking coffee, it's just that attitudes toward oneself and
towards health, how we live and so on, changed among the more educated
sectors of the population, and these things went down. And none of it had
to do with criminalization. It just had to do with a rise in the cultural
and educational level, which led to more care for oneself.