Thursday, 26 August 2010

War on the War on Drugs

I'm hoping that Social Democracy is edging its way towards being a mainstream concept again because I think it is the fairest way to run a society and in so many ways neo-liberalism has been intellectually discredited.

However, I do also wonder if the modern 'left' can either get behind social democracy or become an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

Reading this article by Johann Hari really makes me wonder if the left is regressing. I actually do think most drugs should be legalised. But I realise that this is a complex situation and respect people who disagree. I acknowledge there would be a huge human cost to legalising drugs as well as a high cost to society. However 1) Making drug use an offence has created a vast prison population 2) It often results in unsafe drugs being released 3) It does indeed line the pockets of criminals 4) It's de facto legal in the West anyway if you have enough money and white skin 5) I don't know to what extent the state should be able to control what people consume and 6) The WOD has resulted in vast environmental damage and human cost.

However, Hari's work is just drivel:

'To many people, the “war on drugs” sounds like a metaphor, like the “war on poverty.” It is not. It is being fought with tanks and sub machine guns and hand grenades, funded in part by your taxes, and it has killed 28,000 people under the current Mexican President alone. The death-toll in Tijuana – one of the front-lines of this war – is now higher than in Baghdad. Yesterday, another pile of seventy mutilated corpses was found near San Fernando – an event that no longer shocks the country.'

Uh, no. The 'war on drugs' hasn't killed 28,000 people in Mexico. Most of these people have been massacred by drugs dealers. And leaving aside the poor writing of 'another pile of seventy corpses' does he know that this type of horrific event 'no longer' has the capacity to shock? Really? Did Hari check that out with people who live in Mexico? Or do the Hispanics not mean much to the modern left unless they're unintentionally helping union busters? Well, the opinion of Mexicans about whether drugs should be legalised are certainly of little interest to Hari.

But thankfully Hari demonstrates how we can all be wonderful people:

'To support the right side in the referendum to decriminalize cannabis in California this November - one of the most important moves on drugs in the world at the moment - please donate or volunteer for the campaign here.'

Whilst I have sympathy for this movement, when people speak about being 'on the right side', I do tend to be very, very nervous. The irony is that it is an expression I often see being used by the modern right and which seems very 'religious' in a fundamentalist way. However, I think of it as being profoundly 'unconservative' as it were, not just in its vulgarity and its stupidity but in its forceful rejection of dialectic debate that lies at the root of European culture.

In some regards this rejection of the Ancient Wisdom is a sign of how (as Frank Shaeffer said) the religious right and the new left are two signs of the same coin. They are both far happier with counter-culture narcissism and certainty than with classical thought. Whilst on a personal level I have a lot of time for popular films and music, I do think that people of my generation have to wake up to the fact that it has greatly failed in a greater social context.


  1. Great post.

    Another interesting aspect of the War on Drugs is the role of neoliberalism. When Latin American farmers complained that free trade agreements were forcing them to compete with state-subsidized agribusinesses from countries like the United States, they were told to just deal with it and become rational economic actors. The farmers did just that and started planting drug crops for sale in the markets of the wealthy nations.

    On the topic of the New Left and drugs, I think it is just another example of how disconnected so many left-wingers are from the rest of the populace. While I have no evidence to back this up, I think this casual attitude comes from those who grew up wealthy enough to more or less safely "experiment" with drugs, but were not in the situation of a poor ghetto dweller whose life is so awful that drugs might be seen as a reasonable way to ease the pain of being a member of the underclass. While I am not trying to completely absolve poor drug users, I think there are some important differences in the respective drug cultures of the poor and the affluent.

    That being said, I agree with you that the drugs question is a difficult one. I am not exactly sure where I stand, although I am perhaps a bit closer to the prohibitionist side.

  2. @John
    Thanks for your comment.

    I think your point about free trade and drug growing demonstrate exactly why neo-liberalism will be difficult to overthrow: it has such a capacity to create the weirdest alliances. Even if they knew that protectionism could stop the growth of cannabis they'd probably see it as 'big government'. But of course, it would go without saying that they could cooperate with 'big government' plans to drop poisonous chemicals on the marijuana.

    I'd say the thing about campus leftists is that it would be unthinkable for them to be so uncool as to oppose legalising drugs, but they would easily vote for a government that would impose harsh and counterproductive measures on poor people caught with drugs (see support for Bill 'I smoked but I didn't inhale' Clinton whose 'three strikes and your out' system probably led to many life sentences for drugs offences).

  3. @Gregor,

    Good point about Clinton and the "three strikes and your out" system. Sometimes it seems like the New Left is a weird mix of harshness and libertinism.