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Why Does The War On Drugs Persist?

U.S. Coast Guard members stand near bags containing approximately 719 kilograms of cocaine in Miami Beach.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
U.S. Coast Guard members stand near bags containing approximately 719 kilograms of cocaine in Miami Beach.

I was chatting with a friend who works as a physician at a large California state prison. He mentioned, in passing, that drug use is pretty widespread at the prison. If you can't prohibit the sale and use of drugs in a maximum security prison, he asked, what are the chances you can prohibit drugs on our streets?

A good argument, it seems to me.

Johann Hari's new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which was discussed here last week, is aimed at stopping the drug war. In that sense, it is a political book. And it certainly makes a good case that the war has been a failure. It hasn't gotten rid of drugs; it has enabled organized crime to gain a monopoly on their production and sale. Nor has it eliminated addiction; it has driven vulnerable addicts underground, into the hands of criminals.

Drug prohibition, it would seem, hasn't been any more successful than our nation's failed experiment to ban alcohol early in the 20th century. Hari also insists, with good evidence, that drugs are not the cause of drug-related violence anymore than alcohol caused the violence of Al Capone. The cause of the violence is prohibition itself.

Which raises the question: Why has the drug war carried on? Or, rather, why have we, as a country, remained so committed to it?

There's certainly fodder here for conspiracy theory. As Hari tells, back in the day, Chris Hanson — the California bureau chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who in the 1930s led a series of raids on medical clinics in which doctors legally dispensed heroin and cocaine to addicts — was himself on the mafia's payroll. And this makes sense. The gangsters would profit from the total prohibition on drugs. By shutting down the clinics, even though they were legal under the Harrison Act of 1914, the authorities were putting the mob's only competition out of business. However, there is no evidence to think this sort of corruption operated across the board, or at the national level, according to Hari.

So, there are really two questions. First, why were cocaine and heroin banned in the first place (in the Harrison Act)? Was widespread addiction a huge social ill in the early 20th century?

Hari suggests that it was not, that most regular users were like functional alcoholics today. Precisely because their "remedies" and "elixirs" were readily available, it was possible to carry on with work and family life under their influence. Hari invites us to imagine a possible world in which we'd never gone down the path of prohibition and in which drug use was moderated by legal means.

And, second, why did the drug war persist when, you might have thought, it was so obviously a failure?

This last question is a tough one, and Hari offers a number of answers. Actually, he offers too many answers and, while all of them could be true, none of them quite has the ring of truth to it.

Hari tells us about Harry Anslinger's traumatic experiences with an addict as a child. Anslinger, who went on to become the first — and also the longest — serving director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was haunted by this experience; his obsession with the war on drugs was, finally, an attempt to quiet these childhood demons. But, we are also led to believe that Anslinger was a racist, who used the war on drugs as, in effect, cover to make war on drug users and, in particular, to target African-American and other minority drug users. Or could it have been, as Hari also suggests, that it was not Anslinger's issue alone, but America's fear of the non-white and the immigrant that finds expression in anxiety about drugs — as if these "elements" are somehow transforming American society?

If so, then the targeting of drugs, like racial hatred itself, is a symptom of an irrational panic, rather than, as it were, a matter of cold ideology. Or could it be that the sublimation of motives is even more subtle than that? Sometimes Hari suggests addiction is born of isolation and despair, and that the war on drugs is a symptom of our cultural anxiety in the face of the despair and isolation that the modern world gives rise to in us all. Hari writes:

And sometimes we are given the impression by Hari that Anslinger's commitment to the drug war was nothing more, really, than a commitment to the survival and flourishing of the agency he was leading, the direct descendent of the agency responsible earlier for enforcing the alcohol prohibition. And this also explains why Anslinger, and his agency, would have had an interest not only in demonizing drugs and exaggerating the threat they pose, but in extending the band to marijuana which, according to Anslinger, was capable of turning otherwise ordinary Mexican users into mass murderers.

Which of these hypotheses is true? Can they all be true?

Where Hari does succeed, though, is in reminding us that there's nothing written in stone, or inevitable, about our attitudes, policies, feelings and values in relation to drugs. Our history might have been different. There is a possible world, not very remote from the actual one, in which cocaine and heroin are widely used in moderation, and in which these "vices" are not associated in our minds with immorality, disease and crime but, rather, are ranged alongside other potentially harmful indulgences like fatty food, sugar, beer, wine, spirits, tobacco, gambling and sexual license.

Hari's book is a call to make our world more like that possible one.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë
Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.