Only the most nave, cynical or deluded among us can subscribe to the pervasive mythology of drug police, prosecutors and judges as fearless warriors valiantly fighting a depraved horde of heartless pushers and evil dope fiends whose anti-social pursuit of self-gratification by getting high threatens to destroy the American way of life and everything it stands for.
The War on Drugs has served primarily to construct a police state apparatus basically unchecked in its pursuit of power and control over elements of our society deemed undesirable and detrimental to the economic and cultural forces that shape and direct our national life.
Start with this: There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with getting high. People have been getting high as long as there have been people. People get high on beer, wine, whiskey, vodka and gin without criminal sanction. They get high on pills prescribed by their doctors or purchased on the black market. And people get high on marijuana or cocaine or heroin or whatever they desire for the physical and mental effects.
People get high when they want to. They obtain the drugs they crave however and wherever they can, and if they can’t buy them over the counter somewhere they will find them in the drug underworld and pay whatever price is required to get what they want. People are relentless in their pursuit of the drugs they want to get high on, and they generally devise some sort of way to make it happen despite the various obstacles thrust in their way by economic circumstances, physical dislocation and the formidable forces of law and order arrayed against them wherever they turn.
Marijuana was legal in the United States until 1937. Cocaine could be purchased over drugstore counters until well into the 20th century, and heroin wasn’t really demonized until the second half of the 1940s. In passing their draconian laws against use, possession and distribution of these once-tolerated recreational substances, our federal and state legislative bodies repeatedly cited ethnic and cultural minorities as the principal offenders and feared that their example would corrupt and undermine the very fabric of American life.
Marijuana and cocaine were demonized as engines of erratic and dangerous social behavior, geeking up black men and Mexicans to commit sexual assaults on white women and making the fiends unfit to function as productive members of the work force and responsible Christian citizens. Jazz and swing musicians, poets and writers, painters and other artists were tarred with the brush of illegal drug use and tormented by the narcotics police and their burgeoning consort of rat bastards and snitches.
Illicit drug use was pretty much an underground phenomenon confined to the ranks of ethnic minorities and the bohemian element until the hippie movement erupted out of suburban America in the 1960s. Legions of white, middle-class youths turned their backs on the prescribed way of life and embraced the cultural leadership of people of color and renegade Caucasians exemplified by persons like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.
Music suddenly became central to life for millions of young white Americans — not the lily-white music of their parents, but African-American music grounded in the realities experienced by the victims of a segregated social order and charged with unprecedented emotion and human feeling. At the same time, the courage and moral authority manifested in the civil rights movement inspired hippies to dream visions of social justice, nonviolent resistance, world peace and a radical new way of life.
Black people fighting for their lives and demanding their freedom, white youth rejecting the skewed reality of their parents, refusing to fight their wars and trying to construct the world of their dreams — these were new and dangerous challenges to the hegemony of the people in charge of America, and they demanded innovative new strategies and tactics in the struggle for continued supremacy.
The battle against the Red Menace that fueled the machinery of the forces of law and order had been raging since the end of World War I and the establishment of communism in the Soviet Union, reaching its peak in the early 1950s. American Reds were demonized as agents of the Communist International and persecuted for “un-American” political views. Their movement could be contained by the FBI and its sympathizers in commerce, industry and the courts, and culturally they posed little challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy.
But the soul power of blacks and the flower power of hippies were radically different. Both mass movements sprang from the daily lives of people who, in the first instance, had been locked out of any opportunity to share in the vast national wealth and, in the second, had been groomed to operate the oppressive machinery of the ownership class and were now refusing to follow the program.
Both movements were fueled by passion and high ideals, yearning for a social order that would promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and guarantee equal opportunity. This would never do: There would never be a place in the economic order for the masses of people of color in this segregated nation, and the white renegades had to be forced back into compliance with the iron rules of consumerism.
This is where the War on Drugs has its start. The phony rhetoric of the drug warriors served to divert public attention from the righteous social concerns of blacks and hippies and brand them instead as enemies of society who must be hounded, snitched on, dragged into court, locked away, stripped of their possessions and otherwise removed from real life. If they escaped arrest and prosecution for their illicit behaviors they would still live their lives in a state of fear and trembling that the narcotics police would find them out.
Our legal system routinely operates as a key component in maintaining the established economic, cultural and political order. This is a rotten system, and they’ll do anything to keep it in place — and never forget that the War on Drugs is a really big part of the big picture.
Like I’ve said here before, try to imagine a world without the War on Drugs. This would be a whole different place indeed.
JOHN SINCLAIR, founder of the White Panthers, is a poet. His latest book is It’s All Good.
This article originally ran in the Metro Times.