The Drug War That Never Ends

On September 15, 2010 a barely-publicized memo was issued by the Obama White House. This memo discussed the so-called war on drugs as it stands in Autumn 2010. Called the “Majors List” in the circles that pay attention to these things, the memo listed certain countries the United States considers “major drug transit or major illicit drug-producing countries.” The most striking aspect of the memo (besides the fact that the United States is not part of this list) was the claim that the Afghan government is engaging in sincere efforts to combat narcotics production. As several studies and reports have proven, this is simply not the case. Even a cursory look at news articles regarding the production and trafficking of Afghan opium and heroin brings up figures like the sixty metric tons of Afghan heroin estimated by Russian officials to be smuggled into Russia every year. Another news article from the investigative site SkyReporter discusses the appointment of the sacked Interior Minister Zarar Muqbul to head the Karzai government’s anti-heroin initiative. This occurred despite the fact that it was decried by several international sponsors of the government in Kabul.

In what amounts to a denial of governmental involvement in the Afghan drug trade, President Obama’s memo states that “Nearly all significant poppy cultivation occurs in insecure areas with active insurgent elements.” This statement not only refuses to acknowledge that members of the Kabul government are deeply involved in the drug trade, it also paints the US-led war on the Afghan people as a battle not only against “terrorists,” but against drug traffickers, too. In reality, the majority of the war on drugs fought by US troops involves the destruction of poppy and marijuana fields cultivated by small Afghan farmers earning a living, not against traffickers. Just as in Colombia where US troops and intelligence agencies have been destroying coca and marijuana fields for decades, the people who tend to suffer the most from US anti-drug policies are those who can afford it the least (and make the least amount of money from it).

Other nations on the list include Washington’s foes Bolivia and Venezuela. The appearance of these countries on the list is not a surprise. Bolivian president Evo Morales is an outspoken proponent of legalized growing of the coca leaf as part of the national culture and practice of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. His government worked with US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents in the past to thwart those who trafficked in cocaine (as opposed to coca), but threw the DEA out of the country in November 2008 for interfering in Bolivia’s internal affairs. In other words, DEA agents were involved in counterintelligence activities designed to destabilize Morales’ government. A similar scenario had unfolded in Venezuela in 2005, which forced President Chavez to expel DEA agents from Venezuela. The nature of the relationship between Washington and the current governments of these two nations automatically make their appearance on the “majors list” suspicious, to say the least.

Naturally, Mexico and Colombia are on this list. Their names appear with a disclaimer however. Since both governments have signed on to Washington’s militarized war on drugs with a vengeance, the memo considers them “cooperative.” More surprising is the appearance of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Guatemala (among other Latin American nations). As any follower of the news knows, Ecuador and Nicaragua are not exactly friendly with Washington, so their appearance on the list is not much of a surprise. However, Costa Rica’s is quite friendly. In fact, Washington will be sending up to 46 U.S. warships and 7,000 Marines to Costa Rica “who may circulate the country in uniform without any restrictions” as part of anti-narcotics operations. Essentially, this means that US Marines will be able to do whatever they want in Costa Rica.

(A little sidebar might be needed here. The current president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, is a member of the Parte Liberacion National – a nominally Socialist political party. However, Chinchilla herself is quite conservative when it comes to many issues, especially those regarding her Roman Catholicism. She is opposed to any amendment to the Costa Rican constitution that would make Costa Rica a secular state and has marched against abortion and gay marriage, while opposing the legalization of the ‘morning-after pill’. Her economic policies are hardly socialist, with her government championing so-called free trade policies favored by the United States while planning to invest national funds on Wall Street.)

The Chinchilla government’s decision to allow the US military free rein in its endless war on drugs may end up being a decision she will regret. If one looks at Mexico, it is clear that the introduction of US troops and arms has not diminished the armed mayhem that seems to accompany the illegal drug trade. In fact, the death toll in that country has skyrocketed and there seems to be no end in sight. While there seems to be a genuine concern for the safety of Costa Rica’s citizens due to the movement of the drug cartels into Costa Rica and other Central American nations, the introduction of several thousand more armed men into the country is unlikely to enhance those citizens’ security. Indeed, the presence of so many US troops creates the very real possibility that an entirely new problem will be created, especially if those troops establish a somewhat permanent presence. Ask any group of people who have lived near a substantial US military fortification about what happens to the neighborhoods that existed prior to that influx of military. Quite often it is the illicit economy that enjoys the greatest boost in income. If those troops are armed and allowed to arrest and kill, domestic instability also increases along with the death rates.

For those who thought the Obama administration would bring a more enlightened attitude towards drug policy into the White House, the continued expansion of the failed war on drugs must dash those hopes. Besides the increase in military aid to Mexico and Colombia under the guise of fighting drug traffic, the abovementioned expansion of that war into Costa Rica would seem to put that possibility to rest. In addition, recent comments from Obama’s head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reiterate the lack of change in direction, as do continued DEA raids on medical marijuana facilities in California and elsewhere.

As for those comments, on March 4, 2010 ONDCP Director R. Gil Kerlikowske spoke to the California Police Chiefs Association regarding the failed California ballot initiative that would have (despite its documented shortcomings) legalized and taxed marijuana in that state. After opening his statement with some comments regarding the increase in the illicit use of pharmaceutical drugs and a renewed focus on fighting drugged driving, Kerlikowske launched a tirade against marijuana use and users that repeated the standard arguments against legalization. He continued, stating statistics regarding alcohol and tobacco taxation that supposedly countered claims by proponents of legalization that it would reduce social costs. Like most statistics, Mr. Kerlikowske’s proved very little, since the social costs of tobacco and alcohol are quite different than those that are supposedly incurred from marijuana use.

The most pointless portion of the Director’s speech, however, came towards the end when he talked about his office’s approach to drug use (especially marijuana). The ONDCP plan to fight marijuana use is this: “prevent(ing) drug use in the first place” and an increase in treatment and other re-entry programs combined with enhanced police drug enforcement. While the first two aspects of this program are commendable, one wonders why the Director considers them to be opposed to the concept of marijuana legalization. After all, shouldn’t people who want to stop using marijuana or drugs be able to get treatment without going through the legal system? Furthermore, the increasing militarization of the drug war contradicts the more humane aspects of the policy outlined by Kerlikowske.

The connection between national intelligence agencies and the trade in drugs deemed illegal is well documented. From Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin and Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press to Douglas Valentine’s two-volume epic on the development of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) the lines drawn between right wing nationalist movements, extralegal military actions against leftist governments and the sale of illegal drugs by government agents have been drawn many times. The late Gary Webb wrote in his book Dark Alliance about the connection between the CIA contras of Nicaragua and the introduction of crack cocaine into the US drug trade. Even poet Allen Ginsberg has a little ditty he calls “The CIA Calypso” that outlines the involvement of the CIA in narcotics trafficking in Southeast Asia. This history makes the likelihood of US involvement in the current drug trade in Afghanistan, Colombia and who knows where else more likely than not.

As long as the drug trade remains illegal, agencies like the DEA will profit from their part in controlling it. Other agencies like the CIA will profit from their direct involvement in sales and distribution. Local and state law enforcement agencies will profit from the forfeit and seizure laws that allow them to essentially steal the property of those they arrest for drug crimes. In the private sector, corporations involved in manufacturing spying technology, weapons and police equipment will profit from the ongoing militarization of the drug war. The prison industry profits, too, especially when one considers that around ten percent of those currently in the prison system are convicted of nonviolent drug possession, with one in 8 of those being there for the possession of marijuana. An estimated one-quarter of all inmates in United States prisons are there for drug trafficking or possession, the majority of those crimes being non-violent. It is safe to state that it is the fact of the profits to be lost that guides the war on drugs and the continuation of failed prevention policies that do little but criminalize tens of thousands of people.

RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook.  He can be reached at:

This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form in State of Nature.


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: