How Alexander Cockburn Helped Me Take on the War on Drugs

McGruff, the Crime Dog, was huffing and puffing as he charged up the stairs. The canine removed his doggie headdress, revealing a Philadelphia policeman underneath. He quickly took me aside. “I just got back from teaching one of those drug bastards a lesson he’ll never forget,” he said, his tail brushing over the carpet. “We took [an African American] and hung him over a train trestle in West Philly by his thumbs. Three stories up. We threatened to drop him if he didn’t stop selling drugs. You shoulda seen his face.”

I was working for a think tank associated with the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It was 1990. I had been given the job to organize a city wide drug conference. I’d gotten to know Officer McGruff as he performed his DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classroom visits. He never told the 3rd graders about his other life.

My agency was under financial duress and wanted to gain visibility to increase funding. They settled on the drug issue. As such they were jumping on the media’s moral panic about crack cocaine in African American neighborhoods.

No one in my agency had thought much about the issue. I took it upon myself to do so. I distinguished various contradictions in the ideological referent “war on drugs” (Freire 1970). This included: the difference between licit (tobacco and alcohol) and illicit drugs; law enforcement versus public health approaches; and the historical evolution of the “war.” I proceeded to “study up,” investigating money laundering bankers, decriminalization debates and widespread racism (such as black versus white sentencing disparities). I explored how the U.S. was a significant drug pusher in its own right, as evidenced by the CIA’s heroin involvement in Vietnam (McCoy and Read 1972) and cocaine in Central America (see Dark Alliance, Webb 1999, Whiteout, Cockburn and St. Clair 1999) and also, incredibly, as a matter of official national policy.

Such was the view of Alex Cockburn who defined the issue squarely in his Nation column at the time (Cockburn 1989). Cockburn was very influential to me and in turn the conference. I shared his remarks with several progressives whom I hoped to recruit as speakers. He’s worth quoting at length as his reporting served as a foreshadowing of my life in the agency (besides being quite relevant today). Cockburn wrote that “the major U.S. tobacco companies were petitioning Thailand, which for 20 years had had a successful antismoking campaign and whose Cabinet in 1987 had approved a proposal for a total ban, to accept their tobacco imports under pain of serious sanctions if they refused.” Among the witnesses to testify he said was then Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop who was scheduled to complete his post as Surgeon General the following week. According to Cockburn, “Koop had not cleared his remarks with the Bush administration and said later that if he’d had, they would have squashed it . . . Koop said that ‘our trade policy is to push addicting substances into foreign markets, disregarding the sentiment of the foreign government and the future health of its population,”’ He called these attempts “egregious…deplorable [and unconscionable].” “Years from now, ” Koop concluded, “I’m afraid that our nation will look back on this application of free trade policy and find it scandalous, as the rest of the world does now…at a time when we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the export of cocaine, it is the height of hypocrisy for the United States to export tobacco.”  Koop’s commentary provoked Cockburn to conclude that, “the fact that the United States, as a matter of conscious national policy, is by far the most consequential drug trafficker in the world remains largely obscured” (Cockburn 1989).

I felt like Koop. I was in an ideological bubble, walking a dangerously thin line between “truth,” self-censorship or departure. Agency leadership was hardly aware that there was a bubble, or if they were, didn’t care. Like many applied anthropologists, I had my work cut out for me. How could I alter the mainstream discourse of my embedded context to challenge the ethnocentrism of the leading whiteout7participants? In other words, how could I create a conference that was more holistic and inclusive, showing the wide range of alternate views and perspectives on the “war on drugs” issue? I tried diligently to expand the debate and dialogue and was thankful for the insights of Alex who provided much of the inspiration and ammunition I needed. I had some successes and some failures. Here are five steps that worked.

1. Use the Heuristic Device of “Conservative, Liberal and Radical” Perspectives to stretch my thinking. I consulted The Nation, In These Times, Monthly Review, The New York Guardian, The New York Times and did a morgue search of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s leading newspaper, on all drug related stories over the previous two years. I delved into the library stacks and conducted background interviews with conservative (e.g., law enforcement), liberal (e.g., public health) and radical informants like Kevin Zeese, formerly head of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and Eric Sterling with the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (see CJPF website). Zeese and Sterling, I found, were the most informed observers and dramatically helped me to clarify my views. Eventually I persuaded the organizing committee to invite them as speakers.

2. Highlight the most Progressive thing said by a Conservative. I found a very serviceable quote in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Robert Armstrong, the city’s new drug Czar, and I used it frequently. “There are no partial solutions to the substance abuse crisis; comprehensive thinking and planning are urgently needed,” I wrote. “One thing is certain, educational strategies based on scare tactics or on increasing one’s knowledge about the subject have been found to be ineffective. Robert Armstrong, the former First Deputy Police Commissioner and current Drug Czar comments that ‘The criminal justice system is the 10 percent answer. Doing something about medical care, poverty, social and cultural conditions and education is the 90 percent solution.”  I employed that “90% solution” phrase again and again to stress prevention, education and treatment approaches. It was the conference mantra.

3. Form an Alliance with Progressives in the African American and Latino Communities, Public Health, Clergy, and Elsewhere. I conducted fieldwork, formed relationships and promoted the conference at police conferences, political gatherings, crime-watch events, as well as medical forums, alcohol and drug prevention groups and progressive organizations. It was crucial to meet people face to face (and by phone if necessary) to establish rapport. Despite resistance in the agency, I succeeded in organizing a panel “Recent Initiatives to Confront Alcohol and Cigarette Advertising” recruiting a speaker from North Philadelphia’s Uptown Coalition who had stopped the marketing of a high tar cigarette to an African American community. There were the requisite conservative panels on “Working with Law Enforcement,” and “The Corporate Sector: Taking a Role in Drug Abuse Prevention,” however I was able to recruit speakers for workshops on “Debate on Decriminalizing Drugs” and “Drug Abuse and AIDS Transmission” among others. I also got Judy Claude, with the American Friends Service Committee, to talk about her research on “Political Economy of Cocaine” (1990).

4. Be Obtuse When Necessary. I was called into a surprise morning meeting with the Executive Director and two gentlemen, one from the DEA and the other the FBI. They were unsure if they could participate in a conference that raised so many radical questions, they said. The FBI agent said that, “Personally I believe in legalization and decriminalization, that’s the way to go. But I wonder if the public is ready for this.” He asked me pointedly, “What exactly is your background? And how do you feel about legalization?” The Director looked at me. I told them I was an anthropologist and that I wasn’t sure about my perspectives on decriminalization and legalization. I said that I was gauging the wide array of perspectives in the community and trying to be inclusive. “There are many good arguments pro and con on these issues and many people in the community, like Philadelphia’s Drug Czar Robert Armstrong, are interested in having a forum to discuss them.” That worked. Bottom Line: they agreed to participate in the conference.

5. Give a Little, Get a Little.  I had to give up on several panels that I’d proposed in order to get the ones I was able. Gone was a workshop called “Prosecuting Pushers White Collar and Blue” which asked, “What is the current status of white collar prosecution, and how can citizens assist in the drive to prosecute money laundering bankers?”  Gone was “Drug Wars a Historical Overview” which would have detailed events from the Harrison Narcotics Act and the arbitrary demonization of given substances to the US government’s use of heroin and cocaine in its recent wars. Gone as well was “Racism and Drug Policy.” Still, many of these issues were addressed informally.

In March 1991 the two- day conference was held at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. I titled it, “Building a Drug Abuse Prevent Movement: Citizens, Families and Neighborhoods Taking Charge.” There were two plenaries and fifteen workshops with more than seventy speakers. There was even a candlelight vigil in a crime ridden neighborhood, lunches and dinners. The broadcast media was out in force with shots of the five Mayoral Candidates attending, including Ed Rendell who would go on to be Governor of PA. The hopeful Mayors focused on “be tough on criminals” rhetoric. Harris Wofford, the PA Secretary of Labor, was there and unexpectedly, was appointed three weeks later to be PA Senator after Senator John Heinz died tragically in a helicopter accident. Wofford ran for election in 1991 on a universal health care platform which our agency was actively promoting.

Kevin Zeese (of NORML) and Eric Sterling had a tremendous impact on the conference. Zeese  ran for Senator of Maryland in 2006 with the Maryland Green Party and came in third with 1.5% of the vote. He is now a regular columnist for CounterPunch as well. Sterling continues as doing outstanding work as President of the CJPF and most recently authored a column in Huffington Post about the latest Drug Czar (Sterling 2013). Judy Claude was also a dynamic speaker. In her talk she cited her pamphlet The Political Economy of Cocaine (which had inspired me to ask her to speak). In it she wrote, “In proclaiming the war on drugs’ the United States has cast itself as a victim. But the victims are coca farmers in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, peasant workers in Central America and the Caribbean, and people of color in the United States; and the root cause remains an economic system that has failed to provide all of these people with the means to earn a livable wage and enjoy a life which satisfies their most basic needs” (Claude 1990). A good many people saluted the great diversity and lively debates at the summit. In sum, the conference succeeded in legitimating a number of alternative voices who had the rare chance to publicly debate liberals and conservatives. But the cost was high.

Today, two decades down the road, the “war on drugs” still rages alongside the “war on cancer” and the “war on terror.” All three wars are essentially the same. They are wars that promote blowback (Johnson 2000), misery (Davis 2007) and despair. They are iatrogenic wars on millions of people harmed by hierarchy, capitalism and the national security state. As such they are wars on symptoms and reifications, blaming down rather than up,diverting attention from the structural causes beneath a vast sea of human suffering. All three wars are manifestations of a deeper and unspoken reality – a ferocious class war in a neoliberal world.

How do we help create a culture where the default image is one of Officer McGruff, the Crime Dog, holding a banker over a train trestle by his thumbs, not an African-American youth?

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at

A version of this article was originally published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 24:3, August 2013. Pp. 13-18. Jason L. Simms, editor.


Claude, Judy. (1990) “The Political Economy of Cocaine,” Philadelphia:AFSC.

Cockburn, Alex (1989) “Getting Opium to the Masses: The Political Economy of Addiction,” The Nation, pp. 482-83, Oct. 30.

Cockburn Alex and Jeffrey St. Clair. (1999) Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. see:

Davis, Devra. (2007) The Secret History of the War on Cancer. New York:Basic.

McGruff, The Anti—Drug Dog Commercial with Cyndi Lauper.

McCoy, Afred W. and Cathleen B. Read. (1972) The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. New York:Harper and Row.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Seabury Press.

Johnson, Chalmers (2000) Blowback, The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York:Henry Holt.

Sterling, Eric. (2013) “Drug Czar Kerlikowske on His Way Out.” Huffington Post, Aug. 2.

Webb, Gary. (1999) Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.          2nd Edition. New York:Seven Stories Press.


Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at