The Dope Fiend in You; The Criminal in Them

From New America Media:

MERIDA, Mexico – When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Mexico recently of America’s “insatiable” appetite for narcotics, her comments were broadcast live on Mexican television, and there were audible gasps of disbelief across the nation.

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Clinton said. “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”

The statement, a formal acknowledgement of the demand for illicit drugs in the United States, which drives the production, transport and smuggling of narcotics, has never been publicly made by Washington officials. Off the record, American policymakers and diplomats admit that drug abuse is a “crisis” on a “societal” level. But the official stand has been one of denial: Illegal drug use is a scourge visited upon Americans by drug traffickers who must create demand for the narcotics they have to sell to stay in business.

This line has strained relations between the United States and Latin America since the 1970s, when the first war or drugs was declared by the Nixon administration.

“It is shocking to hear an American politician admit there is an issue,” said Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican commentator and political scientist, echoing the sentiment that has created a buzz on Mexican talk radio and in café conversations.

The view throughout Latin America has long been one of resentment: nations are coerced into declaring a “war on drugs,” not because there are epidemics of drug abuse in those countries, but because of the “insatiable” demand in the United States.

“The hemisphere’s drunk finally stood up and admitted he’s an alcoholic,” a March 26 caller to TV Azteca told news anchors, who chuckled. “To hear Americans until now, you’d think that Mexicans were crossing the border, putting guns to their heads, shoving a tray with lines of cocaine and demanding, ‘Snort! Snort! Snort! Or I’ll blow your brains out!’”

Laughter erupted among the studio audience.

Throughout the entire history of the American war on drugs, the one group of people who were never placed under seige were the millions of “white” drug users who fueled demand for narcotics in places as far flung as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico.  Similarly, crystal meth users continue to escape national scrutiny as a scourge on the nation.  The research points in one direction, the media point in another.  The media and conservative public policy leaders have walked hand in hand down a path of ignoring the financial and moral source of the crisis.

One section of the study showed how, contrary to popular perception, drug addicts are not primarily members of minority racial and ethnic groups. “The research we are releasing today,” the PLNDP announced at its press conference, “shows, conclusively, that drug addiction is very treatable and that it reaches across all strata of society, with affluent, educated Caucasians being the most likely drug users, and the most likely to be addicted.” Looking at adult drug users, the PLNDP study found that more than half of those who admitted using heroin last year are white and 60 percent of monthly cocaine users are white. (Also, 77 percent of regular marijuana users are white, while one in six is African-American.) Youth drug use followed similar patterns.


The powerful findings of these two reports were not covered by any of the three major newsweeklies (Time, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek), nor were they covered by the New York Times or Washington Post. When the story was covered, moreover, the dominant media focused on the disconnect between the views of the public and the research of the physicians but said nothing about the role of the news media in fostering the stereotypes fueling the bad drug policy (CNN Today, 3/17/98; Associated Press, 3/17/98; USA Today, 3/18/98).

The role of the news media in promoting racial stereotypes was the missing link between the two studies. Even when Nightline (3/18/98) began its coverage of the story with the acknowledgment that, when it came to the issue of drug addiction and drug policy in the U.S., “most Americans get their information from the new media,” the show glossed over the central problem of news media misinformation. Nor did Nightline host Ted Koppel refrain from reinforcing the very misconceptions his show could have been debunking: Koppel’s repeated emphasis on how “society does not want to spend money on rehabilitation”–when a main point of the PLNDP report was that treatment saves money–amounted to a brief for the very media-enforced ignorance the doctors’ groups sought to dispel.

Almost alone in its coverage of this story was an article by Raja Mishra written for the Knight Ridder News Service and appearing in the Denver Post (3/19/98). Mishra went to the heart of the story when reporting how “the doctors said the public had been misled by media accounts.” The role of the news media in promoting racial stereotypes was the missing link between the two studies. Given the nature of the studies, an obvious conclusion. But it was all but obvious to the mainstream press.

The economic benefit to “white” in urban, suburban and rural communities is crystal clear — clear as meth.

  • Wealthy urban and suburban users and addicts can safely demand narcotics while living without fear of prosecution from “police.”
  • Rural residents benefit financially (construction of prisons, expanded tax base) from the incarceration of Black and brown persons engaged in narco-trafficking to meet the insatiable demand of “whites.”
  • The society derives a psychological benefit by believing itself to be “pure” and untainted by the prevalence of drug abuse.  “Those people do it — and they deserve to be punished.”

In the real world, there are millions of narratives that make the story far more complex than this.  I recognize that at the personal level it isn’t that simple, but in the aggregate — it is just that simple.

Mexican politics will demand an answer BEFORE American politics:

MEXICO CITY, April 6 (Reuters) – Wrestling murderous drug gangs with one hand and fending off a recession with the other, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon faces a defeat in mid-term elections that could hobble the rest of his presidency.

Since he took power in late 2006 and launched a war on drug cartels, drug killings have rocketed — sparking alarm in the United States that they could spill over the border — and the global financial crisis is now whipping the Mexican economy.

Although Calderon is admired for having the courage to take on the cartels, he doesn’t yet have much to show for it and his approval ratings, which for long held above 60 percent, dipped to the mid-50s in a recent poll.

His conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is ranked in second place for the July legislative elections behind the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico with a firm hand for 71 years until 2000.

If the PAN loses many seats in Congress, where it is the biggest party but lacks a majority, Calderon will have much less chance of pushing through more of the deft economic reforms that pleased investors early on in his six-year term.

“The combination of the drug war and the economic crisis have battered Calderon. People are very dispirited,” said Dan Lund, head of research firm MUND Americas.

About 6,300 people were murdered in the drugs war last year and the economy will likely shrink by at least 3 percent this year. The peso currency has slumped and Mexico was forced to sign up for a $47 billion IMF credit line last week.

The drugs war and economic crisis are also starting to feed off each other. By rattling investors and tourists, the drug violence shaves about 1 percent annual growth off the already sputtering economy, and rising unemployment could nudge more youths to join the drug cartels, government officials say.

Lower growth could leave Mexico with less cash to spend on the drug war, which cost $6.4 billion over 2007 and 2008.

“Frankly, I never imagined we could reach this level of disintegration, that the breakdown would be so fast,” said Alejandro Gutierrez, author of a 2007 book called “Drug Trafficking: Calderon’s Big Challenge”.

“Year three tends to be the one you are judged by. We are nearly there

and Calderon has a lot of fronts open in the drug war. I don’t think he can do much in a year or two.”

In America, the politics of drug use are mired in a history of myth and racism.  Over one hundred years ago, the primary users of opiates were white women — many of whom were raising children in isolation from spouses engaged in or lost to the myriad conquests of the time.  The Civil War and its aftermath are central to recounting the historic use of drugs in America.  The face of drug use and abuse in America has been portrayed in a manner that flatly conflicts with the historical record.

The Face of Addiction -- American StyleThe Face of Addiction — American Style

Addiction is a costly habit.  It takes deep pockets.  And distribution is dangerous.  It takes guns and a willingness to fire.

The illegal importation of drugs into America and places like China (and all the violence associated with it) has long, deep roots in America.  Those roots weave right through the White House and many of the nation’s wealthiest families — especially those in Connecticut and Massachusetts with names like Russell, Roosevelt and Bush.  Books like The Maritime History of Massachusetts and Personal Reminiscences by Robert Bennet Forbes map the manner in which drug money was “earned” through illegal transactions.  Profits from that trade were used to buy prestige, political appointments, and more.  The web is long and tangled — but it’s for another day.

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