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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 29th February 2012

I wrote, yesterday, about the many people who have suffered because of the INCB’s failure to ensure that countries are able to offer adequate pain relief. That’s not a new idea, by any means. This video from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union includes one interviewee who says that millions of people have suffered unimaginable pain because of the failure to provide proper medication.

I said that these people were casualties of the war on drugs and that set me thinking about that phrase. Is there a war on drugs?

Prohibitionists have taken to saying there is no war on drugs and, it seems to me, they do this for one or both of two reasons. For the real extremists, saying there has not been a war on drugs is a way to explain why the control regime started by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has completely failed to create the drug-free world envisaged at that time. For them, what is required is a war on drugs because the softly, softly bleeding heart (frequently liberal) approach to enforcement has not been robust enough to arrest all those involved with illicit substances and, by incarcerating them, clear ‘our streets’ of these evil substances. The second reason for saying there is no war on drugs is that, if there is no war, there can be no casualties so the question of harms done to individuals by the control regime ceases to exist.

The response of some reformers to this is to say that there is a war on drugs because Richard Nixon declared it in 1971 and every president since has prosecuted it and done his best to ensure that the rest of the world also prosecutes it.

So, who is right? Is there a war on drugs or not? The answer is that both sides are wrong. There is a war on drugs but it was not explicitly declared by Richard Nixon.

The story doesn’t start in 1971. On 14th July 1969 Nixon sent a Special Message to the Congress on Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. This followed the Supreme Court ruling, in May that year, that the Marihuana Tax Act was, in part, unconstitutional. In that message, Nixon set out a ten point programme for dealing with drugs. Part IV of that programme was concerned with the suppression of illegal importation. It includes the phrase ‘I have directed the Attorney General to organize and place into immediate operation an "action task force" to undertake a frontal attack on the problem’.

That is the only belligerent language in the whole Special Message and, surprisingly given Nixon’s reputation, there is quite a lot about treatment and rehabilitation and ‘dependent regular users and the physically addicted’ are described as ‘genuinely sick people’. He also makes a commitment that I’m sure wasn’t followed through. He says, ‘I have further instructed the Attorney General to insure that all Federal prisoners, who have been identified as dependent upon drugs, be afforded the most up-to-date treatment available’.

On 17th June 1971, Nixon read a statement to the White House Press Corps following a meeting earlier that day and also sent another Special Message to Congress.

In his ‘Remarks About an Intensified Program for Drug Abuse Prevention and Control’ he says;

‘America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.’

There are further examples of the language of belligerence; ‘this kind of an offensive’, ‘This will be a worldwide offensive’, ‘With regard to this offensive’, ‘If we are going to have a successful offensive’, ‘In order to defeat this enemy’, ‘this offensive deals with the problem’, ‘wage this offensive effectively’ but the word ‘war’ is not used and, certainly, there is no mention of a ‘war on drugs’.

The ‘Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control’ is to ask Congress for more money and to ask it to legislate to create the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention.

This message also has plenty of examples of belligerent language; ‘a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse’, ‘serious attack on our national drug problem’, ‘attacking the problem on an international plane’, ‘the attack on the problem of the availability of narcotics’.

The only direct reference to ‘war’ comes in the section about stretching actions against drug use into the international arena. Here the message says ‘To wage an effective war against heroin addiction’.

So, there was no direct call for a ‘war on drugs’ but there were enough aggressive comments and there was the reference to a war on heroin addiction to mean that the news media could go for the emotive headlines. Even the Guardian, on 18th June 1971 headlined its report ‘Nixon’s war on drug addicts’.

Nixon never actually declared a ‘war on drugs’ but what he did do amounts to just that.

What is interesting about these documents is that a lot of the language is to do with what today is called ‘harm reduction’. The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention is tasked with demand reduction because Nixon accepts that choking off one supply line will only lead another to open. If US drug policy had been implemented the way Nixon says he intends it to be, we would be in a very different place now. But, the question of whether Nixon’s words were a cover for what he really intended to do or whether circumstances derailed his intentions is a subject for another day.