Noam Chomsky describes drug war in US foreign policy

, February 8, 2002

MIT professor Noam Chomsky has long been one of the nation's most implacable critics of US foreign and domestic policy, as well as the well-behaved mass media. Lauded by the New York Review of Books as "America's leading radical intellectual," Chomsky has authored dozens of books on US policy in the Middle East, Latin America, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor, among others, as well as "Manufacturing Consent," a scathing critique of propagandistic corporate media.

He places himself in the historical anarchist tradition, an outlook on life he suggests in academic terms as "a tendency in the history of human thought and action that seeks to identify coercive, authoritarian, and hierarchic structures of all kinds and to challenge their legitimacy. If they cannot justify their legitimacy, which is quite commonly the case, work to undermine them and expand the scope of freedom." Chomsky is a legendary American political dissident whose campus appearances regularly bring out thousands of students.

DRCNet's The Week Online spoke with the distinguished linguist and essayist from his office at MIT in early-February:

Week Online: During Sunday's Super Bowl, the drug czar's office ran a series of paid ads attempting to link drug use and the "war on terrorism." If you use drugs, the ads said, you support terrorism. What is your take on this?

Chomsky: Terrorism is now being used and has been used pretty much the same way communism was used. If you want to press some agenda, you play the terrorism card. If you don't follow me on this, you're supporting terrorism. That is absolutely infantile, especially when you consider that much of the history of the drug trade trails right behind the CIA and other US intervention programs. Going back to the end of the second world war, you see-and this is not controversial, it is well-documented-the US allying itself with the French Mafia, resulting in the French Connection, which dominated the heroin trade through the 1960s. The same thing took place with opium in the Golden Triangle during the Vietnam War, and again in Afghanistan during the war against the Russians.

Week Online: The cocaine trade is the primary given reason for US intervention in Colombia's civil war. In your opinion, to what degree is the drug angle a pretext? And a pretext for what?

Chomsky: Colombia has had the worst human rights record in the hemisphere in the last decade while it has been the leading recipient of US arms and training for the Western Hemisphere and now ranks behind only Israel and Egypt worldwide. There exists a very close correlation that holds over a long period of time between human rights violations and US military aid and training. It's not that the US likes to torture people; it's that it basically doesn't care. For the US government, human rights violations are a secondary consequence.

In Colombia, as elsewhere, human rights violations tend to increase as the state tries to violently repress opposition to inequality, oppression, corruption, and other state crimes for which there is no political outlet. The state turns to terror-that's what's been happening in Colombia for a long time, since before there was a Colombian drug trade. Counterinsurgency has been going on there for 40 years; President Kennedy sent a Special Forces mission to Colombia in the early 1960s. Their proposal to the Colombian government was recently declassified, and it called for "paramilitary terror" - those are their words-against what it called 'known communist proponents.' In Colombia, that meant labor leaders, priests, human rights activists, and so on. Colombian military manuals in the 1960s began to reflect this advice. In the last 15 years, as the US has become more deeply involved, human rights violations are up considerably.

On a more serious point, suppose that the drug pretext were legitimate. Suppose that the US really is trying to get rid of drugs in Colombia. Does Colombia then have the right to fumigate tobacco farms in Kentucky? They are producing a lethal substance far more dangerous than cocaine. More Colombians die from tobacco-related illnesses than Americans die from cocaine. Of course, Colombia has no right to do that.

Week Online: Domestically, state, local, and federal governments have spent tens of billions of dollars on the "war on drugs," yet illicit drugs remain as available, as pure, and as cheap as ever. If this policy is not accomplishing its stated goal, what is it accomplishing? Is there some sort of latent agenda being served?

Chomsky: They have known all along that it won't work; they have good evidence from their own research studies showing that if you want to deal with substance abuse, criminalization is the worst method. The RAND report did a cost-effectiveness analysis of various drug strategies and it found that the most effective approach by far is prevention and treatment. Police action was well below that, and below police action was interdiction, and at the bottom in terms of cost-effectiveness were out-of-country efforts, such as what the US is doing in Colombia. President Nixon, by contrast, had a significant component for prevention and treatment that was effective.

US domestic drug policy does not carry out its stated goals, and policymakers are well aware of that. If it isn't about reducing substance abuse, what is it about? It is reasonably clear, both from current actions and the historical record, that substances tend to be criminalized when they are associated with the so-called dangerous classes, that the criminalization of certain substances is a technique of social control.

The economic policies of the last 20 years are a rich man's version of structural adjustment. You create a superfluous population, which in the US context is largely poor, black, and Hispanic, and a much wider population that is economically dissatisfied. You read all the headlines about the great economy, but the facts are quite different. For the vast majority, these neoliberal policies have had a negative effect. With regard to wages, we have only now regained the wage levels of 30 years ago. Incomes are maintained only by working longer and harder, or with both adults in a family working. Even the rate of growth in the economy has not been that high, and what growth there is has been highly concentrated in certain sectors.

If most people are dissatisfied and others are useless, you want to get rid of the useless and frighten the dissatisfied. The drug war does this. The US incarceration rate has risen dramatically, largely because of victimless crimes such as drug offenses, and the sentences are extremely punitive. The drug war not only gets rid of the superfluous population, it frightens everybody else. Drugs play a role similar to communism or terrorism, people huddle beneath the umbrella of authority for protection from the menace. It is hard to believe that these consequences aren't understood. They are there for anyone to see. Back when the current era of the drug war began, Senator Moynihan paid attention to the social science, and he said if we pass this law we are deciding to create a crime wave among minorities.

For the educated sectors, all substance abuse was declining in the 90s, whether we're talking about cocaine or cigarette smoking or eating red meat. This was a period in which cultural and educational changes were taking place that led the more educated sectors to reduce consumption of all sorts of harmful substances. For the poorer sectors, on the other hand, substance abuse remained relatively stable. Looking at these curves, we see that what will happen, it is obvious you will be going after poor sectors.

Some legal historians have predicted that tobacco would be criminalized because it is associated with poorer and less-educated people. If you go to McDonald's, you see kids smoking cigarettes, but I haven't seen a graduate student who smoked cigarettes for years. We are now beginning to see punitive consequences related to smoking, and of course the industry has seen this coming for years. Phillip Morris and the rest have begun to diversify and to shift operations abroad.

Week Online: What should be done about drug use and the drug trade?

Chomsky: I agree with RAND. It is a problem. Cocaine is not good for you. If you want to deal with substance abuse, the approach should be education, prevention, rehabilitation and so forth. That is what we have successfully done with other substances. We did not have to outlaw tobacco to see a reduction in use; that is the result of cultural and educational changes. One must always be cautious in recommending social policy because we can't know what will happen, but we should be exploring steps toward decriminalization. Let's undertake this seriously and see what happens. An obvious place to begin is with marijuana. Decriminalization of marijuana would be a very sensible move. And we need to begin shifting from criminalization to prevention. Prevention and treatment are how we should be addressing hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

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