An excerpt from Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions.
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The War on Drugs from Reagan to Obama
While drug prohibition dates back to the 1910s, the War on Drugs increased dramatically starting with Reagan. Bush Sr. turned it into a literal war with the invasion of Panama. Clinton, GW Bush, and Obama all continued the literal War on Drugs with Plan Colombia. The body count is unknown, and with wildly varying estimates, but likely in the hundreds of thousands to millions of preventable deaths. One obvious death toll is the invasion of Panama in 1989 by Bush Sr., killing 2,000 to 4,000 Panamanians.
Plan Colombia, fought partly in the name of the drug war, has killed from 20,000 to 300,000 and displaced 3 million mostly Black and indigenous Colombian people. Some estimates for all the deaths in drug wars in Colombia from the 1980s to the president is 150,000 to 300,000 deaths and 4 million internal refugees.
Many others gets the blame as well:
Robert Anslinger was head of the Bureau of Prohibition and then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for over 30 years. More than any other individual, the prohibition of currently illegal drugs can be traced to him. Anslinger worked with publisher William Randolph Hearst to criminalize marijuana, spreading stories from his “Gore File” of incidents blaming the drug, often without evidence, for sensational and violent crimes. His stories pandered to racism, arguing Blacks and Mexicans were likely to be violent and animalistic, and especially to rape white women, if they used marijuana or cocaine.
Nixon was the president prior to Reagan who put the most effort into drug prohibition. Harding, Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and FDR each signed drug prohibition laws, but all followed the lead of Anslinger and J. Edgar Hoover. Nixon found drug prohibition to be a politically useful issue, a way to win middle America voters and criticize the counter culture. Unlike previous presidents, he ignored or attacked advice from officials below him, including studies showing the relative safety of marijuana urging it be legal again.
The Hollywood film industry played the largest role in promoting false notions of the effects of drugs with sensational films like Reefer Madness and Marihuana Assassin of Youth. Television later promoted anti drug hysteria with series like COPS and Miami Vice. For a period, as the Hollywood studio monopoly crumbled in the 1960s and 70s, some young directors promoted an open attitude towards prohibited drugs, notably in Easy Rider and Cheech and Chong films.
But in the 1980s, pushed by Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign, Hollywood once again demonized illegal drug use. Latin American drug dealers and smugglers became stock villains, depicted very stereotypically. The ratings code today lists illegal drug use (but not alcohol, tobacco, or pills such as tranquilizers) as a factor that may get a film an R rating. The film Whale Rider received a PG-13 rating solely for showing a marijuana pipe (but no drug use) for a few seconds, while Rango, an animated children's film, had over 60 characters depicting smoking tobacco as cool throughout the entire film, but still received a PG rating.
Presidents GW Bush and Obama both continued Plan Colombia and added a new tactic, drone assassinations against FARC leaders, in theory because of FARC's involvement in drugs. No similar assassinations were carried out against right wing paramilitaries like AUC who smuggled drugs. ELN guerillas are also targeted with drone assassinations, even though ELN has no involvement with drugs. The reason is obvious, FARC and ELN are leftist while right wing paramilitaries work with the US and Colombian governments.
Every president since Coolidge, except to an extent Obama, has endorsed anti drug hysteria. But in most cases these presidents were pushed from below by popular pressure. In some cases they did not seem to really believe in the anti drug cause deeply themselves.
But Reagan, certainly, was quite different. Reagan made an anti drug crusade a central part of his presidency, calling it his most important domestic issue. His wife Nancy made her Just Say No crusade her central issue as First Lady, carrying it into schools and spreading her message through the media. Both Reagans made a prime time appeal, carried by all networks, to “Just Say No.”
It is difficult for those not alive in the 1980s to realize just how pervasive anti drug hysteria was. In many ways it became a witch hunt much like McCarthyism. The Just Say No campaign is when drug testing first became common, in the military, many places of work, professional and college sports, and as a condition for parole or probation. There were even calls to drug test all students, all workers for every job, and every person who receives public assistance.
Florida finally tried drug testing those on welfare in 2012. Only 2% tested positive, less than one fifth the rate of the general public. Not surprisingly, there have never been calls to drug test corporate executives who received corporate welfare, even though drugs like cocaine are largely used by the well to do. One study even found that illegal drug use can often go up with income.
For a time it also became a standard demand of the media for all candidates for public office, framed much like the old McCarthyism question: Do you now or have you ever been a user of illegal drugs? Bill Clinton's one time clumsy use of marijuana became a huge campaign issue when he ran in 1992, and there was a minor sensation near the end of Reagan's time in office when tabloid author Kitty Kelly alleged that both Ronald and Nancy Reagan themselves tried marijuana with, of all people, Groucho Marx and his wife at their home.
The most devastating impact of the Drug Wars was on minority communities. Though most drug dealers and users were and are white, minority communities were the most targeted. In part this was due to bigoted and sensational images on the news, television, and film. Poverty and neglect also meant that open air drug markets were more often driven into minority neighborhoods, while many white users were able to get their drugs behind closed doors.
Sentences for drug possession became even longer. Timid (and successful) marijuana law reform efforts in Alaska and Oregon ended. Worst of all was the hysteria over crack cocaine. Media spread false stories about “crack babies” that supposedly were born severely deformed and mentally challenged and would never be normal. But “crack babies” in fact were largely unharmed by their mothers' drug use. New sentences for crack put users in prison 100 times longer than for the same amount of powdered cocaine. Since crack was falsely perceived as a Black person's drug, the sentences were harsher. (Blacks use all drugs, including alcohol, at a lower rate than whites.) Prisons filled up, for the first time in US history, with mostly nonviolent drug users. As a nation we became so accustomed to huge prison populations from drug offenses, we forget that only 35 years ago, this was not yet true.
Police forces became more militarized, using SWAT teams, semi automatic weapons, and even armored tanks. Sweeps of neighborhoods became disturbingly common. There were calls to use the military against drug dealers, and for drug dealing to carry the death penalty. As the Cold War ended, some called for drug dealers and cartels to replace Communists as America's Enemy Number One. Some called for US troops to Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. The National Guard in several states was sent to the border with Mexico in stunts designed to win votes. Army AWAC planes, once used to prepare for war against the Soviet Union, were used to try to stop drug smugglers. The effort was declared a “success” because seizures stopped an estimated 10% of illegal drugs where once they stopped perhaps 1%.
The US did fight a literal war on drugs, against the nation of Panama. Manuel Noriega became the military dictator of Panama in 1983. The nation had long been notoriously corrupt. But where most US allies worked with the CIA, Panama worked more with the US Army because of the Panama Canal.
The US Army had long found the easiest way to handle Panama's government was bribery. As a very poor country with no assets besides the canal, bribery was also extremely cheap. Noriega himself had long been a US intelligence asset, on the payroll since 1967. Through most of the 1980s, he worked with Reagan, allowing the Panama Canal Zone to be used as a base for US planes to bomb El Salvador and allowing US intelligence to set up listening posts in Panama. The US government looked the other way when Noriega ordered the Panamanian election of 1984 stolen, and then ordered the murder of opponent Hugo Spadafora.
Noriega claimed the campaign to overthrow him was because he would not help the US and Contra terrorists overthrow Nicaragua's democratic government. Noriega also claimed the US government paid him almost $10 million over the years. At his later trial, the US government claimed the true figure was $220,000, still a huge sum in that nation. What is certain is that by the end of Reagan's term, he wanted Noriega removed. News reports uncovered Noriega's ties to Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar, at the time the most wanted man in the world. Noriega allowed Panama to be used as a halfway point for drug shipments to the US. Panama's banks laundered drug money.
By 1988, Noriega's cartel ties made the cover of Time magazine. They became an issue in the election, with then Vice President George Bush Sr. having to defend himself during his run for president. Bush had been head of the CIA in the 1970s, while the agency had Noriega on the payroll. Another stolen election in 1989 provided Bush an excuse to overthrow him, especially after Noriega supporters beat a candidate for Vice President in full view of TV cameras.
The invasion was brief, very one sided, and bloody. Panama's military was under 16,000, and included “Dignity Battalions,” Noriega supporters armed mostly with clubs. Twice that many US troops invaded, defeating Panama's army in only three days. US planes bombed Panamanian slums by mistake, killing thousands. Noriega was tried in Miami, served a long sentence, then was recently tried for crimes in France, where he remains today. The invasion did not stop drug traffic or money laundering, which actually increased under the new President Guillermo Endara. The Panama Canal went back under US control, overturning the treaty returning the canal to Panama. Panama's army was disbanded. The canal did not return to Panama's control until 1999.
In Colombia, there had been a civil war since the 1960s between leftist guerillas and a right wing government allied with paramilitaries. The main guerilla groups were FARC and ELN, both Marxists but never allied to the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, the Colombian military attacked peasant leagues in rural areas, earlier organized by Colombia's Communist Party. FARC and ELN were created in response to these attacks. FARC eventually succeeded in controlling up to a third of Colombia.
FARC and ELN financed themselves through kidnappings. But for FARC the biggest source of money was a tax on the drug trade and control of gold mines. Nixon began Plan Colombia, US aid, weapons, and training against the guerillas. It also included chemical weapons attacks, herbicide sprayed to eliminate coca that very likely caused deaths and injuries.
Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and GW Bush all continued and expanded Plan Colombia, even though during the 1990s and 2000s, Colombia had the worst human rights record anywhere in the Americas. That is saying quite a bit, a worse record than Communist Cuba, or Guatemala with its repression of Mayan Indians. Almost all those who suffer from Plan Colombia are African descent or indigenous, especially the huge numbers displaced by fighting. Among the few not harmed by Plan Colombia: right wing paramilitaries like AUC that deal drugs as much as FARC. FARC is in decline today, in part because President Alvaro Uribe launched a brutal military campaign and in part because Castro of Cuba and Chavez and then Maduro of Venezuela negotiated for FARC to end their uprising and become a political party, as they were before the Colombian government attacked them in the 1960s.
Chemical weapons attacks on coca continued, even though there is no evidence it worked, and much that it harmed. The herbicide's manufacturer recommends handling with rubber gloves only, and hospitals reported constantly treating farmers sickened by the poison. Not only that, coca farmers quickly learned they could stop the poison from killing coca plants simply by washing it off with water. Yet the runoff from the poison killed other crops and wildlife.
As for the Drug War in the US, most scholarly studies show it harms more than helps. Those fanatically opposed to drug legalization often confuse wanting legalizing with wanting to take or abuse illegal drugs. Very few people want to see substance abuse or overdoses. It is simply a matter of strategy, treating a largely medical problem as a more manageable medical problem rather than turning it into an intractable crime problem.
The cost in lives is heavily debated and not always easy to measure. But obviously such costs include; deaths among drug cartels at war with each other over business competition; deaths among street dealers fighting over markets; innocent bystanders killed during both of the above; deaths from impure forms of the drugs, which would not happen were the drugs legal; deaths from smugglers and dealers pushing ever more potent forms of the drugs, which could be better regulated were these drugs legal; deaths from addicts less able to seek treatment due to these drugs being illegal; and deaths from increased crime due to the high cost of these drugs, thanks to their being illegal.
There are several obvious models one could use for legalization. Other countries such as the Netherlands have success with legalization, needle exchange programs, and other forms of harm reduction. Another model is the US itself, in how alcohol and tobacco addiction have been reduced and lives saved. Prohibition of alcohol had very limited success. Deaths from alcoholism did decline, but deaths from alcohol poisoning and criminal syndicates rose. As for tobacco, public awareness has done far more good than prohibition did. This is not widely known, but much of Europe did once try to prohibit tobacco. In the early modern period, the first drug war was against tobacco, and it did not have any more success than today's drug war.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and a former Fulbright Scholar. His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for NewAgeFraud.org. More information on him can be found at http://alcarroll.com.