War on Drugs – huh, yeah, what is it good for?

Michele Kazatchkine, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, has claimed that fighting the spread of AIDS, especially in countries outside of Africa, requires the de-criminalisation of drugs, since the illegal nature of intravenous drug injection, and the punitive stance towards addicts, endanger public health. He says

“A repressive way of dealing with drug users is a way of facilitating the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic…From a scientific perspective, I cannot understand the repressive policy perspective.”

I think is an under-statement. Drug policy is not just repressive, it is in many cases military. It’s not just that states focus on ‘punishment’ rather than saving lives, but that they focus on defeating and destroying the enemy force.

Someone who is punished is at least recognised as a community member, and their continued existence valued. But drugs policies often seem characterised by a deadliness and brutality that calls to mind more the attitude towards an enemy army or a hunted animal.

While the US ‘war on drugs’, both domestically and across the world (especially Latin America) is well-known, Thailand’s similar war was if anything even more vicious, with a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy and little investigation to ensure that those shot were actually guilty. This, note, was under the legally-elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, i.e. the nominal figurehead of the current popular struggles there.

Of course this makes a certain sense, because drugs, when illegal, become a central part of organised crime, and organised crime is, in many respects, a rival political force, an enemy army. Mexico is a good example where it sometimes seems to be stronger than the official state.

But there’s two things to note. The first is that this enemy army is called into existence by state policies. Is it too much to imagine that at some semi-conscious level, this is precisely the point? That drug laws are maintained because they create a situation in which an enemy force must be confronted and fought, a situation that is very gratifying to a certain statist mentality? That leaders are not tough on drugs because they are illegal, but make them illegal in order to be tough?

After all, war is the health of the state. And if that enemy within turns out to be a demographic that was already in need of a bit of roughing-up, so much the better.

The second is that as in most wars of this sort, the two combatants have more in common than either does with non-combatants. War is a mirror; the violent corrupt hierarchical world of organised crime, and the violent corrupt hierarchical world of government, are so closely related that their battles alternate with, or coexist with, periods of close collaboration and overlap of personnel.

The same applies to most wars. At the end of the day, the rulers of Iraq and Iran have more in common with each other, in terms of lifestyle and interests, than they do with the Iraqi and Iranian civilians and soldiers who they burnt to death so merrily.

The idea of war as a resolute struggle between completely opposed and implacable foes, each radically different from the other, is produced only for mass consumption, as a sort of aphrodisiac for the pleasures of war. The reality is much closer to the idea of a duel between friends, a game played by two elites who, simply because of the structure of their situation, must inevitably view each other as more human than the ever-mounting statistics of the dead and maimed and starving on either side.

4 Responses to “War on Drugs – huh, yeah, what is it good for?”

  1. Duncan Says:

    Although I largely agree with your comments about the ‘war on drugs’ I don’t buy Kazatchkine’s argument.

    Firstly, the fight to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS takes place primarily within Africa where the overwhelming majority of sufferers live. There are few areas elsewhere in the world with prevalence levels, outside of groups with high risk behaviour such as sex workers, that place an immediate demand on the world’s attention; with the possible exception of the Caribbean.

    Second, in Africa, and the Caribbean, the disease is spread primarily through heterosexual sex not drug use. This is why the disease is so serious, as I would assume the majority of the population in every nation in the world do not inject drugs.

    Finally, the comments of Kazatchkine may provoke outrage from governments around the world but not as much as if he had recommended the only tried and tested, so far, method of containing the spread of HIV/AIDS; fight a protracted civil war.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    What you say about primary methods of infection in different areas is true, and Kazatchkine says so. But surely millions of preventable deaths, while they may not place an ‘immediate demand on the world’s attention’, are a powerful argument for a certain course of action?

  3. Duncan Says:

    Well yes but I object to Kazatchkine presenting an entirely defensibly drugs policy recommendation in terms that are not so defensible, that this policy choice is needed to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ah fair enough.

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