The Drug War Racket
Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.
The Temper of Our Time
The history of Prohibition clearly follows the arc of Hoffer's aphorism. Prohibition started as a religious and moral movement early in the nineteenth century, it developed into a business in the mid-twentieth century with laws prohibiting drugs other than alcohol. Finally, the failed War on Drugs has degenerated into a racket.
Prohibition started as a religious movement early in the nineteenth century when the secular republic of the Revolution turned to religion in the Second Great Awakening. As it developed, it merged three different religious traditions. The older Puritans, who had faded a century earlier, bequeathed the idea that society had a moral obligation to closely constrain public conformity. The Evangelists who arose after about 1810 focused on sanctification, or that each person must lead a godly life to achieve salvation. By the end of that century they were joined by the practitioners of the social gospel who believed in a mission to better social conditions and society itself. The common thread holding all three together was an insistence on absolute sobriety. They were able to impose their religious vision (whichever form it took) on the nation as a whole with the ratification of the Prohibition in 1919. When Prohibition was repealed, the Dry true believers simply switched their allegiance to the new drug prohibition that developed in the 1920s. Some even continued giving the same speeches, merely substituting the word “drugs” for “alcohol”. Even today this absolute moralistic core resonates with many Drug Warriors who still see all drugs (or at least selected “bad” drugs) as evil and who insist on total, nationwide sobriety.
When Prohibition – of both alcohol and other drugs – came into effect in the 1920s, the moral crusade for total sobriety morphed into a business of enforcement. The commercialization actually started in the late nineteenth century with the opening of inebriation asylums and sobriety clinics. In the twentieth, they were joined by healers working against drug addiction – in fact the term ”addict” itself grew from those efforts. They grew from city clinics to institutes trying to break the grip of drugs on their users. In the mid-30s even the prison system joined in this professional effort with the opening of the federal “narcotic farms” in Lexington and Fort Worth. These, in turn, became the foundation of the medical profession’s work in the field of drug abuse. The professionalization of rehabilitation and drug medicine was joined by that of drug policing. By 1930 both the Prohibition Bureau (later merged into the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency) and the Bureau of Narcotics (forerunner of the current Drug Enforcement Agency) had become regular civil service bureaus.
The new business of Prohibition slogged along unsuccessfully for a half a century (that’s right: more than fifty years elapsed between the Harrison Narcotic Act and the Controlled Substances Act) before it was supercharged by the War on Drugs and greedily expanded into a racket. Over a trillion dollars has been thrown to greedy sharks, and drug use is more wide-spread than ever.
From 1970 to 2010 prison population expanded from under 500,000 to over 2,000,000 – most of it from drug arrests. Private for-profit corporations rushed in to build prisons and operate them under state contracts – and they insured those profits gained with massive campaign contributions and lobbying. The California Corrections Officers association quickly became one of the richest and most powerful political associations in the state. Dependence therapy and rehabilitation, a small medical specialty since the 1920s, blossomed into a nationwide industry with major chains of treatment organizations, often run by hucksters and quacks.
The federal government also poured two massive torrents of money into Prohibition that turned policing into a for-profit racket. The first was a series of grants, both money and military surplus equipment (which is why even small town police have tanks). These were primarily based on numbers of arrests, and marijuana arrests are easy to make. The second War on Drugs innovation was civil forfeiture of any assets used in the commission of a crime or acquired through criminal proceeds. Those funds go directly to the police agencies (federal and local) outside of their normal budgetary procedures and constraints. One Texas sheriff uses part of his forfeited assets to throw regular beer and barbeque gatherings for his deputies. This process has also allowed major drug kingpins to bribe their way into much shorter prison sentences.
Hoffer’s map traces the trajectory of Prohibition from crusade to business to racket, but it is incomplete. Every arc comes to an end, but Hoffer gives no clue to what that end may be. Like a fly ball, it could fall outside the fence for a score or into a fielder’s glove for an out. Like a cannonball, it could bury itself in the dirt or blow up a fort. Like a meteor, it could burn out as a fiery streak across the sky or crash into the Gulf of Mexico destroying the dinosaurs and most other life. The arc of Prohibition must end. It is up to us to make sure its end comes quickly and does as little harm as possible.