Workers Vanguard No. 1089
6 May 2016
For the Decriminalization of Drugs!
Capitalist Misery and Heroin Addiction
Barely a day goes by without a new report on the growing opioid addiction crisis—a level of heroin use and overdose unseen for three decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2006 and 2013 the number of first-time heroin users nearly doubled, from 90,000 to 169,000. Over half a million Americans used heroin in 2013—a nearly 150 percent increase since 2007—and opioids played a part in a record 28,648 deaths in the U.S. in 2014. The racist capitalist ruling class, which spent decades locking up people, disproportionately black and Latino, under the “war on drugs,” is now wringing its hands over the heroin “epidemic” because the increased addiction and death rates are affecting a growing number of whites, including in the suburbs.
The anti-drug hysteria of the 1980s and ’90s was based on the fiction that an entire generation of black youth was driven to crazed violence by the use of crack cocaine. These youth were labeled superpredators to justify their mass incarceration. Sentences for possession of crack were 100 times more severe than for powder cocaine, typically associated with white users. Today, increased heroin use has permeated all levels of society, black and white. It can be found in the enclaves of the wealthy, in the deteriorating towns and small cities where industry once existed, in the ramshackle hovels and trailer parks throughout rural America and in the ghetto slums.
The biggest surge in heroin use today is among whites between the ages of 18 and 25 and with household incomes below $20,000, who are suffering much of the same economic desperation that has marked black life for generations. These conditions have also spurred a dramatic increase in suicide rates, especially among middle-aged white men. Drug overdoses, suicide and liver disease caused white life expectancy to fall in 2014 (though it is still three years higher than for black people). These social conditions—joblessness, poverty, and hopelessness—are a result of the decimation of unionized industrial jobs over the past few decades. As we noted in “Lockdown U.S.A.” (WV No. 618, 10 March 1995): “Over a million manufacturing jobs were lost in the U.S. in the 1980s, on top of the wholesale destruction of whole swaths of Midwest industry the decade before. For every place lost on the assembly lines, one has been added in the prisons.” Since the early 1990s, another five million jobs in manufacturing have been eliminated, while benefits and real wages have declined in the remaining ones. In this context, and with little class or social struggle, many see drugs and alcohol as a means to escape from the hell of everyday life.
In response to the heroin crisis, on March 10, the normally gridlocked Senate was nearly unanimous in passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act aimed at reducing opioid “abuse,” expanding treatment programs and preventing overdose deaths. However, the Republican majority refused to provide funding for the act. On March 29, President Obama stated, “If there’s a market for heroin in an inner city in Baltimore, it’s not going to take that long before those drugs find their way to a wealthy suburb outside Baltimore.”
Expressions of compassion for heroin addicts have come from what would seem to be the most unlikely sources. Hillary Clinton, first lady of mass incarceration, has proposed $7.5 billion in federal funding for state treatment programs. On the campaign trail, the evangelical nut job Ted Cruz makes a point of tearfully recounting the drug overdose death of his half-sister Miriam. Suddenly treatment is all the rage. White House press secretary Josh Earnest claimed that Obama is shifting the focus from purely law enforcement to medical treatment. But as long as drugs remain criminalized, state repression will be the main response to drug users.
The deterioration exhibited by those who are driven by addiction to devote all their energies and resources to the pursuit of their next high and the anguish this causes to family and friends can be truly excruciating. However, the bulk of the damage to individuals and communities attributed to narcotics is not intrinsic to the drugs themselves but to the fact they are illegal. The government has no business criminalizing the personal use of any drug, regardless of its particular risks or effects.
The only rational way to address the question of drug use is by removing all prohibitions on it. As communists, we demand an end to all laws against “crimes without victims,” such as gambling, prostitution, drug use, pornography and all consensual sex. Those who have an addiction and want treatment should be able to get it—as part of quality health care for all, free at the point of delivery. Decriminalization would reduce the crime and other social pathology associated with the drug trade by taking the superprofits out of it.
The current explosion of heroin use, as well as that of the cheaper, more potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, is also related to the expansion and subsequent crackdown on prescription opioids like OxyContin (oxycodone). Originally (and falsely) marketed as a non-addictive painkiller in 1995, oxy became regularly prescribed for severe pain. A few years later, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to monitor, harass and threaten doctors who prescribed the drug with loss of their medical licenses and prosecution. The patients who had their prescriptions cut off, along with their teenage children who raided the family medicine cabinet, turned to the streets for heroin as a substitute, which was in any case more easily available and cheaper. The Obama administration’s remedy has been to declare a further crackdown on opioid prescriptions.
As a forensic pathologist wrote to the New York Times (26 March), the CDC’s new guidelines “are unrealistic for patients who have done well (sometimes for years) on carefully monitored opioid doses under continuing medical care.” The doctor added that if acetaminophen or ibuprofen “worked for severe pain, no legitimate patient would be taking opioids.” In some cases, patients suffering from chronic pain may benefit from physical therapy. However, this treatment is more expensive and is often not covered by insurance.
Down With the War on Drugs!
Today’s plethora of drug laws is an outgrowth of the state repression under the “war on crime” kicked off by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 “Safe Streets Act” and President Richard Nixon’s 1970 “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.” In a 1994 interview, John Ehrlichman, former domestic policy adviser to Nixon, described how Nixon’s anti-drug laws aimed to disrupt both the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.... We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The war on drugs was escalated under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Along with attacks on consensual sex, abortion and teaching evolution in public schools, it was intended to ideologically regiment the population as Cold War II against the Soviet Union heated up. Key to this crusade was the hysteria whipped up against black people over so-called “crack babies,” which was a lie. Much of crack’s importation into Los Angeles was facilitated by the CIA to fund the right-wing contra guerrillas fighting the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Democrats played a leading role in the “war on drugs.” New York governor Mario Cuomo called for life sentences for pushers while NYC mayor Ed Koch demanded concentration camps for “drug abusers.” Black Democrats led by Jesse Jackson were among the loudest voices. Al Sharpton whipped up a chauvinist frenzy against Arab storekeepers selling rolling papers and pipes, while targeting black “crack houses.” Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill expanded the federal death penalty, financed 100,000 cops to hit the streets and allocated nearly $10 billion for more prison construction.
Largely out of budgetary concerns, there has in recent years been some reconsideration of the disproportionate sentences for possession of crack. In 2010 the sentencing disparity for crack compared to powder coke was reduced to 18-to-1. Much has been made of Obama’s promise to consider commuting overly harsh sentences of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. He has granted clemency to 248 federal prisoners, but that amounts to less than 2 percent of those who have petitioned the White House for relief. The U.S. still remains the world’s largest jailer, and over 50 percent of the more than two million behind bars are black and Latino.
Puritan Social Regimentation
Drugs, including alcohol and hallucinogens, have been enjoyed by homo sapiens since the origin of our species. Harpers Magazine contributor Dan Baum noted in a recent article: “Most of what we hate and fear about drugs—the violence, the overdoses, the criminality—derives from prohibition, not drugs” (“Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs,” April 2016). Noting that drug addiction is rare, Baum pointed out, “Lots of Americans drink, but relatively few become alcoholics. It’s hard to imagine people enjoying a little heroin now and then, or a hit of methamphetamine, without going off the deep end, but they do it all the time.”
Behind the proscription of recreational drugs is the intersection of the Puritan religiosity ingrained in this society and the racist oppression of black people, which is a bulwark of American capitalism. Deeming addiction to be a moral failing, many treatment programs are based on total abstinence. Heroin substitutes like methadone and buprenorphine, many of whose users are able to function quite well, are subject to strict limits. Methadone, which works by “occupying” the brain receptors affected by heroin and other opiates, can only be administered through specially licensed clinics, which in much of the country are few and far between. Doctors can prescribe buprenorphine, which helps reduce the physical and psychological craving for opiates, but the number of patients for whom any doctor can prescribe it is limited by federal regulations.
Much touted of late are diversion programs such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) initiated in Seattle in 2011 and taken up in some form by 20 other cities. LEAD allows the cops to refer drug users picked up on the street to social workers who, without requiring that their clients stop using, help them find shelter, work, medical care and drug treatment if they so desire. However, who gets diverted and who gets arrested is left entirely to the discretion of the racist cops on the beat. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, hails LEAD as “an innovative partnership between police officers, prosecutors, neighborhood leaders, and service providers.” Such illusions in the cops and prosecutors—key elements of the capitalist state which exists to repress workers and the oppressed—are par for the course for the reformists of Socialist Alternative who have long pushed the lie that cops are “workers in uniform.”
Another scheme promoted as an “alternative” to incarceration, and ardently championed by Obama, is the system of drug courts that began in 1989 and now numbers over 3,000. Their purpose was—and is—to clear the dockets of trial courts overwhelmed by drug prosecutions. After giving up the right to a trial, a drug court defendant must complete a program of treatment and drug testing—often including a period of going cold turkey behind bars. Those who fail to “graduate” face lengthy prison sentences.
Recently, the mayor of Ithaca, New York, Svante Myrick, put forward a patently rational proposal for a “supervised injection facility” for drug users. Staffed with medical personnel, the center would provide clean needles and prevent overdoses. Starting in Switzerland 30 years ago, injection sites have been adopted in ten countries. Myrick’s plan was met with an immediate backlash. State senator Tom O’Mara called it “asinine” and Cornell law professor William Jacobson condemned it as a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.” Even the best-intentioned proposals highlight the irrationality of drug prohibition. Those stopped by the cops on their way to or from the injection site would still be arrested if carrying drugs.
Opium was first brought to the Americas by European colonists and was long one of the most effective painkillers. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were frequent users of laudanum (tincture of opium), and trade in opium made possible the fortunes of some of America’s most famous families. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano, was a major player in the opium trade in China, as were many other affluent New Englanders. The Chinese government tried to suppress the opium trade, but Britain (whose Indian colony was the main producer of the drug) waged two wars in the mid 1800s to force open the Chinese market. Delano profited handsomely.
Substantial endowments to Harvard University came from the Cabot family, who in the 1700s hit it big importing opium and rum along with slaves. Yale University’s secretive Skull and Bones society (which counts among its former members both George Bushes) was funded by the Russell family, who grew rich smuggling opium from Turkey to China in the early 19th century. Others who prospered from the opium trade were the Boston Forbeses, whose descendants include current secretary of state John Forbes Kerry.
Every drug scare has been accompanied by racist fearmongering. The smoking of opium was introduced to the U.S. after the Civil War by Chinese laborers who built the railroads in the West under murderous conditions. Toward the end of the century, fears were whipped up over the mixing of white people, particularly women, with Chinese men in opium smoking parties. Laws were passed authorizing imprisonment for operating or patronizing an opium den. In 1909, Congress passed the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, which banned its importation for non-medicinal purposes. As a result, opium smokers switched to either morphine or heroin, a form of morphine that was first introduced as a pain reliever and cough suppressant by Bayer in 1898. Criminalization forced these users underground and led to the creation of a thriving black market.
Black people in the South were introduced to cocaine towards the end of the 19th century when New Orleans stevedores began taking the drug (or had it pushed on them by their bosses) to help them endure long spells of loading and unloading steamboats—often laboring up to 70 hours at a stretch. From there it spread to cotton plantations, railroad camps and construction sites throughout the South.
The crusade for the Harrison Act of 1914, which banned non-medicinal use of opium, morphine and cocaine, featured a racist scare campaign that would be echoed 70 years later over crack. The New York Times (8 February 1914) ranted, “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.” The Times claimed that cocaine use turned black men into deadly marksmen and made them immune to wounds that “would drop a sane man in his tracks.”
At the same time, state laws against marijuana were being adopted on the basis of a similar scare campaign directed against Mexican immigrants in the Southwest. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana and in 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, modeled on the Harrison Act. The 1937 Act was opposed at the time by the American Medical Association, but it had the support of Henry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who ranted that reefer made blacks “think they’re as good as white men.” During World War II, Anslinger asserted that the Japanese were conspiring to spread narcotics to sap America’s will to fight. As the Cold War kicked off, he wielded the same assertion against Communists.
Heroin use, largely centered in New York City ghettos, surged after WWII, spreading through jazz clubs, bars, dance halls and hotels. A propaganda barrage portrayed white adolescents as the victims of heroin abuse forced on them by evil pushers. The intended audience was white suburbia, whose children were least likely to take heroin, but who were most likely to be enlisted in a moral panic over narcotics. This led to legislation that established increasingly stiff penalties for drug trafficking.
More than a century of prohibition of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other opiates, hallucinogens and (for a while) alcohol has done little but lock up millions of people, destroy families and neighborhoods. It has also served to regiment the population and drive a racial wedge deeper into the working class. At the same time, the prohibitions planted the soil for criminal syndicates, from the opium dealers at the end of the 19th century to the bootleggers (including the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty) during Prohibition. Prominent among the latter were the Mafia, who acquired the experience and organization necessary to take over wholesale narcotics distribution after WWII.
The immiseration that besets the working class and oppressed, pushing some into addiction and alcoholism, must be combated through multiracial working-class struggle. America’s racist imperialist system will continue to chew up its oppressed masses until it is overthrown by a socialist revolution that places the working class in power and expropriates the capitalist class, establishing a collectivized, planned economy. The proletarian social order will abolish all crimes without victims and will move to provide treatment and medical care to all who need it. The prisons, jails and courts that today enforce the predatory rule of the bourgeoisie will be replaced with organs of proletarian justice based on principles of rehabilitation rather than retribution. These measures will be among the many taken to maximize humanity’s control over the conditions that besiege it. Then all will be free to realize their full potential as human beings.