War On Drugs = War On Addicts

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Prison for All

By: Terence T. Gorski,
Author

Researching the relationship between alcohol, drugs, and violence brought me face-to-face with the incongruities of the War On Drugs Policy of the United States. The War On Drugs is a heavily funded and mostly ineffective strategy to stop drug abuse and drug related crimes by reducing both the supply of drugs on the streets (Supply Reduction) and the demand for drugs by potential or current users (Demand Reduction).

Supply Reduction is aimed at reducing the amount of drugs available for sale on the street. State, local, and county police are responsible for serving domestic drug warrants. They have been well prepared by being supped with SWAT team gear and training. Some departs have also received armored combat vehicles for use in serving drug warrants.

Additional funding is being poured into other international military efforts–increased military policing of the US borders, and aggressive, perhaps unconstitutional, paramilitary policing within this country. The aggressive paramilitary policing effort is resulting in record numbers of drug arrests and convictions.

Drug related crime is responsible for 70% of all people doing time in state and federal prisons. While the supply side is being heavily funded, Demand Reduction based on drug prevention and treatment is getting the short end of the stick. Although officially a part of the War On Drugs policy, Demand Reduction actually gets relatively little of the Drug War funding.

In spite of the growing number of hard-core addicted users, the addiction treatment industry has been radically downsized in both the public and private sectors. Between 1989 and 1992 nearly 50% of the nation’s addiction treatment programs were forced out of business by managed care policies.

Those that survived were forced to downsize their services by nearly 40%. These managed care policies were opposed by the treatment industry because they would damage the nation’s ability to provide effective drug treatment.

Yet, over the objections of numerous informed experts, a national policy was implemented that destroyed a proven service delivery system while replacing it with a an experiment in case-managed brief therapy. The managed care revolution actually prevents those with the most need from getting treatment.

Tragically, a similar assault is threatening the funding base of the nation’s mental health centers, which are the safety net for the nation’s poor. Education and prevention programs in our schools and communities are not being adequately funded. Most schools cannot afford adequate alcohol, drug, and violence prevention programs for its students.

The reduction in treatment programs has caused the rates of unemployment among trained counselors and therapists to skyrocket. Ironically the major source of new jobs for therapeutic professionals is within criminal justice programs or community based programs funded to manage criminals assigned to court diversion programs, probation, or parole. There are also job opportunities in the growing number of private prisons who are accepting outsourcing contracts for the control of prison populations. However, even the funding for these War On Drugs prevention and treatment programs is inadequate at best. Currently less than twenty per cent of imprisoned addicts get any form of treatment, while we are killing drug dealers in South American with armored helicopters that cost over $12 million each.

Why is this all happening? Could it be that the drug war really has very little to do with addressing alcohol and drug abuse and its related social problems? These questions have bothered me for the last several years. What motivated me to write this article was reading an interview with Noam Chomsky entitled Debt, Drugs, and Democracy in the NACLA: Report On The Americas July-August 1999 Issue. The interview, although focused primarily upon global finance, had a short discussion of our current Drug War Policy that suggested that the relationship between the War On Drugs and Public Health Addiction Policy is not as clear and straightforward as many believe it to be.

Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, made some interesting observations about the War On Drugs and the role that it plays politically and economically both within the United States and internationally. According to Chomsky the War On Drugs has little to do with battling the problem of addiction.

He notes that the war on drugs has had no impact whatsoever on the availability of drugs or street prices within the United States. Chomsky clearly shows, however, that in the United States the War On Drugs has had two other major effects that may account for its continued funding in spite of its long history of apparent failure.

Chomsky contends that in order to understand the dual effect of the War On Drugs we must first understand that the United States is restructuring itself around the social principles of Third World Countries. Chomsky contends that, in effect, the United States is evolving into a very rich Third World Country. How could this be?

Third world countries are organized around three basic social levels:
– a very small elite group of super rich,
– a middle or working class who delivers vital services to the ruling elite, and
– a huge disenfranchised underclass of “throw-away” people who are perceived by the ruling elite to have no value within the society.

Chomsky urges us to look at what’s happening in the United States. There is a very small group of economic elite who controls a large percentage of the nation’s wealth and who are exercising more and more control over the political and economic policies of the nation.

There is a shrinking middle class of working people who tend to live from paycheck to paycheck for declining wages in roles that support the needs of the economic elite. In the United States for the past 25 years, about two-thirds of the population saw their incomes (adjusted for inflation) decline even though they had worked longer and harder. People in America work more hours per week than in any other industrialized society. Ask yourself if you are better off today than twenty years ago. Media propaganda tells us that we are. Economic statistics and the personal experiences of millions of Americans tell us that we are not. Yet most people believe the propaganda and view themselves as an exception.

Then there is a large and growing population of unemployed and unemployable people who constitute the underclass of our society. The economic elite considers the members of this underclass to be expendable or disposable. This underclass, denied access to participation in the legitimate economy, has created an illegal underground economy centered in large part around the drug trade. This underclass is the fastest growing segment of the US Population.

Chomsky makes the observation that in third world countries there are a lot of superfluous people, like the street children in Rio de Janeiro, the abandoned children of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the street poor of Mexico. We should also think about the growing population of homeless street people in the United States. The presence of these visible members of a destitute underclass raises a question that is all at once social, moral, and political: “What is to be done with these people?”

In many countries, such as Colombia and Brazil, they can be killed. This killing requires elaborate mechanisms of moral justification that paint the atrocity as some sort of an acceptable “social cleansing” process. The social mechanisms of moral justification vary from country to country, but one fact remains the same – the people of the underclass are the primary target of vigorous and systematic abuse in the name of social control.

The United States is purportedly a civilized country, so we can’t directly kill the members of our growing underclass. So what do we do with them?

Our new national policy, shaped by such programs as The War On Drugs and Get Tough On Crime, is to control this burgeoning underclass of people by putting them in jail. Chomsky sees this as the major reason for the rapid increase in the jail and prison population.

The major justification for incarceration has been the illicit drug trade. This attack on the drug trade, primarily under the umbrella of the War On Drugs, is directed primarily at the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.

This includes drug addicts, alcoholics, the unemployed, disenfranchised women and children, neglected adolescents, and racial minorities. All of these people have one thing in common – they have not been able to gain a foothold in the American economic structure and as a result can make no contribution to the profits of the economic elite.

According to Chomsky there’s also another effect. The way the War On Drugs Policy is implemented frightens people, discourages social protest, and sets the stage for the erosion of our constitutional rights. These constitutional rights are all that protect the individual against the abuses and atrocities that have historically been committed by those in economic power against the disenfranchised segments of the population.

Although many people believe that such atrocities in the name of economic wealth are relegated to ancient history, the twentieth century has spawned some of the greatest atrocities in history and many of those atrocities are being acted out today as I write this article. For full exploration of 20th century atrocity read the book Humanity – A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (Jonathan Cape, London, 1999).

The United States is the only society that Chomsky could find that uses fear of crime, criminals, drugs, and drug addicts as a method of social control. He points to the huge propaganda campaigns designed to make people terrified of drugs and crime and of the criminals and drug addicts, in spite of the fact that the number of violent crimes is going down.

The fear of crime in the US is not rational. In spite of consistent declines in most areas of crime, the fear of the average citizen is greater than it has ever been.

One of the consequences of using fear of crime and drugs as a social control policy is that we must demonize the drug addict and criminal. We must promote the stereotypical image of the psychopathic killer and the crazed drug addict.

This dehumanization of entire classes of people allow social policies to be implemented to keep these “demons” from getting in the way of “social progress” and “community safety.” The result of this policy is that national leadership has a very powerful tool to keep the general population under control.

Chomsky concludes his brief discussion on the drug war with a disturbing observation: “It is not true that the drug war is a failure; in fact, it is a great success. It has nothing to do with the availability of drugs, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s serving other purposes and serving them pretty well.

So what has this got to do with substance abuse and mental health professionals? Have the very professionals who have dedicated their careers and their lives to social progress become the unwitting accomplices of a social policy that could be one of the largest social problems in recent history? Have we failed to see an obvious truth? Are we actively participating in the wide scale incarceration and systematic abuse of drug addicts and the mentally ill?

Addiction and mental health professionals, if supported by appropriate social policy, could rehabilitate many if not most of these people. Why is current social policy preventing this?

If Chomsky’s observations are true, what can we do about it? We must see that the national War On Drugs Policy cannot and will not help addicted and mentally ill people. We must see the War On Drugs for what it really is – a convenient device to channel large amounts of money into a broad spectrum of social control activities both nationally and internationally.

Finally, if change is to occur, we must recognize that the solution to this problem is political based upon our moral self-identity as a people. Are we the kind of people capable of imprisoning large segments of our population simply because they are addicted, mentally ill, impoverished, or a racial minority? Are we the kind of people that can look the other way as millions of Americans are incarcerated under what Amnesty International declares as cruel and inhuman conditions when they could be successfully treated? Are we willing to stand quietly by and allow our social policies to shape us into a people capable of these things?

Terence T. Gorski is a pioneer in the development of Relapse Prevention Therapy. His model of Brief Therapy for Relapse Prevention has tailored those solutions both to the needs of the client and the requirements of managed care. Mr. Gorski is the founder and Clinical Director of the Relapse Prevention Certification School, which conducts advanced training in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He is the founder and President of the CENAPS® Corporation, a training and consultation firm that provides solutions to the problem of relapse. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in psychology and sociology and a Masters of Arts. He is also a Nationally Certified Addiction Counselor (NCACII) and a Senior Certified Addiction Counselor (CSAC) in the State of Illinois. For more information call (708) 799-5000, or

Visit his web site: www.relapse.org to review other publications.

2 Responses to War On Drugs = War On Addicts

  1. Margherite Williams says:

    I’ve been clean a long time (32 years). For much of that time I’ve been aware that continued abstinence fulfills an adolescent “in your face” rebellious streak in my personality that first manifested in the 1950s. That rebellion surfaces when in contact with several social aspects of “treatment” : (1) the rehab industry’s obsession with highly profitable one-size-fits-all pseudo-Freudian ego psychology that typically ensures repeat customers; (2) the pharmaceutical industry’s replacement drug strategy, typically for depression or anxiety, that creates lifelong customers; (3) various 12-step fellowship dogmatic practices that spew platitudes and enforce conformity that calls itself “unity”, creating a12-step “religion”. None of this is affected by the criminal justice system, which seems to be in the business of fulfilling quotas for the prison industry. The addict who wants to escape from this morass deserves a viable environment in which to do so.

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