In 1920 the United States adopted an amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. That act generated a crime wave. During the next 13 years, gangsters took over cities—the infamous Al Capone ran Chicago—800 gangsters were murdered in Chicago, 500,000 U.S. citizens went to prison, thousands of people died from drinking poisoned “moonshine” whiskey, and many were blinded. In 1933 the constitutional amendment was repealed, and, thereafter, alcoholic beverages were sold as controlled, licensed, and taxed products—a much better solution.
During the Vietnam war, the 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency facilitated the opium business in the “Golden Triangle,” an area that included Burma (now Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand. The purpose was to finance irregular military operations without accountability. Substantial amounts of the narcotic drug, refined as heroin, went to Vietnam. Ranking Vietnamese military officers profited from distribution of the narcotic. Some U.S. soldiers began using the drugs. According to Adam Alter writing in his book Irresistible, 19 percent of those soldiers who used the heroin became addicted to the drug. Fearing a drug addiction epidemic in the United States, the Nixon administration responded with a “war on drugs” that criminalized the sale or possession of illegal narcotic drugs. Fortunately, most of the soldiers were able to stop using the drugs when they left the depressing Vietnam war environment and returned to the United States. But the “war on drugs” rolled on and made the problem worse. Long prison sentences for sale or possession of illegal drugs has significantly contributed to a U.S. prison population of more than two million Americans. There was almost no funding or emphasis on prevention of drug use or rehabilitation. When ex-felons are released from prison, they are often disenfranchised, i.e., they lose the right to vote in elections. Felon status makes it very difficult to find employment.
During the 1980s, the U.S. government illegally sold weapons to Iran and illegally used the profits to support guerrilla fighters (Contras) in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, those Contras enhanced their finances by sending narcotic drugs to the United States.
During that same 1980s era, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency prided itself on helping the radical Islamist “freedom fighters” drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The disruption of ordinary life resulting from war caused farmers to start growing poppy plants from which opium is produced. Opium, refined to heroin, is much easier to manage than grain crops and far more profitable. Later, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan further increased the disruption of life, and, unfortunately, Afghanistan became the world’s leading opium producer.
Eventually, the U.S. “war on drugs” included efforts to disrupt growing operations in Central American countries and in Afghanistan. It didn’t go well. A program in Peru to prevent the planting of coca from which cocaine is derived offered farmers $300 per hectare (2.47 acres) to grow a different crop. But the drug dealers paid $7000 per hectare for the coca leaves. Farmers can count.
The U.S. drug addiction problem has been compounded by misuse of addictive medicines. Oxycodone is a pharmaceutical company invention that can be useful for people who are suffering from severe pain. Unfortunately, it is addictive and has become too easily available to drug addicts. Nicholas Kristof writing in the October 18, 2017, NY Times states that, “Today, 75 percent of people with opioid addictions began with prescription painkillers.” There are also new illegal chemical concoctions on the market that are deadly, including fentanyl.
There is now a scourge of drug use in areas where the U.S. economy has left people jobless and without hope. Nick Reding writing in his book Methland states that, “Contrary to what many people think, the rural United States has for decades had higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than the nation’s urban areas.” The U.S. recorded 64,000 deaths from drug overdose last year (2016).
The U.S. government bears some responsibility for illegal drug distribution and a seriously failed “war on drugs.” Our government now has a responsibility to pursue efforts to solve the drug addiction epidemic.
Reach Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.