High Times Greats: Noam Chomsky On The Drug-War Industrial Complex

In the April, 1998 issue of High Times, social critic Noam Chomsky deconstructed the myths spun by America’s drug warriors that kept us bound to a system that made the building of jails to house nonviolent drug users a top priority.
High Times Greats: Noam Chomsky On The Drug-War Industrial Complex
High Times/ MS Veit

Noam Chomsky turns 91 on December 7. To celebrate, we’re bringing you John Veit’s interview with “the father of modern linguistics,” originally published in the April, 1998 issue of High Times.

A hundred years from now, Avram Noam Chomsky is going to figure in the history books as the prime voice of conscience, dissent and reason in the wars and social catastrophes of the late 20th century. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, he began an intellectual revolution in the understanding of linguistics which very efficiently challenged and subverted the old knee-jerk behavioristic worldview that nourished the Cold War. His seamless critical essays on American foreign and domestic policies since then have unerringly diagnosed their fallacies, relentlessly dissecting the propaganda of the power establishment. We thought it was time he addressed the Drug War.

High Times: You’ve defined the War on Drugs as an instrument of population control. How does it accomplish that?

Noam Chomsky: Population control is actually a term I borrowed from the counterinsurgency literature of the Kennedy years. The main targets at the time were Southeast Asia and Latin America, where there was an awful lot of popular ferment. They recognized that the population was supporting popular forces that were calling for all kinds of social change that the United States simply could not tolerate. And you could control people in a number of ways. One way was just by terror and violence, napalm bombing and so on, but they also worked on developing other kinds of population-control measures to keep people subjugated, ranging from propaganda to concentration camps. Propaganda is much more effective when it is combined with terror.

You have the same problem domestically, where the public is constantly getting out of control. You have to carry out measures to insure that they remain passive and apathetic and obedient, and don’t interfere with privilege and power. It’s a major theme of modern democracy. As the mechanisms of democracy expand, like enfranchisement and growth, the need to control people by other means increases.

So the growth of corporate propaganda in the United States more or less parallels the growth of democracy, for quite straightforward reasons. It’s not any kind of a secret. It is discussed very frankly and openly in business literature and academic social-science journals. You have to “fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men,’’ in their standard phraseology, to indoctrinate and regiment them in the way that armies regiment their bodies. Those are population-control measures. This engineering or manufacture of consent is the essence of democracy, because you have to insure that ignorant and meddlesome outsiders—meaning we, the people—don’t interfere with the work of the serious people who run public affairs in the interests of the privileged.

How does the War on Drugs fit into this?

Well, one of the traditional and obvious ways of controlling people in every society, whether it’s a military dictatorship or a democracy, is to frighten them. If people are frightened, they’ll be willing to cede authority to their superiors who will protect them: “OK, I’ll let you run my life in order to protect me,” that sort of reasoning.

So the fear of drugs and fear of crime is very much stimulated by state and business propaganda. The National Justice Commission repeatedly points out that crime in the United States, while sort of high, is not off the spectrum for industrial societies. On the other hand, fear of crime is far beyond other societies, and mostly stimulated by various forms of propaganda. The Drug War is an effort to stimulate fear of dangerous people from whom we have to protect ourselves. It is also, a direct form of control of what are called the “dangerous classes,” those superfluous people who don’t really have a function contributing to profit-making and wealth. They have to be somehow taken care of.

In some other countries you just hang the rabble.

Yes, but in the US you don’t kill them, you put them in jail. The economic policies of the 1980s sharply increased inequality, concentrating such economic growth as there was, which was not enormous, in very few hands. The top few percent of the population got extremely wealthy as profits went through the roof, and meanwhile median-income wages were stagnating or declining. People have to work harder, and public support systems for poor and hungry people have been declining sharply ever since the ’70s. You’re getting a large mass of people who are insecure, suffering from difficulty to misery, or something in between. A lot of them basically are going to be arrested, because you have to control them.

The Drug War is used for that purpose. It very explicitly targets young black males. When the War on Drugs was redeclared in the late ’80s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan [D-NY] pointed out that if you just look at social statistics, you can see that we are calling for a war against poor minorities, black males basically.

It’s obviously true, but how do you prove it?

Just by looking at the trend lines for marijuana. Marijuana use was peaking in the late ’70s, but there was not much criminalization. You didn’t go to jail for life for having marijuana then because the people using it were nice folks like us, the children of the rich. You don’t throw them into jail any more than you throw corporate executives in jail—even though corporate crime is far more costly and dangerous than street crime. But then in the ’80s the use of various “unhealthy” substances started to decline among more educated sectors: marijuana and tobacco smoking, alcohol, red meat, coffee, this whole category of stuff. On the other hand, usage remained steady among poorer sectors of the population. In the United States, poor and black correlate—they’re not identical, but there’s a correlation—and in poor, black and Hispanic sectors of the population the use of such substances remained pretty steady.

So take a look at those trend lines. When you call for a War on Drugs, you know exactly who you are going to pick up: poor black people. You’re not going to pick up rich white people; you don’t go after them anyway. In the upper-middle-class suburb where I live, if somebody goes home and sniffs some cocaine the police don’t break into their house.

So there are many factors making the Drug War a war against the poor, largely poor people of color. And those are the people they have to get rid of. During the period these economic policies were being instituted, the incarceration rate was shooting up, but crime wasn’t, it was steady or declining. But imprisonment went way up. By the late ’80s, in terms of imprisoning our population, we were way ahead of the rest of the world, way ahead of any other industrial society.

Who benefits from incarcerating young black males?

A lot of people. Poor people are basically superfluous for wealth production, and therefore the wealthy want to get rid of them. The rich also frighten everyone else, because if you’re afraid of these people, then you submit to state authority. But beyond that, it’s a state industry. Since the 1930s, every businessman has understood that a private capitalist economy must have massive state subsidies; the only question is what form that state subsidy will take. In the United States the main form has been through the military system. The most dynamic aspects of the economy—computers, the Internet, the aeronautical industry, pharmaceuticals—have fed off the military system. But the crime-control industry, as it’s called by criminologists, is becoming the fastest-growing industry in America.

And it’s a state industry, publicly funded. It’s the construction industry, the real-estate industry, and also high-tech firms. It’s gotten to a scale sufficient that high-technology and military contractors are looking to it as a market for techniques of high-tech control and surveillance, so you can monitor what people do in their private activities with complicated electronic devices and supercomputers: monitoring their telephone calls and urinalyses and so forth. In fact, the time will probably come when this superfluous population can be locked up in private apartments, not jails, and just monitored to track when they do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, go the wrong direction.

House arrest for the masses.

It’s enough of an industry so that the major defense-industry firms are interested; you can read about it in The Wall Street Journal. The big law firms and investment houses are interested: Merrill Lynch is floating big loans for prison construction. If you take the whole system, it’s probably approaching the scale of the Pentagon.

Also, this is a terrific workforce. We hear a fuss about prison labor in China, but prison labor is standard here. It’s very cheap, it doesn’t organize, the workers don’t ask for rights, you don’t have to worry about health benefits because the public is paying for everything. It’s what’s called a “flexible” workforce, the kind of thing economists like; you have the workers when you want them, and you throw them out when you don’t want them.

And what’s more, it’s an old American tradition. There was a big industrial revolution in parts of the South in the early part of this century, in northern Georgia and Kentucky and Alabama, and it was based mostly around prison labor. The slaves had been technically freed, but after a few years they were basically slaves again. One way of controlling them was to throw them in jail, where they became a controlled labor force. That’s the core of the modem industrial revolution in the South, which continued in Georgia to the 1920s and to the Second World War in places like Mississippi.

Now it’s being revived. In Oregon and California there’s a fairly substantial textile industry in the prisons, with exports to Asia. At the very time people were complaining about prison labor in China, California and Oregon are exporting prison-made textiles to China. They even have a line called “Prison Blues.”

And it goes all the way up to advanced technology like data processing. In the state of Washington, Boeing workers are protesting the export of jobs to China, but they’re probably unaware that their jobs are being exported to nearby prisons, where machinists are doing work for Boeing under circumstances that the management is delighted over, for obvious reasons.

And most of these prisoners are now nonviolent drug offenders.

The enormous rate of growth of the prison population has been mostly drug-related. The last figures I saw showed that over half the federal prison population, and maybe a quarter in state prisons, are drug offenders. In New York State, for example, a twenty-dollar street sale or possession of an ounce of cocaine will get you the same sentence as arson with intent to murder. The three-strikes legislation is going to blow it right through the sky. The third arrest can be for some minor drug offense, and you’ll go to jail forever.

The Drug Czar’s office estimates that Americans spend $57 billion annually on illegal drugs. What effect does this have on the global economy?

Well, the United Nations tries to monitor the international drug trade, and their estimates are on the order of $400 to $500 billion—half a trillion dollars a year—in trade alone, which makes it higher than oil, something like 10 percent of world trade. Where this money goes to is mostly unknown, but general estimates are that maybe 60 percent of it passes through US banks. After that, a lot goes to offshore tax havens. It’s so obscure that nobody monitors it, and nobody wants to. But the Commerce Department every year publishes figures on foreign direct investment, where US investment is going, and through the ’90s the big excitement has been the “new emerging markets” like Latin America. And it turns out that a quarter of US foreign direct investment is going to Bermuda, another 15 percent to the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, another 10 percent to Panama, and so on. Now, they’re not building steel factories. The most benign interpretation is that it’s just tax havens. And the less benign interpretation is that it’s one way of passing illegal money into places where it will not be monitored. We really don’t know, because it is not investigated. This is not the task of the Justice Department, which is to go after a black kid in the ghetto who has a joint in his pocket.

What do you think of the US policy of offering trade and aid favors to countries who promulgate so-called antidrug initiatives?

Actually, US programs radically increase the use of drugs. Look at the big growth in cocaine production that has exploded in the Andes over the last few years, in Colombia and Peru and Bolivia. Why are Bolivian peasants, for instance, producing coca? The neoliberal structural-adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are run by the US, try to drive peasants into agro-export, producing not for local consumption but for sale abroad. They want to reduce social programs, like spending for health and education, cutting government deficits by increasing exports. And they cut back tariffs so that we can then pour our own highly subsidized food exports into their countries, which of course undercuts peasant production. Put all that together and what do you get? You get a huge increase in Bolivian coca production, as their only comparative advantage.

The same is true in Colombia, where US “food for peace” aid, as it was called, was used to undercut or destroy wheat production by essentially giving food—at what amounts to US taxpayer expense—through US agro-exporters to undercut wheat production there, which later cut coffee production and their ability to set prices in any reasonable fashion. And the end result is they turn to something else, and one of the things they turn to is coca production. In fact, if you look at the total effect of US policies, it has been to increase drugs.

Well, anybody who looks into the history of American drug policies in this century…

I’m putting aside another factor altogether, namely clandestine warfare. If you look into the history of what is called the CIA, which means the US White House, its secret wars, clandestine warfare, the trail of drug production just follows. It started in France after the Second World War when the United States was essentially trying to reinstitute the traditional social order, to rehabilitate Fascist collaborators, wipe out the Resistance and destroy the unions and so on. The first thing they did was reconstitute the Mafia, as strikebreakers or for other such useful services. And the Mafia doesn’t do it for fun, so there was a tradeoff: Essentially, they allowed them to reinstitute the heroin-production system, which had been destroyed by the Fascists. The Fascists tended to run a pretty tight ship; they didn’t want any competition, so they wiped out the Mafia. But the US reconstituted it, first in southern Italy, and then in southern France with the Corsican Mafia. That’s where the famous French Connection comes from.

That was the main heroin center for many years. Then US terrorist activities shifted over to Southeast Asia. If you want to carry out terrorist activities, you need local people to do it for you, and you also need secret money to pay for it, clandestine hidden money. Well, if you need to hire thugs and murderers with secret money, there aren’t many options. One of them is the drug connection. The so-called Golden Triangle around Burma, Laos and Thailand became a big drug-producing area with the help of the United States, as part of the secret wars against those populations.

In Central America, it was partly exposed in the Contra hearings, though it was mostly suppressed. But there’s no question that the Reagan administration’s terrorist operations in Central America were closely connected with drug trafficking.

Afghanistan became one of the biggest centers of drug trafficking in the world in the 1980s, because that was the payoff for the forces to which the US was contributing millions of dollars: the same extreme Islamic fundamentalists who are now tearing the country to shreds.

It’s been true throughout the world. It’s not that the US is trying to increase the use of drugs, it’s just the natural thing to do. If you were in a position where you had to hire thugs and gangsters to kill peasants and break strikes, and you had to do it with untraceable money, what would come to your mind?

Where do you stand on drug legalization?

Nobody knows what the effect would be. Anyone who tells you they know is just stupid or is lying, because nobody knows. These are things that have to be tried, you have to experiment to see what the effects are.

Most soft drugs are already legal, mainly alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco is by far the biggest killer among all the psychoactives. Alcohol deaths are a little hard to estimate, because an awful lot of violent deaths are associated with alcohol. Way down below come “hard” drugs, a tiny fraction of the deaths from alcohol or tobacco, maybe ten or twenty thousand deaths per year. The fastest-growing hard drugs are the APS, amphetamine-type substances, produced mostly in the US.

As far as the rest of the drugs are concerned, marijuana is not known to be very harmful. I mean, it’s generally assumed it’s not good for you, but coffee isn’t good for you, tea isn’t good for you, chocolate cake isn’t good for you either. It would be crazy to criminalize coffee, even though it’s harmful.

The United States is one of very few countries where this is considered a moral issue. In most countries it’s considered a medical issue. In most countries you don’t have politicians getting up screaming about how tough they’re going to be on drugs. So the first thing we’ve got to do is move it out of the phase of population control, and into the sphere of social issues. The Rand Corporation estimates that if you compare the effect of criminal programs versus educational programs at reducing drug use, educational programs are way ahead, by about a factor of seven.

But alarmist drug-propaganda programs like DARE and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s TV ads have been found to increase experimentation among teenagers.

The question is, what kind of education are you doing? Educational programs aren’t the only category. Education also has to do with the social circumstances in which drugs are used. The answer to that is not throwing people in jail. The answer is to try and figure what’s going on in their lives, their family, do they need medical care and so on? This very striking decline in substance abuse among educated sectors, as I said, goes across the spectrum—red meat, coffee, tobacco, everything. That’s education. It wasn’t that there was an educational program that said to stop drinking coffee, it’s just that attitudes toward oneself and towards health, how we live and so on, changed among the more educated sectors of the population, and these things went down. And none of it had to do with criminalization. It just had to do with a rise in the cultural and educational level, which led to more care for oneself.

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