Why Trump’s Doubling-down on the War on Drugs

The president is using drug war rhetoric to draw attention away from COVID-19. We can’t allow this escalation to distract us from the crisis at hand.

Natalie Papillion
Apr 12, 2020 · 4 min read
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President Donald J. Trump, joined by U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz, left, National Security Advisor Ambassador Robert O’Brien; U.S. Attorney William Barr; Secretary of Defense Mark Esper; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday, addresses his remarks on enhanced counter-narcotics operations and increased border security during a briefing Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

In a move that a senior administration official called “all politics”, President Trump used a recent coronavirus daily briefing to announce new, enhanced counternarcotics operations in Latin America. Trump’s decision was made in defiance of the US Department of Defense, who argued the US’s dwindling resources should be channeled to COVID-19 relief efforts instead.

While the administration’s official rationale for this expensive, ill-advised initiative was to ‘protect the American people from illegal drugs’, their real aims are obvious.* The Trump administration is attempting to deflect criticism of the way they’re handling the COVID-19 crisis by using the drug war playbook to distract the American public.

This strategy isn’t without precedent. In fact, the roots of modern-day drug prohibition stem from another American president’s attempt to cover up his administration’s incompetence. A half-century ago, an increasingly unpopular Richard Nixon tried to draw attention away from his botched handling of the Vietnam War by painting drug use — not the millions dying on the battlefields of Southeast Asia — as the biggest threat to the American public’s health.

Nixon was explicit about his approach, and unfortunately — quite successful in his aims. He used misinformation and wartime rhetoric to discredit experts, demonize the use of drugs like marijuana, and overstate their threat to the American people. Having whipped the public into a ‘drug-induced hysteria’, Nixon was able to disarm his “domestic enemies” — racial minorities, anti-war activists, and the young, liberal, cannabis-consuming Americans who made up the bulk of American opposition to intervention in Vietnam. Years later, John Ehrlichman — Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief — admitted his boss’s drug war was waged purely for political reasons.

“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.” — John Erlichman

Unfortunately, Nixon’s strategy — as unjust and illogical as it was — worked. In the intervening decades, President Reagan (and later President George Bush, President Clinton and President George W. Bush) continued to escalate America’s drug war by pushing propaganda, laws and educational programs that continually defied recommendations issued by scientific, economic and legal communities around the world. Like Nixon, these leaders made a habit of doubling-down on prohibitionist policies whenever they encountered domestic tensions they couldn’t seem to shake.

Five decades later, our costly, discriminatory, scientifically-unsound war has done absolutely nothing to change drug consumption rates or protect the public’s health. It has, however, managed to destroy lives, devastate communities, and exacerbate the inequities woven into America’s social fabric.

And that’s to say nothing of the body count the war has racked up outside the country.

As Trump attempts to take a page from this oft-used playbook, it’s imperative we don’t let drug war propaganda and theater distract us from the crisis at hand. The priority should be our country’s COVID-19 response.

*Another likely aim of this initiative is to try and cripple the Venezuelan government — led by Nicolás Maduro. Lawrence Gumbiner, an international consultant in Colombia and a former U.S. diplomat, recently noted, “this is predominantly a chest-pumping exercise by the Trump administration that has more to do with electoral politics in the U.S., particularly in Florida, than it does with generating meaningful change in Venezuela”. To caveat, I wholeheartedly agree drug cartels are dangerous and should be eliminated. However, as a student of history I know that the US’s counternarcotics efforts that depend on brute force and military pageantry rarely — if ever — lead to positive change, particularly in Latin America. One only needs reflect on the Reagan administration’s counternarcotics ops in Bolivia/Peru in the 1980s, Ecuador/Colombia in the 1990s-now, and the widespread death and destruction our drug busting efforts continues to fuel in Mexico to understand that these efforts have historically only ravaged vulnerable populations even further. A little known fact is the Zetas (arguably the world’s most dangerous modern drug cartel) were quite literally born from “enhanced US counternarcotics operations” — we actually trained the cartel’s leaders at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. To learn more about the drug war’s devastating effects abroad, we highly recommend reading the following books — “Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America”, “Marijuana: A Short History”, “The Routledge Handbook of Latin American Development”, “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America” and “The Shock Doctrine”.

The Equity Organization

Fighting for a more just, effective and equitable approach to drug policy and criminal justice.

Natalie Papillion

Written by

Executive Director of The Equity Organization. Writing, researching, and advocating for drug policy and criminal justice reform. www.equityorganization.org

The Equity Organization

We’re working towards a more just, effective and equitable approach to drug policy and criminal justice.

Natalie Papillion

Written by

Executive Director of The Equity Organization. Writing, researching, and advocating for drug policy and criminal justice reform. www.equityorganization.org

The Equity Organization

We’re working towards a more just, effective and equitable approach to drug policy and criminal justice.

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