The Ugly History of the War on Drugs

Exile Nation: An Oral History of the War on Drugs

Directed by Charles Shaw (2011)

Film Review

In laying out the sordid history of the US prison industrial complex, Exile Nation helps us understand how the US came to have the largest prison population in the world, far exceeding that of China, which has over four times as many people.

A significant proportion of US inmates are African Americans and Hispanics locked up for “victimless” drug offenses. At present 500,000 of American’s 2.3 million prison population is inside for using heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Thirty thousand are there for cannabis possession.

The documentary intersperses commentary by “experts” (cops, judges, sociologists, psychiatrists, defense attorneys, jail monitors, medical marijuana activists and prison rights advocates) with those of ex-offenders.

The US Invents Mass Incarceration

Crime rates in the US first reached a high point in 1830, largely due to high levels of alcohol abuse. The US would be the first country in the modern era to introduce mass incarceration as punishment for law breaking. The Pennsylvania Quakers believed that locking people up would force them to “repent” – the origin of the word penitentiary. The experiment failed. Studies consistently show that imprisoning convicts neither rehabilitates them nor discourages them from re-offending.

Nixon’s War on Drugs

Nineteenth century crime rates slowly declined, plateauing during the Civil War era. From then on, they remained constant until the 1970s, when Nixon declared the first war on drugs. His primary target was the immense social movements of the late sixties and early seventies. Nixon couldn’t constitutionally punish hippies for opposing the Vietnam War nor African Americans for demanding the right to vote. Instead he targeted their behavior, ie the widespread use of marijuana, LSD and cocaine that accompanied these movements.

In doing so, Nixon deliberately ignored the recommendation of a 1972 bipartisan commission that recommended that marijuana use be criminalized.

Reagan’s War on Drugs

The prison industrial complex received a second major boost in 1984, when Reagan declared a second war on drugs. Unlike Nixon, who envisioned drug arrests as a form of social control, Reagan used the drug war (particularly against crack, a new bargain basement form of cocaine) to demonize African Americans and win votes from white blue collar workers.

The Mainstream Media Revolts

The media turned against the drug war and prison industrial complex in the 1990s, with Ted Koppel producing several excellent documentaries highlighting the drawbacks of mass incarceration. The resulting shift in public opinion would lead the federal government and many states to begin downsizing their prison populations. Sadly 9-11 and the War on Terror interrupted this process.

A high point for me were the interviews with medical marijuana activists describing the history of their movement (leading to the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in 23 states sates).

I also really liked the sections on the medical use of MDMA (ecstasy) in treating post traumatic disorder and the psychedelic ibogaine in treating heroin addiction.

7 thoughts on “The Ugly History of the War on Drugs

  1. Pingback: The Ugly History of the War on Drugs, Film and Review | Talesfromthelou

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