While much of the media is focused on Trump’s Russian skullduggery, America has quietly found itself enmeshed in the worst drug epidemic in our history. Drug overdoses, mostly from increasingly lethal opioids, now kill more people than guns and traffic accidents. A recent investigation by The New York Times of local and state authorities across the country came to a staggering conclusion—that somewhere between 59,000 and 65,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, a nearly 20% spike in a single year, the paper estimates.
2017 is gearing up to be just as bad, or worse.
In the face of this crisis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has re-declared the War on Drugs, a five-decade old boondoggle that civil-rights organizations, economists and even some law-enforcement groups believe to be discredited by years of failure. While it’s unclear exactly what Sessions is planning, so far he’s called for a crackdown on marijuana and longer mandatory sentences for drug dealers, seemingly intent on a return to policies that historically have ravaged entire communities, corrupted police forces and destroyed trust in authority—all in the name of fighting a war that opinion polls show the majority of the public doesn’t want.
But what most Americans don’t know is that our War on Drugs isn’t just a failed war; it’s one that was never designed to be won. To understand the true story of the origins of the War on Drugs is to understand why Trump’s return to some of its most controversial policies is doomed to fail.
President Nixon kickstarted America’s war on drugs in 1971 (he called it an “offensive”) and created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) two years later. Ironically, or perhaps not, the war on drugs was conceived by criminals. Four of the main architects of Nixon’s drug policy—Attorney General John Mitchell, White House aide John Erlichman (who later allegedly admitted the war on drugs was really a war on hippies and black people), Egil Bud Krogh (who famously arranged for a drug-addled Elvis Presley to receive an honorary DEA badge) as well as Watergate break-in conspirator G. Gordon Liddy—were all imprisoned over Watergate.
But by the time Nixon declared a war on drugs, the real fighting had begun a decade earlier during America’s effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. In 1961, the CIA conspired with mobsters in Miami to assassinate Castro, whose revolution had put an end to the lucrative drug and vice networks operating on the island. Although the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion failed, many of the agency’s Cuban assets survived; and after making their way back to Miami, they turned Southern Florida into an early epicenter of drug smuggling and drug-related violence.
Meanwhile, the CIA had simultaneously helped introduce LSD to the American populace via clandestine programs that dosed countless citizens—all part of a Cold War mind-control operation titled MK-Ultra. In Southeast Asia, the CIA teamed up with Laotian general Vang Pao to help make Laos the world’s top exporter of heroin. By the time Nixon began ratcheting down U.S. troop presence in Vietnam to focus on the war against drugs, more troops were dying of heroin overdoses than actual combat, an epidemic that quickly found its way to the streets of urban America.
A decade later, as a result of turning a blind eye to cocaine smugglers funding the CIA’s illegal war against the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA unwittingly helped unleash a nationwide crack-cocaine epidemic. Most notably, cocaine kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross was able to take his South Central L.A.-based crack businesses nationwide thanks to his access to a cheap supply of coke from politically connected Nicaraguan suppliers.
“Dark Alliance,” Gary Webb’s landmark 1996 newspaper series alleging CIA involvement in the crack-cocaine epidemic, created a firestorm of controversy that ultimately drove Webb out of journalism and into a spiral of depression that led him to take his own life. Although there were problems with Webb’s reporting and the editing of his story that allowed it to be discredited by rival news organizations, it forced the CIA to reveal that for more than a decade it had protected its Nicaraguan allies from being prosecuted for smuggling cocaine into the U.S.
Veteran drug agents, including Phil Jordan, former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), say they were repeatedly called off cases involving CIA-tied drug rings.
“We had three or four cases where we arrested CIA contract workers with cocaine, and I get a phone call that the charges have been dismissed,” Jordan recalls in a new HISTORY series, America’s War on Drugs. “You know, we are risking our lives, making cases against significant drug traffickers, then on the other hand you got another government agency allowing the drugs to come in . . . And we’re not talking about 100 pounds, we’re talking about tons. That introduction of white powder was killing black people.”
The CIA’s collusion with anti-communist drug smugglers beginning in the 1960s played a direct role in the drug epidemic of the 1980s that was used to justify President Reagan‘s 1986 crime bill. The law introduced harsh mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, the legacy of which we are still dealing with today.
President Bill Clinton expanded on Reagan’s drug war by militarizing the nation’s police forces and introducing mandatory minimum sentencing. Although President Obama tried to revise this policy shortly before leaving office, President Trump seems intent on doubling down on the war on drugs. When Trump recently invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, he congratulated him for sending police death squads into the streets to kill drug dealers and addicts. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” Trump reportedly said.
National polls in recent years have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the war on drugs cannot be won. Given the fact that more than half of the United States have legalized medical marijuana, with several others set to join Colorado, Washington and California in approving recreational marijuana use, there has never been a stronger mandate for drug reform than now.
As a nation, we are tired of the drug war’s endless cycle of crime, political corruption, mass incarceration and mayhem—particularly in Mexico, much of which is a war zone, while north of the border, we are mired in a highly politicized hysteria over immigration and border security. The war on drugs has already cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1 trillion and our nation’s jails, prisons and hospitals now overflow with the ranks of its combatants and victims. The stakes couldn’t be higher, nor the timing better, for America to end this war, not expand it.
Nick Schou is author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books, 2006) and also appears in the upcoming HISTORY limited series America’s War on Drugs, premiering June 18 at 9/8c.