Randall G. Shelden


Who Are the Real Drug Traffickers?


Who are the biggest Adrug traffickers@?  Not Columbian drug lords, nor inner-city minority youth, and not African-American street gangs.  Causing more than 400,000 deaths per year, they don=t push their products along darkened alleys and street corners, nor South American jungles, and they do not try to sneak their deadly product across the Mexican border in low-flying aircraft in the middle of the night.  They do it openly and brazenly in plainly marked trucks as they stock clearly identifiable shelves in grocery stores and mini-marts in every city, suburb and rural hamlet throughout the world.  Who are they?  They are the tobacco companies.

A report two years ago from the United Nations= International Agency for Research on Cancer adds still another layer of incontestable evidence of the dangers of this deadly drug (“Smoking Goes from Bad to Worse, New Research Finds,” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2002). Cancers of the stomach, liver, cervical and kidney have now been found to be linked to the use of tobacco, not to mention definitive evidence of the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.

The most recent research findings come from the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society.  As reported in the Los Angeles Times (AWhere There's Smoke, There's Money From Big Tobacco,@ January 13, 2004), the study found that: “Lung cancer, despite its 14% decline in California over the last decade, is as deadly as ever nationally and has even surpassed breast cancer as the leading cancer killer among women. Though the proportion of people who smoke has declined in the United States, the number of those who smoke C 46.2 million people C has remained virtually the same. Smoking claims more than 400,000 lives a year in this country. And today, Marlboro smokers are younger than ever. Even the recent four-year decline in smoking among adolescents has yet to offset the dramatic increase in smoking among this age group over the last decade.”  The main reason is mostly because “the tobacco industry has political clout and made lucrative payoffs to the very forces that should have been in the vanguard to end the tobacco pandemic C members of Congress from both parties, the media, medical organizations and academia have all been chronic recipients of tobacco industry largess and have not been prepared to bite the hand that feeds them. Meanwhile, the health community has bounced from one failed multimillion-dollar public relations crusade to another, only to settle each time for voluntary agreements crafted by the tobacco industry.”

            By comparison, a mere 5,000 deaths are directly linked to heroin, cocaine and the other illegal drugs targeted by our $39 billion per year “war on drugs,” sending tens of thousands needlessly to prison or jail each year.  Not to mention the families and communities destroyed by this war, almost exclusively against poor and minority people.  We constantly read about the big “drug seizures” or the burning of “pot fields” by our “drug warriors” (see below).  But where are the headlines describing the burning of large tobacco fields in Kentucky or the drugs seized inside the corporate offices of RJ Reynolds?  For the answers one need only “follow the money.”  This will certainly lead to the conclusion that the only people benefiting from the Awar on drugs@ are the politicians (especially those who receive campaign funds from tobacco companies) and those who selectively enforce the drug laws, not to mention all the vendors getting rich off the building and maintenance of jails and prisons that house those arrested. 

Speaking of “pot farms,” there have been plenty of stories of drug raids over the years, mostly in pre-dawn hours where the drug warriors (often accompanied by a television news crew, since it makes good copy and helps ratings) bust down a few doors to nab some Abig time traffickers@ (usually small quantities of drugs) in poor neighborhoods.

A couple of years ago a story in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye.  The story was written by John Johnson, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times (“Weeding out pot farms from aloft,” September 6, 2002).  He appeared to be enamored by the leader of the state=s eradication task force known as CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting).  Sonya Barna (her nickname is the APatton of Pot@) leads the attack on the Akiller weed@ marijuana.  Mr. Johnson took an uncritical view of this part of the Awar on drugs@ (an appropriate name since CAMP is quite obviously put together like an army ferreting out the Aenemy@ right in their own territory), called the AShroom Platoon.@  Cute name.  If this wasn=t so serious a matter, I would roll over with laughter.  But I=m not - and no one with any sort of a critical mind (something Mr. Johnson probably never learned in journalism school - or do they bother teaching critical thinking skills at all in these schools?) should be laughing at such an insane waste of money and human resources.

This reads like an updated version of the classic comedy Reefer Madness, originally debuting in the 1930s when the first Awar on drugs@ was launched.  But Sonya Barna is serious - if not misguided - in her gung-ho attitude.  She says marijuana is Anot a gateway drug.  It=s a drug.@  End of discussion.  So insightful, she is.  But she, along with all the other storm troupers, plus Mr. Johnson, have uncritically accepted the propaganda about marijuana and other illegal drugs. They could have asked some very simple questions, the kind we might expect from young children, such as: AWhy are some drugs legal while others are not?@  AWhy are some of the truly dangerous drugs, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, perfectly legal?@ 

Perhaps the most important question not asked is this: AWhy doesn’t she take her cute-sounding brigade and start raiding the tobacco fields of Kentucky, Virginia and other states where the world=s most dangerous drug is grown, on farms, not unlike the pot farms of California?  She is not - and will not - because she is just following orders, like any good soldier in a war.  After all, she - along with Mr. Johnson and millions of others - have been taught obedience to the Aauthorities.@  This is the same kind of blind obedience that gave us soldiers willing to fly half-way across the world to Amake the world safe for Democracy@ in the remote jungles of Vietnam. And why soldiers are doing the same thing in Iraq today, with death too often their reward.

Meanwhile, other pressing social problems are getting ignored because Awe don=t have the money.@  We can devote millions of dollars fighting the Awar on drugs@ and spend billions on our prison system, not to mention the money spent in Iraq ($87 billion and growing).  Schools are ignored and suffering massive cutbacks (witness, for example the cutbacks in California community colleges), libraries are short of books (or hours have been cut back), and child care programs are in short supply, as virtually every state in the country is facing a fiscal crisis. 

If we were serious about ending drug abuse, we would not be taken in by the rhetoric of the hard-liners and spend more for treatment and prevention rather than suppression.   However, there=s just too much money to be made engaging in a war on the drug use of the poor and racial minorities, especially since the building of prisons and the general expansion of the “crime control industry” is so profitable.  As usual, Afollow the money.@