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Tomgram: Alfred W. McCoy, America's Self-Inflicted Wound

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

He was a graduate student when, in the midst of the Vietnam War, he started to explore the history behind the heroin epidemic then infecting the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He soon found himself, almost inadvertently, on the heroin trail across Southeast Asia and deep into the CIA's involvement in an earlier version of America's drug wars. In a shadow world of black ops, mercenaries, and drug lords he hadn't even known existed, he first stumbled upon some of the secrets of the U.S. national security state. It proved a tale fit for a John le Carre' novel or, better yet, a seedy bar where the air is hot and still, the customers rough, and the drinks strong. If TomDispatch regular and historian Alfred McCoy had told you his story over a whiskey, you'd be obliged to buy the next round. It's that kind of an account and, in fact, he did tell some of the story to this site's readers back in August 2017 (and in his recent hit book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power).

It was and is a hell of a tale (and one he almost died telling) and then, when he turned it into his first book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, the CIA tried (unsuccessfully in the end) to suppress it. That was 1972. Nearly half a century later, McCoy returns to the subject that launched (and almost ended) his career: America's drug wars. If this isn't the subject from hell, then what is in an America that, year after year, leads the world in the number of people it incarcerates, no small thanks to its never-ending drug wars? Settle back and consider the madness of it all, so many years later, with McCoy. Tom

Decriminalizing the Drug War?
Calculating the Damage from a Century of Drug Prohibition
By Alfred W. McCoy

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We live in a time of change, when people are questioning old assumptions and seeking new directions. In the ongoing debate over health care, social justice, and border security, there is, however, one overlooked issue that should be at the top of everyone's agenda, from Democratic Socialists to libertarian Republicans: America's longest war. No, not the one in Afghanistan. I mean the drug war.

For more than a century, the U.S. has worked through the U.N. (and its predecessor, the League of Nations) to build a harsh global drug prohibition regime -- grounded in draconian laws, enforced by pervasive policing, and punished with mass incarceration. For the past half-century, the U.S. has also waged its own "war on drugs" that has complicated its foreign policy, compromised its electoral democracy, and contributed to social inequality. Perhaps the time has finally come to assess the damage that drug war has caused and consider alternatives.

Even though I first made my mark with a 1972 book that the CIA tried to suppress on the heroin trade in Southeast Asia, it's taken me most of my life to grasp all the complex ways this country's drug war, from Afghanistan to Colombia, the Mexican border to inner-city Chicago, has shaped American society. Last summer, a French director doing a documentary interviewed me for seven hours about the history of illicit narcotics. As we moved from the seventeenth century to the present and from Asia to America, I found myself trying to answer the same relentless question: What had 50 years of observation actually drilled into me, beyond some random facts,

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At the broadest level, the past half-century turns out to have taught me that drugs aren't just drugs, drug dealers aren't just "pushers," and drug users aren't just "junkies" (that is, outcasts of no consequence). Illicit drugs are major global commodities that continue to influence U.S. politics, both national and international. And our drug wars create profitable covert netherworlds in which those very drugs flourish and become even more profitable. Indeed, the U.N. once estimated that the transnational traffic, which supplied drugs to 4.2% of the world's adult population, was a $400 billion industry, the equivalent of 8% of global trade.

In ways that few seem to understand, illicit drugs have had a profound influence on modern America, shaping our international politics, national elections, and domestic social relations. Yet a feeling that illicit drugs belong to a marginalized demimonde has made U.S. drug policy the sole property of law enforcement and not health care, education, or urban development.

During this process of reflection, I've returned to three conversations I had back in 1971 when I was a 26-year-old graduate student researching that first book of mine, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. In the course of an 18-month odyssey around the globe, I met three men, deeply involved in the drug wars, whose words I was then too young to fully absorb.

The first was Lucien Conein, a "legendary" CIA operative whose covert career ranged from parachuting into North Vietnam in 1945 to train communist guerrillas with Ho Chi Minh to organizing the CIA coup that killed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. In the course of our interview at his modest home near CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he laid out just how the Agency's operatives, like so many Corsican gangsters, practiced the "clandestine arts" of conducting complex operations beyond the bounds of civil society and how such "arts" were, in fact, the heart and soul of both covert operations and the drug trade.

Second came Colonel Roger Trinquier, whose life in a French drug netherworld extended from commanding paratroopers in the opium-growing highlands of Vietnam during the First Indochina War of the early 1950s to serving as deputy to General Jacques Massu in his campaign of murder and torture in the Battle of Algiers in 1957. During an interview in his elegant Paris apartment, Trinquier explained how he helped fund his own paratroop operations through Indochina's illicit opium traffic. Emerging from that interview, I felt almost overwhelmed by the aura of Nietzschean omnipotence that Trinquier had clearly gained from his many years in this shadowy realm of drugs and death.

My last mentor on the subject of drugs was Tom Tripodi, a covert operative who had trained Cuban exiles in Florida for the CIA's 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and then, in the late 1970s, penetrated mafia networks in Sicily for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 1971, he appeared at my front door in New Haven, Connecticut, identified himself as a senior agent for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics, and insisted that the Bureau was worried about my future book. Rather tentatively, I showed him just a few draft pages of my manuscript for The Politics of Heroin and he promptly offered to help me make it as accurate as possible. During later visits, I would hand him chapters and he would sit in a rocking chair, shirt sleeves rolled up, revolver in his shoulder holster, scribbling corrections and telling remarkable stories about the drug trade -- like the time his Bureau found that French intelligence was protecting the Corsican syndicates smuggling heroin into New York City. Far more important, though, through him I grasped how ad hoc alliances between criminal traffickers and the CIA regularly helped both the Agency and the drug trade prosper.

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Looking back, I can now see how those veteran operatives were each describing to me a clandestine political domain, a covert netherworld in which government agents, military men, and drug traders were freed from the shackles of civil society and empowered to form secret armies, overthrow governments, and even, perhaps, kill a foreign president.

At its core, this netherworld was then and remains today an invisible political realm inhabited by criminal actors and practitioners of Conein's "clandestine arts." Offering some sense of the scale of this social milieu, in 1997 the United Nations reported that transnational crime syndicates had 3.3 million members worldwide who trafficked in drugs, arms, humans, and endangered species. Meanwhile, during the Cold War, all the major powers -- Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- deployed expanded clandestine services worldwide, making covert operations a central facet of geopolitical power. The end of the Cold War has in no way changed this reality.

For over a century now, states and empires have used their expanding powers for moral prohibition campaigns that have periodically transformed alcohol, gambling, tobacco, and, above all, drugs into an illicit commerce that generates sufficient cash to sustain covert netherworlds.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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