ITâ€™S too early to say that there is a general revolt against the â€œwar on drugsâ€ that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening.Â
European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalising personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimise harm to their own people, but itâ€™s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.
Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The US can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic US policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.
Last month, the Mexican government declared that it would no longer be a punishable offence to possess up to half a gramme of cocaine (about four lines), five grammes of marijuana (around four joints), 50 mg of heroin or 40 mg of methamphetamine.
At the end of last month, Argentinaâ€™s Supreme Court did something even bolder. It ruled that, under the Argentine constitution, â€œEach adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the stateâ€ and dismissed a case against youths who had been arrested for possessing a few joints.
In an ideal world, this ruling would have a powerful resonance in the US, whose constitution also restricts the right of the federal government to meddle in citizensâ€™ private affairs. It took a constitutional amendment to enable the US Congress toÂ prohibit alcohol in 1919 (and another amendment to end alcohol Prohibition in 1933), so who gave Congress the right to criminalise other recreational drugs nationwide by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970?Â NobodyÂ â€” and the US Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue.
A million Americans a year go to jail for â€œcrimesâ€ that hurt nobody but themselves. A vast criminal empire has grown up to service the American demand for drugs. Over the decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the turf wars between the gangs, the police-dealer shoot-outs, and the daily thousands of muggings and burglaries committed by addicts trying to raise money to pay the hugely inflated prices that prohibition makes possible.
Most users of illegal drugs are not addicts, let alone dangerous criminals. Legalisation and regulation, on the pattern of alcohol and tobacco, would avoid thousands of violent deaths each month and millions of needlessly ruined lives each year, although psychoactive drug-use would still take its toll from the vulnerable and the unlucky, just as alcohol and tobacco do.
But there is little chance that American voters will choose to end this longest of all American wars any time soon, even though its casualties far exceed those on any other American war since 1945. The â€œWar on Drugsâ€ will not end in the US until a very different generation comes to power.
Elsewhere, however, it is coming to an end much sooner, and one can imagine a time when the job of the history books will be to explain how this berserk aberration ever came about. A large part of the explanation will then focus on the man who started the war, Richard Nixon! So let us get ahead of the mob and focus on him now.
We can do that because of the famous Nixon tapes that recorded almost every word of his presidency. It turns out that he started the war on drugs because he believed that they were a Jewish plot. We know this because researcher Doug McVay from Common Sense on Drug Policy, a Washington-based NGO, went through the last batch of tapes when they became available in 2002 and found Nixon speaking to his aides as follows:Â â€œYou know, itâ€™s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalising marijuana is Jewish.Â What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.â€
NixonÂ hadÂ Â much more to say about this, but one should not conclude that he was a single-minded anti-Semite. He was an equal-opportunity paranoid who believed that homosexuals, communists and Catholics were also plotting to undermine America by pushing drugs at it.
â€œDo you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags… You know what happened to the popes? Itâ€™s all right that popes were laying the nuns, that have been going on for years, centuries. But when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell in, I donâ€™t know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual…
â€œDope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no… You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general. These are the enemies of strong societies.Â Thatâ€™s why the communists and the left-wingers are pushing it.Â Theyâ€™re trying to destroy us.â€
The reason for this 39-year war, in other words, is that President Nixon believed that he was facing a â€œJew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-popeâ€ conspiracy, as Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten put it in a gloriously deadpan article in 2002. But that is just plain wrong. As subsequent developments have shown, it is actually a Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope-Latino conspiracy.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.