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The History of Illegal Drugs an Global Dilemma:

One of the most serious social problems in the United States since World War II (1939–1945) has been the trafficking in illegal drugs. These drugs— mostly derived from the opium poppy or from coca leaves—have powerful psychotropic (mind-altering) effects and are very addictive.

The U.S. government's attempt to deal with the drug problem has few defenders. The devastation that heroin and "crack" cocaine have imposed on the nation's already disorganized central cities and even on its affluent suburban high schools are widely acknowledged. There is less agreement on the root causes of this policy failure. Critics differ widely. Conservatives point to the weakening of family values. Liberals have no consolidated position on the drug problem. Some counsel a "get tough" policy of more vigorous enforcement of existing drug laws. Others go to the other extreme and favor the decriminalization of drugs. They point to the fact that the greatest growth in the U.S. prison population is from non-violent drug offenders. They argue that the result of the official U.S. policy banning drugs has been to turn addicts into criminals and to create a world-wide "black market" in illegal drugs.

As Adam Smith (1723–1790), the eighteenth century spokesman for free market economics, might have predicted, the constricted supply and growing demand of a banned substance inevitably increases the price and attracts entrepreneurs—in this case, organized crime. Or, as novelist William Burroughs once ironically remarked, the economic marvel of heroin is that the problem of slack demand never arises. Heroin is a very salable product: once introduced into the population, it needs no advertising; it not only sells itself, it drives the buyer to sell himself or herself.

As early as the second half of the nineteenth century, medical researchers recognized that opium and morphine combined beneficial pain-killing qualities with problems of addiction. In fact, when the German pharmaceutical company Bayer introduced heroin into the United States, it called the drug a nonaddictive substitute for morphine. By the time government regulation arose during the Progressive period (1900–1920), the addictive qualities of these drugs were better understood and the government banned them in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (which prevented Coca-Cola Co. from adding its most potent ingredient). By World War II, a growing number of drugs were ruled illegal. Still, the use of illegal drugs before World War II was minuscule by late twentieth century standards and confined to the margins of society.

In the first few decades after World War II the worldwide black market in illegal drugs grew steadily and sustained the profit margins of organized crime. Not since the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited alcohol in 1918 (followed by the repeal of Prohibition in 1933) had organized crime been able to corner the market on such an attractive commodity. Still, in spite of a growing underground drug culture in the 1940s and 1950s, there was little panic concerning drugs in mainstream society.

This all changed suddenly in the 1960s and 1970s, as rampant drug use (both marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs) by the young and a "tidal wave" of heroin inundated the United States. In contrast to earlier heroin, which originated in the opium poppy fields of Afghanistan, most of this new wave of drugs came from the "golden triangle" area of Laos, Burma, and Thailand in southeast Asia.

This was made possible by a remarkable set of military and political alliances between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the warlords that it recruited to fight covert anti-communist campaigns in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma during the Vietnam War (1964–1975). At that time, Congress had granted authority to President Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) to wage limited war in Vietnam, but nowhere else. In order to generate funds for covert anti-communist warfare, the CIA allowed the Meo tribesmen of northern Laos, among others, to cultivate opium and to sell large quantities of drugs. Beginning in 1965, "Air America," a CIA-front operation, even participated in transporting drugs. A large portion of the drugs made their way into the United States, and through corruption among individual agents as well as South Vietnamese government officials, some went directly into the veins of U.S. soldiers in Southeast Asia,. The Corsican Mafia (the "French Connection") in Marseilles, France, also prospered from this glut of heroin.

In the late 1970s youth-culture drugs like LSD faded from the U.S. drug scene and the more addictive heroin once again become popular. The Sicilian Mafia, facing competition from the Corsican Mafia, stepped up its own drug operations, smuggling heroin from anti-communist guerrillas in Afghanistan. Thus, the connection between opium trafficking and Cold War anti-communist crusades clicked into place again as much of this new opium product was generated by the rebel Mujahadeen to fund their CIA-supported war against the communist government of Afghanistan. Anti-communist warlords needed money to fund their operations, and the CIA was willing to "look the other way" as they grew and sold prodigious quantities of drugs. These banner crops needed outlets, and U.S. organized crime was there to service the market.

Late in the 1970s the U.S. heroin market seemed finally to have reached its saturation point. New organized crime rings in Latin America began to step up production and distribution of a different, but equally addictive and destructive drug, cocaine. By the mid-1980s new, more potent methods of ingestion (freebasing) and forms (crack) appeared. Whereas heroin never lost its association with a low socio-economic consumer profile, cocaine appealed to a more "upscale" public. Hollywood stars like Richard Prior were quite open in their acceptance of the drug. Because of the few short-term side affects associated with its use, cocaine became the "drug of choice" during the 1980s. Sex was reportedly more enjoyable on cocaine. Long-term side effects like heart problems and sexual impotence did not become apparent until later, when millions of Americans found themselves addicted.

On January 30, 1982, President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) mobilized his forces and announced a war on drugs. The First Lady, Nancy Reagan, took a high-profile position and sternly advised America's youth to "Just say no!" Vice President George Bush became the chief coordinator of drug policy. As former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bush was no doubt familiar with the problem. He targeted a prominent center of narcotics distribution, south Florida. Bush incorporated the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard into the fight. These agencies pooled resources, shared information, and coordinated a strategic assault to rid the United States of what many believed was a drug plague that caused crime, social dislocation, and demoralization.

During the first year of the war, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported a 64 percent increase in drug prosecutions. In 1983 six tons of cocaine were seized in south Florida; by 1985 such seizures snared twenty-five tons; in 1986, thirty tons. According to the DEA, this represented more cocaine than the drug cartels in Colombia had produced in 1980. While these arrests and seizures were touted as successes, many realized that more people were using cocaine, heroin, and other drugs than ever before. Even in south Florida, the primary theater of combat, illicit drugs were as easily available as over-the-counter varieties, and were often sold in the same places—openly and without fear of the law.

At the same time the new Latin American cocaine cartels were growing in power, the Reagan administration began to wage a covert war against the Cubansupported Sandinista government of Nicaragua and to oppose all Marxist and communist influence in Latin America. In a post-Vietnam mood of disgust with waging wars against Third World countries, Congress forbid the use of public funds to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration used covert methods, paid for with predominantly private funds. The resulting congressional Iran-Contra hearings investigated relations between the United States government, the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, and the anti-Sandanista Contra forces in Nicaragua. Buried in this investigation was the question of whether drug sales helped fund the Contras.

Responding to public pressure, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee set up a special Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, chaired by Senator John Kerry, to conduct hearings into these matters. Its findings were clear: at the very least the CIA (and other U.S. agencies) had again looked the other way while the Colombian drug cartels provided millions of drug-generated dollars to arm the Contras.

The Kerry Committee also found instances of drug activities on the part of U.S. allies in the region, the most important of whom was General Manuel Noriega of Panama, known by U.S. drug enforcement agents since 1971 as a drug trafficker linked to the Colombian cartels. The Kerry Committee learned that the CIA had used Noriega to funnel secret arms to the Contras. As evidence uncovered by the Kerry Committee showed, Noriega had been on the payroll of the CIA since 1976, when he collected an annual fee of $110,000. By 1985 he was collecting $200,000 per year, all in secret cash deposits in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—which would figure prominently in new scandals in the early 1990s, including drug-money laundering). Ostensibly Noriega was "our man" in Central America serving in the war against communism. Yet in 1986, when the DEA proposed an under-cover plan to unravel the mysteries of a multibillion-dollar drug money-laundering scam in Panamanian banks, it had to seek CIA approval. The go-ahead was given by the CIA, but with the stipulation that any information that exposed Panamanian government officials be dropped.

The DEA's findings in this regard may have been ignored, but the Kerry Committee's revelations were not. In 1988 the U.S. District Court in Miami issued an indictment against Noriega and a warrant for his arrest. Eventually Noriega was caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. During his trial, both the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) refused to hand over files on Noriega, saying that to do so would compromise national security.

In late November 1997, under the administration of President Wiiliam Clinton (1993–2001), the United States and Mexican governments entered into an agreement to help control the weapons smuggling from the United States into Mexico. Under the agreement, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Office of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) were to coordinate efforts with Mexico's Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR) to stop illegal trafficking of arms. A U.S.-based ATF office and U.S. Customs personnel at the American Embassy in Mexico City were called upon to oversee the effort. Experts from the two countries conducted investigations to determine whether weapons sold legally in the United States were diverted to the black market, where drug traffickers in Mexico acquired them. The new accord was part of a sophisticated joint strategy to combat drug trafficking, a strategy which included the creation of a hotline between the U.S. Pentagon and Mexico's Secretary of National Defense to coordinate efforts to intercept drug shipments moving into the United States.

The joint U.S.-Mexico effort to control illegal sales of firearms was part of an ongoing campaign embraced by the Organization of American States (OAS) to reduce gun smuggling and reduce violence both in the United States and in Central and South America. The campaign, which was first proposed by Mexico, sought to tighten controls on weapons trafficking across national borders and impose restrictions on weapons production. According to a report from Mexico's drug enforcement campaign, customs and other law enforcement authorities confiscated almost 23,000 illegally imported weapons and 1.2 million munitions during 1996 alone. The report said at least one-third of the weapons and almost one-fifth of the munitions were destined for drug traffickers in the black market.

Ironically, the joint U.S.-Mexico effort followed reports that the Clinton administration had requested a threefold increase in the budget for exports of weapons and military equipment to Mexico. According to the non-governmental Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the Clinton administration requested $9 billion for sales of weapons, aircraft, radar units, and other military equipment to Mexico in the 1998 budget. The FAS, whose board of sponsors includes over 55 American Nobel Laureates, claimed that the United States domestic gun market was the principal source of weapons for the drug traffickers, and that both the Mexican government and the drug traffickers were dependent upon the United States for guns. The FAS also warned that weapons originally exported to Mexico to combat drug trafficking would soon be diverted for other purposes.

Thus, as of the late 1990s, the ability of the U.S. government to control the black market in drugs and guns appeared to be limited by a set of strategies, reflexes, and relationships in place for generations.

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