We Are the Drug War: Prohibition as Success

In her final guest post for Points, Siobhan Reynolds asserts that the oft-repeated claim that the War on Drugs has failed should be reassessed from the point of view of those who profit from its outcomes. Looked at from that perspective, Reynolds sees opiate regulation as central to the drug war’s astonishing success.

Protesters Rail against the Drug War with Puns

Drug policy reformers have rallied for an end to drug prohibition calling it a dismal failure. To my mind, however, in order to understand this thing that has taken on a life all its own and to ultimately change course, if that is possible, one has to stop looking at the drug war as a failure and instead regard it as a spectacular success. There’s no denying that drug war policies and practices have turned physicians against the interests of their patients, been wildly expensive, destroyed the criminal justice

Activists Protest Drug War Over-Incarceration

system, and facilitated the incarceration of people in the United States to a degree that would make Stalin or the Chinese envious. People who value civil liberties above all other social goods undoubtedly consider such developments evidence of failure. But these chilling outcomes do benefit some. A mature view would necessitate that we look at who profits under drug prohibition in order to truly judge what it has become.

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The Points Interview: Diana L. Ahmad

For our eleventh Points Interview, we do something new–take our first visit to opium in historical scholarship.  We’re pleased to do it through an interview with Diana L. Ahmad, whose book The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West (University of Nevada Press) has just appeared in a new paperback edition.  The Opium Debate explains the extent to which the response to smoking-opium/opium smoking influenced the policy world of Chinese exclusion–and does so in a very carefully researched study.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-Diana Ahmad, The Opium Debatestreet) could understand.

When people think of the Chinese in the nineteenth-century American West, they often visualize a man with a long queue wearing traditional clothing working as a cook and housekeeper, like Hop Sing in Bonanza.  Others might think of Chinese launderers in the mining towns or laborers building railroads, such as the Central Pacific.  The thousands of Chinese men who moved to the United States came as sojourners with little intention of remaining in the country. Instead, they hoped to earn enough money to help their families economically, and then return home.  As a result, few Chinese women accompanied the workers to Gam Saan (Gold Mountain or San Francisco).  With the lack of Chinese women available to form families in the West, a few of the men occupied their time in vice activities, such as gambling (games akin to lotteries), Chinese prostitution, or smoking opium.  It must be remembered that FEW of the men smoked opium, but that did not matter to the Anglo-Americans who noticed that the “sporting classes” of whites began to visit the opium dens in Chinatown by the 1870s.  Then children started to go to the dens, and soon the middle class visited them.  Because the mid-to-late nineteenth century middle and elite classes believed in Victorian values, smoking opium threatened their standards and beliefs.  Women needed to remain in the homes and smoking opium attacked the values they held dear, including purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness.

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Guest Blogging: Siobhan Reynolds

Siobhan Reynolds with son Ronan
Siobhan Reynolds with son Ronan

With this first in a series of posts by Siobhan Reynolds, formerly of the Pain Relief Network, Points inaugurates a guest blogging feature, showcasing voices from inside and outside of the academic and policy worlds. Reynolds founded the Pain Relief Network (PRN) in 2003 in response to her husband’s experience with chronic pain and the stigma attached to its treatment. PRN challenged government restrictions on opioid pain treatment by advocating for and representing doctors in disciplinary proceedings and criminal prosecutions. The organization was forced to close its doors in 2010, after the Supreme Court refused Reynolds’ petition for certiorari in a case that Adam Liptak explains much more succinctly than we could. Reynolds lives in New Mexico with her son Ronan and her partner, attorney Kevin P. Byers, whose legal practice carries forward PRN’s mission.

The people of the United States seem to have mostly recovered from the federal government’s propaganda campaign that accompanied the criminalization of marijuana in  the 1930’s.  Reefer Madness is now viewed as a hoary, ridiculous example of just how far the feds will go to demonize the benign and medically useful cannabis plant.  But as concerns opioids, the vast majority of Americans, including educated people–university professors, members of the press, physicians and anti drug war activists of all stripes–still find themselves emotionally manipulated by the propaganda that was utilized to destroy the poppy’s reputation in order to justify its criminalization.  The campaign continues, now cloaked in the guise of a public health and safety message that is premised on “facts” no more factual than those presented to the public by way of Reefer Madness.  The only difference between the Reefer Madness campaign and the one currently smearing opioids is one of perception.  Americans mostly believe the anti-scientific rhetoric that is said to support opium prohibition. And this is where the trouble lies.

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The Points Interview: Carol Benedict

The fourth installment of the Points Interview series is ready, and I’m happy to say that it takes us into the fascinating world of tobacco history.  Carol Benedict is author of Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010, set to be released next month by the University of California Press (you can read an excerpt here).  She is currently on the faculty of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of History at Georgetown University.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

One third of the world’s smokers, over 320 million, now live in China. Active smokingGolden-Silk Smoke book cover
causes nearly one million deaths in China per year and another 100,000 Chinese die as a consequence of exposure to second-hand smoke. This book examines the deep historical roots of China’s contemporary “cigarette culture” and its burgeoning epidemic of smoking-related illness.  Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century when New World tobacco was first introduced into Chinese borderlands, the book describes the spread of commercialized tobacco cultivation throughout much of China in the seventeenth century, changing fashions of tobacco use in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the emergence of the Chinese cigarette industry in the twentieth century.  It explains why smoking, previously enjoyed by men and women alike, gradually became almost exclusively a male habit after 1900. The book also examines traditional Chinese medical ideas about tobacco, finding that Chinese physicians believed tobacco could be beneficial under certain circumstances even though they fully understood tobacco’s dangers. The perception that smoking could be good for health together with the important role it played in building and maintaining social relationships go a long way towards explaining its pervasiveness in Chinese society down to the present.

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Drug Law Exceptionalism?

One of the rewards of blogging is an instant boost to your awareness of what others are doing with the same sort of forum.  Among other places, it’s led me to Mexican Opium, a (short-term?) blog project by law student Mikelis Beitiks.  I’m sure my co-Managing Editor would be happy to learn that the blog is at least partly a forum for work that wasn’t published in traditional journal format.  For me, I’m happy to see more work being done on the legal foundations of our war on drugs.  Here’s why:

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