by Jonathan Jackson, lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

Since the dawn of civilisation, war has been the most destructive element of the human psyche. It has seen the collapse of great empires and the disappearance of whole civilisations, many of which submerge into the dark waters of history. However war has also continued to be closely linked to desires of political leaders to galvanise public opinion towards a perceived strategic ‘end game’. It unites people and overcomes the barriers of language, class and creed in a way not seen in other social constructs. The term not only unifies society but creates the unclear and blurred concepts of allies and enemies. Conflict has been consistently used to define the advocates of chaos who need to be destroyed in order to preserve the status quo. However in the latter half of the 20th century politicians of all sides began to define social ills and failures, as true enemies of state progress and the victims of future conflicts.

This theme is particularly evident in the rhetoric meted out by American presidents, eager to use the countries insatiable appetite for violence; as a source for good, for out of destruction comes construction. From Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’ to the Bush administrations ‘war on terror’, the use of the term ‘war’ has convinced the American public that the answers to social issues lie in the use of violence. The summit of this peak came in 1971 when Richard Nixon declared the ‘the war on drugs’ which saw an entire shift their policing and management. By using such language he was committing both foreign and domestic policy into destroying the problem of drugs through the techniques of conventional warfare. However social constructs such as drug use are more than just enemies of the state but are born from the complicated web which forms the fabric of societies. As a result they cannot be killed like so many foreign enemies of the past but instead the fight is against the whispers of few, whose cries of help are rarely answered. Too often these victims are heard by the hundreds of narcotic dealers who are eager to answer their call.

The question however still remains, is there a crisis with terminology? After all the use of ‘war’ in regards to drug policy is symbolic and does not acknowledge the actions of an invisible army of carers, who work tirelessly in the pursuit of helping those who have become its victims. However terms are important when they are used to generate social and political policy, influencing the development of social norms.  When we examine in more detail the word ‘war’ it is impossible not to explore the proponents of this concept; the military. Regardless of the flag in which a soldier swears their allegiance to the desire is to locate and destroy the enemy. Armies are the big, green, fighting machines designed to enforce state will. The weight of this military firepower must fall on someone and it has begun to land on the rooftops of the suppliers of the drugs themselves.

From the jungles of Columbia to the deserts of Afghanistan, suppliers have been bombed, shelled and tackled at all levels; yet the enemy still lives. American eradication teams enacted a policy of total destruction against opium poppy production during the conflict against the Taliban (2001-2005), with significant cost to the American taxpayer. However 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium still arrives at borders of a globalised world in the spring months of 2016. The failure of the eradication teams was not down to their poor conduct or lack of the necessary resources but instead they have become yet another victim of an ill-defined conflict. The teams were using techniques designed to defeat a conventional enemy, employing firepower on a large scale. However they overlooked the complexity of drug suppliers just as politicians have done with those creating its inexhaustible demand. Eradicators destroyed the crop, the perceived enemy but did not provide an adequate replacement for poverty stricken Afghan farmers. Instead they continued to sell a product, whose demand grows by the day. By sticking so closely to the doctrine of war, politicians have failed to except that drug use will not be solved through the barrel of a gun. Instead its sale is complex and the enemies not easily destroyed often because poverty and the lack of aspiration are rarely killed through airstrikes.

Should the insidious political gaze simply transfer towards those screaming out for the demand for this product rather than the continuing obsession with its supply? The reasons why individuals buy products, whether it is a washing machine or a kilo of crack cocaine are far from simple. Illegal drugs can often be used to numb individual pains or to act as a tool to dominate and control others. In this respect the enemy which governments wish to destroy with such rigour could be human emotion, equally our core basic psyche. Military forces become powerless when faced with an unclear, unforeseen and endemic enemy within society.


There is no hope to the issue of drugs then? As described previously in this piece, war creates problems and the conflict against social construction is a self-destructing prophecy. However some of the greatest medical advancements have come from conflict and this could be true in this case. Should drug use as a terminology be seen as a ‘virus’ in which to treat rather than a war in which to fight? This shift in terminology would see the introduction of a medical and thus transformative approach in dealing with addiction. Virus’s, unlike warfare can be tackled through a mixture of medical intervention, vaccinations and the patients willingness to work towards recovery. Medical conditions are not easily solved but this analogy is at least recognition that drug use is not black and white but distinctly grey in character. However, viruses unlike military enemies, are not capable of peaceful coexistence with their hosts but instead victory may be when illness becomes manageable. There may not be a world without drug users, like there is unlikely to be peaceful utopian state, but if we can learn to manage the wound, stop future infections and provide a social bandage to begin the healing process, anything is possible.

The only problem is the terminology of the ‘war on drugs’ has become endemic in our social construct but then again so was slavery. The proponents of the end to the slave trade described it as a social virus which convinced others of a collective overhaul. With increasing endorsements by health charities, celebrities and the support from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, all of which speak of a change in language, may see a potential new dawn in strategic policy. Drug use is indeed an enemy but can only be defeated through a range of approaches and acknowledging that the weapons of conflict will do little to provide the solution that governments so crave. There is clearly a role for policing and security organisations but success against drug usage will come through the recognition that their role is the sugar which helps the real medicine of social reform go down.

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