Category Archives: War on Drugs

“Prohibition Blues” Redux

Before December 20th, 2007, Jake Nicholas Barton‘s only claim to minor fame was his great grandfather, Winston Churchill.  Similarly, prior to the 18th, Kai Franklin Graham‘s greatest notoriety was her mother Shirley, Atlanta’s tough, effective, populist mayor.  During that week, however, both of these minor ‘celebrities-by-family-association’ experienced a more direct notability after earlier drug busts led to guilty verdicts for each of them, ‘Sir’ Barton’s in Australia and Ms. Graham’s in South Carolina.  Barton’s arrest followed participation in an ecstasy ring that was preparing to peddle 12 kilograms of MDMA in Sydney; Graham’s plea followed admissions that she had knowingly used large chunks of her husband’s cocaine cash and contraband to pay her bills and maintain her life in a manner to which she had grown accustomed.  Both of these stories have all of the makings of tabloid drama, versions of which Britney Spears, Kate Moss, Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson, et al. ad nauseum have brought to the fore in recent memory.  However, for serveral reasons, these events permit us an opportunity to “examine our consciences,” as the Catholic prescription goes, about social, political, and economic aspects of controlled substances for which we are at least theoretically responsible, inasmuch as we are citizens of an erstwhile democratic nation. Even though these events are well in the past by now, they serve to illustrate current phenomena, in that the same things keep happening over and over again.

Justice Served?

The initial issue that ought to call forth introspection concerns the case resolution of two relatively heavy-hitters, in terms of the amounts of money and contraband involved.  For a key role in a $13 million conspiracy, Barton can expect probation by February, roughly twenty months after his and his associates’ arraignment in June, 2006.  Meanwhile, for an apparently conscious and supportive connection with her husband, now serving a life sentence for his ‘A-list’ retail coke gig, Kai Franklin Graham expects only to face probation and community service.  What would happen to me under those circumstances?  What has come to pass for millions of petty thieves, small-time dealers, and recreational users caught up in the maw of the war on drugs?  The data are appalling, although finding crisp compilations approximates the labors of Hercules cleaning the horse-shit from the Augean stables.  Until procedural changes that have occurred in the past few weeks, however, the average paltry pot dealer–less than a pound–could expect five to ten years on average; offering as little as a few grams of crack on the market, meanwhile, would likely have resulted in twenty years in state prison, without possibility of parole.  The disparities between the treatment of the regular working class ‘fall-guy’ and that afforded to the relatives and friends of, and participants in, the jet set are so extreme as to be noisome.  Seeing the disposition of Franklin Graham’s and Barton’s judgments cannot help but reinforce the notion that contemporary criminal jurisprudence, especially in relation to ‘controlled substances,’ represents a fundamentally unfair, and egregiously flawed, system-of-injustice that operates in contravention of its own or any rational premises of social control, social improvement, or public safety.

Not the Issue.

In truth, though, the prejudicial unfolding of the ‘War on Drugs’ is the least problematic element in the present pass–after all, ‘justice’ must inevitably display some unbalance, or our institutions would be Edenic indeed.  My own family’s and copious friends’ experiences prove beyond doubt that color, class, and connection account for a huge proportion of case outcomes, especially in first-offender or police-discretion situations.  That a good friend, the son of an FBI agent whose ‘golden-boy’ geist belied his ‘bad-boy’ habits, escaped with a warning and confiscation when a South Carolina state trooper stopped him with a pound of cocaine on the front seat on his seventeenth birthday, merely fleshes out a portrait of a system that we all know operates in a brutal, biased, and bizarre way.  Kate Moss’s apparently constant ‘nose-candy’ habit, with the upshot of a few luxury ‘rehab’ visits, points to another, yet similar, sort of inequity, one that we all accept, just as we realize that the likelihood of presidential daughters’ doing hard prison time for their pot faux pas is pretty small.A much more dire iniquity emanates from much deeper levels of impropriety in our cultural policies regarding drugs.  Such prominent financial institutions as Citigroup, JPMorgan, and Deutsche Bank, for instance, show up repeatedly in investigative reports regarding money laundering of the plus-or-minus trillion dollars cash a year that black market policies guarantee to major drug dealers; occasionally, non-financial companies, such as Enron or Chevron, allegedly benefit(or in the case of Enron, benefited)from such ‘book-cooking’ schemes.  Moreover, whether one prefers scholarly and historical investigation, as in The Great Heroin Coup and Drugs and Oil,


or enjoys hard-hitting current investigative output, such as Gary Webb’s San Jose Mercury News series on CIA importation of crack and Michael Ruppert’s brilliant tour de force in the pages of Crossing the Rubicon, or likes to plow through government hearings such as those on the Iran-Contra scandal that strongly suggest the drug-running culpability of such ‘heroes’ as Ollie North, or just sits back and marvels at the ongoing carnage of corruption that police and official involvement in the drug trade causes, that representatives of primary ‘protective’ institutions at least occasionally orchestrate the ins and outs of contraband processing, distribution, and usage can no longer be a matter of controversy for anyone other than the criminally culpable or pollyannishly naive.

Crossing the Rubicon

Finally, one need not be a true hero, in the vein of Michael Ruppert, who left the ranks of honest cops because he realized that his goal of bringing drug criminals to the bar would either prove impossible or get him killed in an environment of CIA orchestration of most of the elements of the trade, to witness such transgressions personally.  I have known and deposed two former DEA agents who, like Ruppert, retired young because, as one of them put it, “I didn’t want to end up with a cap in the head from a spook whose turf I violated.”  The essentially incontrovertible nature of such facts and examples as these means that critical attributes of our society exist as, at best, criminally fraudulent enterprises that we continue to ignore at the peril of our civic soul, to return to the ‘examing-the-conscious’ figure of speech.  In this vein, the foibles of the grandson of Winston Churchill–who might himself very well have been a speed freak–or the daughter of Atlanta’s mayor–who rules over a city as rife with drugs as any metro area on our fair planet, pale in comparison to what is obviously true of our constitutional core.

so it goes…

Many citizens simply cannot manage the combination of self-assessment and social analysis that the preceding paragraphs imply that we must manage, in spite of how ugly and vicious and stupid the whole situation seems.  Nonetheless, the difficulty of countenancing these ‘big-picture’ story lines is understandable.  What is not defensible, though, is yet another implication of Barton’s and Franklin-Graham’s criminal forays.  Wherever one looks in America today–in our high schools, in pubs and clubs, in church socials and office barbecues–illicit use and distribution of mind-altering substances is so ubiquitous that outside of communities such as the Amish, every adult in the country has a direct, at most a ‘one-degree-of-separation,’ relationship to the sale and smoking, dropping, drinking, snorting, shooting, or otherwise imbibing of all sorts of plant substances, and their chemical analogs, that get their users high, off, or otherwise to some altered plane of consciousness that a few folks achieve through Jesus or meditation, but the vast majority of us obtain on the basis of a ‘better-living-through-chemistry’ undertaking.  The vast array of evidence demonstrative of these facts means that only the blind, stupid, willfully ignorant, or dishonest among us is truly unaware.  In this context, the sagas of the Churchills and the Franklins are merely confirmatory of the epics of everyday life that every one of us senses, transpiring around us on a daily basis.

Were spiritual and ethical losses the only costs of the systemic dishonesty and corruption everywhere obvious around us, a reasonable attitude toward such personal drawbacks might be that they promise grotesque psychic and social consequences.  However, arguably the primary detriments of the War on Drugs’ intractable hypocrisy and fraud are economic and political, debits so profound in fact that they permit, and may promise, that we undermine all hope of a human democracy unless we find a way to act against their continuing influence.  The surface manifestations of this despoilation appear glaringly obvious.  The nauseating murder by the police of 92 year old Kathryn Johnson in Atlanta is just the clearest recent expression of a war on citizens that the War on Drugs militates must continue until we end our teetotalling facade.  Tens of thousands of citizens die each year at the hand of drug gangs and police gangs that are all too often impossible to distinguish.  Even more ennervating to average communities is the steady drain of talent and potential from them, not as a result of occasional drug use–which will ever be a component of the human condition–but directly flowing from the imprisonment of millions and millions who are nothing other than small-scale entrepreneurs and party-animals for the most part; other millions end up behind bars, marked for life as ‘unfit for human consumption,’ because they do develop really monstrous drug habits that, in the context of the false prohibition that prevails today, must lead to theft and predation to supply themselves with substances artificially expensive due to the black market that our statutes make unavoidable.

In this gloomy swamp of hypocrisy, the uplifting influence of the ‘Prison-Industrial-Complex’ on the already wealthy and otherwise well-endowed might seem a hilarious irony but for the social and personal carnage which the War-on-Drugs-Police-and-Prison-Subsidy-Program annually produces for the majority of us.  Police budgets, substantially increased by the ever present hypocrisy of fighting our most basic nature, easily exceed a hundred billion dollars a year, with another $30 billion or so on tap for prison expansion and construction.  Further tens of billions of our social treasure support the panoply of therapists and counselors whose very reason for being contravenes the programs in which they must participate, the cures and treatments that must always fail to deliver the results which they promise, and on and on, ad nauseum.  The fates of young Mr. Barton and Ms. Graham, in some senses, thus exemplify that, for the contractors and power brokers and moneybags who consistently make out like bandits from the assault on reason and hope that the War on Drugs stands for, “it is indeed an ill wind that bodes no one good.”  While one may under the circumstances enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, which fictionalizes a world in which half the population labors as prison guards as the other half fights the doldrums of imprisonment, an attendant duty upon the conscientious ‘examination of the conscience’ that this essay purports to provide is to work to prevent Vonnegut’s imaginary existence from becoming the predominant reality of our lives.

the real issue

Nicholas Barton and Kai Graham evince an important actuality: as the busts continue successfully against relatively minor grifters(even if they rake in impressive millions, after all, their take pales in comparison to hundreds of thousands times larger drug-money pie)who may occasionally even be minor celebrities, the major players continue to operate with impunity, and the system trumpets the parade of lies and fraud that underpin a criminal conspiracy that passes itself off as law and policy in our benefit.  In a situation such as this, I cannot help but wonder about the vast ignorance of most folks about where this all came from, how it came into existence from identifiable events and patterns from the past.  Who knows that “heroin” was a wonder drug at first?  Who remembers about Sigmund Freud’s and Sherlock Holmes’s predilection for cocaine?  Who can even vaguely recite the manner in which opium served the British empire?  Who is aware that the Kennedy family billionaire fortune has its roots in rum-running?  Who realizes that the origins of the CIA are essentially indistinguishable from the decision to use ‘Mafioso’ as agents during World War II, and that these relationships continue into the present era, when drug networks are the lingua franca of the spy business?  Dozens and dozens of like political inquiries are germane to figuring out why things are so royally screwed up that our survival is clearly at risk.  Nor should the interrogatories end with these historical matters.  Who knows the history of cannabis?  Of LSD?  Of the opiates?  All of them tell a story about humanity not unlike the tale of the grape, of mead, of beer, a correlation that we pretend does not exist at our ongoing mortal peril.  If we are willing to look at the story of an upper-crust Englishman of ‘good family,’ and at the tale of an upper-middle-class Black American woman of ‘good family,’ in an open-minded and inquisitive fashion, we may yet achieve some measure of growth toward a comprehension of core issues of hypocrisy and corruption that plague our communities, our families, and our hopes.

Clayton McMichen, a Cobb County Georgia crooner and early country music star, composed “Prohibition Blues” in 1930; the opening lines of the fourth stanza, “Prohibition has killed more folks than Sherman ever seen,” established his ‘confederate’ credibility, but the overall song illustrates the crass class dynamics of illegal alcohol in its repeated theme, that “Prohibition is just a scheme, a fine money making machine.”  Wherever one looks these days, the encroaching tentacles of increasingly pronounced prohibitory schemes are burgeoning.  Untold billions of common people suffer as a result of this futile brutality-in-the-name-of-justice; occasionally, as in the past week, a pair of well-off and privileged sorts experience the merest glimmer of the consequences that the life-sentences and death sentences of the ‘War on Drugs’ “money making machine” impose on so many of the rest of us.  McMichen, no doubt an early proponent of “progressive country,” leaves us with words that should elevate and focus our thinking appropriately.

I’ll tell you brother, and I won’t lie,
What’s the matter in this land.
We drink at will, and vote it dry,
And hide it if we can.
Well, the rich they party, and they all get drunk,
And they call it society.
But if they catch you with a pint,
Good Morning Penitentiary.