Noam Chomsky deconstructs the drug war

For those of you who have never heard of him, Noam Chomsky is the most quoted living human being:

According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980–92 period, and was the eighth most-cited source.[13][14][15]


He has opposed the U.S. global “war on drugs” numerous times. For example:

The War on Drugs is a controversial prohibition campaign undertaken by the United States government with the assistance of participating countries, intended to reduce the illegal drug trade, to curb supply and diminish demand for specific psychoactive substances deemed immoral, harmful, dangerous, or undesirable….

“, claiming its language to be misleading, and referring to it as “the war on certain drugs.” He favors education and prevention rather than military or police action as a means of reducing drug use. In an interview in 1999, Chomsky argued that, whereas crops such as tobacco receive no mention in governmental exposition, other non-profitable crops, such as marijuana, are specifically targeted due to the effect achieved by persecuting the poor

“US domestic drug policy does not carry out its stated goals, and policymakers are well aware of that. If it isn’t about reducing substance abuse, what is it about? It is reasonably clear, both from current actions and the historical record, that substances tend to be criminalized when they are associated with the so-called dangerous classes, that the criminalization of certain substances is a technique of social control.”


Recently, on his website, he wrote about the current status of the drug war:

Imperial Mentality and Drug Wars

The justification offered for the new military bases in Colombia is the “war on drugs.” The fact that the justification is even offered is remarkable. Suppose, for example, that Colombia, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement their programs to eradicate tobacco in the U.S., by fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the U.S. to ensure it was eradicating this poison — which is, in fact, far more lethal even than alcohol, which in turn is far more lethal than cocaine or heroin, incomparably more than cannabis. The toll of tobacco use is truly fearsome, including “passive smokers” who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves. The death toll overwhelms the lethal effects of other dangerous substances.

The idea that outsiders should interfere with U.S. production and distribution of these murderous poisons is plainly unthinkable. Nevertheless, the U.S. justification for carrying out such policies in South America is accepted as plausible. The fact that it is even regarded as worthy of discussion is yet another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, and the abiding truth of the doctrine of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must — while the intellectual classes spin tales about the nobility of power. Leading themes of history, to the present day.

Despite the outlandish assumptions, let us agree to adopt the imperial mentality that reigns in the West — virtually unchallenged, in fact, not even noticed. Even after this extreme concession, it requires real effort to take the “war on drugs” pretext seriously. The war has been waged for close to 40 years and intensively for a decade in Colombia. There has been no notable impact on drug use or even street prices. The reasons are reasonably well understood. Studies by official and quasi-official governmental organizations provide good evidence that prevention and treatment are far more effective than forceful measures in reducing drug abuse: one major study finds prevention and treatment to have been 10 times as effective as drug interdiction and 23 times as effective as “supply-side” out-of-country operations, such as fumigation in Colombia, more accurately described as chemical warfare. The historical record supports these conclusions. There is ample evidence that changes in cultural attitudes and perceptions have been very effective in curtailing harmful practices. Nevertheless, despite what is known, policy is overwhelmingly directed to the least effective measures, with the support of the doctrinal institutions.

These and other facts leave us with only two credible hypotheses: either U.S. leaders have been systematically insane for the past 40 years; or the purpose of the drug war is quite different from what is proclaimed. We can exclude the possibility of collective insanity. To determine the real reasons we can follow the model of the legal system, which takes predictable outcome to be evidence of intent, particularly when practices persist over a long period and in the face of constant failure to approach the announced objectives. In this case, the predictable outcome is not obscure, both abroad and at home.

Abroad, the “supply-side approach” has been the basis for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency strategy in Colombia and elsewhere, with a fearful toll among victims of chemical warfare and militarization of conflicts, but enormous profits for domestic and foreign elites. Colombia has a shocking record of human rights violations, by far the worst in the hemisphere since the end of Reagan’s Central American terror wars in the 1980s, and also the second-largest internal displacement of populations in the world, after Sudan. Meanwhile, domestic elites and multinationals profit from the forced displacement of peasants and indigenous people, which clears land for mining, agribusiness production and ranching, infrastructure development for industry, and much else. There is a great deal more to say about this, but I will put it aside.

At home, the drug war coincided with the initiation of neoliberal programs, the financialization of the economy, and the attack on government social welfare systems, real, even though limited by international standards. One immediate consequence of the war on drugs has been the extraordinary growth in scale and severity of incarceration in the past 30 years, placing the U.S. far in the lead worldwide. The victims are overwhelmingly African-American males and other minorities, a great many of them sentenced on victimless drug charges. Drug use is about the same as in privileged white sectors, which are mostly immune.

In short, while abroad the war on drugs is a thin cover for counterinsurgency, at home it functions as a civilized counterpart to Latin America limpieza social cleansing, removing a population that has become superfluous with the dismantling of the domestic productive system in the course of the neo-liberal financialization of the economy. A secondary gain is that like the “war on crime,” the “war on drugs” serves to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies are implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority, leading to staggering inequality that is breaking historical records, and stagnation of real wages for the majority while benefits decline and working hours increase.

These processes conform well to the history of prohibition, which has been well studied by legal scholars. I cannot go into the very interesting details here, but quite generally, prohibition has been aimed at control of what are called “the dangerous classes” — those who threaten the rights and well-being of the privileged dominant minorities. These observations hold worldwide, where the topics have been studied. They have special meaning in the U.S. in the context of the history of African-Americans, much of which remains generally unknown. It is, of course, known that slaves were formally freed during the American Civil War, and that after ten years of relative freedom, the gains were mostly obliterated by 1877 as Reconstruction was brought to an end.

But the horrifying story is only now being researched seriously, most recently in a study called “Slavery by another name” by Wall Street Journal editor Douglas Blackmon. His work fills out the bare bones with shocking detail, showing how after Reconstruction African-American life was effectively criminalized, so that black males virtually became a permanent slave labor force. Conditions, however, were far worse than under slavery, for good capitalist reasons. Slaves were property, a capital investment, and were therefore cared for by their masters. Those criminalized for merely existing are similar to wage laborers, in that the masters have no responsibility for them, except to make sure that enough are available. That was, in fact, one of the arguments used by slave owners to claim that they were more moral than those who hired labor. The argument was understood well enough by northern workers, who regarded wage labor as preferable to literal slavery only in that it was temporary, a position shared by Abraham Lincoln among others.

Criminalized black slavery provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century. It continued until World War II, when free labor was needed for war industry. During the postwar boom, which relied substantially on the dynamic state sector that had been established under the highly successful semi-command economy of World War II, African-American workers gained a certain degree of freedom for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction. But since the 1970s that process is being reversed, thanks in no small measure to the “war on drugs,” which in some respects is a contemporary analogue to the criminalization of black life after the Civil War — and also provides a fine disciplined labor force, often in private prisons, in gross violation of international labor regulations.

For such reasons as these, we can expect that the “war on drugs” will continue until popular understanding and activism reach a point where the fundamental driving factors can be discerned and seriously addressed.

Last February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the U.S. “war on drugs” in the past decades. The Commission, led by former Latin American presidents Cardoso, Zedillo, and Gav’ria, concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from criminalization and “supply-side” operations and towards much less costly and more effective measures of education, prevention, and treatment. Their report had no detectable impact, just as earlier studies and the historical record have had none. That again reinforces the natural conclusion that the “drug war” — like the “war on crime” and “the war on terror” — has quite sensible goals, which are being achieved, and therefore continue in the face of a costly failure of announced goals.

Coups, UNASUR, and the U.S.
Noam Chomsky
Z Magazine, October 2009–.htm

David Malmo-Levine



  1. Chillis on

    …whatever your mother has to tell you so you can sleep at night.

  2. Anonymous on

    Rather poor shit though, to know that you’re just Some Body….?

    does it matter to Ya if you might as well be dead too in order to feel or state something like that?

    Leave the booze man, cut out the booze! 😉

  3. Anonymous on

    uh, aaah uh yuh and well…

    To teach you about the great Mysteries and Truth of life Ano 20:41

    We are all some One and we all achieve Some Thing in our lives…

    We all are spun and hold together by the Big Web of Life.

    Now please and Respectfully go suck on that; and We,ll be seeing you again whenever you ‘ve got sobered up or other wise have got returned to your senses again.

    Thanks for Your Imput Any How’s… :)

  4. Anonymous on

    Leave the Censoring/Editing to the higher powers that be as well as the CC staff.

    But please… nothing on this Site appeases more then the opportunity to write straight from the heart and without beeeing obstructed by a spam detector and similar shit,

    li’ll bit of spam won,t harm me that much anyways, just scroll down and over it man!

  5. Anonymous on

    David quotes big nobody’s because DAVID.. a Little nobody. Knowing that he’ll never be anything BUT, a little nobody hurts him deep inside.

    ..I, on the other hand, am SOMEBODY!

  6. Dave on

    David this person’s only interested in disruption. I’m not sure if the person is male or female? So lets refer to that person as “It”.

    Have you ever noticed when a supposed ‘dummy pothead’ puts forth a good argument, “It” starts spewing gobbly-gook. Mostly, looks like “It” hasn’t yet been briefed on how to respond to logic.

  7. David Malmo-Levine on

    “Nice Article, too bad you are such a Pol-Cor F*****G Nazi G**F!”

    Many labels. None justified. Let us deal with them one at a time, shall we?


    I assume this to mean “politically correct”.

    Firstly, this is a label that certain people throw at other people, usually when those certain people want to justify being ethically bankrupt. Nobody I know on the left calls themselves “politically correct”, and they often use it to make fun of the authoritarian socialists or other “fake left” posers.

    Secondly, it’s just not true that being against the drug war and being for drug peace or discussing the facts around drugs and drug policy is considered “correct” by the establishment. Unlike race sensitivity, feminism and ecology, drug peace is still considered “incorrect” by the powers that be. It’s “incorrect” to espouse the views Chomsky holds – you’re misusing the term (I’m gathering from the simplicity of your argument that you’re misusing the term because you don’t understand what it means rather than attempting to confuse the issues on purpose). Here is the term and it’s origins, should you wish to investigate further:

    “F*****G Nazi G**F”

    Calling Chomsky or myself a “Nazi Goof” is like calling Hugh Hefner a “prude” – we’re simply the opposite of a Nazi. We write against authoritarianism and Nazism on a regular basis.

    Clearly you are going to have to come up with some better insults. My suggestion is to read what we’ve written and respond to specific things you don’t like or understand, rather than make blanket statements with no basis in reality. Otherwise you risk making your side of the argument look unprepared and, frankly, unconvincing.

  8. Anonymous on

    Nice Article, too bad you are such a Pol-Cor F*****G Nazi G**F!

  9. weedboy on

    So here and now, I will tell all those what it feels like to be really “HIGH”. Because I really am “Stoned” right now.
    ……Being “HIGH”, or feeling “Stoned”, is like being and feeling like yourself…….Its like, things that did matter dont. And things that didnt matter do.

  10. seedboy on

    Whether its legal or illegal, we will allways be criticized. In sickness or in health. From birth til death.
    whether we have used marijuana or not, it has always crossed everyones mind. Even the biggest critics of weed have always thought and wondered about, what it really feels like to be “HIGH”.

  11. weedboy on

    Yes, we will always have critics. Whether we use marijuana or not……But in the end, its really just a plant.

  12. ben on

    I think we all just need to ignore it and keep our comments focused on the article.peace and love

  13. Anonymous on

    I have to agree with you in part. The ads are unnecessary, but i enjoy hearing other peoples reasoned opinions. Not so much the name calling sessions(as the one above) which are becoming epidemic, but those who really feel that prohibition is a good idea. Some of them make useful points(though few), and some seem intelligent enough to learn or at least debate honestly. We as anti-prohibitionists should encourage debate and it’s tough debating people who agree with you.

  14. Anonymous on

    Get a life??

    It never ceases to amaze me how many drug war zealots are willing to spew their troubling comments on the CC website.

    Just what have you done lately? Surfed sites you hate to spew garbage. It’s obvious who needs to get a life.

  15. Interested Observer on

    Don’t waste your time trying to convince this drone that he’s wrong about Noam Chomsky. It’s highly unlikely that he’s ever read anything by the man. It’s much more plausible that he’s simply a victim of indoctrination, taught from a young age to believe everything he’s told by those who hold power, what Nazis like to call “useful fools”. As such, reasoning with him will not work. The only thing which will change his mind is experiencing the other side of the coin for himself.

    Your time would be better spent exhorting him to travel beyond North America, to see how people in other parts of the world live, before he passes judgement on the validity of Chomsky’s work. I would suggest to the drone that he study the long history of imperialism if he really wanted to understand the context of Chomsky’s work but, he was probably lucky to complete high school and many of the words used would be too big for him.

    PS. I just read the closing argument in your court case. Excellent summation. Best of luck with the outcome.

  16. Anonymous on

    Perhaps a forum moderator for trolls full of hate, or at least a spam filter for phone/shoe ads is in order at CC. The comments section has gotten quite retarded these last few weeks to say the least.

  17. David Malmo-Levine on

    Where do you get that? Chomsky has almost never written about himself – if he has it’s about 0.0000001% of his writing – and is always very humble.

    As for Marc, he promotes himself regularly, but that’s to differentiate himself from his do-nothing critics and those too chickenshit to put their own names behind their opinions.

  18. wHAT dO yOU mEAN?! I'm Noam Chumsky!!!!!! on

    Noam Chomsky is ,like Marc Emery, full of himself to the point where he eats his own feces.