President-Nixon-007.jpgBy: Ed Vulliamy

Photo: In 1971, President Richard Nixon, motivated by addiction among US soldiers in Vietnam, told Congress drug abuse was ‘public enemy number one’ Photograph: AP

Despite decades of battling against narcotics, the levels of addiction, trafficking and violence continue to rise. The war on drugs has failed. Now, politicians in Latin America are calling to review all options – from full legalization to a new war

Four decades ago, on 17 July 1971, President Richard Nixon declared what has come to be called the “war on drugs”. Nixon told Congress that drug addiction had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”, and asked Capitol Hill for an initial $84m (£52m) for “emergency measures”.

Drug abuse, said the president, was “public enemy number one”.

But as reported the following morning in our sister newspaper, the Guardian, the president’s initiative appears to have been primarily motivated not by considerations of the ghettoes or Woodstock festival, but by addiction among soldiers fighting in Vietnam: the first and immediate measure in the “war on drugs”, implemented 40 years ago this weekend, was the institution of urine testing for all US troops in Indochina. The Guardian’s “sidebar” story to the news bulletin was not from Chicago or Los Angeles but the Mekong Delta, with soldiers laughing: “You can go anywhere, ask anyone, they’ll get it for you. It won’t take but a few seconds.”

Nixon signed his war on drugs into law on 28 January 1972, Adam Raphael quoting him in this newspaper as saying: “I am convinced that the only way to fight this menace is by attacking it on many fronts.” The catchphrase “war on drugs” mimicked that of Nixon’s predecessor Lyndon B Johnson, who had declared a “war on poverty” during his state of the union address in 1964.

Four decades on, in a world (and an America) accursed by poverty and drugs, there is almost universal agreement that the war on drugs has failed as thoroughly as that on poverty. In the US and Europe, the war has been fought on the streets, in the courts and through the jail system, to no apparent avail. In the world that has “developed” since 1971, it has been fought in the barrios; it has defoliated land and driven peasants into even worse poverty. The war in the so-called “producing” countries has ravaged Colombia, is currently tearing Mexico apart, and again threatens Afghanistan, Central America, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela. In places such as west Africa, the war is creating “narco states” that have become effective puppets of the mafia cartels the war has spawned.

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