Eliot Albers, INPUD leader, speaks to the Users Voice

In June 2014, Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt attended the “Support Don’t Punish” Action near Parliament Square. As we are the UV, it seemed highly appropriate to interview Eliot Albers, one of our peers who is a full-time activist working for the International Network of People who Use Drugs

Review of “Zero, Zero Zero” and “Drug War Capitalism” by Eliot Albers

Thanks loads for posting the Saviano interview, his book ZeroZeroZero
is a brilliant description of the workings of what he calls cocaine
capitalism or narcocapitalism. One of the most important achievements
of the book is the demonstration that the narcostate is not something
that is “over there”, “far away” but is rather everywhere and that
narcodollars have thoroughly infiltrated every aspect of, and become
the keystone of, contemporary capitalism, he describes the City of
London as “the narcotrafficking, money laundering capital of the
world” and the seat of many of the major banks that play an
indispensable role in laundering narcodollars and inserting them into
the matrix of global capital flows. Following this claim he shows
how the commonly accepted distinction between the licit and illicit
economies is completely false, artificial and meaningless. In the
dominant narrative narcostates are failed governments in low and
middle income countries on the major trading routes (West Africa,
Caribbean, Latin America primarily), Saviano goes beyond this and
shows that the narcostate is everywhere and is in fact the keystone of
the contemporary global economy. The traditional narrative, like so
much drugspeak is inherently othering, specifically racist, and holds
that narco states are over there, far away, in ‘developing countries’
and certainly not in the ‘free west’, ‘civilised’ or ‘first’ world.


The cocaine capitalism that Saviano describes but doesn’t theorise is
however much better thought through in the brilliant Drug War
Capitalism by Dawn Paley – the two complement each other perfectly.
Paley’s book makes several important points that I’ve long felt to be
true but hadn’t previously been able to think through.

So a few thoughts (sorry it’s a bit long):

1. the war on drugs has very little, if anything, to do with drugs at
all “Rather than actually dealing with controlling illegal substances,
the war on drugs i s a concept invented by the US government […] to
serve their interests , both domestically, and abroad” (Paley 43); as
Paley bluntly puts it, the war on drugs has nothing to do with
prohibition or drug policy “but is instead a war “in which terror is
used against the population at large in cities and rural areas” while
“parallel to this terror and the panic it generates, policy changes
are implemented which facilitate foreign direct investment and
economic growth.” She goes on to suggest that the war on drugs is in
reality motivated by “the expansion of the capitalist system into new
or previously inaccessible territories and social spaces.”
2. it certainly has nothing to do with attempts to improve “the
health and welfare of mankind” (as the Preamble to the Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 claims);
3. still less is it part of that “humanitarian endeavour” that
securing the “dual suppression of the abuse of opium, morphine, and
cocaine” is described as in the same convention;
4. the same convention claims that “addiction to narcotic drugs
constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with
social and economic danger to mankind”. Regardless of one’s views on
the utility or otherwise of the language of ‘addiction’ (personally I
find it vague, obfuscating, unhelpful, largely meaningless, entirely
subjective, and inherently stigmatising, but that’s for another post),
the use of the language of “evil” to describe the problem that an
international convention is combatting is extraordinary, dangerously
theological, profoundly moralising and unique in international law –
as Rick Lines has noted – neither “slavery, apartheid, nor torture”
are described as “evil” in the conventions prohibiting them (in the
convention relevant to it, the sternest language applied to genocide
is “odious scourge”‘ whilst the UDHR musters “barbarous acts” to
describe the totality of human brutality committed in WWII). The war
on drugs is definitively not a component – and certainly by no
conceivable measure a well functioning component – of the entirely
questionable objective of reducing this apparent “social and economic
danger to mankind” . A key consequence of the deployment of the
language of “evil” has been that the war on drugs has given rise to
what political theorist Carl Schmitt called a “state of exception”
which he defines as “not a special kind of law (like the law of war)
[…] rather insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order
itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept”. Faced with what
is essentially a threat to the very fabric of society – note that the
Single Convention calls upon member states to be “Conscious of their
duty to prevent and combat this evil” – extraordinary measures are
justified, and governments must be freed up to pursue policies, and
take measures, that would, under normal circumstances not be
acceptable; it is in this light, that the war on drugs gives cover to
the widespread suspension of, and trampling upon, civil liberties,
leads to human rights violations on a gross and systemic scale, and is
used to justify incursions into the sovereign territory of other
states. A clear illustration of the kinds of policies that such
rhetoric can give rise to is the legal definition of drug trafficking
as a “threat to the national security of the United States” that was
introduced by Reagan in 1986, similarly, combatting drug trafficking
was given as one of the three official justifications of the 1989
American invasion of Panama.
5. the war on drugs is not about protecting your kiddies from the
evil ‘pushers’ who apparently frequent school gates;
6. The war on drugs, far from being the dogged pursuit of any of the
intrinsically highly questionable, yet supposedly noble and laudable
aims that it professes to pursue is much more fruitfully understood as
a cipher, or a Trojan horse, through which states act out agendas of
domestic social control (not least of all through the mass
incarceration and disenfranchisement of marginalised, poor, ethnic
minority communities).
7. the war on drugs functions as a vehicle for justifying systemic
racism, classism and the protection of the prevailing order of social
privilege and as a pretext for the increasing paramilitarisation of
police forces and their deployment more as hostile occupying armies in
the poor, marginalised, and ethnic minority urban areas that they
single out as ‘hot spots’. One direct result of this is the still
ongoing mass incarceration seen in the US, as John Gibler writes “the
use of prohibition for racialised social control is the genesis of the
modern drug-prohibition era”. Michelle Alexander has noted that the US
“imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South
Africa did at the height of apartheid” – this is now so extreme that
three out of four young black men can expect to be incarcerated at
some point in their life, and are therefore better represented in
prison than in universities.
8. The war on drugs functions as one of the principal mechanisms
sustaining the seemingly unstoppable growth of the
prison-industrial complex. The latter, apart from functioning as an
abstract site into which those deemed to be socially undesirable are
deposited (Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?), having been exiled
from larger society, is also ever more central to the functioning of
capital, as inmates are exploited as a captive source of quasi slave
or bonded labour. These two latter features ie a) as a site of exile,
or a dumping ground, for the socially undesirable; and b) as a source
of slave labour are as true of the Western prison-industrial complex
as they are of Asian compulsory drug detention centres.
9. In the name of wiping out local drug markets, the war on drugs
(which is better thought of as one on people who use illicit drugs and
their communities, especially drug consumers from ethnic minorities,
the poor, and otherwise disenfranchised) functions as an advance guard
in cleansing urban spaces of their ‘undesirable’ minority, poor,
disenfranchised residents and making them available for
gentrification. This removal of minority communities from their
neighbourhoods has been most apparent in the US where released drug
felons are evicted from public housing, this progressive exile or
expulsion from civic life is compounded by the denial to felons of
most forms of employment, of education grants, and of the majority of
other forms of social assistance, and finally the stripping of that
most basic sign of citizenship ie the right to vote – felony
disenfranchisement is the norm in the US, being enshrined in state law
in all but two states (given the massively disproportionate weight of
incarceration on drugs charges carried by young men of colour, this
means that 13% of African-American men are disenfranchised).
10. the war on drugs gives cover to the reinforcement of the
juridical or punitive role of ever changing sub-disciplines of
medicine and allied sciences (currently psychiatry and neuroscience)
through the provision of a ‘scientific’ justification for
architectures of control driven by the construction of the supposedly
objective categories of normal, abnormal, pathological, healthy,
unhealthy. As Michel Foucault notes, “…if you are not like everybody
else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick.
These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being
normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced
to the same thing”. Under the cover of the war on drugs these
supposedly scientific categories become particularly potent weapons of
social control, used to break up families, remove children from the
custody of their parents, and deny access to health care to whole
categories of people- most, notably, the exclusion of people who
inject drugs from access to treatment for HIV, and hepatitis C;
alternatively they are used to justify court ordered or mandatory
‘treatment’, and so further fuse together, or erase the distinctions
between, medical and juridical judgement. In this role, ‘addiction
medicine’ and psychiatry are very clearly demonstrated to be the
“technology of abnormality” that Foucault claimed the latter to be.
11. the cover offered by the war on drugs has long played a critical
role in the execution of foreign policy objectives. The case study
explored in most depth by Paley is the complex of ways in which the
war on drugs provides cover for American corporate and state interests
in Latin America. Here she shows how the agenda of destroying coca
crops which brings with it land clearance, and the massive
displacement of indigenous peoples and cocaleros is driven by the
imperatives of direct corporate investment largely in the name of the
extractive industries.
12. the recent HSBC scandal revealed quite how thoroughly
interdependent global capital flows and the ‘legitimate’ banking
sector on the one hand and the vast sums circulating through the
illicit drug trade truly are. The latter is quite literally too large
to be allowed to fail.
13. In his book Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky illustrates the
interconnectedness between the licit and narco economies by quoting
Alberto Galán, brother of murdered Colombian presidential candidate
Luis Carlos Galán (whose murder triggered US intervention supposedly
in pursuit of the cartels). Galán writes that “the drug dealers’ core
military power lies in paramilitary groups organised with the support
of large landowners and military officers”. He argues that in addition
to strengthening “anti-democratic and repressive forces” the strategy
pursued by Washington “avoids the core of the problem […] the
economic ties between the legal and illegal worlds” which critically
includes the major banks that are central to laundering narcodollars
and facilitating the entry of the latter into the mainstream economy.
As Galán goes on to point out, if the war on drugs really was about
disrupting the production, distribution, sale, and use of those drugs,
trade in which is controlled by the cartels, as is claimed, it would
make far more sense to “attack and prosecute the few at the top of the
drug business” rather than incarcerating the millions of low level
street dealers and users as actually happens. That this ‘sensible’
strategy is not that which has been pursued is as clear an indication
as any that the objectives of what we call the war on drugs are not
those which are claimed for it. By the same token, drug policy reform
agendas that fail to grasp this issue end up presenting (whether
deliberately or explicitly or not) prohibition as a faulty mechanism
for reaching what are legitimate ends (the most strikingly problematic
of such ends is of course “reducing drug use”) – and consequently
limits itself to tinkering with a mechanism that is not designed to,
and is incapable of, producing the results that reformers want.
14. “It is clear that the drug war is is the means by which states
are waging a war against poor people, workers, migrants, and others.
The drug war model inside the United States provides a mechanism of
social control through criminalisation and mass incarceration, which
targets communities of colour. In Mexico, Central and South America,
the drug war model relies on the use of terror in order to impose
social control”.
15. Metrics and perverse incentives – as Reprieve (the anti-death
penalty campaigners) have pointed out, Iranian and Pakistani police
carrying out interdiction projects funded by European states via UNODC
are positively encouraged to try to ensure that their efforts lead to
as many executions as possible (Reprieve, European Aid for Executions
10) – this is inevitable given that these ‘counter-narcotics’ efforts
have, as their indicators of success, numbers of arrests,
prosecutions, and types of conviction, and amounts seized. This is
what the supply reduction demanded by the war on drugs and sought as
one of its objectives looks like in reality, and there is no way
around this. It seems to me that there can be no better or more humane
metrics for a system that is wedded to the conviction that certain
behaviours are “evil”. This condemnation of drug use beyond the
control of state sanctioned medical practitioners as evil can only
have two outcomes: people who use drugs are framed either as criminals
or as sick people in need of restorative treatment (coerced if
16. Further, the war on drugs has been a pretext for the increased
militarisation of the police – in the US for instance the Colombian
cartels were used as a pretext for the 1981 modification of the Posse
Comitatus Act, (this forbade the military from participating in
domestic policing) this militarisation of domestic police forces
started with allowing the US Navy to accompany the civilian law
enforcement agencies and the coast guard this has spread to the full
militarisation of patrol cops who instead of patrolling local
communities occupy them like invading armies.

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