Drugs war invented by Nixon to extend his power
This week, when the Garda seized 100,000 ecstasy tablets in Dublin, the haul was widely reported to have a "street value" of £1.2 million. That phrase "street value" has become so familiar a part of drugs crime reporting that we take it for granted. And yet it is, if you think about it, a rather obvious distortion.
Valuing a wholesale load of drugs by the price it might fetch if and when it reaches the point of sale is like valuing a herd of rustled cattle by calculating what the meat might sell for as prime steak in a fancy restaurant.
By quoting such figures, rather than the actual cost to the dealers of the drugs, the success of the operation is dramatised.
This game suits the Garda and the media and probably does little harm. It's worthy of attention only as evidence of the forgotten but pervasive legacy of events which culminated 25 years ago this summer and which continues to be recognised by a single word - Watergate.
The long-term consequences of Watergate are agreed to be profound. It massively enhanced the power of the press. It greatly diminished the prestige of public office, creating, far beyond the US, a scepticism about the integrity of great leaders. All of this has been commented on ad nauseam, most recently during the Lewinsky affair.
And yet the most profound effect of Watergate may well be something which is seldom if ever mentioned in the history of those strange events - the distortion of public policy on drugs.
Who now remembers that the Watergate conspirators (G. Gordon Liddy, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Egil Krogh and others) were among the fathers of the "drugs war"? Their invention and manipulation of understanding the drugs problem was at the heart of Nixon's attempt to build a private security apparatus to extend his power beyond its democratic limits.
The drugs war started out as a matter of cynical politics. Nixon won office in 1968 largely on the back of a "law and order" campaign. He promised to crack down on street crime and to make the US safe.
Once in office, he quickly discovered that the president had no real control over law enforcement and that he would have to run for re-election in 1972 in the face of ample evidence that crime was continuing to rise and that all his tough talk had led nowhere. The solution was to build up a panic about drugs and to invent a war on heroin in which the president could be the hero.
The men who would become notorious through Watergate were brought in to create this war. They started by manufacturing an emergency, hyping up an "epidemic" which had in fact reached its peak before Nixon took office and was actually declining. In 1971, Nixon's administration claimed that heroin use was responsible for $18 billion of property crime a year. In fact, the total of all property crime in the US in 1971 was $1.3 billion.
Likewise, the total number of heroin addicts was wildly exaggerated. Data for 1969 showed that there were 68,000 addicts in the US. These same data, however, were statistically "reinterpreted" to increase the figure first to 315,000 and then to 559,000. By reworking precisely the same set of figures, Nixon's people produced a "tenfold" increase in the number of junkies in two years. This increase was accepted by the media and Congress.
Then, in the real master stroke, the same figures were reworked again to show that there were 150,000 addicts. This massive "decrease" was then cited as the great success of the war on drugs. The term "street value" was given currency as a way of glorifying these apparent successes.
Nixon's drug war delivered large doses of farce. A doped-out Elvis Presley was inducted as an honorary member of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. A heroin "sniffer" device - conspicuously concealed in a Volkswagen camper van with a snorkel sticking out of the roof - was dispatched to Marseilles in the belief that it could locate the labs where morphine was turned into heroin. The intricate map of heroin labs it produced turned out to be a map of Marseilles restaurants: the "sniffer" was unable to distinguish the fumes emitted by heroin from those emitted by salad dressing.
IN spite of these and other fiascos, however, the drugs war took hold in the public imagination. Instead of being understood as a health and social problem, drug addiction was defined as a law-and-order problem. Movies and TV serials spread the image of the drugs war around the world and shaped the way most countries responded to the problem of drug abuse.
There was, though, a hidden agenda. Nixon wanted all along to have his own private security agency, beyond the control of the FBI, the CIA or any other official government body, which could investigate leaks, tap phones and gather intelligence on his internal and external opponents.
G. Gordon Liddy came up with the brilliant idea that the best way to do this was to establish the agency under the cloak of the war on drugs. Who, after all, would complain if a little illegality was indulged in the cause of protecting the families of the US from the plague of heroin?
Nixon ordered John Ehrlichman and Egil Krogh to establish this unit which was to be called the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement.
The Watergate conspirators who came to be known as "the plumbers" - Liddy and Krogh, who had been leading figures in the administration's drugs war, Howard Hunt, who was brought in from the CIA, and others - were assembled, a preliminary version of this putative anti-narcotics agency. Krogh, the official co-ordinator of Nixon's war on drugs, was also, in his unofficial capacity, the head of "the plumbers" who organised the Watergate break-in.
Liddy, the most colourful and notorious of "the plumbers", was Krogh's assistant. Hunt was a consultant on the drug problem to the president's Domestic Council. Essentially, Nixon's covert criminals and his drug warriors were one and the same. As Edward Jay Epstein put it in his remarkable 1977 investigation, Agency of Fear, "the new opiate war provided the perfect cover for this seizure of power".
The weird thing is that long after these people were found out and sent to jail, the rhetoric and imagery which they had pioneered in the manipulation of the drugs issue retained its power.
By a supreme irony, these criminals shaped a key aspect of law enforcement worldwide. The notion that drug addiction needed to be fought as a war between the state and the traffickers, rather than a social disease, took a hold which has yet to be relinquished.
It was a Watergate legacy so insidious that few people remember its origins. Only now, after decades of waste and failure, is it becoming possible to think of drug abuse in terms other than those which were invented by Nixon's crooks.