George W. Bush: Pusher-in-Chief

In the 1970s, the U. S. Army confronted its growing drug problem among troops in Vietnam by banning the sale and possession of cigarette papers. The brilliant rationale was that marijuana is a gateway drug and that by taking Zigzag papers out of the equation, heroin use would plummet. This thought process, much like U.S. drug policy for the last four decades, had the advantages of both being devoid of facts as well as sounding good in staff meetings. Generals could sleep soundly at night comforted by the idea they were doing something about all the junkies who were rotating back to “the world.”

Of course reality quickly reared its ugly head. First, because potheads are notoriously inventive at creating bongs out of everything from M-16s to toilet paper tubes. And second, because regular cigarettes were cheaper than rolling papers and were not only abundant but their use was encouraged as a way to keep troops awake on guard duty. Potheads simply emptied the tobacco out of the ready-mades and refilled them with marijuana. Unfortunately, junkies also used cigarettes to smoke their heroin. They emptied only part of the tobacco out and mixed the remainder with 100% pure heroin that was also cheap and abundant thanks to a corrupt Vietnamese military that got rich off of the drug trade.

The “gateway drug” hypothesis soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Junkies and potheads who were in the same room passing around marijuana joints and heroin-laced smokes got confused about which cigarette was which. Within six weeks of the rolling paper ban, every pothead in my unit was hooked on smack. It became a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. It also explains why George W. Bush shares responsibility for the current heroin epidemic in this country. The fact that he is charging Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, some of whom are now junkies, $100,000 a speech is an outrage. And yet hardly a murmur from the public. A blip on the news and it’s gone.

Perhaps a little current history is required. When President Bush invaded Afghanistan, he never intended it to be the important part of his Middle East strategy. It was a side show. A warm-up for the main event in Iraq. Even if we grant his belief in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Bush admitted several times to a personal vendetta against Saddam, “the guy who tried to kill my dad.” Chasing the Taliban to the mountains instead of using U.S. troops to destroy them, set the stage for a massive importation of cheap heroin into this country.

Afghanistan is a miserable place to try and live. It is a hostile environment in which poppies are one of the few plants that cannot only survive but thrive. In the early 1900s, Britain used opium, grown in Afghanistan and processed in India, to create hundreds of thousands of junkies in China and solve their trade deficit problem. The Taliban, free from U.S. troops who were diverted by Bush to Iraq, took over the drug trade to finance their rearming and recovery. Aided by other Muslim extremists who are taking advantage of chaos in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, the Afghanistan drug trade is at record levels. Historically, Afghanistan has always been the leading producer of opiates. Exhibit A is that heroin is now inexpensive and plentiful worldwide.

Pain, both physical and psychological, drives people into the arms of opiate addiction. People suffering from chronic physical pain first get hooked on the relief provided by synthetic opiates like Oxycotin. Then they figure out they can get even better relief from heroin at a fraction of the price. Having been injected with opiates in a hospital, I can personally attest to the fact that they conquer any and all problems. Except how to get more. There is no social, physical, or mental difficulty that opiates can’t make disappear short term. The dwindling availability of mental health and social support systems has created a perfect storm for a huge increase in heroin addiction.

We can’t undo what George W. Bush has wrought. The Taliban, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda all participate in flooding the “decadent West” with opiates in order to fund their terrorist ambitions. But we can stop being stupid about this growing crisis and begin effective actions. The problem has medical, social, and economic components and all three must be addressed, but I’ll leave the medical and social for another time. Suffice it to say that our growing knowledge about addiction should drive our actions rather than repeating the failures of the past. The easiest and cheapest way to start addressing the problem is to start with the economics of drug use, so I’d like to focus on that.

If we pay attention to history, then we know that it is impossible to prevent poor people from growing plants like poppies, coca, or marijuana. These plants can grow wild without human help and they are a ready source of cash for those who are desperate to feed their families. And as long as there is poverty as well as amoral middle men, and corrupt government officials, the drug trade will flourish. As Prohibition and the increased legal tolerance for pot have both proved, government management of intoxicating substances works better than government suppression. It is more cost effective and taxes can be used for treatment programs. The huge decrease in U.S. smoking rates and related health risks are proof that control, taxation, and education / treatment programs work well.

The Afghan farmers will never stop growing poppies. So the U.S. government should become their single buyer. Even if we just bought the poppies and burned them, it would be more effective than interdiction. However, this approach has been tried and it doesn’t work as well as one might suppose. The middle men, who are not farmers, do not give up their drug related incomes without a fight. Their livelihoods must be taken into consideration as well. I propose having the Australians build poppy processing facilities in Afghanistan. Why Australia? Because they are the world’s leading producer of codeine. And codeine, a powerful and potent cough suppresent, is one product of the poppy plant.

The infrastructure, jobs, and stability these manufacturing facilities would bring the country could go a long ways toward defanging Islamic extremists. Without their drug income they will face significant reduction in operational capabilities. The production of codeine, morphine, and medical grade heroin could provide an economic base for the country that might even lead them out of the 9th century. So what would the US do with all of these opiate pain meds? We can simply stockpile them like we do with cheese. When a disaster hits, or a war erupts, we can use the stockpiles to relieve the pain of the injured and wounded. Of course there will be abuses. And big pharma will hate the idea of the government having large amounts of cheap pain meds at its disposal. But those problems are nothing compared to what’s happening now.

Bringing the Afghan opiate trade under government control is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to bring heroin addiction rates down. It’s simple economics. Controlling the supply at the source will drive street prices up making illegal heroin less attractive. Sales of medical grade heroin (which is cheaper and more effective than most synthetic versions) to hospitals, could be used to fund treatment programs which will drive down demand. Currently, in Chicago for example, there is a five month waiting list for heroin addiction treatment programs. And Illinois’ financial woes guarantee the wait period will get longer.

This approach is far more rational than what we are doing now, which means it probably won’t happen. A majority of Americans seem prefer fiction to facts. Otherwise we wouldn’t have reelected Bush. How many lives have to be ruined by heroin before we take rational science-based action? One thing is for sure—George W. Bush will neither acknowledge nor care about the consequences of his feckless foreign policy decisions. Otherwise, he’d either speak to veterans for free or donate the money to drug treatment programs. Compassionate conservative indeed.