Drugs and Community Control

There is an excellent article over on the We Are All Hana Shalbi blog, by Alice Holt, a Glasgow Palestinian Activist and Drug Researcher on her findings in Silwan earlier in the year.  In addition to criminalising the community for resisting the takeover of their land, destroying their homes and arresting their children, Israelis are now managing the drugs trade within the community.

Such a tactic certainly isnt new.  Ask any heroin addict over 40 about the time when heroin first entered their community and they will be able to give you a year and a season.  Usually coupled with a dry-up of cannabis availability, suddenly heroin, previously an exotic and taboo drug would gain a grip on a generation.  Liverpool was a particular heroin hotspot, and people there well remember when it arrived – just after the 1981 riot in a time of rising tensions between the city and the Thatcher government. An attempt made by a doctor to end the epidemic that was gripping the city in 1989 to revive the “British System” of giving pharmacological heroin to users was shut down in 1994 despite a significant improvement in the health of addicts, no deaths and a 93% reduction in drug related crime.

In the US too, there have been orchestrated attempts to introduce addictive substances into impoverished and marginalised populations.  The introduction of hard liqor into Native American communities familiar only with ritualised alcohol consumption and the role of the CIA in orchestrating the flooding of crack cocaine into Black American communities at the same time as the heroin blight was hitting the UK.  In Greece, a country which is seeing major social unrest and upheaval, extensive hard drug use is seen on the streets, with crystal meth being used openly by drug users who are pushed by the police to the tip of the radical neighbourhood of Exarchia.

In Palestine, the occupation clearly gives a new element to this. The extensive security measures that Palestinians are subjected to ensures that no drugs could get through without the nod from the Israeli authorities, and indeed as Alice explains it is Israelis who control the supply into Palestine, and oversee the distribution, ignoring dealing to Palestinians, yet coming down hard on anyone who deals to Israelis or seeks to operate outwith their control.  In a country with few opportunities,high levels of poverty and ongoing violence, the escapism of drugs – be that in their use, or in their trade – belies a deeper structural violence that Israel is inflicting.

As a severe nicotine addict with a moderate caffine habit and a reasonable liking for alcohol it is hypocritical for me to condemn the use of drugs.  My nicotine habit has cost the lives of many fluffy bunnies, contributed to land colonisation to grow unproductive, if profitable, crops and contributed to the lung cancer of more passive smokers than I care to think about, but it is worth looking at the issue of drug use within our own communities and evaluating such use politically.

Much of the political literature on the left focuses around harm reduction: needle exchanges, the legalisation of drug use, the ability to get substances tested safely and to obtain high quality care for those affected by negative impacts.  All this is well and good, and I wouldnt disagree with any of it, however when looking at drug use politically we need to start where we are, with our own drug use and its impact on our own communities, especially radical ones.

Many drawn to radical politics arrive there from a conclusion that the world is fucked up.  The whole way that it is organised is exploitative and that they are on the receiving end of exploitation. As well as challenging large scale exploitative initiatives we need to also need to look at our own behaviour, where we are being exploited and refuse to be exploited in such a manner, and also where we are contributing to the exploitation of others, and refuse to participate.

When it comes to drug use, the un-conformism associated with radical communities means that drug taking is not seen as the demon that it would be within some other communities. Yet drugs, particularly addictive ones – physically or psychologically are means of social control.  While their use may engender feelings of liberation, the means of aquiring them keeps people well tied in to established systems, whether than be supply routes under the control of the CIA, such as in Columbia or sticking with a hated job to afford the pills for the weekend blow out.  There is evidence that in Occupy Minnesota police offered drugs to activists, while there was much talk in the early 90s when heroin invaded the rave culture as the come-down drug of choice that it was an active attempt to shut down the scene which was associated with radical political critique.

Towards a Less Fucked Up World” explores how women are less safe within spaces with intoxicated individuals and consequently avoid them, how it is exclusive to addicts in recovery, or children, noting how the Zapatistas have banned alchol within their communities at the request of their female members.  It also highlights how people who are coming to see how fucked up the world is use it as an escapist mechanism for dealing with that and to numb themselves from the pain, rather than acknowledging its existence and using it to spur on anger and resistance.  The presence of alcohol in a venue often limits the participation of those under the legal drinking age to social and cultural events tied to radical activity, excluding youth.  It also notes that…

There’s an incredible amount of baggage that goes along with the decision to get fucked up that activist communities, in my experience, rarely acknowledge.

While an individual may have a “right” to get fucked up, as an activist it is worth examining that decision as a political choice.  Drugs, including alcohol and tobacco contribute to much of the misery of indigenous communities.  Just as crofters were once shoved off their land so that it could be used for sheep farming, across the Middle East and South America land is taken up by growing drug-related crops of various forms, while American intervention in both is in no small measure related to the drugs trade.

Wasted Indeed points out the coersiveness involved in alcohol consumption – requiring that others clean up after you, to think on your behalf when you are too wasted to do so yourself and absorb the stress of alcohol induced poor behaviour, including unacceptable sexual behaviour which emerges as inhibitions are lowered. The Straight Edge movement, like the Temperance Movement before it – which also had strong connections to the feminist and radical currents of its day – is seen as moralising and uptight, yet as an Anti-FA activist writes it is not a moral position, but a pragmatic exploration of the role of drugs in our culture – both mainstream and radical, and our role in perpetuating the social control that drugs engender through our consumption of them and participation in drug using subcultures.

Drug use is problematic for inclusiveness.  The young are excluded from venues which serve alcohol, religious minorities  wish also to avoid such spaces and being in the company of intoxicated individuals, women are less safe in the presence intoxicated individuals and consequently may avoid such situations, people recovering from substance addiction are uncomfortable being around those still using.  Moreover it is a problem for activism – no good activism was ever done drunk no matter how funny that lop-sided flyposter may look in the morning.  When drug use becomes endemic within a radical community, its effectiveness is lessened.

Yes, the drug laws are fucked up and we need to protect those who use drugs, while condemning those who exploit others misery and enslavement through creating or maintaining demand for them.  But activists of all people should be aware that drugs are a weapon, and if you are going to fight the class war, its best not to shoot yourself in the foot.  Poverty and social despair are just around the corner as the austerity measures kick in.  More and more people are going to see through the system and see how shit it is.  They have a choice of blurring their vision or fighting back, we need them onside and ready to fight with us, not getting wrecked as a means to hide from the misery  …and we need to examine our own radical culture to ensure that we lead by example.

When a slave was drunk, the slaveholder had no fear that he would plan an insurrection; no fear that he would escape to the North. It was the sober, thinking slave who was dangerous, and needed the vigilance of his master to keep him a slave.

Fredrick Douglass


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