Drug testing for welfare and the “War on the Poor”

by Davey Heller, 21st March 2017

When the same polices are implemented by bourgeois governments in country after country, it demonstrates that they are not the result of subjective decisions but the result of objective class forces. For example, the international move towards anti-immigrant polices is bound up with the needs of the ruling class under the conditions of capitalist crisis; it serves to divide the working class, provides a domestic scapegoat and justifies eviscerating the rule of law.

Similarly, the so called “War on Drugs” and Prohibition serve objective class forces. This latest Australian proposal to drug test welfare recipients, is one example of how this “war” reveals itself as a “war on the poor”.

The modern day Workhouse

Firstly, it is a method to further social control over the working class. People who repeatedly test positive will be forced onto the cashless “Basics” cards. First introduced in Aboriginal communities based on the demonisation of Aboriginal people as drug abusers and sexual predators, it will inevitably be extended to all welfare recipients. These cards are the electronicBasicsCard version of the “Workhouse” whereby the working class are characterised as “undeserving” and must be controlled due to their “dissolute” ways. If this measure is introduced it will also only be the beginning of increased mandatory drug testing in the workplace and for the working class to receive other government benefits. The fact the tests will only be targeting meth-amphetamines, cannabis and ectasy shows they are designed to particularly target and control young working class people.

International Context: a justification for domestic repression

Michael Siaron killed in Manilla in 2016

Globally, prohibition provides the justification for domestic repression in the form of militarised police and repressive laws targeting the working class. The WSWS stated that in the Philipines “The real purpose of the war on drugs is to establish a vast police-state apparatus that will be used to suppress social opposition from workers and the poor. It is no accident that the vast majority of the victims of the war on drugs come from the poorest layers of society.” In the Philippines killings of suspected drug users by police and vigilantes has reached an almost industrial level, exceeding seven thousand in the first six months of President Duarte’s Presidency.

Over thirty countries impose the death penalty for drug offences, executing hundreds each year. Millions are incarcerated in modern day gulags often in privatised prisons. In the U.S. alone by 2010 drug offenders in Federal prisons had increased to five hundred thousand a year.

The so-called “War on Drugs” impacts on the poor disproportionately undeniably. In 2014 the U.S based the income of incarcerated people prior to their imprisonment was 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. In the U.S. sentences for crack cocaine possession, which is overwhelming used by poorer drug users, were on average eighteen times longer than possession for cocaine in its powered form.

The recent Australian budget proposals therefore fit a much broader pattern of using Prohibition to repress the working class. In fact the politician who first declared the “War on Drugs” was none other than Richard Nixon. His disgraced former advisor, John Erlichman, told a reporter in 1994 what the real class agenda of the policy was,

war-on-drugs-nixon_0We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

International context: a justification for military intrigues and militarised borders

The War on Drugs for the United States and other capitalist countries however has been useful for more than domestic repression. Bill Van Auken wrote on the WSWS that “the “war on drugs,” like the “war on terrorism,” is a façade behind which are concealed strategic aims of US imperialism, which seeks to exert its hegemony over resource-rich regions of the globe by military means.” In 2016, three of the top five sources of oil for the United States were Venezuala, Mexico and Columbia. The United States has funnelled billions in weapons to the militaries of both Mexico and Columbia under the banner of the Drug War with bloody results in both countries. The Mexican “Drug War” in 2016 killed more people than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was second only to the Syrian Civil War in its death toll.

In addition to military interventions, Prohibition has been used by the United States and other countries to justify militarising their borders and criminalising immigration. Donald Trump railed during his campaign We are getting the drugs, they’re getting the cash. We need strong borders. We cannot give amnesty.” Miles Niemieth on the WSWS explained that “Gang activity in the United States, including drug and sex trafficking, has been used as a justification for the broad expansion of the powers of ICE agents over the last decade, bloating the size of the police apparatus responsible for arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants.”

drugmelbourne-960x540The Australian ruling class has likewise utilised Prohibition to build up its reactionary “Border Force” framework which has led to the imprisonment and persecution of asylum seekers. It has also justified deepening its security relationships through the Australia Federal Police and military with the geopolitically significant countries such as Indonesia and Singapore. It has led to tragic outcomes such as the execution of two members of the “Bali Nine” in 2015.

International context: The profit motive.

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull has claimed that the proposed drug testing of welfare recipients is “doing them a favour” and even more ludicrously a policy based on “love”. However nnothing the ruling class says about Prohibition can be taken on face value. Prohibition of some drugs is justified supposedly on the social harm they cause whilst the unquestionably deadly impacts of alcohol and tobacco does not stop corporations making billions out of their legal sale. Heroin is prohibited whilst profitable legal opiates are a leading cause of overdoses.

Illegal drugs are declared public enemy number one whilst governments ignore the billions of dollars of laundered drug money flowing to the banks. The U.S. arm of HSBC alone received money_laundering_high_res.2e16d0ba.fill-1600x900billions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels. The head of the UN office on Drugs and Crime stated in 2009 that the only thing that kept some banks afloat in the aftermath of the GFC wasthe hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money flowing back into the banking system.

A principled Marxist opposition to Prohibition

Whilst the proposed drug testing of welfare recipients is part of a broader austerity agenda, it should also be opposed by Marxists as part of a principled rejection of the entire reactionary framework of Prohibition and the “War on Drugs”. The social right of the working class to make informed choices about what drugs they consume to alter their consciousness should be defended. Anything less provides ideological cover to reactionary and punitive polices such as this welfare proposal. The international socialist movement of the working class must work rigorously to expose the class interests that this bogus “war” serves and to refute that it is anyway related to the protection of people’s wellbeing.

None of this is to deny the social and health harms that drugs can cause. Supporting legal alcohol consumption for example, does not mean the denial of problems caused by alcohol or that alcohol abuse is associated with social deprivation. The same principle can be applied to any drug.

It is also not to deny that capitalism creates the social despair and hopelessness that is associated with many people’s drug use. The rampant drug use in impoverished communities around the world is testament to this fact. It follows logically that many people would not choose to alter their consciousness with drugs if they lived more fulfilled healthy lives than capitalism offers them.

However people who are driven to drugs by capitalism are currently twice victimised, first by the social conditions that drive them to drugs and then by the repression and deadly consequences of Prohibition. These consequences cannot be ignored as a side political issue.

It is also worth noting that not all drug use is abuse. Many people consume alcohol, cannabis, ectasy and other drugs will no broader ill effects on their lives.Having one glass of red wine does not make an alcoholic. It cannot therefore be assumed that after the overturn of capitalist property relations through socialist revolution that people will or should stop taking drugs for recreational or other personal reasons.

Adopting a clear and unambigious opposition to Prohibition from a Marxist perspective allows for a complete rejection of policies such as the proposed drug testing of welfare recipients. As stated at the beginning of my article, the fact that punitive “War on Drugs” policies are adopted by so many bourgeois governments demonstrates they serve objective class interests. It is obvious to any fair minded observer that decades of “anti-drug” policies have not lessened legal or illegal use but only caused immense amounts of misery and death. Drug testing of welfare recipients can only worsen the living conditions of young unemployed people. This will not be a “failure” of the policies but rather their intended purpose as part of the capitalist states real undeclared “War on the Working Class”.

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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