The world is full of boycotts. Animal rights activists are boycotting everything from mink coats to veal and foie gras. The Palestinians and their allies are boycotting goods made in Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in the Golan Heights. Workers’ rights activists are boycotting clothes made in sweatshops. Human rights activists are boycotting whole countries — and the United States of America is boycotting Cuba. When I was a kid we boycotted table grapes from California to support Cesar Chavez and the agricultural workers in California; closer to home, we boycotted racially segregated movie theaters, restaurants and swimming pools.Boycotts can be profoundly meaningful and morally compelling; they can also be pointless and trivial. But there is one boycott I wish would catch on among Hollywood actors, college activists and idealists of all ages: a boycott of the international industry in illegal drugs.There is no commercial product widely consumed in the United States whose production, sale and distribution does more harm than the illegal drug industry. I am not referring to the harm that drug users do to themselves, or even the harm that the drug dependencies that so often grow from the use of illegal drugs do to the family and friends of the drug user.
Afghans sit beside a poppy field, watching an ISAF patrol, in the Tora Bora region.
I am referring to the social devastation that the illegal drug industry does in countries like Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan. I am talking about the consequences of putting money into the hands of murderers and thugs whose greed and unscrupulous behavior makes your standard multinational oil company look like Mother Teresa. I am talking about the violence and the culture of violence that wreaks such terrible havoc in urban areas all around the world.In the first six months of 2010, drug violence in Mexico is believed to have accounted for more than 5,200 deaths. That is more deaths than all the US combat deaths in nine years of war in Afghanistan. Since 2008, drug violence in Mexico seems to have led to more than 15,000 deaths, and the pace is picking up. The Mexican government estimates that “more than 28,000 died in drug trafficking related-violence between December 2006 and July 2010.” This is, literally, a war, and not a small one — and the consumers of illegal drugs in the United States bear direct moral responsibility for the carnage down south.And the blood is only part of the cost. The corruption that the illegal drug trade causes erodes the credibility and capability of government in dozens of countries today. Police, civil servants, politicians: too many yield to overwhelming temptations. Politics becomes coarse and cynical; the ideal of justice recedes. The state loses the will and the ability to protect the poor and promote the common good.Why would any good and decent person want to have anything to do with the world’s most horrible industry? What kind of high is worth the misery, death and ruin that comes from the global drug trade?By rights, the movement to boycott the narco-trafficking industry should be everywhere. College student groups should be going from dorm to dorm circulating boycott pledge sign-up sheets. Their faculties should be holding teach-ins. Hollywood actors should be making public service announcements; recording artists should be giving boycott benefit concerts and putting out boycott albums and songs. Liberal clergy should be thundering against this social evil from the pulpit; those who use illegal drugs should feel shamed and embarrassed — not because drug use itself is necessarily or always immoral in itself, but because the support of this industry unquestionably is.As with all boycotts, definitions get a little tricky. If someone grows pot and smokes it, he or she may be breaking the law and doing something I personally (on the basis of regrettable experience, I hasten to confess) think is a mistake, but this is not the same thing as cooperating with mass murder. I leave the exact shape of the boycott to those better versed than I am in the intricacies of the drug world, but drugs like heroin and cocaine would clearly come under the ban — as, I think, would drugs like crystal meth, which though often manufactured in this country, is done so under unsafe conditions and is generally distributed by the same kind of syndicates that handle cocaine.However we parse the definitions and the distinctions, collaborating with narco-trafficking is morally unacceptable; we need to make it socially unacceptable as well.Boycotts don’t usually work overnight, and this one won’t either. Many of those into heroin and cocaine are so lost to good sense that naming and shaming won’t be a deterrent. When you have lost your job, your home, your friends and your self-respect over a drug addiction, you are unlikely to change your behavior to avoid social disapprobation. But there are plenty of casual drug users who would feel uncomfortable if called out on a practice that people they admire condemn on moral grounds, and relatively small changes in demand can have a big impact on the bottom lines of the drug lords.The drug industry benefits enormously from the perception among young people and others that ‘high is hip’. This is a vulnerability. If more people saw indulgence in illegal drugs for the socially devastating blight that it is, drug use would become less fashionable, less tolerated and, I think, in many circles much less pervasive.There is probably nothing that the average young person could do that would make a bigger positive difference in the world than to fight the illegal drug industry out of solidarity with the Third World victims of the violence. And on the other side of the ledger, it’s hard to think of any good that a Hollywood actor’s political activism can accomplish that would outweigh the harm of making people think that drug use is OK and that artists and famous, fashionable people do it all the time. When prominent sports figures get involved with drugs, they pay a heavy career price: suspensions, fines, loss of endorsements. Maybe other celebrities should be held to the same standard. Fighting narco-traffickers is everybody’s business. Those whose money goes to support the illegal drug industry are supporting the oppression of the poor and the killing of the innocent. Many drug users probably don’t care, but some do. And many people considering the prospect of experimenting with drugs might well have second thoughts if public awareness grows that the use of narco-trafficked substances is anything but a victimless crime.Meanwhile the hypocrisy of those who take these drugs while posturing as moral heroes needs to be exposed. The college kid who supports the illegal drug industry while supporting ‘fair trade coffee’ or other chic causes du jour is as much of a hypocrite as the sleazy televangelist who preaches about chastity and gets down with cheap prostitutes in a no-tell motel. The actress who flaunts her concern for animal rights while contributing to the murder of children should be relentlessly mocked. The purpose of satire is to correct morals and manners by exposing the stupidity and absurdity of vice; Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart need to get on the case.
I am not sure what I think about drug legalization. It’s clear that what we are doing now gets us the worst of both worlds: we have high levels of drug use and dependency and the curse of an organized illegal drug industry. It is also clear that draconian drug laws condemn an unconscionable number of young people to long prison terms where in too many cases they are raped and brutalized in ways that cast serious doubt on our society’s commitment to basic legal and moral values. This is wrong, and it needs to change.On the other hand, legalization doesn’t always make things better. I note that Amsterdam is getting ready to tighten the noose around its pot coffeehouses even as California voters weigh the pros and cons of legalizing locoweed.It is never easy to draw the line in the right places when it comes to vice and indulgence that have social as well as individual consequences. Draconian laws that punish everything are as destructive as the evils they seek to combat. The only real answer is both boring and utopian: temperance. If nobody took too many drugs, society wouldn’t have a drug problem, and drug laws could be lax. But not everybody is capable of this kind of prudent restraint, and legislators have to try to muck around with trying to regulate dangerous social problems in the least harmful and restrictive way.Defining the best legal approach to drug issues is a complicated problem. Thoughtful people of good will can disagree. But the question of what to do about these drugs on a personal level is more simple. As long as the drug industry is wreaking this kind of havoc, thoughtful and moral people should boycott the whole vicious mess.