The war on drugs is a tool for class apartheid

Originally published in Dhaka Tribune.

Bangladesh’s zero tolerance campaign against narcotics has stirred up a lot controversy around the abuse of power by the police, the RAB, and the government. Social media is buzzing with condemnation of alleged entrapments and killings of political and business rivals of the powerful.

Writers and critics have also expressed concern over the hypocritical nature of the campaign, claiming that it is sparing the politically influential and cracking down on the powerless. While most of these critiques hold merit, they still miss a very central problem of the war on drugs: Even when it’s done correctly, it doesn’t work.

In the United States, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, and since then the country has spent $1 trillion on this project. But after almost five decades of violence within the US and overseas, illicit drug addiction rate line has remained relatively steady at about 1.3% while drug control spending has skyrocketed to around $41bn per year.

The war on drugs model was copied by various Asian countries with similar results. In the Philippines alone, more than 12,000 people accused of using or dealing drugs have been killed over the last two years. Thailand has killed 2,800 people since 2003, Singapore had killed 408 people between 1991 and 2000, and Malaysia has killed 479 people since 1996.

However, evidence suggests that these state executions didn’t deter drug use or crimes anywhere. The prime example of this is Indonesia, where the number of addicts increased from 3.6 million in 2011 to 5.9 million in 2015 according to the government itself. There is mounting evidence that executions have failed as an anti-drug strategy and many Asian governments have begun to retreat from them.

But just when countries around the world have realized that the war on drugs is an ineffective policy, why did the Bangladesh government decide to pick it up?

It is hard for me to believe that the government doesn’t have anyone in its erudite advisory group. What I presume is that the party has still decided to go forward with this plan because of the short-term political benefits rather than long time social benefits.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the war on drugs remains a powerful political trope all around the world. Rulers, especially those who tout a strongman image, use anti-drug rhetoric to sell a tough-on-crime stance. Despite the enormous death toll to date in the Philippines, data from Manila-based think-tank ADR institute found that seven to eight out of 10 of Filipinos continue to support Duterte’s drug war. Judging by the torrent of applause for the “rightful” killings, the popularity rate for the executions could be similar in Bangladesh.

But who are these rightfully executed people?

If we take a deeper look at the news reports of the deaths by crossfire, especially at the deaths that are represented by numbers and not names, a prominent trend emerges. Slums, borderlands, refugee camps, and remote villages pop up again and again as the spots of these shootouts and the victims seem to belong to the same social strata of our society: The lowest one.

These are people to whom the state has been reduced to a performance. Their only access to citizenship is the performance of votes. Most don’t get access to any health care, education, or infrastructure.

Many are environmental migrants who have lost everything to river erosion, many have been victims of ethnic cleansing who have had to forsake their homeland, many are doubly stateless who have been denied structures of citizenship by both Bangladesh and Pakistan. Many of them are legally barred from entering honest trades in the country and most of them are structurally barred from a life of solvency.

To most of them, the only way to break out of their poverty is to operate outside of the law. Therefore, killing a bunch of them would not necessarily stop the others from joining the trade, because there is an endless supply of structurally deprived humans in Bangladesh who are ready to meet the needs of those who are dependent on drugs. So long as drugs are demanded and the state fails to exist for the stateless, the supply of desperate drug traffickers would never deplete.

I say this not to mean that the crimes these people commit should go unpunished. I say this with the hope that those in our country who believe that these drug dealers don’t deserve to be treated humanely would see the human story of those who live in inhumane conditions and understand how they resort to illegal activities to get access to basic amenities, like clean running water, three hot meals a day, and a house that wouldn’t flood during the monsoon, that most of us take for granted.

These people deserve their day in court and the court should decide whether or not some exceptions to the law may be applied based on the circumstances of the criminal. After all, that is why we have a judicial branch outside of the legislative and executive. Also, skipping the judiciary and directly implementing the laws through the executive’s strong arm doesn’t simply deny justice for the accused — it also erodes the rule of law in the republic.

State executions, even when they are inflicted upon nameless humans who allegedly operate outside of the law, are ineffective, inhumane, unlawful, and unjust.

Killing the structurally deprived without addressing the unjust structures that force them into crime would not win us the war on drugs — it would only cleanse the market of the few slumlords who had risen to solvency through the trade of drugs and hand an oligopoly market to the politically influential. If the government is really willing to solve the drug crisis, it has to invest in infrastructure, education, and public health so that those who are addicted can be cured, and those who are involved can switch to better trades.

These measures may not be as flashy as the death counts for the purposes of election manifestos, but they are the only way to eventually improve the conditions of our drug epidemic.

Anupam Debashis Roy is a student of International Affairs and Economics at Howard University.

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