With remembrances of 9/11 commemorations still ringing in their ears, denizens of New York City's Times Square had something new to gawk at this week. Beginning Tuesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) brought its traveling exhibition, "Target America: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists, and You," (http://www.targetamerica.org) to town. Taking up three floors of rented space, the exhibit attempts to draw a link between drug use, drug trafficking and terrorism. It is a controversial theme, but a favorite of drug warriors in recent years, as evidenced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy's widely-ridiculed Superbowl 2003 "smoke a joint, aid terrorists" ad campaign.
In a DEA press release, Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the exhibit deserved praise for showing how drug use, production and trafficking hurt children and damage the body and brain. "Helping the public understand these consequences is key to preventing drug abuse," Volkow said.
But it is the drug-terror link that is the central theme of the exhibit. In one kiosk, visitors can follow the flow of cocaine and heroin out of Colombia and Afghanistan and the flow of dollars back to rebel or terrorist groups. "The money spent on illegal drugs helps fund terrorists who spread violence, corruption and addiction throughout the world, said ONDCP head John Walters. "We hope illustrating how the drug trade devastates our communities, more Americans will get active and help stop it."
As we shall see below, the proposition that "drugs fund terror" is debatable. But the exhibit goes even further out on the limb by attempting to link the drug trade to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The exhibit features a large display of debris from the attack sites, but does not attempt to make a direct link between the attacks and the drug trade. Instead it uses the ruins to suggest that terrorists could use illegal drug profits as one method of funding more attacks.
The exhibit also features lots of neat-o law enforcement memorabilia, including an actual cocaine lab from Colombia, a Stinger missile launcher, photos of arrested "drug kingpins," opium tax receipts from the Taliban, and Ecstasy pills. But wait, there's more! On the second floor, visitors are treated to a replica or a crack den, replete with guns and dirty diapers, as well as photos of children taken from homes where methamphetamine was being cooked.
While DEA officials praised their traveling museum, reaction elsewhere was decidedly less enthusiastic.
"I thought it was a pretty callous and appalling thing to do bring that exhibit here now," said Patricia Perry, whose son John, a New York City police officer and civil liberties advocate, died in the 9/11 attacks. "This is like a last gasp from people who know full well that that it is our failed drug policy that creates those huge black market profits, not some kid smoking pot," she told DRCNet.
"There is so much wrong with our drug policy," she said, taking a few minutes from preparations for a Saturday ceremony to rename a local street in honor of her son. "From creating those windfall profits to penalizing some kid for using the wrong substance, my son believed this war on drugs was wrong, and so do I," she said. That belief led her to take a leading role in the John W. Perry Fund (http://www.raiseyourvoice.com/perryfund/), a scholarship fund (sponsored by DRCNet Foundation, the publisher of this newsletter) providing financial assistance to college students who have lost financial aid eligibility under the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision because they have been arrested on drug charges, no matter how minor. "Like the drug war itself, this exhibition is a terrible farce," Perry said.
"Of course, there is no way to accurately measure where marijuana comes from because it is an illegal market, but according to government figures, the vast majority of marijuana smoked here is grown here, and the largest importers to the US are Mexico and Canada, neither of which are hotbeds of terrorist activity," said Kris Krane, associate director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org). "It is clear that what the drug czar is trying to do is take a failed, unpopular government program -- the war on drugs -- and try to tie it to a new, more popular government program -- the war on terror," Krane told DRCNet.
Krane took particular umbrage at the exhibit's attempt to link 9/11 and the drug trade. "To present pieces of the World Trade Center as part of this exhibit is horribly manipulative," he said. "The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with drugs. The exhibit has pictures of Bin Laden and implies he might have gotten some money from the drug trade, but there is no link presented. That is shameful."
"I saw the exhibit here in Washington," agreed Krissy Oechslin, assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "It's really vile. It is so obvious that it is the war on drugs that funds terrorism, not drug users or drugs themselves. But you don't have to be involved with drug policy reform to be upset with this. That they would bring this exhibit to New York City right around the anniversary of 9/11 is really sick," she told DRCNet.
This is not a new issue for MPP, which responded to ONDCP's Superbowl "drugs = terrorism" ads by running its own TV ads parodying the originals. MPP has also produced its own online exhibition demonstrating how the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other drug warriors terrorize and kill US citizens. "It features Esequiel Hernandez, the Texas youth killed by drug busters as he watched his flock near his home, and Ronnie Bowers, the American missionary who was killed along with her infant child when Peruvian pilots working with the CIA blew her plane out the sky," said Oechslin. "But it's not a big exhibit because we didn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to spend on it like the DEA did with theirs."
According to the DEA, the traveling exhibition cost $1.5 million, half of which was raised from private donors.
The MPP online exhibition (http://www.mpp.org/targetamerica/) may be small, but it gets its point across: "The DEA and the White House want the public to believe that drugs are inherently connected with terrorism, and that anyone who uses illegal drugs supports terrorists," the exhibit notes. "In fact, it is the 'War on Drugs' that promotes terrorism, and the DEA and its law enforcement allies regularly commit terrorist acts: They take medicine from the seriously ill, jail their caregivers, and murder innocent, unarmed people with no evidence and no trial."
But it's not just the pot people or people who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks who are criticizing the exhibition.
"This is just another example of the tendency of drug warriors to miss the point entirely," said Ted Galen Carpenter, author of "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America" and vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute (http://www.cato.org) in Washington, DC. "They create a system of prohibition that generates enormous black market profits, then are shocked, shocked that terrorist organizations exploit that to put money in their coffers. But it is absolutely predictable and inevitable," he told DRCNet. "Terrorists tap into anything that is highly profitable to fill their coffers, and there are few things more profitable than illegal drugs. If they ended prohibition, the profits would shrink dramatically, but that's far too obvious for John Walters or anyone else involved in the drug war."
In the case of Afghanistan, where the US most directly confronts Al Qaeda and where political actors on all sides are benefiting from opium profits, the exhibit is especially misleading, said Carpenter. "Virtually every significant political faction is involved in the drug trade," he said. "Roughly six percent of Afghan families are directly involved in growing poppies, and if you think about the extended family and clan structures there, maybe one-quarter of the population is directly or indirectly involved," Carpenter noted. "Afghan farmers see opium as the difference between destitution and approaching prosperity, but we are supposed to be stunned that they would do that."
Fighting the war on terror by fighting the war on drugs is bass-ackward, Carpenter said. "Walters says he wants to go after the Afghan opium growers, but if we do that we will push them right into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Carpenter. "A useful parallel here is the Shining Path in Peru. The government there made no progress against the Shining Path until it decided to look the other way and ignore coca growing. The same choice is emerging in Afghanistan. You can have your war on terror or you can have your war on drugs, but you absolutely cannot have both and think you will be successful."