Howard Zinn Ignored the Drug War

Brian Quass
3 min readApr 18

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a philosophical review of “A People’s History of the United States”

American authors are in denial about the War on Drugs. If anyone doubts this, they should check out the populist classic by historian Howard Zinn entitled “A People’s History of the United States.” If any book might be expected to pan the War on Drugs, it should be this one, since that anti-scientific campaign against psychoactive medicine has militarized police forces around the world, caused civil wars in Latin America, destroyed the rule of law in Mexico, and killed and disenfranchised so many American blacks that racist fascists are now able to win presidential elections in the United States. And yet Howard Zinn, that dauntless unmasker of systemic wrongs, has absolutely nothing to say about the Drug War. Not a thing. True, he mentions “drugs” a handful of times in his lengthy tome, but only in a way which implies that the author shares the mendacious prejudices of our times according to which “drugs” are substances which have no valid uses for anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason, ever.

He writes of inner-city violence, of course, but only to link it to uncaring politicians who withhold money for social problems while beefing up the military to dangerous and unwieldy levels. This is all true, of course, but he misses the main point when it comes to inner-city violence: namely that it was first introduced into the ‘hood by substance prohibition which gave massive financial incentives for the poor to start selling desired substances. Of course, the drug gangs thus created soon had to arm themselves to the teeth against both the police and their own inner-city turf rivals. That’s why, as Heather Ann Thompson wrote in The Atlantic in 2014:

“Without the War on Drugs, the level of gun violence that plagues so many poor inner-city neighborhoods today simply would not exist.”

And yet the Drug War is off the radar of Howard Zinn. Like Lisa Ling, who produced an hour-long documentary on Chicago gun violence without even mentioning the War on Drugs, Howard seems to think that city violence arose ex nihilo as a kind of passive-aggressive response to bad social policy in general, when the real villains of the piece were the huge financial incentives provided by substance prohibition.

I might have expected such blindness from other authors.

Science writers, for instance, have been ignoring the Drug War for many years now, giving us the latest materialist advice on fighting depression, anxiety and PTSD, but never pointing out the inconvenient truth (even via a footnoted disclaimer) that the government has outlawed almost all the psychoactive medicine with which one might have easily triumphed over these conditions in the past, or at least rendered their symptoms far less pernicious. In academia, in fact, it’s commonplace to completely ignore the possibility that drugs can have good uses. Nor is the historian in a hurry to tell kids that Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of opium or that Thomas Jefferson grew poppies on his estate — or that he rolled over in his grave the day that the DEA stomped onto Monticello and confiscated those plants in violation of the natural law upon which Jefferson had founded America.

But Howard Zinn has no excuse for ignoring the Drug War. The fact that he does so makes me wonder if he ever bothered to read his own book. His entire thesis, after all, is that rich power brokers will go to great lengths to keep the lower classes fighting amongst themselves for what he calls the “leftovers” of exploitative capitalism. In chapter 23, for instance, he quotes HL Mencken as saying:

The whole aim of popular politics is to keep the public alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

Surely “drugs” is the hobgoblin par excellence of American politics, and Howard, of all writers, should have recognized that fact.

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Brian Quass

Founder of AbolishTheDEA.com, whose life purpose is to expose the philosophical absurdity of America's unprecedented war on substances