6 ways the war on drugs negatively impacts your everyday life

US drug policy has unequivocally curtailed your basic civil rights, regardless of whether you're a user

Published June 18, 2015 7:00AM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1256674p1.html'>Jeremy Brinn</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Jeremy Brinn via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Many Americans who do not use illegal "drugs" assume exemption from drug war policies. But regardless of how much marijuana you do or don't smoke, the U.S. war on drugs affects nearly everyone. While some prohibition tactics are more obvious than others, the drug war has slyly pushed its way into many corners of American life. Be it at the post office, in the workspace, or behind the counter at Walgreens, the war on drugs has established a nagging presence in the everyday lives of Americans, even those who do not get high illegally. We can no longer come down with a cold, for example, without the medication we take to treat it being tracked and monitored by the government. A national database collects information on every person who buys cold medication containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.

Whether or not you are aware that the drug war is behind these creeping invasions, our drug policy has unequivocally curtailed basic civil rights and eviscerated the Fourth Amendment. And not coincidentally, many of the civil liberties erosions from the war on terror have their origin in the war on drugs. Here are six insidious and not so insidious ways the drug war invades and violates your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

1) The drug-testing dragnet ensnares millions of unsuspecting Americans each year.

Have you ever been drug-tested to get a job? Chances are, you have. Now, over 80 percent of employers drug-test their workers and workers to be. And, if illicit drugs show up in the urine, they don’t get the job. Or maybe the potential employee takes the opportunity to explain to his prospective employer why he's prescribed legal opiates like oxycodone and methadone or legal amphetamines like Adderall or medical marijuana. Now, the pre-employment pee test gives management unchecked power to discriminate against millions of workers based on their private health decisions. So long as employees are doing their jobs without issue, it’s none of an employer’s business which medications they’re taking and why.

Marijuana users are among the most vulnerable to failing drug tests because THC can be detected in the urine for up to a month. Alcohol and tobacco—two far more dangerous drugs than marijuana—are not subject to screening. And random, suspicionless drug testing is allowed in many workplaces. If you come up positive, it can be automatic grounds for discipline or termination, thanks to the Drug Free Workplace Act.

Plus, peeing in a cup is degrading. Some employees are forced to strip naked and are monitored while they urinate to ensure that they can’t switch and use another person's “clean” urine. To add insult to injury, drug test results aren’t reliable, and commonly used test kits have false positives that range from 10 to 30 percent. In the meantime, you’re out of a job.

Drug testing has also invaded high schools. The Supreme Court upheld the right of public high schools to randomly drug-test students. Those who test positive for drugs are not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities and are kicked off their sports teams.

The unemployed have become new targets for drug testing. Laws in about 20 states already deny the unemployed benefits if they were fired for using drugs. As if that weren’t discriminatory enough, there is a movement among conservatives to pass legislation to drug-test people claiming unemployment benefits. A “chemical McCarthyism” has been unleashed on those receiving welfare, job training assistance, food stamps and public housing.

2) Carded at Walgreens.

Pharmacies used to sell cold and allergy medicines that contained pseudoephedrine over the counter. You could just grab that Sudafed or Theraflu and go. But that changed as a result of the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which was incorporated into the Patriot Act. The Drug Enforcement Administration whipped up a panic around the use of methamphetamines. Since then, any preparation that contains pseudoephedrine, the main chemical used to make meth, is kept behind the counter. It’s sold in limited quantities and in order to purchase it the buyer must be 18 years old and show a photo ID.

The pharmacist enters the person’s name, address, product name, quantity sold and the date and time of the sale into the computer. The name and initials of the pharmacist are also recorded. All this metadata is sent to and stored by the DEA for at least two years. Federal, state, local and municipal law enforcement personnel have access to the information, too. Yes, not only is Big Brother monitoring your phone calls and emails, he’s tracking the medications you buy.

3) The DEA registration number.

All physicians, nurse practioners, dentists and veterinarians have one. It costs $731. The number allows the DEA to track prescriptions that are written for controlled substances, mostly narcotics. Every time a healthcare provider gives you a prescription for a controlled substance, the information goes into the DEA database. DEA agents, often working with state medical boards and the Department of Justice, have raided offices and arrested doctors who are charged with overprescribing, nontherapeutic prescribing, or diverting narcotics to street dealers.

This level of surveillance has had a chilling effect on the willingness of healthcare providers to prescribe narcotics to patients. Many doctors simply refuse to give these medications to patients out of fear of triggering a DEA investigation. DEA intimidation tactics and sting operations have resulted in more and more doctors rationing pain medication, ignoring pain and flat out refusing to prescribe these drugs or even to accept patients with pain problems in to their practice. One doctor posted a notice in his waiting room: DO NOT ASK ME TO REFILL PAIN MEDICATIONS.

People with chronic pain syndromes who need narcotics just to function have suffered as a result. Lene Grindrod, who has a diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome, takes oxycodone to live a normal life and without it, she is in debilitating pain. In desperation, she has traveled to three different states to see pain specialists. Some of the doctors Grindwod has seen have been disciplined for their prescribing practices and will no longer treat her out of "fear of reprisals.” In a degrading twist, the DEA requires chronic pain patients on narcotics to submit to drug testing to make sure their medications are being taken, not sold.In this case, clean, drug-free urine will trigger an investigation of doctor and patient by the DEA.

4) The DEA designation of marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

Drugs in the Schedule I category are defined as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. The designation of marijuana as an addictive drug with no medicinal properties has severely restricted research on the drug. This position is indefensible given the mountains of evidence showing that marijuana effectively treats nausea resulting from chemotherapy, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma, PTSD and Parkinson’s disease. Marijuana can also be an effective treatment for depression and other mood disorders.

Each of the 20 states (and the District of Columbia) that have legalized medical marijuana had to fight for years, as are the states of Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania that are currently trying to pass medical marijuana bills. Thousands of chronically and terminally ill patients have suffered needlessly because the DEA is hell-bent on blocking legal access to marijuana. In states where medical marijuana is legal, the DEA and the feds continue to raid marijuana dispensaries, and arrest patients and legal growers. If you live in a state that doesn’t have legal medical marijuana and you buy it to treat a medical condition, you’re a criminal. If caught, expect to spend time in jail and receive a criminal record.

5) Big Brother is checking your packages.

The Obama administration has demanded that the United Parcel Service and FedEx police customer’s packages. The DEA is investigating both companies for shipping illegal drugs for online pharmacies. A spokesperson for FedEx said, “At the heart of the investigation are sealed packages that are being sent by, as far as we can tell, licensed pharmacies. These are medicines with legal prescriptions written by licensed physicians. So it’s difficult for us to understand where we would have some role in this. We are a transportation company that picks up and delivers close to 10 million packages every day. They are sealed packages, so we have no way of knowing specifically what’s inside and we have no interest in violating the privacy rights of our customers.”

But will FedEx and UPS protect the privacy rights of their customers given the increasing power of the American surveillance state? If the past is any indication, it’s doubtful. Over the years, both companies have worked closely with the DEA, DOJ and the FBI. FedEx and UPS employees have opened “suspicious” packages and alerted authorities. DEA agents wearing FedEx uniforms and posing as workers have delivered packages and those who sign for delivery are arrested.

FedEx played a central role in Operation Green Air, a two-year sting and spy investigation to bust a mail-order marijuana operation that delivered pot from Mexico to major drug hubs in the United States. They seized 35,000 pounds of marijuana and arrested 100 people. Before 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, company executives testified at a congressional hearing and assured the government that they were happy to track and inspect packages for illegal drugs and other contraband. After the 9/11 attacks, the pressure to cooperate with federal authorities increased dramatically. FedEx allows government and customs officials access to its international database and they created a system to send reports of suspicious activities directly to the Department of Homeland Security via a special computer link.

FedEx and the DEA have even shared personnel. Robert A. Bryden, a former vice president of corporate security for FedEx was the chief of operations for the DEA.  The U.S. Postal Service also has an illegal drug detection program. DEA agents, postal inspectors, local police and National Guard divisions work together to bust drug courier operations.


Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the entire world now knows that the National Security Agency has vast, unchecked powers to collect information about millions of Americans’ phone calls, emails, browsing history and social media activities. The NSA has partnered with Microsoft, Verizon, Google, Skype and other companies to sweep up with no prior authorization, all manner of communication. A Reuter’s investigation revealed that the NSA has another partner in crime: the DEA. Their investigation found that the DEA is collaborating with the NSA via a clandestine unit within the DEA called the Special Operations Division (SOD). Partner agencies that comprise the unit include the FBI, CIA, NSA, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Information from domestic and foreign wiretaps, intelligence intercepts and informants are used in criminal investigations of Americans suspected of involvement in drug trafficking, even though the SOD was originally created to monitor Latin American drug cartels. The SOD was involved in Operation Synergy, a national synthetic drug sting that resulted in hundreds of arrests. It’s likely that the SOD has played a central role in thousands of drug trafficking cases. And the SOD has at its disposal DICE, a massive database that contains about one billion records.

The Reuters journalists discovered that DEA agents create fake investigation trails to disguise where information in drug case originated. They explained the impact of this deception, “If defendants don't know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence—information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.” Most drug-trafficking defendants plead guilty through plea-bargaining and so don’t demand to see the evidence against them to avoid the risk of losing a trial where draconian mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws routinely result in decades of incarceration with no chance of parole. It’s a win-win for the DEA with the exception of when cases did go to trial, then, according to the article, charges were sometimes dropped to avoid the risk of exposing SOD involvement.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called the DEA a “rogue” agency and commented, “It’s remarkable how little scrutiny the DEA faces from Congress or other federal overseers. With an annual budget of over $2 billion as well as significant discretionary powers, the DEA certainly merits a top-to-bottom review of its operations, expenditures and discretionary actions.”

The spy scandal has triggered a Department of Justice review of the SOD and eight Democratic U.S. senators and congressmen have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to answer questions about the Reuters report. A classified briefing is scheduled for next month, but the only outcome that can safeguard our civil rights is to shut down the Special Operations Division. 3

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