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Convicted drug dealers are political prisoners: I should know — I was one

Behind bars, I learned that drug prohibition will never work, and here’s why: no one gives a f*ck


Niko Vorobjov
December 5, 2015 9:59PM (UTC)

Having just completed a two-and-a-half year sentence for drug dealing, I have to say jail’s nothing like what you see in the movies. Hollywood has to add those rapes and stabbings and gang fights because if they didn’t, no-one would watch. If I had to sum up the reality of prison in a few words, I'd say it’s just really fucking boring and depressing. Every day you’d wake up to the same thing. You see the same people and talk about the same things. Your mind goes numb and you look for something, anything, to pass the time.

So when I wasn’t working out, jerking off or watching Fresh Prince reruns, I was reading. In general, I tried to find out as much as possible about the drug war and the reasons behind my incarceration. I figured that while I was here, I might as well become one of those prison intellectual types; the subversive scholar. I thought about imprisoned Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the civil rights movement in America — Malcom X and George Jackson. It was because of what they read and studied in prison that they became such influential figures in popular thinking. Obviously, I’m no Malcolm X. In fact, my story isn’t all that special. There are millions of us, from the incarceration nation of the United States to South Africa to the People’s Republic of China. But what we have in common is that we are all political prisoners.

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Now stay with me here. I’m not equating political prisoners with prisoners of conscience, those who are locked up merely for speaking out. All political prisoners are imprisoned for ‘real’ crimes. Nelson Mandela spent nearly three decades behind bars for trying to overthrow the white South African government. That wasn’t trumped-up; that’s literally what he was trying to do. So being a political prisoner doesn’t mean you haven’t committed a crime … it’s all about the context in which the crime was committed.

Even though most people walking through an airport with a condom full of white powder stuffed up their ass probably don’t realise it, drug trafficking is a political act, and has been from the start. In fact, the very first dealers in history were actually the British Empire, or more accurately, the East India Trading Company. When the Chinese emperor banned opium which the Brits were shipping over dirt-cheap from India, international smack kingpin Alexandrina “Queen” Victoria ordered the Royal Navy to bombard the shit out of China and capture Hong Kong. So began the Opium Wars.

You see, the “War on Drugs” is an ideology, so defying it is a political act. It is also a corrupt and hypocritical ideology which exists only to further the interests of politicians and ignores the advice of doctors and experts; you know, people who know what they are talking about. How is this different from other crimes, let’s say, murder? Firstly, illegal doesn’t mean immoral, and vice-versa. For example, hiding Jews and other persecuted individuals in Nazi-occupied Europe was highly illegal, but not immoral. Prohibition, on the other hand, is immoral but not illegal. Human beings have been getting high for literally millennia. Peruvian tribes were chewing coca leaf as far back as 8,000 years ago, while the ancient Greeks, not content with blessing us with democracy, philosophy and mathematics, gave us the Eleusinian Mysteries, the 300 B.C. equivalent of Burning Man.

Drugs weren’t originally made illegal because of concerns about public health. In the early 20th century we didn’t even know smoking was bad for you and tobacco firms actually ran slogans like “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Instead, in America, the driving force of anti-drug sentiment was straight-forward racism. Cocaine was supposed to give those deranged Southern negroes superhuman strength, while devious Chinamen were accused of plying innocent white girls with opium before having their way with them. Marijuana was outlawed a little later, being associated with Mexicans and rumors that it made them go loco. These Hispanics causing panic played into one of the biggest propaganda campaigns in American history, which claimed that lighting up will turn you into an axe-wielding maniac.

Other countries followed similar out-of-date ideas. The Australian Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 was just another way to get rid of Aborigines rights, while Britain forbid marijuana and opium only after pressure from Turkey and Egypt, largely Muslim societies who looked down on anything stronger than a cup of coffee.

When you consider that this whole movement has been horribly racist from the very start, it’s not surprising that despite evidence that they don’t use or sell drugs any more or less than whites, black people make up more than half of all drug arrests in America. It’s even more shocking once you consider that apartheid-era South Africa only imprisoned 853 out of every hundred thousand black men. In America it’s 4,919, versus 934 for whites. And while we like to think we’re above that sort of thing here in the U.K. and we don’t have the same problems with race relations as the Yanks, we’re just as bad. Black people are eleven times more likely to be thrown in jail for drugs offences than white people, and Asians three times. So without being so in-your-face about it, Britain and America have both managed to subtly outdo one of the most explicitly racist regimes in human history. Well done.

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The U.S. bullied all the other countries into signing the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. Then of course, in 1971, President Nixon gave his now-famous speech where he declared that “America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon’s problem was all the soldiers coming back from Vietnam addicted to smack, which he could now blame on the goddamn dirty hippies protesting the war. The U.K. followed suit, as we always do, with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The eighties came and Ronald Reagan cranked up the volume with the Anti-Drugs Abuse Act 1986, which gave out a mandatory minimum 5-year stretch with no parole for getting caught with just 5 grams of crack (as opposed to half a kilo of normal cocaine). This lead to the widespread suspicion that drug laws were racially motivated, since the cheaper crack rocks were more closely associated with particular ethnic groups. But at the same time as throwing even more blacks and Latinos into jail, destroying their lives and tearing apart their families, the CIA facilitated cocaine shipments from right-wing paramilitary death squads in Central America to fund their proxy war against communism. The feds were directly complicit in pushing crack into the hood. So much for Just Say No.

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Like alcohol prohibition in the 20's, drug prohibition has never and will never work, and here’s why: no one gives a fuck. And why should they? Me, I’m a grown fucking man. Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t put into my own body?? If I want to pop a pill then spend the next 4 hours listening to shitty house music on repeat while rubbing my hands together and have my eyes looking like I’ve been living in a cave, I will, fascists!!!!

But wait … aren’t drugs bad for you? Don’t we have to be protected for our own good? Why even take them? Well, for the same reason people drink, fuck and listen to music: for a thrill, to relax, to be sociable. For the same reason little old ladies sit around drinking tea and eating biscuits. Did you have a cup of coffee this morning, you filthy little druggie? Caffeine is also a drug and yes, one you can even O.D. on if you try hard enough. Drugs are fun. But no one other than your Uncle Vernon who did way too much acid back in the '90s thinks they’re good for you. Drugs are unhealthy. But so are a bunch of other things and yet they are all still legal. So I can get drunk, get in my car, run over some mother and her baby on the way home, then beat my wife, but while it’s fine to go for drinks after work with your boss, if you offer them a spliff you better make DAMN sure they are cool.

All the hype and hysteria around drugs means we’ve lost track of what damage they actually do. For a start, no one, but no one, has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. Not a single death in the history of mankind. But what about other stuff? Heroin, for instance? That’s got to be bad, right? Well, not really. Taking controlled doses of diamorphine (that is, clinically pure heroin — given to pregnant women) won’t have many adverse effects other than the addiction itself. Overdoses and other health problems are directly a product of the black market and dealers throwing together whatever shit they happen to have lying around the kitchen.

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But physiological concerns aside, I am a firm believer that adults should be free to put whatever they like into their bodies. If someone wants to slowly poison themselves to death by taking crack, smack or meth, why not let them? It's more fun than jumping off a bridge. “But Niko,” I hear you say, “What about the addiction? Drug addicts steal and scheme and cheat and will do anything to get their next fix!” My cousin in Russia told me how narkomani robbed and killed her neighbor in their village, then set his house on fire. Obviously these individuals should be caught and punished, but because they’re murderers, not because they’re addicts. If you were a scumbag before drugs, you’re probably going to be a scumbag after drugs as well. There’s not many users who’ve done a 180 on their personality and slipped from a straight-A student and volunteer at the local puppy shelter to a neighbor-killing arsonist. Such people are a minority. But don’t just take my word for it. According to the UN, an estimated 162 to 324 million people use illegal substances, but only 16-39 million problematically. That leaves around 90% who use responsibly. They include Steve Jobs, who described tripping off acid as “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” And Barack Obama, who went from a teenage stoner to the most powerful man in the world. 

And if addicts rob to fund their habit, logic follows it's because drugs are expensive, and they are expensive because they are illegal. The guy who supplies them, i.e. me, has to be compensated for risking my freedom every time I leave the fucking house. And as an addict, how can you put any faith in a system that’s always trying to lock you up? Sure there’s rehab, but there’s also Johnny Law waiting in the sidelines. And none of it is stopping kids from getting their hands on this shit. I mean, I never sold to no young’uns but I never had to check ID either … can you imagine if I did?

“Hello, I’m a shady guy you’ve just met and I’d like to verify your full name and date of birth before we conduct illegal activity.”

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Yet we continue with this absurd spectacle, and the money keeps rolling in. But rather than generating taxes to go towards fixing potholes or running hospitals or finding a new excuse to bomb Iraq, it goes to people like Pablo Escobar, the world’s most notorious drug lord, who went to war against the Colombian state in the '80s, blowing up a passenger plane and taking out judges. He was finally gunned down in 1993, but his business barely took a hit. Instead it moved to Mexico, as did the killing. How many dead Mexicans does it take to stop drug trafficking over the border? We’re still waiting for the punchline for that one; as of 2015, the bodycount of the Mexican Drug War (started in 2006) is 100,000+ dead and rising. To put that into perspective, the Cost of War Project estimates the total bodycount in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 as “only” somewhere between 47,246 and 61,603 deaths.

This is a bloodbath on a scale that makes Al-Capone-era Chicago look like a family picnic. The government dispatched the army to fight the cartels, and the cartels are winning. Meanwhile the amount of coke, dope and meth seized at the border remains the same. So it was all for nothing.

And it’s the same all over the world. Drug money has funded wars and filled the pockets of gangsters across the globe. It’s corrupted the very highest echelons of government. Turkey, Panama, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Guinea-Bissau and North Korea are just a few examples of countries that have been narco-states, places where the state itself has become subservient to drug traffickers.

Alright, you get the idea. So the War on Drugs is hypocritical, racist, undemocratic, medically unsound and kills people. So why is it still going when everyone knows this whole endeavour is just a massive waste of time? Well, it’s very risky politically to oppose it. Lawmakers are so scared of not being seen taking a moral stand by their electorate that when someone comes to them with objective, scientific evidence, they’ll stick their fingers in their ears and sing “La-la-la, I’m not listening!”

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But there is hope. Amsterdam might be the pot capital of the world (come on … as if you went there to visit the Anne Frank museum), but it wasn’t until 2013 that under their leftist, ex-guerrilla and all-round badass President José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize marijuana. Canada looks like it’s soon to follow. Switzerland has started handing out free, clean heroin in clinics under medical supervision, and Portugal has decriminalised personal use of all drugs, including crack and heroin. So what’s happened to these countries? Have they turned into a post-apocalyptic, needle-strewn no-man’s land where ordinary people live in fear of the crazed, bug-eyed reefer addicts?

Actually, no. Since everything has come out into the open, addicts, no longer being ostracised, come forward to get the help they desperately need. And the number of addicts has dropped, as has the crime rate. HIV has dramatically fallen, as there’s no more sharing needles, while recreational (i.e. non-problematic) use has gone up only slightly. The Dutch smoke less weed than we do, and the Swiss experiment with giving away free smack has, as in Portugal, cut the crime rate, HIV infections and deaths from overdose. Having a safe place to inject also means there’s no ugly needles scattered around everywhere for kids to pick up, while the stability of having those clinics gives people a chance to lead normal lives, have jobs, raise a family, etc.

Even in America, the country which started this whole mess, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Many states like California allow medicinal marijuana, which can be prescribed by your doctor for the most minor shit, so I’m guessing there’s a lot of dreadlocked 18-24 year old surfer dudes fresh off the beach riding their skateboards into a local clinic to complain about their chronic back pain. In the last few years, the states of Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Ohio have all voted to fully legalize marijuana, spinal injury or no.

As for my future, I don’t have the heart to rob, hurt or terrorize people. I’m not that kind of guy. My market was all well-to-do university students, hipsters and yuppies, all of whom paid willingly for their baggies and wraps. And while maybe some of them were smoking a bit too much weed, no one offered to suck me off for a ten-bag, if you know what I mean.

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Change is coming, but for millions of people who’ve been imprisoned, oppressed, or otherwise forced to suffer at the hands of this morally bankrupt ideology, it will be too late. And that’s why they are political prisoners.


Niko Vorobjov

Born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Niko’s family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain where he went from behind the Iron Curtain to behind bars, serving a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. He now works as a freelance writer, mainly helping students cheat on their homework but also putting out pieces for sites like Salon and Gorilla Convict based on his experiences of crime and drugs.

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