The war on drugs was never about drugs. That much was obvious to anyone paying attention, but was finally confirmed in 2016 when Harper’s published for the first time a 1994 interview with Richard Nixon’s former domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman—one of the people actually in charge of getting that horrific war off the ground.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” he told writer Dan Baum. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The war on drugs did succeed in one respect, though. It built up a huge correctional system to house what is sometimes referred to as the “relative surplus population”—people willing to work but unable to find jobs, and those unable to work at all. So after half a century, with the human cost of the war on drugs undeniable to everyone but neo-Confederate Jeff Sessions types, laws are finally, fitfully starting to loosen up. But the problem with starting a system is that it usually finds a way to continue even after the initial justification is gone. There needs to be some group to be demonized, prosecuted for the “public good,” and housed in places of detention. And now, with FOSTA, that group is sex workers.
This new war mirrors the old one in its the idea that you have to lock up en masse the people creating the “problem,” rather than examine any ways of reducing harm or looking at root causes. The anti-trafficking organizations that have major political sway are in fact not anti-trafficking organizations at all—they are anti-sex work, full stop. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a group with enough sway to end up in the New York Times opinion pages, and that has Special Consultative Status with the United Nations, sees zero difference between forced and voluntary prostitution. Similarly, Demand Abolition, a huge funder of law enforcement, conflates sex trafficking and prostitution on their own website. For groups like these, a war on drugs-style approach to wiping out sex work makes perfect sense.
“Demand Abolition funds 11 cities across the United States to basically put a lot of money into increasing police presence of the sex trade,” Magali Lerman tells me. Lerman is a former survival sex worker who is now an advocate. She is a partner at Reframe Health and Justice and a board member of Sex Workers Outreach Project USA. She’s witnessed Demand Abolition’s work firsthand, as Seattle is one of the cities they fund. “These sites are like ground zero for the war on sex trafficking mimicking the war on drugs.”
“This is the abolitionist approach to the sex trade, like we saw with the war on drugs: the idea that, if we can just end the drug supply, people aren’t going to use drugs,” she points out. “We see the same horrible consequences of the war on sex trafficking play out in the war on drugs. Mandatory minimums, increased sanctions, asset forfeiture, horrible bans, and the weaponization of public health against people.”
Michael Fattorosi, the self-proclaimed “porn lawyer,” agrees. “I think this is a new war on sex workers,” he says. Now that the war on drugs is winding down, authorities need what he calls “low-level consensual sex sellers and buyers” to replace drug users in order to keep things humming along. “They’re using the backs of sex workers” to further their agenda, he explains.