Drugs and Ron Paul’s Appeal to Young Voters

ron paul clownsThe Drug Economy, Neo Liberalism and the Social Basis of Ron Paul’s Appeal to Young Voters

“New York streets where killers’ll walk like Pistol Pete
And Pappy Mason, gave the young boys admiration
Prince from Queens and Fritz from Harlem
Street legends, the drugs kept the hood from starving”

Nas, “Get Down”

That big ol’ building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can’t make it here anymore
See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They’re just gonna set there till they rot
‘Cause there’s nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don’t come down here ‘less you’re looking to score
We can’t make it here anymore

James Mc Murty “ We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”

The strength of the Ron Paul candidacy continues to astound many liberals and leftists. How can a 76-year-old man who opposes, and continues to oppose, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was the featured speaker at the John Birch Society 50th Anniversary Dinner attract thousands of young supporters, not all of whom think of themselves as conservatives, some of whom are gay or people of color.

It is tempting to see Paul’s mass appeal to young people as a form of false consciousness, attributable to his anti-war position, which blinds them to the conservative implications of his libertarian philosophy. But such a posture overlooks ways in which one portion of the Paul platform, his opposition to the drug war, and the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, speaks directly to their material interests in the way no other candidate, Republican or Democratic does. For young people of all racial backgrounds, the drug economy has become an essential income supplement in a society where work has become scarce, and wages have been driven down to the point that few people can support themselves in the legal economy without some off the books activity, a good portion of it drug related.

There has been a great deal of research done on the drug economy in inner city neighborhoods, where de-industrialism, and neo-liberalism hit first and hardest. From Charles and Bettylou Valentine’s pioneering anthropological study, Hustling and Other Hard Work, to Phillipe Bourgeois brilliant book on crack dealers in East Harlem, In Search of Respect, scholars have demonstrated that a significant portion of the income stream in inner city neighborhoods from the early 70’s through the present has come from the drug economy, shoring up local businesses and producing for a level of consumption among local residents, that official census data on incomes could not predict. Hip Hop artists and hop hop scholars alike have spoken about this with considerable frankness. In his book Hip Hop America, Nelson George estimated that 150,000 young people worked in the drug business during the height of the crack epidemic, a figure I have never heard anyone dispute

But what is less well known is the size of the drug economy in small town, rural and suburban America, and its role in supplementing wages in a nation where Wal Mart has replaced the automobile and steel industry as the largest employer. Even before partial legalization in states like California and Colorado, marijuana was the second largest cash crop in the nation, and it has now been supplemented by a thriving market in chrystal meth and prescription pills.

Although I am not familiar with anthropological studies of the drug economy in rural, white America, I have gotten enough papers on small town drug dealing from students in my Worker in American Life class to get a sense that it’s proportions now equal, if not exceed, what is going on in inner city neighborhoods. If what my students tell me is true, a significant portion of young people working in Wal-Mart, K-Mart or other box stores sell drugs on the side ( prescription pills as well as pot) and almost no-one can survive on what those stores pay without some additional source of income. In poorer, more rural areas, chrystal meth, locally manufactured, is the drug of choice, and the violence associated with its trade can rival what you have in tough inner city neighborhoods.

In his powerful indictment of the new, low wage economy, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” James Mc Murtry sings

Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can’t make it here anymore”

Nobody knows this better than the young people who work in these stores and their response has been to find alternative sources of income, many of them illegal, some involving the risk of violence, arrest and imprisonment

mark naisonEnter Ron Paul with a call for legalization of drugs and release of non-violent prisoners. To millions of young people living in an economy where the route to the middle class can no longer go through the legal economy, that portion of his campaign speaks directly to their lived reality. It provides them with the hope of doing in the light of day, and in safety, that which they now do surreptitiously in order to have even a minimum access to what they perceive as an American standard of living

Given that no other candidate is willing to raise this issue as clearly and forthrightly as Ron Paul does, don’t be surprised if his support continues to grow among young people of all backgrounds. And it won’t be because of racism. It is because Ron Paul implicitly recognizes- alone among Presidential candidates- that without the drug economy “we can’t make it here anymore.”

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 


  1. DontTread says

    @Frank. If Obama is only capable of dedicating his entire occupation those two goals, he should be considered the most incompetent president in the history of our nation, and removed immediately.

  2. pablo says

    Ron Paul’s positions are based on basic concepts of liberty. When you understand this, arguments and discussions that purport to know, or intentionally misrepresent Dr Paul, articles like this one are irrelevant as well as ignorant.

  3. James says

    He won’t move toward decriminalization or legalization because there’s too much money involved – our money, stolen at gunpoint and funneled directly into the pockets of Drug Warriors worldwide. . . can’t have these tax leeches doing without their top-dollar big screen TVs and new Lexus SUVs like so many of the people who’re being jacked to pay for this Illegal, Unconstitutional War on (Non-Corporate) Drugs.

    You wait and see. . . the better Ron Paul does in this election, the more hysterical the MSM will become in an ultimately futile effort to drag him down to their level.

  4. Ryder says

    “the route to the middle class can no longer go through the legal economy ” ??????????

    That’s just insane.

    Obviously there is always a legal route to the middle class in a country with capitalism.

    You set up a bogus scenario, which classically sets up the losers in society with the excuse they need to break the law and clear their conscience.

    It is this mechanism of preparing excuses for lawbreakers that promote the breaking of laws.

    There are and have always been MUCH poorer people than those you reference, that never break a single law…. good people. Decent people.

    Shame on you.

  5. Joe Weinstein says

    Commenter zwarich is correct, but other matters are at stake too, and are recognized by a libertarian perspective. Americans of all economic classes don’t want to be classed as or treated as criminals just for having or electing personal behaviors which are basically harmless to others. American non-drug users are increasingly disgusted by legal punishments which outweight actual harm from self-abuse from substance use. Americans everywhere are tired of subsidizing a police-state war on drugs instead of reaping the benefits of taxed legalized sales. And many of us can’t comprehend why only certain self-abusive substances and behaviors are criminalized when in fact almost any substance or product can readily be ‘used’ in a self-abusive way – from rose-water to rocks to razor blades.

  6. r zwarich says

    The irony here is that if drugs were legalized, there would be no underground drug economy. Drugs would be inexpensive and freely available, and their mass production and distribution would likely be controlled by large corporations, which would also reap the profits.

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