Pubdate: Tue, 22 Feb 2000
Source: (US Web)
Copyright: 2000
Contact:  22 4th Street, 16th Floor San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 645-9204
Author: Michael Massing, author of "The Fix"


Presidential candidates are silent on the failure of the U.S. war on drugs.

With little fuss or fanfare, the United States is preparing to sharply
escalate the war on drugs.

Over the next two years, the Clinton administration is planning to spend a
whopping $1.3 billion in Colombia to disrupt the production and export of
drugs to the United States. Most of that money will go for military
purposes, including 30 Blackhawk helicopters and training for two
rapid-deployment battalions. Given that Colombia is embroiled in a bitter
civil war involving leftist guerrillas linked to the drug trade, American
lives will clearly be at stake.

One would expect such a risky venture to spark some debate.

It hasn't. Few members of Congress have raised questions about the new aid

The press has greeted it with a yawn. And the presidential candidates have
all but ignored it.

On the campaign trail, the overwhelming concern regarding drugs has been who
used what when. And no one can qualify for the label drug-free. George W.
Bush drank heavily until he was 40, when he found Jesus, and he continues to
be dogged by rumors of cocaine use. John McCain's wife, Cindy, was once
addicted to prescription drugs and was even caught trying to steal some.
Bill Bradley has acknowledged experimenting with marijuana as a youth, and
Al Gore has admitted to even more.

This is progress of a sort. Eight years ago, Bill Clinton felt compelled to
maintain that he didn't inhale.

Now we've learned that Gore was nearly a pothead. And it hasn't damaged his
political prospects.

Actually, the fact that he served capably as vice president for eight years
would seem to show that smoking marijuana does not necessarily fry the

Yet anyone looking for a reasoned discussion of marijuana on the campaign
would be disappointed. Asked about marijuana last October, for instance,
McCain, citing "scientific evidence," said that "the moment it enters your
body, it does damage" and "can become addictive." McCain also embraced the
view that marijuana is a "gateway drug" leading inexorably to harder stuff,
despite the fact that more than 50 million Americans have tried it without
moving on to heroin or cocaine.

This darling of the liberal media supports tougher penalties for selling
drugs (including the death penalty for drug kingpins), increased funding for
border interdiction and restricted availability of methadone.

In short, McCain would clearly intensify the drug war. Bush has had less to
say on the matter, but it's apparent from his record as the governor of
Texas that he supports severe penalties for even minor drug offenses.

The Democrats have struck a more moderate note. Bradley has come out against
mandatory sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, and Gore has
criticized the federal statutes that punish crack offenses far more severely
than they do those for powdered cocaine.

Bradley has said he would spend more money on drug treatment and Gore has
expressed support for more after-school programs.

Beyond that, though, the candidates have been mute. The unrelenting
violations of civil liberties in the name of drug enforcement, the noxious
spread of intrusive drug-testing programs, the government's continuing
refusal to fund needle exchanges -- on all these crucial matters, silence
has resounded.

Over the last 10 years, the federal government has spent more than $150
billion to fight drugs, yet no one seems to care what we've gotten for our

A closer look would reveal it's not much. In the name of fighting drugs, the
United States has dispatched troops to Bolivia, built a paramilitary base in
Peru, eradicated crops in Colombia, sent AWACS spy planes over the
Caribbean, installed X-ray machines along the Mexican border, erected an
electronic curtain around South Florida and invaded Panama. It has
dismantled the Medellin and Cali cartels, the two great Colombian cocaine
syndicates said to control the flow of drugs into the United States. Despite
it all, the cocaine market is glutted as always, and heroin is readily
available at record high rates of purity.

And, while the number of casual drug users has decreased, the number of
hardcore, addicted users hasn't. In the face of such futility, the Clinton
administration, led by drug czar Barry McCaffrey, is set to embark on the
most ambitious, and dangerous, operation in the history of U.S. drug
enforcement. And no one's issued a peep.

The political timidity surrounding the drug issue is breathtaking. It has
been 15 years since Nancy Reagan first admonished Americans to "Just say
no." In that period, the nation has grown markedly more tolerant on subjects
ranging from gay rights and abortion to cohabitation, interracial dating and
oral sex in the Oval Office. On drugs, however, the reign of terror
prevails. When New York Gov. George Pataki proposed a modest revision of the
state's notoriously strict Rockefeller drug laws, it was the Democrats --
possibly fearful of appearing weak-kneed -- who objected.

Just as the charge of being "soft on communism" helped keep pols in line
during the Cold War, the label "soft on drugs" enforces support for the drug
war today.

Happily, there are some signs of change.

Voters in more than a half-dozen states have approved ballot measures to
allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes -- a clear sign of rebellion
against the regime of Reefer Madness. In Arizona, a referendum to mandate
low-level drug offenders to treatment instead of prison carried by a
decisive margin, and the program has been so successful that even some
law-enforcement officials have endorsed it. And Gary Johnson, the governor
of New Mexico, has urged a radical overhaul of the nation's drug laws. So,
even as national politicians fiddle in Washington, the fires of rebellion
are beginning to burn at the grass roots.

Progress toward ending the drug war, however, continues to run into one
major obstacle: the lack of a clear alternative. If we are to end the war on
drugs, what should take its place?

The most frequent answer is legalization. If the drug war is failing, as
it's commonly asserted, then legalizing drugs is the only alternative. On
the surface, the idea of legalization has much appeal. If drugs were
legalized, the whole noxious network of drug traffickers, smugglers, and
money launderers stretching from the jungles of South America to the streets
of our inner cities would suddenly disappear. Drug agents would no longer
barge unannounced into apartments, teenagers would no longer be busted for
smoking pot and black motorists would no longer be stopped on the New Jersey

Yet legalization entails some real risks.

If hard drugs like heroin or crack were suddenly sold in state stores or
made available through prescription, use -- and abuse -- could increase.

The end of Prohibition, for instance, resulted in a sharp rise in alcohol
consumption, along with many unfortunate side effects.

And, while no one wants to revive that disastrous experiment, it does
suggest that the sudden legalization of an intoxicant can lead to a spurt in
consumption. It is this prospect that makes many Americans recoil from the
idea of legalizing drugs -- or at least hard ones. (A far more convincing
case can be made for legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana, a
much less toxic substance.) As long as legalization is seen as the main
alternative to the drug war, the movement toward reform will stall.

Fortunately, there is another way. It consists of viewing drugs as not a
law-enforcement issue but a public-health one. Under such an approach, hard
drugs would remain illegal, but, rather than make punishment our main weapon
against them, we would rely on treatment, rehabilitation and prevention.

Under a public-health approach, we would recognize that the main threat from
drugs comes not from teenage pot smokers or adult casual users but from
chronic, addicted users.

Nationally, there are an estimated 4 million hardcore users of heroin,
cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. While making up only 20 percent of all
drug users in the country (the rest being occasional users), these hardcore
users account for two-thirds to three-quarters of all the drugs consumed in
the United States. They also account for most of the crime, medical
emergencies, HIV transmission and child neglect associated with drugs.

Currently, our main strategy for dealing with such users is arrest,
prosecution and incarceration. A public-health approach would instead offer
a network of services to help these addicts lick or control their habits.

In particular, it would provide ready access to an array of treatment
programs -- methadone clinics, residential centers, outpatient programs,
detox units and short-term sobering-up stations.

Many Americans are skeptical about the value of drug treatment.

This is understandable, given the frequency of relapse.

Relapse is so common that the idea has been incorporated into the very
definition of addiction: a "chronically relapsing disorder," it's called.

Even so, a vast literature has accumulated showing that, dollar for dollar,
treatment is the most effective means of reducing drug use. A 1994 study by
the RAND Corporation, for instance, estimated that, for reducing cocaine
consumption, treatment is seven times more cost-effective than domestic law
enforcement, 10 times more effective than border interdiction and 23 times
more effective than counter-narcotics programs in Latin America. Even if
someone relapses immediately upon leaving a program, RAND found, treatment
is a good bargain, since the savings from reduced crime, medical problems
and other harmful effects far outweigh the cost of the program. (Studies
show that no one form of drug treatment is superior to the rest; addicts
differ widely in their needs, so it's important to offer a wide range of

Despite the effectiveness of treatment, it is often hard to get. In cities
across the country, it can take weeks or even months to find a bed. In
Baltimore, one of the nation's most afflicted cities, long-term residential
treatment is virtually unavailable. In Washington, hundreds of drug
offenders whom judges have mandated to treatment are forced to remain in
prison due to the lack of beds. In several states, methadone is completely
unavailable, forcing people to drive hours to get it. Even in cities that do
have many beds, like New York, the red tape, lack of coordination and
insurance requirements can discourage even the most determined addicts.

The unavailability of treatment reflects the government's spending
priorities. Fully two-thirds of the $18 billion federal drug budget goes for
law enforcement, criminal justice and international intervention. Just
one-third goes for treatment and prevention. At the state and local levels,
the imbalance is even greater.

If the government changed its priorities and redirected money from law
enforcement and interdiction into rehabilitation, treatment could be made
available to all addicts who want it. Cities could also set up "central
intake units" offering immediate attention to addicts and quick referral to

And more could be done to find addicts jobs after they complete their
programs -- a key point on the road to recovery.

In a public-health model, more attention would also be paid to prevention.
At the moment, drug prevention consists mainly of "This is your brain on
drugs"-type messages aired on television or taught in classrooms. Research
shows, however, that such messages by themselves rarely work. To be
effective, prevention must provide alternatives to at-risk kids, such as
after-school programs.

Rather than busting kids for smoking pot, as Mayor Rudy Giuliani is now
doing in New York, we should convert our schools into around-the-clock
community centers offering youths a refuge from the troubled streets around

Finally, under a public-health model, we would have as our drug czar
somebody who actually knows something about drugs.

Since the Office of National Drug Control Policy was created in 1989, it has
been headed by a moralist (William Bennett), an ex-governor of Florida (Bob
Martinez), a police chief (Lee Brown) and a four-star general (Barry
McCaffrey). Certainly it's time we had a drug czar who has a background in
drug addiction, psychopharmacology or, at the very least, medicine.

Once, we did actually have such a drug czar. And the results were
remarkable. This occurred during the presidency of Richard Nixon, of all
people. Personally, Nixon detested drugs, especially marijuana, which he
felt was poisoning the nation's youth.

It was Nixon who actually launched the war on drugs.

But Nixon was also a pragmatist. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he
promised to reduce the nation's crime rate and, once in office, he ordered
his domestic policy staff to find a way to do that. Studying the issue, his
advisors found that heroin addicts were committing much street crime and
that the fastest, most effective way of getting them to stop was to get them
into methadone programs or other forms of drug treatment.

In 1971, the Nixon White House set up a special-action office to prevent
drug abuse and, to head it, named Dr. Jerome Jaffe, a psychopharmacologist
widely recognized as the nation's leading expert on drug addiction.

Jaffe was given hundreds of millions of dollars to open up treatment
facilities around the country, and by the summer of 1972 treatment was
available on request.

Almost immediately, crime, heroin overdose deaths and hepatitis transmission
rates declined.

And the treatment network Jaffe had set up was given much of the credit.

That network remained intact throughout the 1970s, and the nation's drug
problem remained largely under control.

In the 1980s, however, the Reagan administration -- believing that the
government had no obligation to help addicts -- gutted the federal treatment

By the time crack hit, in the mid-1980s, treatment facilities were
completely overwhelmed, and the many new addicts who wanted help were turned
back onto the street, there to commit more crime and cause more mayhem.

While federal spending on treatment has increased some over the last 10
years, it remains entirely inadequate. Nothing could do more to reduce the
harm that drugs cause society than to make treatment available on request.
That $1.3 billion being proposed for Colombia could fund the creation of
many more treatment beds in our nation's cities.

Surely it's time to call a halt in the drug war and pursue a strategy that
attacks the real source of the problem -- our nation's inexhaustible
appetite for drugs.

At the very least, it's time for a rousing national debate on the issue.

Rather than pester presidential candidates about their past drug use,
journalists should begin posing the really important questions about drugs:
"Do you think the war on drugs has been a success?

If elected president, what would you do differently?"
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MAP posted-by: Don Beck