Pubdate: Wed, 05 Apr 2000
Source: (US Web)
Copyright: 2000
Contact:  22 4th Street, 16th Floor San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 645-9204
Author: Michael Massing's book "The Fix," a study of U.S. drug policy since
the 1960s, will be issued in paperback in April by the University of
California Press. Robert Housman is assistant director for strategic
planning at the White House. Note: MAP only very recently began carrying
some carefully selected Web-only publications. Massing's original Salon
article referenced below antedated MAP's policy change and is being added to
the MAPNews today.


The White House responds to Michael Massing's critique of the war on drugs,
and Massing replies.

(Salon) Editor's note: This letter was recently sent from the White House to
Salon in response to Michael Massing's Feb. 22 article on U.S. drug policy,
"The Elephant in the Room." Following the letter, which was written by White
House aide Robert Housman, Massing, author of "The Fix," a provocative
critique of U.S. drug war strategy, offers his rebuttal.

March 22

To the Editor:

Michael Massing's latest missive, "The Elephant in the Room," discusses at
great length his perception of U.S. counter-drug policies. However, what Mr.
Massing describes bears little resemblance to our efforts. Massing has built
this fiction because the facts don't support his arguments.

Massing complains that the administration's proposed counter-drug aid
package for Colombia and the Andean region has been received with "little
fuss or fanfare." It seems that Massing has not been reading newspapers,
watching TV, listening to the radio or viewing C-Span lately. The
administration's proposal has been the subject of coverage and editorial
comment by literally every major news outlet in the nation across every form
of media -- ranging from CBS to the New York Times to NPR. Congress has
already held three hearings on the proposal over just the last month, and
full floor debates are scheduled in both houses.

Massing's approach to Colombian aid typifies his modus operandi: Where the
facts don't support his premise, he simply ignores them. Why be constrained
by reality when you can create your own world?

Massing states that "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." This conclusion is not only incorrect but ludicrous.

There is a vast array of otherwise legal products that are also commodities
on the black market. For example, the fact that guns are legal in the United
States has not eliminated crime and violence on our streets. Nor has it
halted the black market in weapons that puts guns in the hands of criminals.

Contrary to Massing's argument, legalization of marijuana use in the
Netherlands did not cause traffickers to vanish in thin air. Organized crime
runs the Dutch "pot" industry, according to a March 13 Salon article (David
Downie, "Going Dutch," Downie notes one Dutch official's report that "90
percent of smoking coffee shops in the city are controlled by organized
crime." The illegal Dutch marijuana industry today brings in more money than
the other traditional, legal Dutch crop: tulips. One of Salon's sources,
Kurt van Es, a noted reporter with the Amsterdam daily Het Parool and a
self-declared proponent of drug legalization, goes so far as to say: "The
Dutch have become the Colombians of marijuana and hash trafficking in
Europe." If decriminalizing or legalizing drugs was supposed to reduce
crime, no one told that fact to the crime kingpins who are using their pot
riches as venture capital for other criminal enterprises -- such as running
guns and pushing drugs like heroin and ecstasy.

Massing claims that the main strategy for dealing with hardcore drug addicts
in the U.S. is "arrest, prosecution and incarceration." This assertion is
incorrect. Over the last two years, the administration has focused on
changing how the criminal justice system deals with the link between drugs
and crime. Our aim is not to lock up countless low-level, nonviolent,
addicted drug criminals but to use the leverage of the criminal justice
system to help these individuals obtain supervised treatment, learn to live
drug-free, and remain in society as productive members.

For example, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of drug
courts -- which offer low-level, nonviolent drug offenders supervised
treatment in lieu of prison. There were only 12 such courts in 1994; today,
there are over 457 with another 250 planned. The president's current budget
request calls for an additional $112 million to increase the number of
treatment programs within the criminal justice system.

We are focusing on treatment in the criminal justice system because, as
Massing concedes, hardcore addicts are responsible for the bulk of
drug-related crime. The vast majority end up in jail. In addition, breaking
free of addiction to heroin or methamphetamine is not easy, and most addicts
will relapse. Studies show that the average cocaine addict has been in
treatment three times, and heroin addicts attempt treatment five or more
times. However, when the options are between staying in treatment or facing
graduated sanctions resulting in imprisonment, the incentive to tough it out
and get clean is far greater. Not only have these programs been proven to
reduce drug use, but they have also cut recidivism by 40 percent. The
criminal justice system is, perhaps, the most effective vehicle for treating
hardcore addicts because the majority of these people can be found behind
bars at one time or another.

Massing is wrong when he suggests we are expending tremendous resources
arresting "teenagers ... for smoking pot." During fiscal year 1998, only 33
federal defendants were sentenced to jail for base offenses involving less
than 5,000 grams of marijuana. During this same period, 196 criminals were
sentenced for crimes involving between 1 million and 2.99 million grams of
marijuana -- more drugs than can fit in a van, much less a pocket.

At the state level, recent studies show that the average sentence for
individuals convicted of felony drug possession charges -- the crime many
drug traffickers end up pleading to -- received either five months in jail
(41 percent) or 36 months of probation (30 percent). Even in New York state,
home to the Draconian Rockefeller drug laws, in 1996 fewer than 10 percent
of felony drug arrestees (with no prior felony arrests or convictions) were
sentenced to state prison.

These crime statistics call into question what Massing means by a "public
health" approach. The overwhelming number of drug criminals have committed
serious crimes involving weapons, selling drugs to children, running drug
syndicates or committing drug-related crimes like murder. Surely, even
Massing wants criminals like these behind bars.

For practical purposes, what difference would Massing's approach really
make? Unless he wants hardened criminals to go free and unpunished, we would
still be arresting serious drug offenders and seeking to get them into
supervised treatment.

Massing wants us to direct our attention at so-called "hard drugs" rather
than marijuana. Here again, his analysis is flawed. Marijuana, the first
illegal drug most young people try, is a gateway substance. An article in
the March edition of the American Journal of Public Health Studies notes
that marijuana use is an important precursor to the use of other drugs. By
preventing or delaying youngsters from trying marijuana, we dramatically
decrease the likelihood that a child will have a substance-abuse problem
later. Preventing marijuana is thus smart public-health policy.

Moreover, Massing's view that marijuana is somehow "soft" or benign and that
"a convincing case can be made for legalizing, or at least decriminalizing,
marijuana ..." is out of touch with reality.

An article in this month's American Journal of Public Health notes that
marijuana (and alcohol) "use increases risks for a range of serious
adolescent health and behavior problems."

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
children who begin smoking "pot" at an early age are less likely to finish
school and more apt to engage in acts of theft, violence, vandalism and
other high-risk behavior than children who do not smoke marijuana.

The ONDCP-sponsored report "Marijuana and Medicine," prepared by the
Institute of Medicine, indicates that 9 percent of marijuana users became
dependent on the drug.

Legalizing marijuana would give young people greater access to this
psychoactive drug. Arguing for a policy that would result in more young
people using marijuana is irresponsible since this drug adversely affects
children's health.

Massing's pro-marijuana bias colors his views of the administration's
drug-prevention efforts. He argues that "at the moment, drug prevention
consists mainly of 'This is your brain on drugs'-type messages aired on
television or taught in classrooms." America's National Youth Anti-Drug
Media Campaign -- a five-year, $2 billion public-private partnership -- uses
the full power of the modern media (television, comic books, curriculum, the
Internet, sports marketing, newspaper ads, billboards and grass-roots
efforts) to help young people reject drugs. The campaign goes far beyond
"just say no." In fact, it gives young people things to which they can say
"yes." For example, we are sponsoring youth anti-drug soccer tournaments
across the country, an anti-drug bike clinic at the Summer X-Games, online
rock concerts with anti-drug themes, and a pilot program funding a New York
Rangers anti-drug hockey clinic in the New York metropolitan area. This
campaign is unlike anything the federal government ever did previously.

The campaign works precisely because of these cutting-edge efforts. Studies
show that not only are our messages getting noticed, but they are already
having an impact on behavior. A 1999 study by the Partnership for a
Drug-Free America found that:

In just one year, the number of youth (ages 13-18) who strongly felt that
"really cool" teens don't use drugs went up 5 percent (40 percent in 1999
compared to only 35 percent in 1998). Only 8 percent of youth believe
marijuana users are popular, down from 13 percent in 1998. In one year (1998
to 1999) the number of teens who tried to talk a friend out of drug use
increased to 41 percent, up from 38 percent.

With the campaign now reaching 95 percent of its target audience (youth and
adults who care about children) roughly seven times per week, it is hard to
see how Massing missed the blitz of media messages encouraging healthy

In his zeal to criticize, Massing paints the Nixon era as a drug-policy
Utopia, which he holds up as a model. In fact, this analysis is about as
useful as comparing the world of communications in the 1970s with the year
2000 without considering the impact of the Internet or cell phones. America
during the Nixon administration had yet to experience crack cocaine and the
drive-by violence this drug brought to our neighborhoods. Methamphetamine
production, perhaps the greatest drug threat to America today, was still
small and discrete -- largely confined to biker gangs. The cold-cooking
method of meth production, which over the last few years has helped spread
this drug across the nation, did not exist until the 1990s.

Massing's analysis of drug budgets under Nixon and Reagan is disingenuous.
In 1972, the year he suggests overnight success was achieved due to
"hundreds of millions of dollars" for treatment facilities, total spending
on demand reduction was $239 million (which includes both prevention and
treatment). That figure equals less than $1 billion in 1999 dollars, or less
than 20 percent of current spending in this area. Massing's assertion that
these programs were "gutted" by the Reagan administration is curious, given
the fact that federal spending on demand reduction increased every year
during the 1980s (as it did in the 1990s for that matter).

Massing reveals his prejudice when criticizing White House Drug Policy
Director Barry McCaffrey simply because of his military service. (Most
Americans see honor in McCaffrey's long career of public service, including
his heroism in defense of this nation.) Massing ignores McCaffrey's success
in fighting drugs during his tenure as "drug czar."

Under director McCaffrey, the nation's counter-drug budget grew from $13.5
billion in 1996 to a projected $19.2 billion in 2001, an increase of 42
percent. During this same time frame, the amount of money dedicated to drug
prevention increased by roughly $850 million, or 53 percent. Similarly,
funding for drug treatment rose $985 million, or 35 percent.

At the same time, director McCaffrey has spearheaded efforts to increase
drug treatment within the criminal justice system, provide insurance parity
so addiction would be covered like any other disease and increase access to
quality methadone treatment programs for heroin addicts. He also fought to
end the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing guidelines.

With respect to drug prevention, McCaffrey launched the Youth Media
Campaign, created the Drug-Free Communities Program (which funds prevention
efforts for local community coalitions), developed the National Middle
School Drug and Violence Coordinators Program and protected the Safe and
Drug-Free Schools Program (America's largest drug-prevention program).
Massing ignores this record in favor of building a strawman to tear down.

Rather than creating a fictitious drug-control policy to attack, confining
oneself to reality would be far more useful. Our National Drug Control
Strategy is a balanced approach to combating the scourge of drugs. It is
working. Consider the following facts:

The National Household Survey released in 1999 found that overall youth drug
use is down 13 percent, youth cocaine use dropped 20 percent and youth
inhalant use plummeted 45 percent in just one year.

Drug-related murders have hit the lowest point in over a decade.

In the last four years, the amount of money Americans waste buying drugs
decreased from $66.8 billion to $63.2 billion.

In Latin America, Bolivia reduced coca cultivation by 55 percent since 1995
while in Peru cultivation declined 66 percent.

These achievements have brightened the future for our children, made our
streets safer, and left our hemisphere more stable. On an issue as important
as drug policy, we cannot afford to distort reality.

Robert Housman Assistant director, strategic planning, The White House

Michael Massing's response to Robert Housman's letter:

On March 14, Robert Housman telephoned me and began berating me for my
article in Salon. His manner was so abusive and unprofessional that, after a
few minutes, I refused to continue the conversation. Here, he continues his
harangue by other means. His letter helps explain why so many people have
become disillusioned with Clinton administration drug policy.

My article offered a critique of that policy. It argued that the
administration was waging a futile war on drugs, concentrating too much on
military adventures in Latin America and drug arrests at home rather than on
treating the hardcore addicts who are at the heart of our drug problem.

I began by questioning the wisdom of the administration's proposed $1.3
billion aid package for Colombia. With a bitter civil war raging in that
country, I wrote, "American lives will clearly be at stake." Housman
concentrates his fury on my comment that the aid proposal was greeted with
"little fuss or fanfare." My article appeared Feb. 22. Housman's letter is
dated March 22 -- a month later. Most of the debate over the Colombia
package -- and all three of the congressional hearings he mentions --
occurred after my article appeared. Given that the aid package forms the
centerpiece of the White House's 2000 drug strategy, I would have expected
Housman to offer some defense of it. Instead, he latches on to a trivial
clause. It's like reprimanding a burglar for not wiping his feet before
breaking into your house.

>From reading Housman's letter, you'd think my article was a brief for
legalizing drugs. It wasn't. On the contrary, it strongly rejected the idea
of legalizing hard drugs. "As long as legalization is seen as the main
alternative to the drug war," I wrote, "the movement toward reform will

In explaining my opposition to legalization, I attempted, as any serious
student must, to weigh the costs and benefits of such a policy. On the plus
side, I maintained that legalizing drugs would put drug traffickers and
smugglers out of business. This seems to me a given. If cocaine and heroin
were legal, companies like Merck and Pfizer could produce them for a tiny
fraction of their current cost. What incentive, then, would traffickers in
Colombia or Asia have to produce them? None.

The proper comparison is not to guns (where the problem is that the market
is too open) but to alcohol and tobacco. Both of these substances are
legally available, and the black market in them is negligible. The repeal of
Prohibition put an end to the crime associated with the distribution of
alcohol, and the same would no doubt happen with cocaine and heroin. But, as
I noted in my article, the end of Prohibition also resulted in a sharp rise
in alcohol consumption, and legalizing drugs, I argued, would risk a similar
increase. So, I wrote, it seemed on balance a bad idea.

Housman sneers at me for distinguishing between marijuana and other drugs
like heroin, cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. Well, let me enumerate the
differences. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. All those other
drugs can be lethal. Injectors of heroin and cocaine can contract HIV and
other deadly infections; marijuana poses no such danger. Cocaine and crack
can cause heart failure; marijuana can't. Crack and methamphetamine produce
psychotic reactions in many regular users; marijuana rarely does. Heroin,
cocaine and methamphetamine are all highly addictive, and suddenly desisting
from their use usually produces severe withdrawal symptoms and
uncontrollable cravings. Marijuana usually produces neither. The notion that
marijuana is a "gateway" drug, meanwhile, has been repeatedly rebutted, most
recently in the Institute of Medicine's 1999 report, "Marijuana and

"Because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use,"
it stated, "marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first,
'gateway' to illicit drug use. There is no conclusive evidence that the drug
effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other
illicit drugs."

This is not to say that marijuana is harmless. It can sap people's
motivation and induce paranoia. Smoking marijuana, like smoking tobacco, is
not good for the lungs. And driving while stoned can be very dangerous. For
young people in particular, marijuana use should be discouraged.

The key question is, should young people, or anyone else, be arrested for
using it? Housman is simply wrong when he asserts that we are not spending
large sums on arresting people on pot charges. In a typical feint, he limits
his discussion of marijuana arrests to the federal prison system when he
surely knows that most such arrests occur at the local level. According to
the White House's 2000 drug strategy, of the 1,559,100 arrests for drug
offenses in 1998, 38.4 percent were for marijuana possession. That works out
to 600,000 arrests for using pot. An additional 84,000 arrests were made for
selling it.

Now, marijuana may be harmful, but even Housman must admit this is wildly
excessive. A comparison with alcohol is revealing. An estimated 14 million
Americans suffer from alcoholism and alcohol abuse, and collectively they
cause far more damage to society, in terms of car wrecks, physical assaults,
medical emergencies and domestic abuse, than do marijuana users, yet nobody
talks about arresting them.

So, if one disapproves of arresting people for marijuana use, what's the
alternative? The case of the Netherlands is instructive. Housman is again
wrong when he claims that Holland has legalized drugs. What it has done is
decriminalized marijuana use (allowing it to be smoked in coffee shops)
while keeping the production and distribution of the drug illegal. That's
why marijuana distribution in Holland remains in the hands of organized
crime. If the sale of marijuana were made legal, it would no doubt put those
criminals out of business. Doing this, however, would almost surely lead to
increased consumption. In Holland, the spread of pot-selling coffee shops
has in fact resulted in increased use. That's why, in the end,
decriminalizing marijuana is probably the best (or least bad) of all
approaches, representing a middle ground between total intolerance and
unrestricted access. What's more, if we stopped arresting people for pot
possession, we could spend the money saved to establish more prevention
programs for young people.

Housman takes issue with my assertion that the government's main strategy
for dealing with hardcore drug users is arrest, prosecution and
incarceration. Again, a look at the numbers backs up my point. Of those
1,559,100 drug arrests made in 1998, 25.6 percent -- 400,000 -- were for
cocaine or heroin possession. An additional 11 percent -- 172,000 -- were
for selling these drugs. As any student of the streets knows, many of those
arrested for selling drugs are actually addicts seeking to support their
habit. And, because of the mandatory-minimum laws on the books in most
states, many of these people end up doing time. Of the 1,179,000 people in
state prison in 1998, 20.6 percent -- 243,000 -- were drug offenders. This
is 41 percent more than in 1992, the year before Clinton took office. (Of
the 123,000 people in federal prisons, a remarkable 62.6 percent are there
for drug offenses.)

No doubt some of these offenders are hardened criminals who deserve to be
behind bars, but many are not. And it is not only woolly-headed liberals
like me who believe this. Last year, John DiIulio, the Princeton
criminologist who did so much to promote the idea of long mandatory
sentences, described his change of heart in a Wall Street Journal article
headlined "Two Million Prisoners Are Enough." "Current laws," he wrote, "put
too many nonviolent drug offenders in prison." As a remedy, he called for
the repeal of mandatory-minimum drug laws and the release of drug-only
offenders. In New York, Gov. George Pataki -- frustrated at the continued
need to devote valuable prison space to low-level offenders -- has
repeatedly sought to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, only to be stymied by
demagogic state legislators.

It is precisely because so many nonviolent drug offenders are crowding the
criminal justice system that the drug court movement has flourished. And I
applaud this development. Diverting nonviolent offenders from prison to
treatment makes a lot of sense, and Barry McCaffrey deserves credit for
helping promote this.

What I object to is the notion -- embraced so enthusiastically by Housman --
that we should concentrate our treatment resources in the criminal justice
system. With so much money being spent there, it's becoming increasingly
necessary for addicts to get arrested in order to get treatment. Doesn't it
make sense to make help available outside the criminal justice system, too,
so that addicts who want to enter treatment can? According to the White
House's own figures, 5 million Americans stand in need of drug treatment,
yet only 2.2 million are getting it, leaving a treatment gap of 2.8 million.
As a result, there are long waiting lists for treatment around the country.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, closing that gap
would require spending an additional $8 billion.

Under McCaffrey, there has been some growth in the federal treatment budget,
but nowhere near what is needed. The White House's proposed drug budget for
2001 contains not quite $100 million more in new treatment money outside the
criminal justice system. This is dwarfed by the $1.3 billion requested for
Colombia, the $420 million requested for new federal prison space to house
drug offenders and the $112 million requested for new customs interdiction
programs. Overall, two-thirds of the federal drug budget goes for law
enforcement and criminal justice, and just one-third for treatment and
prevention. This is a balanced strategy?

At one time, federal policy looked very different. As I noted in my article,
and as I discuss at length in my book "The Fix," the Nixon administration
made treating addicts the core of its strategy. Housman's "facts" on the
history of this period are flatly wrong. Nixon's 1973 drug strategy
("Federal Strategy for Drug Abuse and Drug Traffic Prevention, 1973") shows
that spending on treatment and rehabilitation (excluding prevention) came to
$143 million in fiscal year 1972, $266 million in FY 1973 and $274 million
in FY 1974, for a total of $683 million. It's true that the Nixon
administration predated crack and methamphetamine, but Housman is wrong to
pooh-pooh the severity of the crime problem in that period. When Nixon took
office, the nation was in the throes of a fierce heroin epidemic, and those
caught up in it were feeding a sharp surge in crime.

During the eight years prior to Nixon's taking office, crime had doubled in
the United States. In January 1969, the month Nixon became president, 19
bank robberies took place in Washington alone. In 1971, the year the Nixon
treatment offensive began, 17,780 people were murdered in the United States,
a rate of 8.6 per 100,000. From 1986 to 1992 -- the peak years of the crack
epidemic -- the murder rate ranged from 8.6 to 9.3 -- virtually the same. As
I attempt to show in my book, Nixon's treatment offensive succeeded in
bringing down the rate of drug-related crime, as well as that of new
hepatitis cases and hospital emergency room visits.

Housman is no more accurate on the Reagan years. In fiscal year 1982, the
first full one under Reagan, the federal treatment budget was cut by 25
percent, and it remained at that low level for the next several years. (See
Page 217 of "Treating Drug Problems" by Dean Gerstein et al., a study of
federal treatment policy published by the Institute of Medicine in 1990.)
The devastating effect those cuts had on the ability of rehab centers to
treat addicts was the subject of several congressional hearings (e.g., "Drug
Abuse Treatment and Prevention 1984," House Select Committee on Narcotics
and Substance Abuse, June 26, 1984, and "Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental
Health Administration," House Appropriations Committee, May 10, 1984).

Housman makes much of the fact that, under McCaffrey, the nation's drug
budget has grown 42 percent, from $13.5 billion in 1996 to $19.2 billion in
2001. What return have we gotten on this investment? The amount of money
Americans spend on drugs, Housman writes, has dipped from $66.8 billion to
$63.2 billion. This drop is so insignificant that it's silly to believe that
it can even be measured. Drug use among young people declined from 11.4
percent in 1997 to 9.9 percent in 1998, a 13 percent drop; in 1996, however,
the rate was 9 percent, so basically the level of use has returned to where
it was when McCaffrey took office. And, yes, coca cultivation has dropped in
Bolivia and Peru, but, in another display of selective data use, Housman
does not mention that coca cultivation has soared in Colombia, from 50,900
hectares in 1995 to 122,500 hectares today -- more or less making up for the
decreases in those two other countries.

According to the White House's own drug strategy, both cocaine and heroin
are today available in the United States at record-low prices -- a sign that
these drugs remain easily obtainable.

Housman omits some other important numbers. In 1997 (the latest year for
which data are available), 15,079 people died from drug-induced causes. This
is the highest level ever recorded, and 36 percent above the 1992 level.
Similarly, in 1998, the number of drug-related emergency-room visits reached
542,544 -- another all-time high. Drug users visit hospital emergency rooms
not only because they're suffering adverse reactions to drugs but also
because they can't find help elsewhere. That these numbers are rising so
sharply stands as a sharp indictment of the Clinton administration's policy.

As Housman points out, McCaffrey has done some good things as drug czar. He
has promoted drug courts, pushed insurance parity for drug abusers, sought
to widen access to methadone and worked to provide young people alternatives
to drug use. He has also talked repeatedly, and eloquently, about the need
to help hardcore addicts break their habits, and about the role treatment
can play in accomplishing that. Unfortunately, on this last point, his
budget has not matched his rhetoric. Rather than confront the problem of
addiction at home, the Clinton administration prefers to fight phantom
enemies in distant jungles. Last week, the House of Representatives approved
the White House's proposed aid package for Colombia, bringing us a step
closer to involvement in that country's endless violence. Clearly, the war
on drugs lives on.
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MAP posted-by: Don Beck