Pubdate: Sat, 28 Apr 2001
Source: Oakland Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2001 MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers
Author: Donnie R. Marshall
Note: Donnie R. Marshall is administrator of the Drug Enforcement
Administration. He wrote this column for the Washington Post.


THE movie "Traffic" is the most realistic portrayal of drug law
enforcement and the ravages of drugs on families I've ever seen. It
accurately shows the complexity of the drug trade -- from its origins in
foreign countries to its terminal point on our streets -- and how
predatory drug traffickers victimize young, weak and vulnerable people. 

But I'm afraid moviegoers may have come to two conclusions that appear
to provide simple answers to some not-so-simple problems having to do
with our nation's recurring drug problem. 

The first conclusion can be drawn from the Michael Douglas character,
the new government drug czar who declares, "If this is a war on drugs,
then many of our family members are the enemy." Himself the father of an
addicted daughter, he steps down from his post, presumably because he
cannot support policies that target users. 

While this scene is dramatically effective, it's factually inaccurate to
say the U.S. government targets users. In fact, it is well-organized
international criminal organizations that are actively targeting
American families and American users. 

One common misperception is that the American demand for drugs drives
the supply; in fact, the opposite is true. Without a steady,
well-marketed source of supply, users like Caroline in "Traffic" would
not specifically demand crack or heroin. 

The film's high-school-age users were bored, affluent kids whose parents
had no clue about who their friends were, or how they spent their time
after school. The availability of these drugs on the streets of
Caroline's home town was a significant factor in her decline. 

The vast majority of offenders in prison are there not for possession or
because they are users, but for serious trafficking offenses. A 1997
Justice Department survey found that only 5 percent of the drug
offenders in federal prison, and 27 percent in state prison, were there
on possession charges -- and many of those charges represent the results
of plea bargains. There's simply no reason to believe that drug users
are the "enemy" in any government policies. 

Caroline's parents could afford good treatment for her and, as the film
shows, treatment works for some people. For many, success comes only
after repeated stays at drug clinics and after too many productive years
of life are dedicated to the pursuit of a cure. I'm a strong advocate of
treatment and believe it must be widely available. Yet I also believe
prevention and effective law enforcement must be critical components in
our drug strategies. 

Which leads me to the second erroneous conclusion some may take from the
film: that our country's efforts to solve the drug problem are futile.
While "Traffic" correctly suggests that law enforcement has enormous
odds to overcome, it also respects the talent, courage and dedication
that DEA and Customs agents bring to their task -- talent I see every
day. The film shows how difficult it is for law enforcement to work in
an environment of corruption and frustration, yet the DEA characters
keep pursuing their targets. 

And there have been victories despite the uphill battle. The enforcement
of strict laws, coupled with social disapproval, led to the reduction of
drug use during the last epidemic at the turn of the century. By the
early 1960s only 2 percent of the American people had ever tried drugs,
compared with 28 percent today. If Americans could live without drugs 40
years ago, there's no reason we cannot now. 

Today's level of drug use is less than half what it was two decades ago.
This progress was made during a time when people thought casual drug use
was socially acceptable. But slowly we learned that the consequences and
risks of using drugs were severe. Through a balanced approach of law
enforcement, prevention and treatment, our nation has made a positive
impact on the levels of drug trafficking and use. For the sake of our
sons and daughters, the potential Carolines of the world, we must
persevere, with courage and determination.
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