Source: Washingtonian Magazine
Copyright: 1998 by Washington Magazine Inc.
Pubdate: October, 1998
Author: Christopher Shea
Note: Christopher Shea is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education


Even by Washington standards, the drug debate is uncompromising and
partisan. President Clinton claims that the number of Americans using drugs
has declined by 50 percent since 1979, and earlier this year he laid out
plans to cut drug use in half again over the next ten years.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich scoffed at the Clinton proposals, which he
called a "hodge-podge of half steps and half truths." He wanted all drug
use eliminated in four years.

Amid all the posturing and confusion, one voice suffers no doubt. When
politicians or journalists need information about drugs, they often turn to
a university-based "expert" who is certain where others are cautious and
who compares drug policies he dislikes to "playing Russian roulette with
our children."

The expert is Joe Califano, former heavyweight Washington lawyer and
adviser to two presidents, now reborn as the scourge of drugs -- and of
anyone who dares to disagree with him.

Started five years ago, CALIfano's drug-research center, the National
Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, has
become the loudest voice in the drug debates.

If you've heard that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that opens the door to
cocaine and heroin, that's CASA and Califano.  If you've read that
marijuana is far more harmful now than it was when Al Gore, Newt Gingrich,
and other politicians dabbled with it -- so deadly that it should now be
considered a "hard drug" -- that's probably because of Califano.

Every few months, Califano sends a fresh series of statistics coursing
through the press.  Examples include the claim that the proportion of
female college students who get drunk on weekends has tripled over the past
few decades.

But it's on the Washington Post op-ed page that Califano gets his biggest
play -- and achieves something close to Old Testament thunder.

When the billionaire philanthropist George Soros contributed $ 650,000 to
the campaigns to make medical marijuana legal in California and Arizona,
Califano crowned him "the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization." He accused
Soros of manipulating compassion for the terminally ill as part of a scheme
to make marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as available as tobacco and beer.

When parents told pollsters that they thought their kids might try
marijuana at some point in college, Califano responded with a Post column
that called the parents' attitude "infuriating," adding, "Instead of
chorusing 'We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore,' too
many boomer parents utter a sigh of resignation that is becoming a
self-fulfilling prophecy for their children."

So deep is Califano's loathing of tobacco that he rejects any deal between
state attorneys general and the tobacco industry as the devil's work.  The
resulting compromises, he writes, represent a "sordid piece of
money-changing in the temple of the American bar."

"Big Tobacco knows that the way to the hearts of Washington and plaintiff's
lawyers," he said, "is through their pocketbooks."

Joe Califano Now Lives In New York, but he's still very much a Washington
operator.  Until the late 1980s, Califano was a fixture here.  A Harvard
Law graduate, he did a Defense Department stint under Robert McNamara
during the Kennedy years and then became Lyndon Johnson's chief
domestic-policy adviser and a co-architect of the Great Society.  He would
later write one of the sharpest memoirs of the period, The Triumph and
Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.

After Richard Nixon's election, Califano settled in at the powerhouse
Williams & Connolly law firm, where he replaced a lockstep compensation
system with an "eat what you kill" approach that rewarded the partners who
brought in the most business -- notably himself. Eventually he would become
known as the "half-million-dollar man" -- a reference to his
then-stratospheric salary.

It was as Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare that
Califano made his biggest splash, especially for his opposition to tobacco,
which he deemed "slow-motion suicide" and "Public Health Enemy No. 1."

Charlie Rose, a former Democratic congressman from the tobacco-growing
state of North Carolina, responded by saying, "We need to educate Mr.
Califano with a two-by-four."

President Carter fired Califano in 1979, mostly because even when he was
right on the issues, Califano's blunt, high-profile, self-promoting
approach cost Carter too many political allies.

Califano returned to the law, first at his own firm, then at Dewey &
Ballantine, which was dusty when he arrived but grew to be one of the most
profitable firms in Washington.  In 1992 he left to found CASA. "I'm not
made to practice commercial law, really," he said at the time.  "I've made
money at it, but now I wake up every morning ready to roar."

Drug research is an unglamorous field that doesn't usually attract the kind
of donations that go to cancer treatments or AIDS work, but Califano's CASA
hums along on a $ 8-million annual budget.  Unlike white-coated researchers
and scholars in elbow patches, Califano can pick up the phone and call
buddies like Michael Eisner, chairman of the Disney company, to help
underwrite a fundraiser featuring Liza Minnelli, the pop star Brandy, and a
keynote speech by President Clinton.

CBS, Chrysler, and Mobil have contributed heavily to CASA, and the board of
directors sparkles with such names as Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford.

"For decades I have followed the field of substance-abuse research, and I
have never seen a phenomenon like the rise of CASA," said David Hamburg,
president emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation and a Califano supporter.
"In a few years it has become one of the most respected and significant
sources of information and policy advice.  There is nothing like it."

Last spring, Califano may have pulled off his biggest policy coup.
According to the Post, just as President Clinton was preparing to place the
government behind efforts to slow the spread of AIDS by distributing clean
needles to addicts -- a plan long urged by health officials and backed by
the Department of Health and Human Services -- Califano sent Clinton a
letter pleading with him not to.

That letter, together with the opposition of Califano's like-minded ally,
drug czar Barry McCaffrey, sunk the plan and led to a backpedaling press
conference by Donna Shalala, secretary of HHS.

Califano's political clout, the forum that the Washington Post has given
him, and the luster lent by his Columbia University title sit uneasily with
many scholars who have spent their careers studying the drug issue.

"I view his work with the utmost amusement," says Joseph D. McNamara, who
served as a New York City cop before becoming police chief of Kansas City,
Missouri, and then San Jose, and who now studies drug policy at Stanford
University's conservative Hoover Institution. "What CASA does is present
information in a kind of hysterical-crisis mode, which is very similar to
what the government does."

McNamara got a typical Califano scolding after he argued, on the Post's
op-ed page, for shifting the front of the war on drugs from prisons and
border interdiction to prevention and health care. McNamara said the United
States could benefit by looking at Europe, where drug use is viewed more as
an endemic health problem than as pure crime.

A week later, Califano weighed in with a blistering defense of the status
quo in a Post op-ed.  "The first casualty of most pro-legalization
arguments is reality," he wrote.  "If these ideas ever became policy, the
next would be America's children."

McNamara's views went beyond playing Russian roulette with children, he
wrote.  They were the equivalent of "slipping a couple of extra bullets in
the chamber."

McNamara calls the response "pharmacological McCarthyism."

"It's as rotten and dangerous as the original McCarthyism," he says. "What
he is trying to do is cut out any kind of objective debate by labeling
people who are critical of current drug policies as 'legalizers.' . . .
It's hard to call a guy who's been a cop for 25 years a pothead."

Califano "has so much corporate money that he bought himself a place at
Columbia, but he's not playing by the same rules that all other faculty and
research centers have to play by," says Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at
the University of California at San Cruz.  "It seems to me that he wants to
have it both ways.  He wants to be the anti-drug ideologue, to go out there
and make impassioned speeches, and to some degree be a star, but he gets
his money and his connection to Columbia on an entirely different basis.

"If he wants to do that, fine; but don't pretend you're a Columbia
University scholar when you're not -- you're Ralph Reed."

Other researchers complain that Califano's take-no-prisoners approach to
the drug debate has created a climate in which raising questions about
zero-tolerance arguments, or the likelihood of a drug-free America, are
seen as little short of treason.

I had a chance to talk with Califano last fall at CASA's headquarters. He's
now ensconced in the Carnegie Towers, a postmodern edifice on 57th Street
in Manhattan, on the same block as Carnegie Hall and 50 blocks south of
Columbia's campus.

Califano's office is decorated with emblems of past glories.  A This Is A
Non-Smoking Workplace sign sits on his desk.  On the wall to his left is a
framed letter from President Johnson, commemorating the day he left public
service for the law: "You were the captain I wanted, and you steered the
ship well."

At 67, Califano still looks fit and powerful, with a demeanor that carries
a hint of the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where,
before he went off to college at Holy Cross, he and his friends used to
brawl with gangs from rival neighborhoods.  He is sharp, with a gruff voice
and a no-bull tone.

"I don't think there's any right or left in the drug war, or if drug war is
even the right term," he says.  "Basically, I think substance abuse and
addiction is one of the greatest threats to this country. You know, Toynbee
said of the great civilizations -- he studied 16 civilizations -- he said
that the only thing that ever happened from an enemy without is that they
gave the coup de grace to an expiring suicide.

"This is a really internal problem for the United States, and it's an
enormous threat to our young people, and it's also an enormous threat to
our political system because of the corruption issues."

He brushes off the idea that his center's work is colored by ideology or
personal predisposition -- or anything but research.  "The first step here
is to get the facts out and to get people to understand the facts, and
where they lead, they lead," he says.  "I have absolute conviction that if
we can get the facts out, and if we can get enough bright people interested
in this subject, we can deal very successfully with it.

"The field is full of very dedicated people, counselors and others, but
it's not full of the kind of brilliant people who are working on cancer and
heart disease, or the kind of brilliant people who are selling automobiles
or cereals or what have you.  I think we have here at CASA the brightest
group of people that have been ever put under one roof on this planet to
deal with this problem."

Califano's Columbia drug center has 55 staff members, but only one is a
tenured member of the Columbia University faculty -- Herbert Kleber, a
psychiatrist with a top research record, who served as a drug-policy
adviser under William Bennett.  Other university professors and
administrators sometimes advise on projects.

The official line at the center is that editorializing and policy advice
amount to only a fraction of what CASA does.

CASA sponsors a program called "Opportunity to Succeed" that brings
together parole officers and social workers to help prisoners with drug
problems in four cities.  It is undertaking a nationwide evaluation of 200
treatment programs, from intense residential regimens like Phoenix House to
outpatient centers that offer a few hours of counseling weekly.

It is also exploring nontraditional alternatives, such as acupuncture,
which has a large following among ex-addicts.  A site director for the
acupuncture study, a doctor at the University of California at San
Fransciso, calls it "as good as anything funded by the National Institutes
of Health."

The research process is a slow one, often with ambiguous results -- which
makes it unsuited to Califano's style.  CASA's big splashes in the press
usually come from research reports that cobble together the most alarming
data on drugs, which Califano then goes on the road to promote: Highschool
students say marijuana is easier to buy than alcohol.  Forty percent of
13-year-olds know someone who uses acid, heroin, or cocaine.  Forty-five
percent of college students go on drinking "binges."

In many cases, the findings aren't new, but drawn by Califano's star power,
newspapers report them -- even though, in almost every case, they ignored
the more-nuanced scholarly articles from which they are drawn.  Only the
New York Times occasionally ignores the CASA reports, frustrating CASA's PR

"Their usefulness has been that they have the capacity to take hundreds of
studies and condense them," says one public-health professor at Columbia,
who confesses some awe and envy of Califano's influence with the press.
"But their condensing process has the tendency to throw out at least half
of the baby with the bathwater."

As he did with McNamara, the ex-cop, Califano often slams his critics as
"legalizers," suggesting that they would like to see marijuana and cocaine
sold from Good Humor trucks parked outside schools.  But the debate, most
protest, isn't really between those who want to protect children and those
who don't care about them -- everybody's "for" children.  The real debate
is between two different ways of looking at the war on drugs.

From 1980 to 1997, the federal drug-control budget rose from $ 1 billion to
$ 16 billion, and the number of people imprisoned for drug violations rose
from 50,000 to 400,000.  The chief indication that we're on the right path,
Califano says, is that the number of people who use illegal drugs regularly
has dropped by half since 1979, from 25 million to 13 million.  Marijuana
accounts for almost all of the drop.

Over the same period, the number of hard-core cocaine addicts has stayed
steady at about 2 million, and drug use has become far deadlier.  "In 1980
. . . no one had ever heard of the cheap, smokable form of cocaine called
crack, or drug-related HIV infection or AIDS," writes Ethan Nadelmann, the
director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy research institute in New
York, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "By the 1990s, both had reached
epidemic proportions in American cities."

Half of all cases of AIDS -- the second highest cause of death in the
United States for people ages 25 to 44 -- stem from injected-drug users
sharing needles.  Most researchers think that's a devastating problem, at
least as important as the number of people who occasionally smoke
marijuana.  The American Medical Association, the National Academy of
Science's Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, and
President Bush's National AIDS Commission have all endorsed needle-exchange
programs to attack it.  The message they are trying to get across is that
drug abuse is bad, but dying of AIDS is worse.  Califano helped undermine
the chance to put their proposals into action.

"The tragedy of Joe Califano," says Nadelmann, "is that his anti-drug
fanaticism has made him indifferent both to the scientific evidence and to
the broader consequences of demonizing drug users."

As a leader of the war on drugs, Califano sets himself apart from other
experts who seem willing to step back from their political passions to
point out where policies don't square with the research. In 1972, for
example, Richard Nixon brought together a commission of experts to examine
the US approach to the problem.  Headed by Raymond Shafer, a former
Republican governor of Pennsylvania, the commission was far from leftwing,
yet it advocated pretty much what Califano now calls Russian roulette:
acknowledging that drugs cannot be eliminated from society, treating drug
use as a social problem as much as a crime, and recognizing that law
enforcement sometimes has high financial and moral costs that bring few

In the case of marijuana, the Shafer commission argued, the millions spent
on law enforcement, the time diverted from investigating violent crimes,
and the ruining of people's careers through prosecution outweighed the harm
of using marijuana.

In the late 1970s, President Carter was still able to endorse that view,
and in 1982, a National Academy of Sciences commission echoed it.  Today,
almost no politician on the national level would dare concede the validity
of such views, and for that, Califano deserves a large share of credit.

After Califano wrote a damning book about the Carter administration,
Governing America, Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary, called Califano's
book the ultimate example of the "if only they'd listened to me" memoir:
"His criticisms of others might have been taken more seriously if he had
been somewhat more willing to acknowledge that somewhere along the way he,
JoeCalifano, might have made a mistake, a misstep, or even a judgment that
could be reasonably questioned with the benefit of hindsight."

Califano hasn't been immune to mistakes and missteps.  Take his proposals
to curb health-care costs -- a topic, like drugs, that has been a
long-standing interest.  In the 1960s, he hit upon the idea of driving down
health costs by radically increasing the number of students graduating from
medical school in the United States: from some 8,000 to 16,000.  The more
doctors, the more competition, his argument went.  The move had the
opposite from intended result. Since all those new doctors were getting
reimbursed by insurance companies for whatever they did, the "reform" only
increased the number of doctors doing expensive procedures.

Don't look for any apologies from Califano.  His writing on health care,
which he continued through the 1980s and '90s, has the same tone of
confidence and scorn for enemies as his talk on drugs.  He calls doctors
"the medicine men" and blames high costs on their greed.

Formulating Drug Policy is at least as complex as combating health-care
costs.  Often, the problem is oversimplification.  Much of Califano's
polemical fury is directed at marijuana because it is the most popular
illegal drug and also the one that people tend to shrug their shoulders at.

There's also the fact that most of the people fighting the war on drugs or
commenting on it -- Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Dan Quayle, CASA's Dr. Kleber
- -- have tried it.

Teenagers who smoke marijuana, Califano argues, are 85 times more likely to
try cocaine than those who haven't.  Until a few years ago, he would note
that this relationship is "only statistical," but then note that we used to
think the connection between smoking and lung cancer was statistical, too.

Lately, he has dropped all equivocation.  In a press conference last fall
and in a Post column titled "Marijuana: It's a Hard Drug," he said that
CASA's research had, at last, weeded out any confounding factors --
poverty, depression, single parents, grades -- and proved that marijuana
leads people to crave other drugs.

Some 80 million Americans -- about a quarter of the population -- have used
marijuana, and yet not many baby boomers moved on to mainlining. "The Great
Pot Experiment produced millions of conventional, productive, upstanding
citizens, plus a few journalists," Michael Kinsley once wrote.  If that's
an exaggeration, it's no more so than Califano's thesis that marijuana
sends people down the road to cocaine addiction.

Califano also claims that cigarettes and alcohol are gateway drugs, but he
doesn't take the step that should follow, given his logic: that smoking and
drinking cause marijuana use.

"What's disturbing about his center is that there are certainly people who
know better, who are experts, who will consistently lump correlation
together with causation and lump all drug users together," says McNamara,
the former police chief.  "I don't know if Califano knows better or not,
but the things they say and do are very hard to justify on a professional
level.  It's a propaganda war, and the motivation, I think, is that the
ends justify the means."

A Striking Example Of Califano rhetoric came in a 1995 paper on drug
legalization, where CASA confronted the arguments made by libertarians such
as William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman that government should take
minimal actions against drug use, except where children are concerned.

Reasonable people can disagree about how far the government can go to
protect people from themselves and from the harm that some drug users
cause, and Buckley and Friedman represent one extreme.  But CASA's
dismissal of civil-liberties arguments was harsh.  It pointed out that
philosophers have said that freedom does not include the right to choose to
place oneself into slavery. "Clearly," the report adds, "drug addiction is
a form of enslavement."

When I asked Califano about civil liberties, he stressed his commitment to
them but said drug laws were not an issue.  "There are civil-liberty
problems in every aspect of law enforcement, and I spent a lot of time when
I was in government on those issues," he said.  "In the Johnson years, we
passed the first bail-reform acts.  We did all that stuff.  There are
plenty of abuses, but it's not a question of this law or that law.  It's a
question of what kind of cops you have."

His overriding goal, he said, was to protect children, and every law, and
in fact all of CASA's work, has to be evaluated by that measure. I asked
him to set kids aside for a minute.  Should a 45-year-old, I asked, have
the right to light up a joint on his back porch with no one around?

He cut me off before I could get it out.  "Should a 45-year-old have the
right to shoot heroin in his backyard?" he barked.  "Should a 45-year-old
have the right to, you know, snort cocaine in his backyard? Should a
45-year-old have the right to put a bullet through his head? Okay?"

In some ways, Califano's style distracts from his genuine accomplishments
in combating the abuse of alcohol and tobacco.  He deserves credit for
launching the anti-smoking revolution, and for pushing for steep taxes on
cigarettes and alcohol long before it was trendy.

Last fall, a group of promInent drug-policy experts and law-enforcement
officials sent representatives to Washington to call for a truce in the
debate on drugs.  The discussions, they said, had degenerated into shouting
between two groups stereotyped as "drug warriors" and "legalizers." The 36
signers of the statement said that they, like most people who have studied
the problem, fit in neither description.

"In this climate," said the group, "every idea, research finding, or
proposal put forth is scrutinized to determine which agenda it advances."
They decried the "symbolic" laws that get passed in place of policies based
on scientific research and called for a period of calm in which reason
could be heard.

Who could oppose this manifesto for common sense? "It's hard for me to
imagine anyone at CASA signing our principles," said one of the
researchers. "I think Califano's views are sufficiently wedded to the
absolute commitment to the status quo that I suspect he would have found
our statement to be more radical than it is."

Neither Joe Califano nor anyone else at CASA signed on to the truce.
- ---
Checked-by: Richard Lake