HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Ending The War On Drugs
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 The Economist Newspaper Limited.
Pubdate: 2 Jan 1999


The war against drugs is either not working or succeeding at too high
a cost, several recent books agree. What should replace it is harder
to be certain of.

DRUG CRAZY. By Mike Gray. Random House; 240 pages; $23.95.

OPIUM: A HISTORY. By Martin Booth. St Martin's Press; 381 pages; $24.95.
Pocket; $6.99 (paperback).

Brown; 302 pages; $18.99.

BUZZED. By Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, Wilkie Wilson with Leigh
Heather Wilson and Jeremy Foster. Norton; 317 pages; $25 and $18.95.

ENDING THE WAR ON DRUGS. By Dirk Chase Eldredge. Bridge Works; 207 pages;

THE FIX. By Michael Massing. Simon and Schuster; 335 pages; $25

WAR is a dirty business, and the war on drugs involves plenty of
filth: deceit, corruption and damage to civil liberties, not to
mention outright violence--and that's just from the good guys. Every
struggle has to have heroes, and America's anti-drugs campaign makes
its casting billboard-clear. The white hats are enforcement agents
stamping out narcotics at home and abroad, police sweeping dealers and
users off the streets, judges jailing drug offenders, not to mention
plucky little civilians who just say no. The black hats are
shadowy figures: greedy drug barons, mostly foreign, who exploit their
own countrymen and corrupt America's children. Congress and Hollywood,
spurred on by alarmed parents, have created such a drugs mythology
that the good and evil of narcotics is now as distinct, to many, as
Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein.

Yet today's highly militarised drugs campaign originated in more than
medicine and morality. From the start the war has involved political
interest and financial gain, as well as frequent misunderstanding--not
to mention downright misrepresentation--of the best evidence about
drugs' medical and social effects.

If these were novel or incidental mistakes, the war might be more
understandable. But, along with social concern and good sense, modern
drug policy has from the start involved fear and unreason, often
directed against foreigners or outsiders. It is almost 125 years since
authorities in San Francisco launched an early salvo in the western
war on drugs by clamping down on opium use among the growing
population of Chinese labourers. In the years leading up to the
Harrison Act of 1914, which amounted to the first federal ban on
non-medical narcotics, its drafters played on fears of drug-crazed,
sex-mad negroes to win support in the South.

Then 20 years later, the spectre of the sky-high, violent Mexican
immigrant was played up to sell the public on the criminalising of
marijuana. At several times since the 1930s, governments have used the
drug card, whether to lean on dispensible foreign dictators or to
brush back homegrown countercultures.

One thing that has changed, though, are the high stakes that America
is willing to play. In 1980, the federal government spent around $1
billion on drug control; federal, state and local spending last year
exceeded $30 billion, which includes much expanded programmes of crop
eradication, border patrolling and sting operations. Only a third of
the federal government's drug-control spending goes on drugs education
or drugs treatment.

How much success this money buys depends on your definition. According
to United Nations estimates, Americans are spending almost $60 billion
on illegal drugs a year, mainly on the soft drug, marijuana, and
its hard counterparts, cocaine and heroin. These are,
unavoidably, guesstimates. But nobody seriously contests that drugs
continue to pour into America and that prices have fallen. Cocaine
costs half or less what it did in the early 1980s and heroin sells for
just under $1,000 a gram, three-fifths of its price a decade ago.
Purity has also increased. In the 1980s, street heroin was so
adulterated that injecting straight into the blood was the surest way
to achieve a high. Now fixes are commonly more than 50% pure, which
means that users who might be deterred by needles can smoke or snort
the drug instead.

A third of all Americans admit to having tried drugs and at least 13m
are occasional users. Drug arrests were 1.1m in 1995, double the 1980
figure. There are 400,000 Americans behind bars for drug offences,
eight times the number 19 years ago.

Those who fight the war on drugs, with its strict penalties at home
and sharp punishment abroad, point to seizures of both drugs and their
users as victories. In their terms, they are. And if slowing the
spread of hard drugs is a sensible goal, which it seems to be, there
is indeed good news. Nationwide studies of drug use, such as the
University of Michigan survey of high-school students, suggest that
although teenage marijuana use has risen in recent years,
experimentation with cocaine or heroin among young, first-time users
has stayed fairly steady. Those who question or oppose the drugs war,
however, reckon that this is the wrong body count. Although casual
hard-drug consumption may be dropping, the number of hard-core hard
drug users--those most directly associated with the private and
collective misery of drugs--has scarcely budged since the war began.

Instead the war's critics propose an entirely new approach that drops
or downplays military means and abandons unconditional surrender as
the goal. The anti-war doves, as will be seen, form a growing and
disputatious camp. Yet whether they favour disapproval or toleration,
continued prohibition or legalisation, most doves accept that core
drug abuse is not going to be eradicated at an acceptable price, that
crusading moralism is counterproductive and that drugs policy should
be refocused on education for the young and harm reduction for
habitual users--for example, methadone programmes, needle-exchange
centres or prescription heroin.

It sounds like common sense. But good sense alone will not end the war
on drugs. Both the law makers and law breakers have too much invested
in the conflict for either to lay down arms easily. Even amid falling
prices, drug producers continue to profit from the risk premium that
prohibition puts on their multi-billion dollar industry. The anti-drug
warriors' jobs and budgets depend on expensive enforcement and
lucrative asset seizures. Having demonised their foes, they can only
with great difficulty now make peace with the devil.

Back to the future

Neither side is above massaging the drugs statistics. But anyone who
suspects that the critics of the drugs war are toying with the facts
should read Drug Crazy. This book describes the origins and
consequences of America's present narcotics policy. It moves from
gangland drug busts to Colombian coca plantations to Mexican border
patrols. This is reportage from the front line, told with all the
verve of an action film, a style which no doubt owes much to the fact
that its author, Mike Gray, is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer.

Mr Gray does not shrink from describing the violence of the drugs war,
from shoot-outs in the ghettoes of Chicago to explosions on the
streets of Bogota. But the legal burden of America's current drug
policy comes through most clearly in his description of how drug
dealers are brought to justice. Chicago's county court, which has seen
its caseload quadruple in the last 20 years largely because of
continued tightening of policy on drugs, now runs round the clock.

Although most people who take crack cocaine are white, 96% of the
crack defendants in federal courts are black or Hispanic. This is
largely because white people, being richer, do their deals behind
closed doors, while blacks and Hispanics tend to trade on the streets,
where they are more easily watched and arrested.

The night shift at Cook County court catches only the foot soldiers of
such drug armies as Chicago's Gangster Disciples. The officers stay
out of sight and, generally, out of jail. Justice is summary, and
baffling: ten-minute trials lead to five-year sentences for possession
of a fifth of an ounce of crack, while the same amount of powdered
cocaine lands its owner a few weeks in prison. Crack is cocaine mixed
with baking soda to make it smokable and stronger. But concentrating
the drug also concentrates the penalty, introduced during the crack
scare of the 1980s. As blacks use more crack than powdered cocaine,
the punishment falls disproportionately on them. Arrest and
imprisonment are scarcely deterrents. A young lawyer at the county
court is quoted as saying, We're not producing justice here. We're
manufacturing revolutionaries.

On a continent once famous for revolutionaries--Latin America--the
tough position of the United States has had mixed effects. The Bush
administration spent $2 billion on crop eradication and substitution,
spraying the jungle and bribing peasants to plant passion fruit rather
than coca plants--with little success. By 1992, cocaine production had
grown by 15% and the business had spread across an area the size of
the continental United States. It had also become frighteningly
efficient, first dominated by Pablo Escobar (a ruthless killer,
as Mr Gray describes him, with a pleasant side) in Medellin and
then the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers in Cali. The high-tech barriers
America erected along its borders have succeeded in diverting entry of
South American cocaine from Florida to California and Texas via
Mexico, thereby drawing another country into the violence and
corruption which has plagued Colombia. And the high premium that the
criminalisation of drugs places on them means that South America has
turned its eye to heroin, a far more profitable drug than cocaine.

None of this, as Mr Gray stresses, should come as a surprise.
America's last concerted effort at substance control, prohibition of
alcohol in the 1920s, had similar effects. It inflated prices, drove
bootleg suppliers to organise, encouraged the spread of guns and
crime, corrupted a quarter of the federal enforcement agents--and
doubled the consumption of hard liquor, all within a decade. Nor does
Drug Crazy neglect the influence of stubborn or strong-minded
individuals. It is full of outsize characters from the past: Hamilton
Wright, for example, an American doctor turned diplomat, who tried to
bully the world into drug prohibition, crafted the Harrison Narcotics
Act and was later sacked for drinking on the job. Or Harry Anslinger,
head of drug enforcement from 1930 to 1962, who perfected the sledge
hammer school of narcotics control and invoked every menace from
axemen to communism.

Drugs in history

Because the drugs war is so noisy and so visible, it is often easy to
forget that drugs are not just an American issue. Martin Booth's Opium: A
History charts the rise of heroin from its ancient origins in the poppies
of Eastern Europe to modern-day trade on the streets of America. The book's
wealth of detail is remarkable: all aspects botanical, political, economic,
cultural and pharmacological are discussed (including the unexpected
etymology of such slang as hip, hype and junkie). Unlike Drug Crazy
which is mainly focused on the Americas, much of Opium is set in Europe
and Asia, giving the book a more international perspective and more
comprehensive feel.

Although Mr Booth's accounts of famous addicts, from Clive of India to
John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola, make for interesting
reading, the real fascination of Opium is in its account of the
common man's habit through history. Until the Harrison Act, morphine
and opium--mainly in the tincture laudanum or as patent medicine--were
freely available in America, as they were in Europe. Opium was a
sovereign cure in Victorian England for afflictions ranging from
diarrhoea to depression. Babies were fed the drug in soothing syrups
such as Godfrey's Cordial, leading to claims of physical and mental
retardation, exactly the same concerns voiced about today's crack

In 1868, British public health authorities took most opiates out of
the hands of grocers and put them into those of dispensing doctors and
pharmacists (as, in America, did the Harrison Act). Starting with the
International Opium Commission of 1909, American efforts to curtail
world manufacture, sale and distribution of opium and its derivatives
met with lively resistance from Europe, India and other countries with
a stake in the international trade. Yet from the 1920s to the 1980s, a
series of international treaties forced countries to clamp down on the
production, trade and consumption of opiates, whether for ritual, for
fun or as self-administered medicine. In that time, the penalties for
peddling and possession tended to climb, especially in America.

One clear historical lesson that emerges from Opium is that
people will take drugs whether or not they are proscribed, and they
will do so for all sorts of reasons--to escape life's burdens, for
adventure, for straightforward fun. In 19th-century Britain, Mr Booth
tells us, the Fens of East Anglia were awash in opium. Agricultural
labourers took their pennyworth of elevation along with a
nightly beer as a lift out of working drudgery. This is not so far
from the plight of crack addicts in America's inner cities, boxed in
by poverty, dead-end jobs and broken families.

What does vary widely with history, however, are official attitudes
towards the drug trade. As Britain followed America's line in the
1980s and got tough on drugs, complaints were regularly fired
against heroin-producing nations, such as Pakistan. Supply-side
control was seen as the solution to the drug problem; if only these
people would pull up their poppies, then Western drug use would
plummet. Ironically, exactly the same argument was used against the
British in the early 19th century, when they foisted opium from India
on the Chinese in exchange for tea. When China's then drug czar, Lin
TsEA-hsFC, complained to the British that they were breaking
imperial edicts banning opium import and possession, the prime
minister, Lord Palmerston, replied that the opium trade was a Chinese
problem and that it should be dealt with by controlling consumption.
His logic sounds familiar today.

Such shifts are common in drug debates, according to Richard Rudgley,
a University of Oxford anthropologist. Which intoxicants are forbidden
and which tolerated has never added up to a very coherent story. How
many exasperated parents have lectured teenagers about drugs while
pouring themselves a third drink or lighting another fag? Some of the
most debilitating and addictive compounds, such as alcohol and
tobacco, are permitted while less obviously damaging drugs such as
marijuana are widely proscribed.

In The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances, Mr Rudgley
offers a quick history of almost 100 drugs, sacred and profane, from
the hallucinogenic mushroom amanita to the zombie mixtures of Haitian
folklore. Though dutiful on ordinary drugs, he is gripped when it
comes to the exotic or obscure. There are intriguing entries on
so-called psychoactive animals. Apparently members of the Humr tribe
in south-west Sudan dream vividly of giraffes after taking giraffe
liver extract or bone marrow. What heroin taker would swap its
orgasmic rush for a giraffe dream? As Mr Rudgley sweeps from soma of
the ancient Indo-Iranians to Ecstasy in the British rave scene, he is
careful always to put his psychoactive substances into a wider
cultural or even ritual context, an aspect that has been largely lost
in Western drug use.

A quick fix

Common to many of these books is the charge that American
administrations have tended to neglect solid evidence which might ease
their drug bind. This is most obvious with marijuana, which 70m
Americans over the age of 12 have tried, some for medical reasons, but
most for fun. Since the 1930s, blue-ribbon panels of scientists and
doctors have urged its decriminalisation, only to meet rebuttal from
influential voices, like Anslinger, that marijuana was a gateway
substance leading users to more damaging drugs such as heroin. Yet the
evidence to support marijuana's gateway status is remarkably
thin. Marijuana is not benign. There are legitimate concerns about its
effect on memory and on the lungs, among other organs. But by most
clinical (and personal) accounts, the drug is no more dangerous than
alcohol, a freely-flowing intoxicant.

Yet marijuana policy in America does appear to be softening. Half a
dozen states have voted to legalise the drug for medical purposes. By
contrast, the tough official policy on hard drugs shows little sign of
change. Nor do the anti-drug-war doves appear to be making much
headway in winning converts where it counts--among elected politicians
and in the criminal-justice system. Part of the trouble is that the
anti-war camp is divided, not least on something seemingly as basic as
the medical effects of hard drugs. This is not their fault: the issues
are complex and the evidence is often disputable. Yet given the sheer
weight of belief that hard drugs are very dangerous indeed, the burden
of disproof rests, politically, on the doves.

To take a glaring example of where well-informed, fair-minded people
can differ on what you might expect was observable fact: Mr Rudgley
describes the bleak prospects of America's 375,000 crack babies, born
to addicted mothers, who face a life of mental and physical
retardation. But Mr Gray claims that this figure is grossly
exaggerated and that most crack babies grow up to be quite normal and
not brain-damaged, unteachable monsters.

Any sensible approach to hard drugs ought to start with an
understanding of addiction. But addiction, too, appears to be a
bendable notion. Do drugs give addicts a habit or do addicts make a
habit of drugs? Not everyone who takes a hard drug spirals into
dependence. How destructive it is to be hooked depends a lot on your
circumstances. Cocaine is most certainly addictive for some, but many
users manage to limit their intake to the occasional snort. Heroin is
much harder to take or leave. But addicts can regularise consumption
and do jobs, as heroin-prescription programmes in Switzerland and
Britain have shown.

The best research seems to confirm most people's intuition that
addiction depends on a damaging mix of biochemistry and bad social
conditions. Much of this research is discussed in Buzzed, a
guide to the effects of legal and illicit drugs from coffee to
cocaine. The authors wrote it out of concern for what they take to be
a growing disconnect between advances in understanding of the
physiology of addiction and public perceptions of drug abuse.
Buzzed describes complex neurochemistry with admirable clarity
and its glossary of drug terms will raise smiles. Roche may be a
respectable Swiss pharmaceutical company. But Roche in street
slang is Rohypnol, the notorious date-rape drug. Prudential has
nothing to do with insurance but means a crack-user. Buzzed is
less clear about how much cocaine or heroin you can take without
risking addiction. This is not its fault. Even the best evidence on
this has an elusive, it-depends quality: instant, one-off addiction is
rare even with heroin, it seems, but repeated use over a few weeks or
less can create dependence. Yes, but what is the connection between
that first use and those few repeats?

Denouncing the war on drugs is the easy part. Finding a different
approach is trickier. The more radical anti-war doves believe in
sweeping legalisation. Dirk Chase Eldredge is one such and he makes a
fact-packed case in Ending the War on Drugs. Unlike Drug
Crazy, which views the war from the trenches, this book reads more
like a conference report from a chateau general.

Yet the author is not what you might expect. Mr Eldredge is a
life-long Republican and former campaign manager for President Reagan,
whose wife, Nancy, sponsored Just Say No. Within the party his
is very much a minority view: most Republicans in Congress who speak
out on the issue are unblinkingly pro-war and would like to see users
and pushers off the streets for good.

Undaunted, Mr Eldredge spells out how legalisation could be
accomplished. His preferred system would include state-run sales,
quality-and-price control and a ban on advertising. Revenue from drug
sales and a peace dividend (fewer prisoners and crop
eradications to pay for) would, he believes, provide money for
anti-drug education, drug treatment and research.

As a virgin-lands policy, this has strong appeal. Unfortunately,
America is not virgin soil and Mr Eldredge's proposal is beset by
several layers of difficulty. He himself acknowledges the problem
faced by the constitutional primacy of the states in criminal matters:
repealing federal drug laws would do little good if states did not
follow in concert. He imagines the black market that would persist if
for example one state legalised while its neighbour continued to proscribe.

A similar difficulty exists at the international level. America has
signed several drug treaties that prohibit trade in narcotics and
oblige countries to police its use. Either America must persuade much
of the world to decriminalise, having spent decades cajoling or
coercing other nations into adopting an opposite line. Or America must
abrogate treaties and legalise unilaterally, a step which could turn
it into a black-market drugs exporter. Politically, neither course
looks appetising.

A third problem is uncertainty about the use-and addiction-effects if
cocaine and heroin were decriminalised. It may well be that some
people will take drugs whatever the law says. Just as Mr Booth cites
history, Mr Eldredge cites recent opinion polls in support of the view
that drug laws have little visible effect on drug conduct. There are
strict drug laws and most people do not take drugs. But to treat the
second as a consequence of the first, he believes, is a mistake. The
reasons people give for why they do not take drugs include all sorts
of things--health effects, moral scruples, personal dislikes--but the
law seldom figures highly among them.

This is persuasive as far as it goes. But it skirts the main issue:
how many people would try hard drugs if they were legally available,
and how many new addicts would there be? Prohibitionists point to the
Dutch experience. The partial decriminalisation of cannabis there was
followed, they point out, by a sharp rise in use by teenagers.
Increased availability, in other words, inevitably means some
increased consumption. But the marijuana parallel is not relevant,
many doves insist, since soft and hard drugs are so different. Cocaine
and heroin, they seem to be saying, are their own best deterrent.

The truth is nobody can say with any confidence what would happen if
hard drugs were legalised. No country has yet dared to try and
addiction research has not yet given firm enough answers.

A middle way

Not surprisingly, many people are looking for a middle way between the
diehard warriors and the out-and-out legalisers. Last year, Foreign
Affairs published an instructive exchange between Ethan Nadelmann, who
favours harm-reduction for illegal hard drugs in a context of
marijuana decriminalisation (Commonsense Drug Policy;
January-February 1998 issue) and Herbert Kleber and Mitchell
Rosenthal, who favour continued proscription but think money should
also be invested in education, treatment and research on the home
front (Drug Myths from Abroad; September-October 1998).

In The Fix, Michael Massing describes in detail one of America's
few sustained attempts to relieve or cure addicts rather than punish
them. Early in the 1970s an estimated 600,000 Americans regularly used
heroin, a number swollen by addicted soldiers returning from Vietnam.
President Nixon asked Jerome Jaffe, a psychiatrist from Chicago, to
set up methadone centres and abstinence programmes across the country.
At their height, such demand-side initiatives received
two-thirds of the federal drug budget, and made considerable gains:
crime rates fell and fewer addicts died of overdoses.

But as the heroin crisis abated, so did government interest in the
Jaffe programmes. Subsequent administrations, Republican and
Democratic, turned to supply-side controls abroad and to locking
up users and pushers in America. Mr Massing is particularly critical
of a shift in resources under Presidents Reagan and Bush from the dark
heart of drug use--hard-core cocaine and heroin addiction--to teenage
marijuana use.

A few methadone treatment centres carry on Dr Jaffe's tradition, but
they have room for only 15% of America's 800,000 heroin addicts.
The Fix takes to the street with one service, New York's Hot
Line Cares, as it lives hand-to-mouth trying to get the city's crack
addicts into precious treatment slots. The reward is found, not only
in Mr Massing's accounts of wasted lives rescued through treatment,
but also in hard economics. According to a 1992 study conducted by
California's Rand Corporation, treatment is seven times better at
reducing cocaine consumption in America than domestic law enforcement
and an astonishing 23 times more effective than blasting foreign drug
sources. Mr Massing advocates a rebalancing of the nation's drug
budget, with half of its resources allocated to treatment and
education, out of the pocket of supply-side control. Drug warriors
certainly challenge this balance of power. An increased investment in
treatment or harm reduction will not singlehandedly solve the drug
problem. But at least they will not make matters worse, which the war
on drugs very arguably has.

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