The War on Drugs
Illicit drugs make an attractive target for politicians as election dates near. No candidate for high office has yet been known to come out in favor of cocaine. Because solutions, such as they are, can only be partial at best, no officeholder's record is attack-proof. For shattered families, though, and for the police, courts, toxicologists, and social workers, the problem remains, intractable as ever, long after the political caravan moves on.
Opinion polls continue to show that drug abuse ranks as one of the national problems that most agitate Americans. In an extensive Gallup Organization survey in 1995, more than 90 percent of the sample rated illegal drugs as a "crisis" or a "serious problem." Still, respondents regarded illicit drugs as a distant problem, far more serious nationally than in their home communities. In some polls in recent years, drugs rank just behind crime — and well ahead of health care, welfare, and other issues — on the list of matters of highest concern. Twenty percent of Gallup respondents acknowledged that drugs had caused trouble in their own families. The surveys show support for a broad range of anti-drug programs, but almost nobody favors the legalization of drugs as a remedy.
With reports that drug use among adolescents had begun to rise again after some years of decline, drug issues made a fleeting appearance in the 1996 presidential campaign. As it happens, most analysts regard America's drug problem as serious but not critical. Overall, drug use in the mid-1990s falls far short of the levels reached during the epidemic years of the late 1970s.
The government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported in August 1996 that 128 million Americans had used illegal drugs at least once a month during the previous year — about the same number as in 1994, but a sharp drop from 233 million users in 1985. Three quarters were marijuana smokers.
Still, drugs are dangerous, corrosive, and socially expensive. The crack blight has nearly destroyed some inner-city communities. U.S. prisons bulge with convicts serving tough mandatory sentenced for drug possession or sales. There are an estimated 2.7 million hard-core drug addicts in America. The government says drug abuse kills 20,000 people a year and costs the country $67 billion a year.
The public appeared to take note of the trend in 1996 — if not on its own merits, then perhaps as a result of Bob Dole's focus on the issue in campaign. In 1995, most respondents, 68 percent, thought the nation had either "stood still" or "made some progress" in the war on drugs over the previous year or two. But by November 1996, only 52 percent agreed the problem had not grown worse.
The Political Angle
Republicans accuse Democrats of being soft on drugs. Conservatives such as William Bennett call for an expanded military response to drug smuggling and for the use of troops to disrupt sources of supply. Democrats accuse Republicans of choking off funds for drug prevention and treatment programs and ignoring the social ills that contribute to the problem.
Bush administration drug officials had targeted so-called recreational users on the theory that scaring them off would damage the drug business, cut into dealers' profits, and eventually reduce the pool of addicts. Even the top Clinton drug official conceded the shift may have contributed to the rise in adolescent drug use.
On the other hand, Republicans in Congress starved drug programs of funds. Budget cuts in 1995 and 1996 forced the dismantling of 79 drug prevention programs and 33 treatment programs around the country. Clinton used the veto to restore the more than $200 million (half the total) Congress sought to cut from the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act.
The commentator Joshua Shenk saw ample fault on both sides. Neither party seems willing to act on the generally accepted notion that the problem is demand rather than supply. Only around a third of the Clinton administration's record $15 billion 1997 budget for control of illegal drugs goes for prevention and treatment — programs that potentially can reduce demand.
Whoever's to blame, reports of increasing adolescent drug use concern the experts. The increase corresponds with a steep upward spike in the teenage population. By 2010, demographers project there will be more adolescents than ever before on American history, and adolescents are the group regarded as most at risk of taking drugs.
"The problem is getting worse and doing so sharply and we need to attend to it, but I don't think we need to exaggerate it," said Lloyd Johnson, a University of Michigan social scientist who has tracked drug use among teenagers since the 1970s.
Has the government actually contributed to the drug problem? On the drug issue, distrust of government built a receptive audience for an explosive series of articles on a California newspaper that claimed U.S.-backed Contra force in Nicaragua played a leading role in touching off the devastating crack epidemic in black neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
The Contras, the San Jose Mercury-News charged in August 1996, opened the first pipeline between the Colombian drug cartels and Los Angeles's black neighborhoods, and used the profits to finance their war against Nicaragua's revolutionary government. The newspaper hinted strongly that the CIA knew about and approved the connection.
Paratroops and Prisons
Most drug authorities and experts call for a comprehensive approach: prevention, enforcement, treatment. That is the general view. In detail, approaches to the anti-drug campaign break down broadly along liberal and conservative lines.
Liberals tend to regard drug abuse as a mental illness or as a despairing response to poverty and want. They emphasize treatment, counseling, and prevention. Conservatives tend to view drug taking as an indulgence, the outward sign of an inward failing. So they call for correction: stiffer sentences for drug offenders, more prisons.
Some years ago, in an appearance on a television talk show, William Bennett, the Bush administration "drug Czar," nodded in agreement when a phone-in participant proposed beheading for drug dealer. "One of the things that I think is a problem is that we are not doing enough that is morally proportional to the nature of the offense," Bennett said on Larry King Live, the CNN program. "I mean, what the caller suggests is morally plausible. Legally, it's difficult."
Politicians and the press speak routinely of fighting a "drug war" — an unfortunate choice of metaphor, misleading and harmful, according to those on the front lines.
"The victims of drug abuse are not our enemies," said McCaffrey, the former soldier who runs Clinton's anti-drug effort. "They are our relatives, co-workers, and classmates. There is no surprise attack that will yield a quick victory. We must instead care for the victims of drug abuse, address its multiple causes, and use scientific knowledge, compassion, and legal remedies to develop effective preventive programs."
In recent years, U.S. military forces have provided the scientific and technical expertise to which McCaffrey referred. Everyone agrees that America's long borders make an absolute halt in smuggling an impossibility. However, advocates of aggressive interdiction claim it works. Bennett, for example, says Bush administration offensives against smugglers led to a doubling, and in some cases a tripling, of cocaine prices in some U.S. cities in 1990.
To track airborne smuggling, the U.S. uses high-tech surveillance, including Air Force early-warning (AWACS) aircraft and Navy long-distance ground radars. The military also participates in land offensives that aim to disrupt cocaine production on Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. National Guard units are involved too, contributing some 3,000 intelligence analysts, linguists, and other specialists to the cause.
For William Bennett, who believes the drug problem is "fundamentally a crisis of social and moral authority," the first priority is to stanch the flow of drugs and to track, catch, and punish drug traffickers.
"The most immediate need is not to teach fire prevention, but to put out the fire," Bennett said, "Something is wrong when law-enforcement officers start sounding like sociologists and when their leaders want to spend more time psychoanalyzing a drug dealer's behavior rather than getting their men to arrest him."
Education, Treatment, Prevention
The Clinton administration stepped up the campaign against illicit drugs in 1996, partly in response to Republican challenges on the issue. Among other initiatives, the president sought to make federal aid for prison construction contingent on each state's adopting comprehensive testing and treatment programs for inmates and parolees.
Clinton, however, failed to deliver on his 1992 promise of treatment on demand for hard-core addicts. A Democratic Congress cut deeply into his funding request for treatment programs, and he did not fight hard to restore the money. As a consequence, an estimated 1 million of 2.7 million addicts were not being served in 1996 — a record only marginally better than that of the Bush administration.
In any case, the experts report mixed success for most treatment programs. Some studies of cocaine addicts suggest that only around half are drug-free one to two years after treatment. Experts are skeptical, too, about the effectiveness of the Leading Resistance Education, known as its acronym, DARE.
Specially trained police officers teach DARE, which is in use in three-quarters of the nation's public schools. The schools like it because it costs them nothing; cities pay the salaries of the police officers who do the teaching. Researchers say, however, that there is scant evidence that DARE has lasting effects on young people's attitudes about drugs, and that DARE is better at marketing its program than influencing behavior.
For most children, parents outrank police officers and teachers as figures of influence. That is why many analysts found a 1996 survey on parents' attitudes toward drugs so discouraging. The Columbia University Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that two-thirds of Baby Boomer parents who had experimented with marijuana expected their own children to do the same, and that they felt powerless to stop them. Close to half the parents in the Columbia University survey said they had smoked marijuana. Of the overall sample, 46 percent expected their teenagers to try drugs.
The Republican charge against Clinton turned on the president's alleged ambivalence about drugs — he once admitted to trying marijuana as a graduate student, though he said, famously, that he had not inhaled. Later, during an MTV appearance, he joked that he regretted his inability to inhale. To Clinton's opponents, his flippancy about the issue made him unfit to lead an attack on drug use among teens.
It's anyone's guess how great an influence national leaders actually command on such matters, especially with young people.
"I think the notion that high school kids do what the president wants them to do is pretty silly," said Mark A.R. Kleiman, a drug-policy authority at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Kleiman and others agree, though, that the president can establish the agenda for an effective campaign against illegal drugs, and that he can further it effectively from the bully pulpit.
"Occupants of the White House can't do the work of prosecutors and police chiefs," The Christian Science Monitor observed in an editorial. "They can help set a tone for society and devise policies that steer local initiatives."