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Bush's Drug War Strategy: Escalate It

The emerging picture of the corporatization of the drug war may require the passion, smarts and commitment of a new anti-war movement.
 
 
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It can't get worse. That's what many scientists, health advocates and drug war reformers thought while doing battle with hyperactive drug crusader General Barry McCaffrey, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Clinton administration. McCaffrey took a fierce stance that helped produce skyrocketing arrests for drug possession, steady militarization of the drug battle and short shrift for treatment. The bellicose nature of the Clinton drug effort was sometimes difficult to understand, since the drug warrior image was a tad out of step with the overall tone of the Clinton-Gore administration.

No matter what Clinton's motivations, collateral damage from his policies was extensive: the seven-month-old shot from the skies over Peru; the teenagers caught smoking reefer and denied a college loan; Patrick Dorismond, killed on the streets of New York because he took umbrage at a quota-driven cop gripped by the equation: black man on the streets = drugs; or the nearly half million nonviolent drug offenders locked up for years or decades. There's so much more. The impact was immense.

But any hope for relief, for a respite from the toll of the Clinton years, was hopelessly naïve. Make no mistake, the drug war is about to get worse under Bush, maybe a whole lot worse. But at least some of the underlying rationale is becoming clearer. In fact, as the Bush administration's troika of backward generals -- Ashcroft, Walters and Hutchinson -- take command of the drug war, new revelations are exposing just how corporate-run and profitable the drug war has become.

Money Changes Everything

One huge private company in particular is in the drug war up to its neck. According to National Defense (a trade publication for defense contractors), DynCorp, a $1.4 billion a year, 20,000-employee government contractor based in Reston, Virginia, "supports drug war operations at both the front and back ends -- from airborne crop-dusting in Colombia to asset forfeiture experts who work at 385 Justice Department sites in the United States." That's right, South America's favorite mercenaries help the feds seize property here at home.

Money, of course, explains much of what moves the drug war. Various levels of government will spend some $38 billion to snuff out drugs this year: on cops and clinicians, lawyers and the Coast Guard, for advocacy and treatment. Endless resources have been invested, and yet the fires burn still brighter.

States Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), "The US is experiencing record overdose deaths, record mentions of drugs in emergency rooms, rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and a 50 percent increase in adolescent drug use since 1990. This failure is happening at the same time that police are being successful in achieving their goals -- record drug arrests, high levels of drug seizures and drug eradication, and the largest prison population in world history."

There you have it: simultaneous victory and defeat. It's a strategy that recalls Vietnam War claims of having to burn the village in order to save it.

The Bush Team

The Senate will soon have hearings on the nomination as drug czar of John P. Walters, a man with both feet planted firmly in the past. The nation can take small comfort that Walters was reportedly not Bush's first choice for the job. And no wonder, considering his views.

Doug McVay, research director of CSDP, said: "He is very much a lock-em-up sort of drug warrior. He supports tough sentencing, questions the value of treatment, dislikes drug courts as too soft, attacks medical marijuana, opposes syringe exchange and strongly supports the use of the military in drug interdiction [in Latin America]."

Reformers may hope that Walters is so extreme that he'll be merely a figurehead meant to mollify Bush's right flank. But probably not. The Great Delegator gives his cabinet members a long leash, and Walters' views are echoed by Bush's choice to head the DEA, former congressman Asa Hutchinson, who rose to prominence as one of the House managers of Clinton's impeachment.

Moreover, Walters will be sitting there right next to Attorney General John Ashcroft, another true believer. Ashcroft has "objected vociferously to spending money on drug treatment rather than drug interdiction, claiming that treatment 'enables' drug users and that enforcement is a more effective use of funds," notes the Drug Reform Coordination Network.

Also, Ashcroft has said: "I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it if you will." Amazing how politicians feel a little alliteration can cloak the truth. Judging by expenditures, arrests or any other measure, our former non-inhaler-in-chief in fact fought the drug war far more rigorously than did Reagan and Bush the First combined.

Sure, Bush mouthed some fine words about treatment and said he'd reconsider mandatory minimum sentences, but his three appointments have eviscerated those conciliatory messages. The increases in his drug budget -- by 6 percent, up to $19.2 billion -- also undermine his ostensibly compassionate approach to drug abuse. As in years past, roughly two-thirds of Bush drug budget goes to interdiction and incarceration, and only one-third to treatment and prevention.

Arianna Huffington said that Bush has allocated $320 million a year for treatment. Yet, the White House has estimated that 57 percent of Americans who require drug treatment do not receive it. "With around 3 million addicts who are not getting treatment, that works out to roughly $100 a year -- or 29 cents a day -- for each of them," wrote Huffington. Not much, she added, compared to the $1.8 billion earmarked for military adventures in South America.

South American Link

It took the deaths of a missionary and her young daughter, blasted from the sky in Peru with the help of US contractors, to reinvigorate, however briefly, debate over the country's increasing military entanglements to the south. Critics charge that the drug war cloaks support corporate interests both at home (those helicopters sure are expensive) and abroad, where they are threatened by decades-old foreign civil wars. It's a policy that hides behind State Department mercenaries doing some of the heavy lifting alongside our apple-cheeked boys in uniform. US law permits 500 military personnel and 300 civilian contract employees to operate in Columbia. (Note: the Vietnam-era term "advisers" is eschewed.)

A chorus of opposition to this U.S. intervention is swelling. In February the European Parliament rejected support for Plan Colombia by a vote of 474 to 1. And six governors of Colombian provinces in the heart of the drug cultivation region have called for a different approach, for less poison from the skies.

Fear of both war and fumigation has led to huge numbers of refugees in Colombia. And, according to the Associated Press, over the past six years, the Peruvian air force shot down 30 or more planes with the help of the CIA, actions which were allowed because drugs were presumably involved.

The Monster Company Called DynCorp

And now back to DynCorp, the $1.4 billion-a-year government contractor. Quoting a Government Accounting Office report, The Miami Herald noted that DynCorp "has been paid at least $270 million since 1991 to provide airplane and helicopter pilots and mechanics for the war on drugs in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Guatemala."

Jason Vest reported in The Nation that DynCorp oversees a fleet of 46 helicopters and 23 airplanes from an Air Force base in Florida. The Nation obtained a copy of DynCorp's contract, which states that along with "fumigation and search-and-rescue," DynCorp's other responsibilities include "flying local troops in to destroy drug labs and coca or poppy fields."

A nifty enabler, the guise of fighting drugs allows the U.S. to fly troops around in other countries' civil wars. This February DynCorp employees flew into the midst of a firefight to rescue Colombian police shot down by leftist guerillas.

The Asset Forfeiture Black Hole

As to DynCorp's domestic drug-war boodle -- its five-year, $316 million contract helping the Department of Justice (DOJ) seize assets -- there's been little public notice of it outside National Defense magazine. DynCorp told the magazine that most of the 1,000 staffers involved in the program, funded through 2003, hold " 'secret' clearances and have been involved in more than 60,000 seizures in the United States. Among other things, they provide 'criminal-intelligence collection and analysis, forensic support and asset identification and tracking.' "

So this band of retired military honchos has 1,000 operatives with some sort of "secret" mojo, spying on the American public at the feds' behest and helping to hoover up vast sums of money in over 60,000 seizures. Assume, let's say, a modest $3 return for every dollar that the DOJ -- which, with 385 different sites, blankets the country with these folks -- invests. That's nearly $1 billion right there for everything from radios to shiny new patrol cars.

With their eyes on the prize, cops declare fancy cars "guilty" because someone's son smokes a joint in one. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, "In 80 percent of forfeitures, in fact, charges never are filed." The paper put the total value of assets seized since 1985 by all levels of government at more than $7 billion. It's easy, when safeguards we take for granted in criminal proceedings are reversed: current law presumes that the property is guilty, and owners have to spend time and money proving that "it" wasn't involved in a crime.

What About Treatment? Just Lock Them Up

Last November, California voters passed Prop. 36 -- which requires treatment rather than incarceration for users' first two arrests for possession -- by a huge margin of 61 percent to 39 percent. Now the problem is ensuring funding. There's money available for sensing devices that effectively "see" through walls, and pork enough to declare most of the country a High Density Drug Trafficking Area. But there's not nearly enough to treat addiction, even with the move to coerced treatment rather than incarceration. Some desperate junkies actually seek arrest as the only route to getting clean.

Funds for treatment rather than prison are limited by a "one strike and you're out" mindset. Never mind that experts recognize addiction as a chronic relapsing disease; like diabetes or high blood pressure, it is a condition to be managed rather than cured. As Alan I. Leshner, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stated recently, "The problem with the [treatment] capacity issue is that people don't have great confidence in drug treatment because they think that a single momentary relapse is a failure of treatment, whereas we don't think that if somebody's blood pressure or diabetes relapses."

It's far easier, though far more expensive, to lock folks up: 1.6 million Americans are arrested annually on drug charges. With mandatory minimum sentence requirements -- which are opposed by the American Bar Association, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Human Rights Watch -- based solely on prior convictions and the amount of drugs possessed, judges are robbed of discretion. Many low-level users, who deal to support their habits, get sentences of eight, 10, 15 years and more for being ill.

At any one time, nearly 500,000 drug offenders are in prison. Roughly two-thirds of them are black, even though blacks use drugs at the same rate as the population as a whole. And a vast number of these convictions are for marijuana. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Foundation, notes, "Taxpayers spend between $7.5 billion and $10 billion annually arresting and prosecuting individuals for marijuana violations." In fact, according to the DOJ, with 700,000 individuals arrested in 1999 -- 88 percent for possession alone --marijuana violations are the fifth most common criminal offense. During the 1990s, a total of five million Americans were arrested for pot.

One folly about to kick into gear, courtesy of the Bush administration, is the provision of the Higher Education Act that denies anyone with a drug conviction federal student aid for a minimum of one year. This might have more political salience for the white middle class than other drug war measures. Passed in 1998, the law wasn't strictly enforced by the Clinton administration: last year, some 280,000 applicants left the question blank. Now, students must answer drug conviction questions on loan applications or be denied.

According to the New York Times, with about half of the applications in for the coming school year, 33,000 have acknowledged a drug conviction. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has introduced legislation to rescind this punitive law, but little action is likely prior to next year, when the original bill comes up for renewal.

Propaganda Campaigns

Throw money and see if any sticks. In 1998, the White House commissioned a study from the National Research Council on the drug war's effectiveness. And, lo and behold, the effort's chairman stated that there is no way of "knowing whether, and to what extent, it is having the desired result ... Neither the necessary data systems nor the research infrastructure to gauge the usefulness of drug-control enforcement policies currently exists" -- this despite a tenfold increase in expenditures between 1981 and 1999.

The effects of the taxpayer-funded, $1 billion anti-drug media campaign are uncertain at best. Referring to ads donated to the private Partnership for a Drug-Free America prior to the government's paid campaign, the feds concluded that "youths who had seen or heard drug/alcohol prevention messages outside of school in the past year were somewhat more likely to report past year marijuana use than those who had not been exposed."

Similarly, the National Research Council found that the D.A.R.E. programs that litter the nation's schools (and have encouraged students to inform on their friends and family) have had little positive effect and may actually increase drug use. This month, the Suffolk County, N.Y., police commissioner tried to move his 34 officers from playing teacher back to actually preventing crime on the street, until his boss bowed to political pressure to retain the program. That didn't stop Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson from scrapping D.A.R.E.

It was recently disclosed that the federal government provided hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial incentives per episode to TV network consultants on the White House payroll to get anti-drug messages into scripts for various shows. The same financial-credit-for-content paradigm was in place at some of the nation's most prominent nonfiction magazines as well. Most chilling, though, was the motive underlying the whole media campaign: to generate propaganda that would discourage voter support for medical marijuana issues. The strategy was engendered at a meeting attended by numerous federal, state and private officials convened by McCaffrey nine days after medical marijuana initiatives passed in Arizona and California in 1996.

Medical Marijuana

Still, voters around the country are taking matters into their own compassionate hands. Voters passed five drug policy reform measures last November, including medical marijuana and forfeiture reform measures. Yet public support for medical marijuana, as reflected in voter initiatives, had no effect on the recent Supreme Court ruling against the manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana. Though the court did not address individual use, it threw the matter back to a Congress reluctant to be confronted by patients in wheelchairs at any hearing on the matter.

NORML's St. Pierre told Alternet, "99 percent of patients will suffer no ill effects from the Supreme Court ruling," since federal prosecutors won't be going after patients. That assumes that individual patients are able to maintain -- and afford -- their black-market supply of medicine. Otherwise, even if they aren't arrested, they still have to endure all the pain they could have used marijuana to alleviate.

Although defendants will not be allowed to raise a medical necessity defense, Kevin Zeese says, "A single juror has the power to thwart the federal government's effort to undermine access to medical marijuana and prevent it from reversing the vote of the people by brute force." Of course, if a defendant forces the government into the expense of a trial, plea-bargaining goes out the window. It's a high-stakes gamble.

The feds also have orchestrated a fine Catch-22, calling for more research on pot's medicinal use, but then refusing to approve medical studies. Only one is currently underway. In stark contrast, Canada authorized the use and cultivation of medical marijuana last April.

The Leviathan

So that's the news coming from the drug front. Not a pretty picture is it? Students being harassed and losing financial support for smoking a joint ... Medical marijuana jettisoned by a know-nothing Supreme Court, the same crew that elected George Bush ... Treatment a distant dream for many desperate addicts ... Tens of thousands of people thrown into jail for harmless possession of pot.

Essentially, after spending scores of billions of dollars, locking up millions and shredding the Constitution (the Fourth Amendment hangs by a thread), drugs are more plentiful and cheaper than ever before. The drug war fails on every level. Yet it keeps getting ratcheted up, with tons more money thrown at interdiction. Just a little more effort and the tide will turn, the warriors say. Didn't we hear that rationale with the war in Viet Nam?

And the newest piece of the picture is perhaps the most disturbing. It's the funding of private armies of ex-military warriors and drug cops -- exemplified by DynCorp -- to create a massive infrastructure of vested interests and military firepower. Along with the already bloated U.S. prison-industrial complex, such an enterprise creates a hungry, growing monster that can swallow hundreds of thousands of victims and lap up billions in asset forfeiture. This is the emerging picture of the corporatization of the drug war. Fighting it successfully may well require the passion, smarts and commitment of a new anti-war movement.