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Addicted to Failure

America's war on drugs has a new commander in chief, and his battle plan spells disaster. After almost 30 years, billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of ruined lives, Washington still can't seem to get it right.
 
 
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For Jim and Veronica "Roni" Bowers, life aboard their 55-foot houseboat in Iquitos, Peru, was the culmination of lifelong dreams. The American college sweethearts-turned-missionaries had long aspired to raise a family in South America. That dream was now reality. The couple had two beautiful children, seven-year-old son Cory and infant daughter Charity, and a mission to disseminate food, medical supplies, and Christianity to the thousands of Peruvian natives living along the banks of the Amazon River. It was a laborious and dangerous life, but it was what they had always wanted.

On the morning of April 20, 2001, Jim, Roni, Cory, and Charity boarded a small, slow-moving Cessna 185 seaplane bound for Iquitos. The family was returning from Leticia, Colombia, where they had traveled one day earlier to secure Charity's visa. Piloting the 250-mile return flight was 42-year-old Kevin Donaldson, a fellow missionary with more than 15 years' experience navigating the skies of Peru. Thus far their trip had been uneventful. But it would end in tragedy.

Unbeknownst to Donaldson and his four passengers, a CIA-contracted surveillance plane with CIA agents aboard had spotted the missionaries' craft shortly after takeoff. After trying and failing to establish radio contact with the Cessna or confirm its flight path, the surveiling plane alerted Peruvian fighter pilots in Iquitos that it was likely trafficking cocaine. The Peruvian pilots were authorized to intercept the Cessna, and were granted permission to use deadly force.

Jim Bowers and Kevin Donaldson never suspected anything was wrong. As a Peruvian jet fighter came into view, the 37-year-old father held his son up to the window for a closer look. Seconds later, the jet opened fire.

The first round of gunfire smashed the windshield in front of Bowers's face. Other shots pierced the Cessna's cabin and tail. The plane erupted in flames. Kevin Donaldson screamed into the radio, "They're trying to kill us! They're trying to kill us!" as he desperately tried to ditch the flailing aircraft in the Amazon below. Bowers struggled to extinguish the fire. Just inches behind him lay his wife and infant daughter -- dead. Roni, 35, a woman described by those who knew her as having everything to live for, and Charity, whose life had just begun, had been struck and killed by a single bullet.

In the wake of the Bowers tragedy, politicians and pundits alike have stepped forward to assign blame. Bush administration officials initially singled out the Peruvian military, alleging that the attackers failed to follow proper procedure. Secretary of State Colin Powell went out of his way to charge Hollywood types and other well-to-do Americans who "continue to use drugs in an unlawful way" with the ultimate responsibility for Roni and Charity's deaths. Washington Times columnist Robert Charles, a former chief counsel to the National Security Subcommittee, argued that fault lay primarily with "the unrepentant drug lords who are the unambiguous first cause of the Peruvian shoot-down policy." Last but not least, the U.S. State Department resolved that no one was culpable because the seven-year-old drug-interdiction program had no defined rules to begin with.

Through all the finger-pointing, the true culprits -- America's incessant yet intrinsically flawed drug warriors -- remain at large. As president and commander in chief, it is George W. Bush who now presides over their multibillion-dollar crusade. Despite heavy casualties, waning public support, hundreds of thousands of American lives thrown away, and outright tragedies like the deaths of Roni and Charity Bowers, the president and his allies have no intention of calling a cease-fire. "It's a shame what happened," said Congressman Porter Goss (R-Florida), "but this is war, and unfortunately there are casualties."

"Acceptance of drug use is simply not an option.... I believe the only humane and compassionate response to drug use is a moral refusal to accept it.... Illegal drugs are the enemies of innocence and ambition and hope." Such tough talk, uttered by Bush at a May 10 Rose Garden press conference announcing his intent to relaunch America's drug war, marked an about-face for the president, who, defining substance abuse as a "disease" rather than a crime, had previously questioned the wisdom of mandatory-minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders. Yet his sudden change of heart -- he opened his speech by promising, "As of today, the federal government is waging an all-out effort to reduce illegal drug use in America" -- was hardly unexpected.

The preceding day, Bush had nominated drug war hardliner Asa Hutchinson to head the nation's $1.5 billion Drug Enforcement Administration. As a congressman, the three-term Arkansas Republican and moral crusader -- he was one of the chief prosecutors during Clinton's impeachment -- made his mark by demanding stiffer penalties for drug offenders, coerced abstinence for addicts, and increased use of the military for drug-interdiction efforts overseas. During Clinton's reign, under which annual drug arrests soared to an all-time high, Hutchinson lambasted the administration for being soft on drugs. He called Clinton's drug-reduction strategy "the language of pessimism," and insisted that "elimination -- not containment -- should be our goal." Not one to let democracy interfere with that goal, he backed legislation in 1999 that forbade the District of Columbia from implementing a ballot initiative legalizing the use of medicinal marijuana, even though it had been approved by 70 percent of the District's electorate. That same year, fearful of voter contagion, Hutchinson urged Congress to rewrite federal law to prevent citizens from approving similar ballot proposals in the 50 states.

Bush's selection of Hutchinson wasn't his only dubious pick in the renewed antidrug fight. Early this year he tapped for the job of U.S. attorney general former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, a drug war hawk whom voters shit-canned last year in the election for governor in favor of deceased opponent Mel Carnahan. Like Hutchinson, Ashcroft views drug use as sinful and punishable behavior, and will go to extreme lengths to stamp it out.

The ex-senator made headlines in 1999 when he cosponsored the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which, if passed, would have imposed ten-year prison terms on individuals who post drug-related information on the Internet. True to form, in his first interview as AG, America's new top cop zealously told CNN's Larry King that one of his top priorities would be to intensify America's drug war: "I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it; relaunch it, if you will."

Of course, such rhetoric is hardly new. Richard Nixon first declared "war" on drugs -- at that time heroin -- in the late sixties. Congress passed America's first federal antidrug law-the Harrison Narcotics Act, which outlawed opiates and cocaine-in 1914. Marijuana has been illegal federally since the Marihuana (sic) Tax Act of 1937. Mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug crimes dates back to the Boggs Amendment of 1951. (Congress eventually repealed this amendment, only to reintroduce man-min sentencing in the mid-1980s.) Under President Ronald Reagan, the government's antidrug crusade reinvented itself as a legitimate "war," complete with mandatory drug testing for all federal employees, a drug czar, and full use of the military. Yet throughout our nation's long history of coerced temperance, drug use continues unabated.

Critics wonder just how much further "escalation," aside from perhaps a declaration of martial law, is humanly possible. Lest anyone doubt Ashcroft's "war" terminology (former drug czar Barry McCaffrey preferred the term "cancer"), consider this: Our country now spends twice as much money annually to combat illegal drugs as it spent fighting the Persian Gulf War. In the face of this massive expenditure-the feds have spent more than $140 billion since 1990; state governments have squandered even more-drugs remain cheaper and more plentiful and diverse than ever. (Who had even heard of crack, ecstasy, or ice 20 years ago?) Among children, the percentage using illicit drugs is no different now than it was in 1975. The number of adults using drugs also remains relatively unchanged, but far more are overdosing and dying -- often as a result of consuming substances of dangerously high purity -- than at any time in our nation's history.

"It is unconscionable for this country to carry out a public policy of this magnitude and cost without ... knowing ... [if] it is having the desired result," asserts Northwestern University economics professor Charles F. Manski, chief author of a 2001 review of American drug policy by the National Resource Council. The report criticizes the drug war's reliance on enforcement activities and get-tough penalties, none of which has been proved to reduce drug consumption. The Council reports that annual drug war spending has grown from $1.5 billion in 1980 to more than $19 billion today. Police now arrest nearly 1.6 million Americans per year on drug charges, three times as many as 20 years ago despite comparable levels of drug use.

Those skyrocketing arrest figures shouldn't come as any surprise. As Congressman Goss says, in any war there are casualties, and America's antidrug fight is clearly a battle of epic proportions. For the prison-industrial complex, it's also big business. According to the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., 77 percent of the increase in admissions to state and federal prisons from 1978 to 1996 was attributable to nonviolent offenders -- primarily drug violators -- who have been going to prison more often than violent criminals since 1989. The influx has produced this planet's largest gulag. Today there are nearly as many drug offenders behind bars in our country -- more than 450,000 by last count -- than the entire U.S. prison population of 1980.

"America does indeed have a drug problem," charges JPI director Vincent Schiraldi. "And that problem is that we've focused on imprisonment as the near-exclusive solution to substance abuse...."

Throughout his election campaign, Bush took great pains to portray the GOP as the party of "inclusion," even going so far as inviting WWF multiracial wrestling star "the Rock" to deliver a keynote address at last year's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. But if Bush legitimately wanted to offer an olive branch to America's minorities, African-Americans in particular, he could begin by addressing the self-evident racial disparities of the war on drugs. Almost since inception, the drug war's monolithic incarceration machine has disproportionately afflicted minorities. Black Americans are arrested for drug crimes at six times the rate of whites, even though surveys show they use illicit substances at rates equivalent to other races. They are also more likely to go to prison. According to senior policy analyst Jenni Gainsborough of The Sentencing Project think tank, while blacks constitute only 13 percent of the nation's drug users, they represent 35 percent of those arrested and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession. For more than two decades, "the war on drugs [has been] the primary driver of the increase" in minority inmates, Gainsborough says. "No question about it."

George W. claims he's aware of the drug war's checkered past and that he intends to give it a needed face-lift. Regrettably, he has chosen John P. Walters, a fear-monger left over from Bush's father's administration, to be his new chief surgeon. Bush says that the incoming White House drug czar, who at this writing still awaits confirmation by the Senate, will head up the drug war "with firm resolve and a caring heart." Yet Walters's past record is so extreme that even McCaffrey -- hardly a humanitarian -- balked at his selection. "Some of his positions, in my view, need to be carefully considered by the confirmation committee," McCaffrey told the New York Times. He also said he'd "found shocking" Walters's belief "that there is too much treatment capacity in the United States."

Most contentious among Walters's opinions is his claim that Americans rarely go to jail for drug possession and that drug laws haven't unevenly impacted minorities. Writing in the March 6 edition of the hyperconservative Weekly Standard, one of the few magazines willing to give space to such dishonest rhetoric, Walters maintained, "The idea that our prisons are filled with people whose only offense was possession of an illegal drug is utter fantasy." "That's horseshit," responds Jason Ziedenberg, a senior researcher at the Justice Policy Institute. He notes that 20 percent of all state prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges, and that approximately 100,000 of them are serving time -- on average, some 41 months -- solely for drug possession. "We've got more inmates for drug possession than there are prisoners in any European Union nation for all crimes," Ziedenberg says.

Walters's second claim is equally absurd: "Neither is it true that the prison population is disproportionately made up of young black men." He calls this so-called misconception one of "the great urban myths of our time." In fact, Justice Department figures tell a different tale. Thanks in large part to the war on drugs, nearly one in eight African-American males age 20 to 34 is behind bars on any given day. According to the Department of Justice, black felony drug offenders are sentenced to prison at rates 30 percent higher than whites. In seven states across the nation, the racial disparity between black and white drug offenders is so great that African-Americans constitute more than 80 percent of those sent to prison for drug violations.

"John Walters is a veteran of drug-policy shambles," says Michael Males, senior researcher at the Justice Policy Institute. "As the deputy director under former drug czar William Bennett, he helped craft drug war policies that have shattered millions of lives, wasted billions of dollars, and exacerbated America's drug crisis. He's a hardcore ideologue who misrepresents the facts and spouts tough-on-crime rhetoric."

Equally troubling is Walters's ass-backwards attitude toward drug treatment. Despite increasing evidence that treatment programs are more successful and cost-effective at reducing drug use than interdiction-a 1995 RAND Corporation study found that providing treatment to cocaine users was far superior to interdiction efforts-Walters dismisses them as "the latest manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic state.' " Writing in his 1996 book Body Count: Moral Poverty ... and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs (co-authored by William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio Jr.-who resigned in August from his post as head of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives), Walters opined, "As long as ... those who receive treatment reside in communities where ... drugs [remain] plentiful ... prevention and particularly treatment efforts will be severely undercut and, for purposes of national policy not very effective." His basic tenet: Those who use and traffic in illegal drugs deserve to be punished.

Ironically, Walters's opposition to treatment appears at odds with the new stance of his boss. Since winning the election, Bush has paid lip service to expanding drug-treatment programs, even pledging an additional $1.6 billion over the next five years "to close [the] treatment gap." That won't be easy. Currently, more than two-thirds of every dollar spent combating drugs goes toward arresting, prosecuting, and jailing drug violators, and the president's proposed 2002 national drug-control plan is no different: Approximately $15 billion of the $19.2 billion budget is earmarked solely for law enforcement, including a hefty 21 percent increase in federal prison funding.

One policy on which Bush's newly assembled drug war cabinet appears unanimous is expanding the role of the military in antidrug efforts. While in Congress, both Ashcroft and Hutchinson staunchly supported last year's controversial $1.3 billion military-aid package to Colombia. The appropriation, which provided the Colombian military with dozens of Black Hawk and Huey II helicopters, ostensibly for cocaine interdiction, battalion training, and other activities, passed narrowly over Democrats' objections that the funds could be more effectively spent on domestic treatment programs (or anything, really), as well as fears that the U.S. could become entrenched in Colombia's civil war. Nonetheless, Bush announced plans in March to provide that volatile South American nation with an additional $731 million in military antidrug aid.

"Plan Colombia" should be music to the ears of Walters, who believes that the military ought to be in charge of all antidrug interdiction efforts. "It is time to put the U.S. military in charge of stopping the flow of illegal drugs from abroad," he recommended in Body Count. "Law- enforcement agencies currently responsible for drug interdiction should be placed under the overall command and control of the military."

It is just this sort of harebrained scheme that claimed the life of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. in 1997. Hernandez was herding goats on his family's farm, 100 yards on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexican border, when U.S. Marines on drug-surveillance duty shot him dead. According to reports, Hernandez had brought along his .22 rifle, which he began firing for no apparent reason. Feeling threatened, the squad opened fire. Astoundingly, no member of the patrol -- including the team's emergency medic -- ever bothered to administer first aid during the 22 minutes that Hernandez lay dying. None of the Marines, including the one who fired the fatal shot, was indicted.

Although Congress abruptly suspended the U.S./Peru shoot-down program following the Bowers tragedy, you can bet that many such disasters will recur under the Bush regime. "Fighting drugs at the source makes sense," Walters has said, conveniently ignoring the fact that South American cocaine production has doubled in recent years despite stepped-up U.S. interdiction efforts. "Federal authorities ought to be going after the beehive, not just the bees."

Walters's opinions regarding the use of deadly force are even more frightening. In that same testimony before Congress in 1996, he called the Peru shoot-down program -- which has by now carried out 38 U.S.- assisted force-downs, resulting in 20 deaths -- "cheap and effective." He called the campaign "an opportunity to save American lives by helping the Peruvians press their attack on traffickers." On the contrary, warns Nicholas Thimmesch II, a former Reagan staffer now working with the nonpartisan Coalition for Compassionate Leadership on Drug Policy in Washington, D.C., "the threat posed by an escalated Bush drug war to the civil liberties, and perhaps very lives, of all Americans is staggering." He notes that the Bush forces have already pushed through new sentencing guidelines that triple penalties on the "hug drug" ecstasy, and vowed to vigorously enforce a little-known federal provision barring financial aid to convicted drug offenders, including those guilty of minor offenses like smoking weed. According to the Associated Press, more than 34,000 incoming students -- nearly four times the number excluded under President Clinton's watch -- will be denied loans and grants under the law. "The irony is that there is no indication that intensifying these policies will have any impact whatsoever at reducing drug use," Thimmesch says. "In fact, just the opposite may be true."

While the Bush team prepares to take the drug war nuclear, the American people are quietly launching an insurrection of their own. Nearly three out of four Americans say the war on drugs is a failure, according to the findings in March 2001 of a Pew Research Center poll. In addition, more than half of all Americans believe that drug use should be treated as a disease, not as a crime. Neither view should be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention.

Voters launched their first strike in 1996. That year, by a large majority, liberal voters in California joined conservatives in Arizona -- together totaling ten percent of the nation's population -- to pass a pair of ballot initiatives rebuffing politicians' longstanding "do drugs, do time" mentality.

Californians struck the initial blow by legalizing a person's use of medical marijuana under a doctor's supervision. The California Assembly had already twice approved a far more limited proposal, but then-Governor Pete Wilson, ever the drug war's reliable foot soldier, told the Assembly where to stick its legislation both times. It was Wilson's refusal to bend on the medi-pot issue that eventually compelled activists to take it directly to California's voters-and from there, nationwide.

Arizonans also approved the medical use of marijuana, but pushed the envelope even further, voting 2-1 in favor of a sentencing-reform proposal mandating that nonviolent drug offenders receive probation and treatment in lieu of jail time. As in California, Arizonans' decision was a direct response to the state's draconian drug laws and to the reactionary legislature that refused to change them.

Not surprisingly, Beltway bureaucrats were unwilling to accept the voters' determination. Rather than acknowledge that punitive policies were falling out of public favor, congressional pols insisted that their constituents had been "duped" by misleading advertising, and vowed to reinvigorate the nation's antidrug efforts. The politicians' decision proved a major miscalculation. Instead of quelling the public's discontent, their arrogance and obstinacy ignited a full-scale revolution.

Since then, voters in seven additional states-Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington-have legalized the use of medical marijuana, in some cases by majorities of 60 percent or more, and in every case over the objections of police and elected officials.

But medicinal marijuana was only the beginning; citizens are now demanding broader drug-law reforms as well. In Oregon, voters overwhelmingly rejected (via referendum) a 1997 proposal by the legislature that sought to reimpose criminal penalties for pot possession. (Oregon decriminalized marijuana in 1973.) And last year, residents of Mendocino County in California upped the ante by approving an initiative that okays the cultivation of up to 25 marijuana plants for recreational use.

In Oregon and Utah, voters recently took aim at civil forfeiture, a widely abused police tactic empowering cops to seize cash and property from individuals merely suspected of drug crimes. In both states, citizens forced an amendment of their laws; now a criminal conviction is required before police can confiscate any assets. Drug-war proponents lobbied vehemently against the changes -- claiming that reform would bankrupt police -- but voters paid them little mind.

California is where drug war opponents have once again scored their most monumental victory. Last year, 61 percent of the state endorsed Proposition 36, a comprehensive reform package that severely limits the authorities' ability to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders. (Prior to the vote, studies of California's prison population showed that nearly a third of all inmates were in on drug charges.) Under the new policy, almost all offenders will receive drug treatment, not hard time.

Dave Fratello of Santa Monica's Campaign for New Drug Policies coordinated the Prop 36 effort, and expects its impact will reverberate well beyond California's borders. "The success of Prop 36 is a reflection of where the public is heading and a rejection of where the Bush administration wants to go," he says, adding that 69 percent of Americans say they'd support similar laws in their state. As a result, Fratello says that CNDP is preparing to take their rehab-not-jail campaign nationwide; similar proposals will likely appear on next year's ballots in Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. It's a counteroffensive that could ultimately be powerful enough to quash Bush's renewed drug fight before it even gets out of the gate. "We will lead the way," Fratello says confidently. "The politicians will have to catch up."