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40 Years of Drug War Hasn't Worked; "Time for a Change," Says 9-Year Veteran

The public understands how disastrous it's been -- now it's time for the politicians and law enforcement to change course.
 
 
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The “War on Drugs” was launched by President Richard Nixon 40 years ago this week. In 1980, at the end of its first decade, I began a nine-year career as a “captain” in the war on drugs. I was the attorney in the U.S. House of Representatives principally responsible for overseeing DEA and writing anti-drug laws as counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime.

White House leadership

The heart of Nixon’s 5,300-word message to Congress on June 17, 1971 was a plan “to consolidate at the highest level a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America” in a White House Office. The office was dismantled soon after Nixon resigned having been resisted by Cabinet secretaries and anti-drug agencies.

Soon after the Reagan Administration took office in 1981, Democrats in Congress began attacking the disorganization of the anti-drug effort, and mocked administration witnesses who insisted that President Reagan was really in charge. Senator Joseph Biden’s (D-DE) proposal to create a “drug czar” passed Congress in 1982 but led to President Reagan’s only veto of an anti-crime, anti-drug package. The resulting political outrage led to appointment of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to lead a South Florida anti-drug task force, a “mini drug czar.”

Hearings I set up for the House Judiciary Committee helped lead to the 1984 enactment of an anti-drug strategy board led by the attorney general, and then its replacement in 1988 with our current White House “drug czar,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). But, 40 years on, our anti-drug effort is no better managed now than when Nixon decried bureaucratic red-tape and jurisdictional disputes among agencies.

After 22 years, ONDCP has proven to be an ineffectual waste of money. Anti-drug efforts remain haphazard and uncoordinated. Federal anti-drug prosecutions are unfocused, wasteful and racially discriminatory. An examination of the 25,000 federal drug cases concluded each year reveals two outrageous facts. First, instead of high-impact investigations targeting the most dangerous and powerful drug traffickers, the typical federal cases target the lowest level offenders: local street dealers, lookouts, bodyguards, couriers, “mules,” etc. selling small quantities of drugs that are tiny specks in the picture of the national and global drug trade. Second, the defendants in these cases are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Only about one in four federal drug defendants is white.

This regular pattern of mostly unimportant cases with very long sentences imposed predominately on racial minorities makes out a prima facie case of a pattern or practice of racial discrimination. But this well-known pattern has been ignored by the attorney general and the director of ONDCP in an egregious abandonment of their leadership responsibilities.

Another issue crying out for high-level coordination reveals the fundamental failure of the drug war approach. For most of the history of ONDCP, it has campaigned against state medical marijuana laws. Since 1996, 16 states have passed laws that recognize patient use of marijuana for medical treatment. But this conflicts with current federal law. As the leader of the drug war, the drug czar has done nothing to coordinate federal research, regulatory and enforcement efforts necessary to resolve this conflict that leads medical patients and doctors to legal danger and unsatisfactory medical care.

ONDCP’s signature “achievement” has been to spend $1.4 billion in a youth anti-drug media campaign that has been demonstrated by the government’s independent evaluators and the GAO to be utterly ineffectual.

Death and Disease

In his 1971 message, Nixon lamented 1,000 narcotics deaths in New York City in 1970, then the epicenter of the heroin addiction problem. At the end of 1979, the annual number of drug abuse deaths was 7,101, which grew to 9,976 in 1986, the year basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine-induced seizure. But the death rate from illegal drugs has exploded! In 2007, there were an estimated 38,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide. The death rate has grown from 3.0 per 100,000 in 1980 to 12.8 in 2006.

Since 1981, when HIV entered the bloodstream of America’s injecting drug users, epidemiologists’ projects to protect the lives of drug users have been stymied by drug warriors. In 1998, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala endorsed sterile syringe exchange as scientifically proven to prevent the spread of blood-borne disease among injecting drug users. But implementing this lifesaving approach was blocked by White House ONDCP director, General Barry McCaffrey.

In February 2005, Bush White House ONDCP director John Walters was found by the Washington Post to have completely misrepresented the scientific research supporting syringe exchange. The opposition of the White House directors of drug policy is due to the distorting effects of the language and values of war introduced by President Nixon. The emotional mobilization for war against drugs (and drug users) barred acceptance of scientific findings that sterile needle exchange protected drug users from HIV and hepatitis and other blood-borne disease. In a war on drugs, users weren’t supposed to be protected from disease and death, they were to be stopped from using drugs.

I recall a member of Congress in the late 1980s saying that America won’t have to worry about the heroin problem anymore since the addicts will all soon die from AIDS. This indifference to the lives and dignity of drug users has been a hallmark of the war on drugs. Indeed, between 1999 and 2007, over 48,000 persons died in the U.S. from AIDS due to transmission by infected needles. These deaths are in large part due to the absolutist ideology of the drug war that Nixon inspired.

Drug Use and Treatment

Nixon said his initiative “must be judged by the number of human beings who are brought out of the hell of addiction, and by the number of human beings who are dissuaded from entering that hell.”

Most school-based prevention efforts, such as D.A.R.E., have been proven to be ineffective. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on such efforts by federal, state and local governments and with private contributions. Not surprisingly, drug use has continued to grow, especially marijuana use. In 2009, there were 21.8 million users of illicit drugs.

Nevertheless, Nixon drove a dramatic expansion of federally funded drug treatment using methadone in many cities, and crime went down in time for the 1972 election. But over the long term, as the anti-drug effort conformed to the strident rhetoric of war that Nixon popularized, the supply of drug treatment has not kept pace with the demand. By 2008, an estimated 7,559,000 Americans needed drug treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, but 6,351,000 did not receive any treatment. From 2002 to 2008, among youth aged 12 to 17, the number who received drug treatment declined from 142,000 to 111,000. Nixon’s goal to expand drug treatment to meet the need has never been met.

Federal Anti-Drug Costs

Nixon asked Congress for $159 million dollars for his initiatives, plus an unspecified amount to pay 325 additional agents for what became the DEA.

Over the past 40 years, the federal government has spent, cumulatively, roughly a half trillion dollars on the “war on drugs.” By FY 1975, federal anti-drug spending had climbed to $680 million. For the past 20 years, federal spending on drugs has exceeded $15 billion per year including the costs of imprisonment.

The costs are now so high, for a decade the “drug czars” seem to regularly conceal almost one-third of the anti-drug spending by excluding it from the formal anti-drug budget they report to Congress. ONDCP says that $14.8 billion was spent in FY 2009 to fight drugs. But another $6.9 billion was also spent in FY 2009 on anti-drug programs such as the incarceration of federal drug prisoners.

The FY 2011 formal anti-drug budget request is for $15.5 billion, excluding imprisonment and the many other costs which remain concealed in the budget submission.

The cost of imprisoning federal drug prisoners has been over $3 billion annually since FY 2008. On June 9, 2011 the total federal prison population exceeded 216,000. As of May 20, 2011, 50.8 percent of convicted federal prisoners were drug offenders.

Economic Impact

Nixon wanted research and “development of necessary reports, statistics, and social indicators for use by all public and private groups.”

Unfortunately, we do not have a clear idea of the cost to the economy from the unemployment and underemployment of tens of millions who have criminal records for drug use or distribution. With criminal records, many such men are unmarriageable and can’t obtain credit.

What has it meant to the shareholders and investment funds that own Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, and the union workers who build cars and components, that instead of the 200,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons in 1972, now there are about 1.6 million adults in prison (and another 600,000 in jails)? This is a population of about 1.4 million mostly young men (prime car owners) who can’t buy a car.

America’s economy is famously consumer driven and is terribly hurt when tens of millions of residents can’t work and can’t buy the goods manufactured and sold by American businesses. This constriction of our domestic market is not a problem our Japanese and German competitors face.

Veterans

Nixon asked for $14 million “to make the facilities of the Veterans Administration available to all former servicemen in need of drug rehabilitation.” SAMHSA, using data from National Surveys on Drug Use and Health from 2004-2006 indicate that out of a veteran population of 25.9 million persons, an annual average 7.1 percent of veterans met the criteria for a past year substance use disorder, and another 1.5 percent had co-occurring serious psychological distress and substance use disorder. We all know the population of veterans with physical and psychological injuries is rapidly growing and that substance abuse is growing in that population. The ONDCP focuses on the criminal cases, touting special criminal courts to treat veterans who commit crimes, while treatment in general languishes.

International initiatives

A major feature of Nixon’s message stressed the need for international cooperation. He had already stumbled badly when “Operation Intercept” in September 1969 created enormous traffic jams at the Mexico-U.S. border, and severely damaged trade and bilateral relations.

Opium grown in Turkey was the source of 80 percent of the heroin consumed in the U.S. in 1968. Nixon made an overture to Turkey and they cracked down on illegal opium growing and required cultivation licenses. Opium is now grown legally there to make morphine, and none is diverted to heroin. Instead of following this successful legalization strategy, Nixon’s successors tried to rely only on forceful crop eradication. But enforcement is like squeezing a balloon. The drug production shifts to new countries which render such successes meaningless. Sadly, expanding production of opium and heroin has become a disaster for other nations such as Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Afghanistan, fueling insurrection, wholesale corruption and widespread assassination.

Support for Prohibition Is Vanishing

In the face of threats of prosecution from the federal government, stuck in the ideology of the “war on drugs,” state legislatures and governors continue to pass medical marijuana laws. On May 10, 2011, Maryland’s governor signed a law creating a complete medical use defense to a marijuana prosecution and creating a state commission to write a model medical marijuana law. On May 13, 2011, Delaware’s governor signed a medical marijuana law, making it the sixteenth state with a comprehensive law to protect medical use of marijuana. On June 2, 2011, Vermont’s governor signed a law to add medical marijuana dispensaries to that state’s medical marijuana law.

On June 7, 2011, the Connecticut legislature voted to decriminalize possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana and the governor has promised to sign the law. In November 2010, in California, 46.5 percent of the voters supported legalizing marijuana, and polls revealed that 30 percent of “no” voters said they supported legalization but not in the form of Proposition 19 that was the regime on the ballot.

I have been involved in making drug policy professionally for more than 30 years -- three-quarters of the war on drugs. On June 14, I joined five veteran police officers (local, state and federal), a former judge, and a corrections commissioner -- all speakers from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – to bring to ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske LEAP’s indictment of the failures of war on drugs policy. We held a press conference on the sidewalk outside his office near the White House. As it was breaking up, four construction workers asked my chief of staff what it was all about. She told them it was about legalizing drugs. Immediately they started telling her all the various reasons why our drug policy is a failure.

For 10 minutes they described the racial disparity in arrests, the drug violence in Mexico and in American neighborhoods, the deaths from drug overdose, the pointlessness of arresting a drug dealer who gets immediately replaced or putting drug users in jail. They noted the parallels between the failure of alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition. They noted the tax revenues from drug sales that we are losing. This telling anecdote reveals how broadly the public understands that Nixon’s “war on drugs” has been a widespread failure.

The next step is for the drug policy reform community to present concrete proposals for analysis to legislators and the public. Surely most of us can agree with prestigious groups such as the Global Commission on Drug Policy that the facts of the war on drugs after 40 years are clear signs we need a very different strategy.

 

Eric E. Sterling has been president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a private non-profit educational organization, since 1989.
 
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