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