Excerpt from Smoke & Mirrors
April 26, 2000
Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum; Little Brown 22 Mistrust those in whom the impulse to punish is strong. Friedrich NietzscheFor more than a quarter century the United States has been on a rampage, kicking in doors and locking people up in the name of protecting its citizens from illegal drugs. Hundreds of billions of dollars into the Drug War, nobody claims victory. Yet we continue, devoted to a policy as expensive, ineffective, delusional, and destructive as government gets.The country began using police to control the use of certain drugs in 1914. But the "War on Drugs," in name and in spirit, started during the 1968 presidential campaign, when the country discovered how "drugs" could stand in for a host of troubles too awkward to discuss plainly.The war metaphor worked for Richard Nixon that year. It continues to work for politicians ranging from Jesse Jackson to Jesse Helms because nearly everyone has found a reason to enlist: parents appalled by their teen's behavior, police starved for revenue, conservative politicians pandering to their constituents' moral dudgeon, liberal politicians needing a chance to look "tough," presidents looking for distractions from scandal, whites -- and blacks -- striving to "explain" the ghetto, editors filling page one, spies and colonels needing an enemy to replace Communists...The War on Drugs is about a lot of things, but only rarely is it really about drugs.To sustain this precious metaphor we spend wildly. Adding together local, state, and federal drug budgets, Americans spend more on the Drug War than on private health insurance: $120 billion during the Bush years alone. Even the mid-1990's passion to cut spending hasn't dented the drug budget. Under Bill Clinton, the War on Drugs continues to consume more federal dollars than the Commerce, Interior, and State Departments put together. While we argue about whether the country can afford foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency, public broadcasting, or the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, the federal drug budget quietly exceeds all of them combined.But money is only part of the price. At a time when the public debates whether gun laws and wetlands protection violate the Constitution, the War on Drugs concentrates unprecedented police power inside the Beltway, all but eliminating Fourth Amendment rights and turning the attorney general into a kind of urban viceroy who can mete out punishment without trial. The Drug War clogs the courts to the point of breakdown. It keeps more Americans in federal prison for drug crime than were in all crimes put together in 1980. it criminalizes a generation of African- American men, being the main reason a third of all black males in their twenties are under correctional control -- jail, prison, probation, or parole.Moreover, the War on Drugs frequently makes drug problems worse. From scag in Da Nang to crack in the Bronx to superpotent hydroponic marijuana in the schoolyard, waves of enforcement have consistently inspired people to import, sell, and use ever-stronger drugs in ever more dangerous ways.Costly, destructive, and failing in its stated mission, the War on Drugs is government lunacy beyond the wildest waste-fraud-and-abuse accusations of Rush Limbaugh and Ross Perot. Yet we soldier on, speaking the language of war, writing the budgets of war, carrying the weapons of war, and suffering the casualties of war. We've trapped ourselves in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. That the merest contact with drugs now may cost you your job, your home, or your freedom only reinforces our belief that drugs radiate a supernatural evil, like Kryptonite. Call it collateral damage: among the things destroyed by the Drug War is our ability to debate our way toward a reasonable approach to drug abuse. As Joycelyn Elders learned, even the mildest questioning of severe prohibition is the closest thing this country has to forbidden speech. For the moment, all paths away from excess are boobytrapped. We're stuck.When Richard Nixon declared his War on Drugs, the conventional wisdom about drugs and crime was that they reflect "more than the character of the pitiful few" who engage in them and instead reveal shortcomings of "the entire society." Three decades later, we believe the opposite. Congress debates a "Personal Responsibility Act" that exonerates society and blames everything from homicide to teenage pregnancy on "crises of individual values."It's no coincidence that the leading guru of the mid-nineties "values" crusade is the most famous and aggressive drug czar of them all: William Bennett. He pins the country's drug problems -- and, lately, crime, teenage pregnancy, and even poverty -- simply on bad people with corrupt values. In step with Bennett, Americans each year redefine more and more of what used to be considered social ills as failings of personal character. Since Nixon's "law and order" campaign of 1968, the War on Drugs has walked point for a national retreat from handling crime and drug abuse as symptoms of larger problems -- racism, exclusion, injustice and poverty -- for which all Americans bear some responsibility. The appeal is obvious.***The ghetto wasn't the only place disorder reigned in 1967. When Americans flipped the channel from the race riots, similar images beamed from the country's most prestigious college campuses -- lines of helmeted police, clouds of tear gas, flailing nightsticks.The antiwar movement was dragging legions of perfectly nice kids into what many saw as a frightening "counterculture" of insubordination, poor grooming, and promiscuous sex. To the offensive blare of rock and roll, young people were burning the flag, tearing up draft cards, praising the enemy, ridiculing everything their parents represented. The whole country seemed to be coming unglued, with blacks tearing down one side and the kids tearing down another.It was in the hands of rebellious hippies that most Americans first saw wrinkled little cigarettes of marijuana. In 1967, pot wasn't feared much as a health threat; it was the "soft" drug beside heroin and the hallucinogens. From the start, the country understood marijuana as a cultural symbol with political punch. Gallop got it: the polling company measured the connection between marijuana and politics and tabulated the results in two neat columns -- demonstrators and non-demonstrators -- showing vastly more demonstrators had tried pot. LBJ's commission on campus unrest got it: "If the rest of the society wears short hair, the member of this youth culture wears his hair long. If others are clean, he is dirty. If others drink alcohol and illegalize marijuana, he denounces alcohol and smokes pot... by all these means, he declares himself an alien in a large society with which he is fundamentally at odds." Yippie leader Jerry Rubin got it: "Smoking pot makes you a criminal and a revolutionary," he said. "As soon as you take your first puff, you are an enemy of society." And J. Edgar Hoover got it: "Since the use of marijuana and other narcotics is widespread among members of the New Left," he memoed his agents, "you should be alert to opportunities to have them arrested by local authorities on drug charges."***Marijuana and heroin had little in common. Both were imported psychoactives, but the drugs were as pharmacologically and culturally different as Tylenol and Prozac. Impoverished middle- aged inner-city addicts shot heroin for one set of reasons; affluent college kids smoked pot for another.The media, however, combined the two drugs into a single story. Heroin addicts in New York City began appearing in the same news accounts as teenyboppers smoking reefer. It is "incontrovertibly clear," Newsweek reported in a dispatch typical of the day, that "the age of US drug users is dropping rapidly, sometimes reaching down into elementary schools." The article offered no data. Instead, on the same page as vivid photos of junkies overdosing in Harlem, the authors quoted principals saying they'd found young teenagers smoking pot in school bathrooms. Life magazine scrambled the stories further. "Drug abuse and marijuana, once confined to the shadowy underworld of junkie row, are now very much in the open," it wrote.What the magazines called drug abuse was in 1967 almost entirely a matter of young people smoking pot; barely a hundredth as many Americans shot heroin. Conflating the two drugs, the media made the country's "drug problem" appear infinitely more threatening than it was; drugs became a big story.Richard Nixon and congressional Republicans benefited directly from this blurring of the distinction between marijuana and heroin. Broadly defined, drugs were common to the cultures of both urban and blacks and college hippies, and Republicans were eager to link race rioters with campus protesters. "Disturbances and demonstrations are lumped together" in the public mind, read a memo circulating through the Johnson White House, "and the blame for these civil disorders is placed on the Administration."By the end of 1967 almost half of all Americans said they'd turn in their own kids to the police if they found them using drugs.***Plenty has been written about the racial element of George Bush's "Willie Horton" campaign in 1988. But his campaign rhetoric about crime and drugs was more than just fear-mongering against blacks. Bush also was continuing the work begun by Don Santarelli and Richard Nixon in 1968 -- discrediting the suggestion that social pressures such as poverty and racism play a role in creating crime, and promoting the notion that, like all other social problems, crime is entirely the fault of bad people making bad choices.Liberals like Michael Dukakis, Bush said to Ohio policemen a month before the election, are "lost in the thickets of liberal sociology. Just as when it comes to foreign policy, they always 'Blame America First,' when it comes to crime and criminals, they always seem to 'Blame Society First.'"Education Secretary William Bennett heartily agreed. Bennett had been preaching "personal responsibility" -- as opposed to social responsibility -- since his days at the NEH. Bush and Bennett always got along, but it was an incident during the 1988 campaign that welded the bond. On Meet the Press one Sunday morning, Bennett once again attacked the "liberal elite." "They have disdain for the simple and basic patriotism of most Americans," Bennett said. "They think they're smarter than everybody else. That bothers me. I think it should bother a lot of people."***When William Bennett moved across town from the Department of Education to be czar at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, he brought his people with him. All white, all male, none with law enforcement or social service experience, some had been with Bennett the entire eight years since his debut at the National Endowment for the Humanities.Bennett's men held themselves above the mere budget cutters, tax slashers, regulation busters, and states-rightsers that made up the broader executive branch. John Walters, Bennett's chief of staff at Education and author of the punitive Schools Without Drugs, had been to meetings of Ed Meese's Drug policy Board and had been appalled at their inanity. Everybody was so busy jockeying for position that nobody ever ventured an honest opinion or original idea. Bennett's office, on the other hand, prided itself on being one continuous philosophy forum, with great questions of political theory and national purpose the stuff of daily conversation. Envisioning themselves a kind of ideological Bennettista cavalry to the Republican infantry, Bennett's crew saw their mission at the drug office as fundamentally identical to that at Education or the Endowment:To reform America's character, by force if necessary.It would have been okay with them to be assigned teen pregnancy, abortion, welfare -- any platform from which to harangue the public about values and exact punishment for transgression. "Drugs are the hill we're fighting over at the moment, but the war is much bigger than that," Bruce Carnes, Bennett's budget director, would say. "Our fight is any issue that has a shade on character."The "hill" they'd just been given to fight over, though, wasn't just any piece of political turf, but was the hottest hot-button issue of the decade. More than half the country believed drugs to be America's worst problem. Majorities favored mandatory drug tests for all citizens, warrantless police searches of suspected dealers' homes, and roadblocks to search cars randomly. This wasn't mere naked paintings or politically correct social studies textbooks. This was a chance to preach and kick ass on the nation's brightly lit center stage.***Ronald Reagan went on television on September 14. And this time, he brought Nancy with him to urge Americans to adopt "outspoken intolerance."In an unusual joint address from their private quarters in the White House, the Reagans summoned Americans to a crusade they compared to World War II, in which everybody, "not just the boys flying the planes and driving the tanks," took part. Americans, the president said, "have never been morally neutral against any form of tyranny.""There's no moral middle ground," Nancy said. "Indifference is not an option."The lofty tone recalled FDR on poverty, Kennedy on the space program, and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights. This time, though, the cause was drugs. "We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug," Nancy said. "For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs." Drugs are a "cancer," the Reagans said, and drug dealers "work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children's lives -- just as they've done by developing this new drug, crack.""So," the First Lady wound up, "won't you join us in this great new national crusade?"***Next morning, Reagan signed Executive Order #12564, titled Drug Free Workplace, ordering all federal agencies to plan to urine-test all worker in jobs requiring "a high degree of trust and confidence." The order didn't specify how many of the government's 2.8 million civilian employees fit that description. the contents of one's bladder would now be the boss's business.First-time offenders would be counseled. In a cabinet meeting prior to issuing the order, White House counsel Peter Wallison suggested that firing federal workers who failed their second drug test would be "punitive". "It's meant to be punitive," retorted Education Secretary William Bennett. He waved his booklet Schools Without Drugs, which recommends expelling second-time users, and asked, "How can you be harder on kids than you are on tax-supported federal workers?" Bennett's view became policy.Three weeks later, Congress delivered the baby. In passing the long list of mandatory sentences, Congress seemed to have forgotten that two years earlier it had created a commission to write sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines were scheduled to go into effect in 1987. Nobody on the Hill foresaw what would happen when the two contradictory sentencing systems -- mandatories and guidelines -- became law at the same time and parole was simultaneously abolished. The federal prison system already was at 150 percent of capacity, a condition that would soon be looked back upon with nostalgia."The drug thing has just caught flame; it is the issue!" exulted Congressman Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, when the vote was over.Opponents saw it differently."I'm afraid this bill is the legislative equivalent of crack," Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts said. "It yields a short- term high but does long-term damage to the system. And it's expensive to boot."House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino was less playful. "We have been fighting the War on Drugs," he said, "but now it seems to me the attack is on the Constitution of the United States."***On April 9, 1988, the city of Los Angeles declared war on its poorest citizens, sending more than a thousand police officers into South Central to roust every young black man on the streets. "Tonight," a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman told reporters, "we pick 'em up for anything and everything."More than 1,400 people -- mostly young black men -- were arrested and booked in mobile processing centers on charges ranging from illegal weapons to old parking tickets. Or they were picked up for violating curfews that applied only in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Hundreds who weren't arrested had their names recorded in the LAPD's gang roster for further surveillance."This is war," Chief Daryl Gates said. "We're exceedingly angry.... We want to get the message out to the cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them."Operation Hammer had begun.Clearly something had to be done for South Central Los Angeles. Between 1978 and 1982, southern California lost ten huge manufacturing plants -- GM, Firestone, Goodyear and others -- and with them went 75,000 union jobs held largely by the blacks of South Central. More than 300 smaller warehouses and factories also fled South Central, many finding a new home in nearby affluent Orange County. By 1982, unemployment in South Central was half again as high as it had been in the early 1970's, and community purchasing power was down a third. The minimum wage was lower, in real terms, than it had been in the 1950's.Then Reaganomics kicked in. The Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Job Corps were cut back or eliminated, putting an end to meaningful job training in South Central. A 1985 survey of public housing in the district found employed breadwinners in only a tenth of the households in some projects. Despite a southern California boom fueled by record defense spending, 40 percent of Los Angeles County's children lived below or barely above poverty line, most of them in South Central. South Central's classrooms were more crowded than Mississippi's. Barely half of the district's children finished high school. Gangs, active since the early 1970's, claimed to have recruited a total of 50,000 membersAnd then, in 1984, crack arrived.The little rocks appeared all over LA right after Tootie Reese, the city's biggest coke dealer, got busted. Whatever order had existed in LA's cocaine trade evaporated as Reese's lieutenants each went his own way, employing the street gangs as dealers, runners, and muscle. Overnight, violence in South Central exploded through the roof. At times, not a day would go by without a gang killing. And the number of cocaine-poisoning cases doubled.The Los Angeles City Council seemed determined to make things worse. In 1987, the council changed the way it funded city parks to route more money to wealthy districts and only $30,000 to the 150 parks and rec centers in South Central. The Los Angeles Summer Job Program -- a major source of black youth employment -- also was eliminated. At the height of the crack wave, drug treatment wasn't a priority. No money was allocated for it in 1987, and treatment remains general unavailable to low-income Angelenos.Drug dealing, however, was a ghetto problem that Los Angeles was prepared to address. The city looked at all the problems facing the people of South Central -- the plant closings, the flight of the middle class, the pinched school budgets, and more -- and decided that crack was the sole source of the neighborhood's trouble. "A budget is a statement of priorities," said city council member Zev Yaroslavsky, head of the police-budget committee. "And if fighting gang violence in this city is our highest priority, it should be reflected in our budget" even though, Yaroslavsky acknowledged, "it will be at the expense of virtually anything else." Added council member Richard Alatorree, "This is the era of the police. If I were chief, I'd ask for more."Night after night, Hammer teams roared through the neighborhoods of South Central. Any black kid seen out after dark was subject to a frisk and interrogation. "I think people believe that the only strategy we have is to put a lot of police officers on the street and harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things," Chief Gates said. "Well, that's part of the strategy, no question about it." The head of the LAPD's Hardcore Drug Squad compared South Central to Vietnam, an aptly bellicose metaphor.In August, eighty-eight officers stormed a South central apartment block suspected of being a gang headquarters. "This is a Class-A search," the captain in charge told his men. "That means carpets up, drywall down. Level it. Make it uninhabitable." The policemen followed orders, smashing furniture and walls with sledgehammers, ripping an outside stairway away from the building, and spray-painting "LAPD Rules" on the walls. At the stationhouse, thirty-two people captured in the raid were forced to whistle the theme song from the Andy Griffith Show (which LA historian Mike Davis calls "the Horst Wessel song of the LAPD") while being beaten with fists and flashlights. In the end, only two arrests were made: a couple of visiting teenagers had some dope in their pockets. No gang members, guns, or crack caches were found.Nobody was killed in that particular raid. But by the end of 1988 LAPD officers had shot dead two unarmed citizens of South Central -- a teenager suspected of being a gang member and an eighty-one-year-old retired construction worker. No disciplinary action was taken. "When you have a state of war, civil rights are suspended for the duration of the conflict," the press secretary for one state senator told reporters.Hammer didn't rid South Central of crack and gang violence, even at the cost of civil liberties and civilian casualties. Although the LAPD had arrested, at one time or another, three-quarters of all the young black men in Los Angeles, juvenile crime was climbing 12 percent annually by the end of the decade. Crack was cheaper than ever, the gangs stronger, more violent, and better organized than before Hammer."Gangs are never goin' to die out," a sixteen-year-old gang member told the Los Angeles Times when Hammer started. "You all goin' to get us jobs?"