Good Bye (and Good Riddance), Drug Czar
When drug fighting agencies from around the world gathered in New York for the United Nations Drug Summit in June '98, the official slogan of the week was "Drug Free in Ten -- We Can Do It!" Italian mafia fighter Pino Arlacci, head of the UN's Drug Control Program, promised that a new level of international cooperation would begin to turn the tide in the war on drugs. Arlacci's sloganeering, however, was met with skepticism. As the summit opened, a two-page ad in the New York Times, signed by over 500 prominent citizens worldwide, declared, "We believe the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself."
Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Barry McCaffrey, testifying to Congress, derided the letter's signers as "sort of a fringe group." But while McCaffrey's name-calling may have worked on Capitol Hill, the charge didn't stick elsewhere. The group -- which included former Secretary of State George Schultz, two former US Attorneys General, a former Surgeon General, several Nobel laureates, a number of federal judges, former presidents of the nations of Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua, former UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, bishops from the Catholic, Episcopal and Anglican churches and Walter Cronkite, among others -- was just a little too impressive for reasonable people to regard as "fringe."
As General Czar McCaffrey prepares to retire from public life, it is a fitting time to look at his record and see whether this was an isolated incident or whether McCaffrey used such tactics often. The answer to that question should then have implications for how trustworthy the drug czar's words should be regarded in general, and by extension how trustworthy the government that he represents should be regarded on the drug issue in general. Unfortunately, it appears that this was not an isolated incident, but rather a lengthy and incredible pattern of slander and disregard for facts.
A shining example is McCaffrey's visit to Albuquerque last year, where he again resorted to name-calling, labeling New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who had just returned from Washington as part of his crusade to spark a national debate on drug legalization, with epithets such as "goofy," "irresponsible," "uninformed," even "Puff Daddy Johnson."
I suppose the General is entitled to his opinion. But McCaffrey crossed one line too many when he accused the Governor of telling college students in Washington that marijuana, heroin and cocaine are "great." The event to which McCaffrey was referring was a meeting the Governor held with representatives of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), portions of which were broadcast on CBS Evening News and covered by the Associated Press. As an SSDP advisor, I attended that two-hour meeting, and I can attest to the fact that the Governor said no such thing. Indeed, Gov. Johnson made clear several times that he considers drug use to be a handicap and best avoided.
Unfortunately, McCaffrey's errors are not limited to a few isolated incidents, but span a wide range of issues over a period of years. For example, on August 16, 1996, as California's medical marijuana initiative, Prop. 215, was heading to the ballot, McCaffrey told the San Francisco Chronicle, "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed. This is not science. This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax." On December 30, after 215 had passed, McCaffrey was asked by CNN's Carl Rochelle, "is there any evidence... that marijuana is useful in a medical situation?" McCaffrey responded, "No, none at all. There are hundreds of studies that indicate that it isn't."
Meanwhile, though, the information had gotten out in the media -- including outlets such as Nightline -- that scientific studies did exist -- dozens -- providing scientific evidence of marijuana's medical benefits in some cases. So on January 2, ONDCP chief counsel Pat Seitz, appearing on the CNN show "Burden of Proof," tried to retract her boss's mistaken statements, insisting, "He has not said there is no research. He has not said there is no research."
In a Dec. 30 press conference, attended by national and international media, McCaffrey used a display of supposed medical uses of marijuana, falsely attributed to medical marijuana authority Dr. Tod Mikuriya, to ridicule Prop. 215 proponents. The display, captioned "Dr. Tod Mikuriya's (215 Medical Advisor) Medical Uses of Marijuana," listed such applications as "recalling forgotten memories" and "writer's cramp," which McCaffrey singled out for ridicule in charging Prop. 215 proponents with "Cheech and Chong medicine."
Mikuriya, who was not a formal advisor to the Prop. 215 campaign, denied recommending marijuana as a treatment for such conditions. When questioned, McCaffrey's office said the information was obtained from the web site of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club. But the actual document by Dr. Mikuriya on that site was a summary of the 19th century medical literature on marijuana. There was nothing in the document to indicate that Mikuriya himself recommends marijuana for those conditions.
In a February '97 interview on NBC's Dateline, McCaffrey put forward an Illinois study which he claimed supported D.A.R.E., a program that is hugely popular, but which research has repeatedly found to be ineffective. When Dateline confronted him with the study's actual findings -- that D.A.R.E. doesn't work for most children and may be counterproductive -- he then dismissed the study as "twaddle" -- the very same study he had cited a few minutes before as his evidence.
In April the following year, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's Congressional Delegate (we don't get a rep), a Democrat and supporter of McCaffrey's boss, President Clinton, called for McCaffrey's resignation over the needle exchange issue. Under rules set by Congress, states may not spend federal AIDS funds on needle exchange programs. However, the Secretary of Health and Human Services can lift that restriction, if research shows that needle exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. As Secretary Donna Shalala and the Clinton Administration were preparing to make a decision, McCaffrey repeatedly cited a study of the needle exchange programs in Vancouver and Montreal as evidence against lifting the needle exchange funding ban.
The authors of the study, however, took to the pages of the New York Times to clear up McCaffrey's "misinterpretation" of their study, which attributed the AIDS situation in those cities to larger social factors than the small programs, found that the programs had succeeded in reaching the most marginalized, at-risk sectors of the drug-using population, and which recommended more and larger needle exchange programs to stem the spread of the deadly epidemic. Even before the Times letter, though, McCaffrey knew full well what the study really said. Dr. Martin Schechter, one of the authors, told a conference in New York the day before the UN Drug Summit, "We were visited by a team from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and we spent more than an hour explaining, detail by detail, why and how these results were being misinterpreted. But in the end, it became clear to me that we were talking to people who were not interested in evidence in scientific terms, but rather, who were in the grips of an ideology."
Shalala and Clinton backed off, in part because of McCaffrey's disinformation campaign. Congresswoman Norton, deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact of AIDS and injection drug abuse on the African American community, decried McCaffrey's "'drop dead' message," writing, "Unless he is willing to reconsider and acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence, I hope he gets my message to leave the administration and take his destructive tactics with him."
The next month, appearing at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, McCaffrey derided the notion of industrial hemp as a viable alternative for Kentucky's farmers, ridiculing "noted agronomists such as Woody Harrelson" and calling the issue "silly" and a "thinly disguised attempt... to legalize pot." At the same time, however, over 100 Kentucky farmers were suing the federal government for the right to grow industrial hemp, and two months later, a University of Kentucky study indicated that if hemp were legalized for industrial use, it would immediately become the second most valuable legal crop in the state, behind only tobacco.
But the most incredible episode was yet to come. As McCaffrey prepared to embark on a European tour that July, he made comments on CNN and to the Associated Press about drug policy in the Netherlands, calling it an "unmitigated disaster." The Dutch ambassador to the US wrote McCaffrey that he was "confounded and dismayed" by the drug czar's depiction of the Dutch policy, and that he found "the timing of [McCaffrey's] remarks, just six days before [his] planned visit to the Netherlands with a view to gaining firsthand knowledge about Dutch drug policy and its results, rather astonishing." Then came the decisive moment: Beginning his tour with a press conference in Stockholm, McCaffrey told the media that the "Dutch murder rate is double that of the US." A "fact booklet" distributed by McCaffrey contained the same claim, and the drug czar triumphantly proclaimed "that's drugs," and wondered "why in the world [the Dutch] think this is a success."
Dutch officials were infuriated, and for good reason: McCaffrey's numbers were off by a factor of ten. The Dutch murder rate is less than a fourth of the US murder rate. McCaffrey's performance was greeted in the Netherlands with "indignation and condemnation," according to the Dutch radio station 2 Vandaag; even the right-wing newspaper "Telegraaf" published an editorial criticizing him. It turns out that McCaffrey may have been looking at the Dutch figures for attempted murder and comparing that with the US figure for actual completed murders. When confronted with this possibility, ONDCP spokesman James McDonough gave the Washington Times the following contorted response: "What you are left with is that they are a much more violent society and more inept [at murder], and that's not much to brag about."
But whatever McDonough's statement might mean, it's clear that even reasonably well-informed laypersons are aware that homicides are much more frequent in the US than anywhere in western Europe; you wouldn't have needed to be a criminologist or the nation's top drug official to realize that something must have been wrong with those numbers. McCaffrey never admitted his error or apologized. McDonough was hired by Florida Governor Jeb Bush and is now that state's drug czar.
Last but not least, McCaffrey has been throwing around the figure "52,000 deaths last year from drug-related causes" for awhile. We've been trying to figure this one out, and no one seems to know what the number really means or where it comes from. Despite repeated inquiries, ONDCP has provided no clarification, other than that it comes from an "unpublished study." According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were approximately 16,000 deaths in 1997 attributable to drug-related causes, including illegal drugs as well as poisonings from drugs that were medically-prescribed.
If we can't rely on the drug czar to provide meaningful numbers, how we can we trust him to tell us how many of those tragic deaths are truly attributable to drug use vs. how many are attributable to drug prohibition? And why do defenders of hard-line drug war policies feel the need to resort to such chicanery and ridicule to make their case? If they had a legitimate case to make, couldn't and wouldn't they do so honestly?
Whether McCaffrey's misstatements stem from drug war zealotry, political ambition or incompetence is something we may never know. What we do know is that McCaffrey's disinformation systematic disinformation campaign has been part and parcel of sustaining a destructive drug policy that goes so far as to persecute medical marijuana patients and kill people by spreading hepatitis and HIV. Most of the suffering from McCaffrey's Colombia war is yet to come.
A few words of parting for our illustrious drug czar:
Mr. McCaffrey, your deliberate deceptions over an extended period of time on a critically important issue are a disgrace to your office and your uniform. Over time, you may in fact come to be regarded as the true scandal of the Clinton presidency. They probably won't take away your pension, though, so I guess that's okay with you, judging from your previous lack of shame.
You can take a little solace for having said some of the right things on methadone and mandatory minimum sentencing. But how much could you have accomplished in these areas if you had made them your priority, rather than embarking on misguided ideological crusades against needle exchange and medical marijuana and industrial hemp?
Goodbye and good riddance, General Czar.
David Borden is the executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network (www.drcnet.org).