How America Lost the War on Drugs

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Walters refused to be interviewed for this story, but his office did make available one of his top advisers, David Murray. I asked him why his boss had narrowed the focus to marijuana, even though studies had disproved the causal link between marijuana and hard drugs. "If you're going to have a national office of drug-control policy, you look at the most prevalent drug in the society that's readily available — you don't go after meth first thing," he says. "You think about it like an epidemiologist, and you go for the vector that's most likely to spread, and that's teen marijuana users."

The new ads took a counterintuitive approach. "We wanted to make sure we were getting through to the thrill-seekers — those teenagers who are much more likely to use drugs — and convince them that it was more exciting not to do drugs," says Palmgreen. In a heralded spot called "Pete's Couch," the teenage narrator says, "I smoked weed and nobody died. I didn't get into a car accident. I didn't OD on heroin the next day. Nothing happened. We sat on Pete's couch for eleven hours." Then the camera shifts to show other teenagers, presumably those who haven't smoked weed, doing fun things — biking, playing basketball, flirting with girls. "You have a better shot at dying out in the real world," the narrator says, "but I'll take my chances out there." The advertising community was impressed with the spot: "Finally, an admission that smoking pot isn't calamitous," cheered Slate's advertising columnist, Seth Stevenson. Said Palmgreen: "Really good spots. The focus groups of thrill-seekers gave them great grades."

But the reality is that such ads — no matter how persuasive — do little if anything to prevent teens from trying pot. In 2005, a government-commissioned study designed to evaluate the prevention campaign over five years delivered its conclusions: Kids who had been exposed to the campaign ended up with rates of drug use that were roughly the same as those of the control group, who had not seen the ads. Murray loudly challenged the study's methodology, but when Congress asked federal analysts at the Government Accountability Office to assess the findings, the GAO upheld the report. The anti-drug campaign had not worked at all.

There was another problem with the Walters approach: Just as the federal government asserted the dangers of smoking pot, the states — first California, then three others — were permitting doctors to legally prescribe marijuana to relieve the chronic pain that came with cancer, polio and other debilitating long-term diseases. Attorney General John Ashcroft dispatched federal agents to begin raiding the suppliers and purchasers of medical marijuana in California — people who were operating completely within state law. The raids were even more surreal in their theatrics than the ones that had been launched by McCaffrey: In one particularly ludicrous incident, a forty-four-year-old post-polio sufferer named Suzanne Pfeil, who smoked prescription marijuana to relieve her pain, was hauled off to jail by DEA agents who pointed automatic rifles at her head and handcuffed her to her wheelchair. The rhetoric reached the level of crusade: Walters called citizens who plant and tend marijuana gardens "terrorists who wouldn't hesitate to help other terrorists get into the country with the aim of causing mass casualties."

What was striking to many veteran drug warriors was how fully the drug czar's office had bet on the youth marijuana initiative. For all Ashcroft's bluff talk about wanting to "escalate the War on Drugs," only a very small portion of it was being escalated. Funding for drug courts, which channel nonviolent drug offenders through treatment programs rather than prison, was zeroed out, and funding for local police was gutted. Carnevale, who quit his job after overseeing the transition in 2000, began to feel he was in a time warp. "This White House is walking away from prevention funding and treatment," he says now. "They haven't supported the community anti-drug coalitions, which actually work pretty well, and domestic law enforcement is flat or declining. To have a successful drug policy, you need all these elements, and what this administration has done is go crazy on exactly the element that doesn't work."

By the summer of 2005, the drug czar's failures were beginning to spill out into the open. For four years, while he focused obsessively on pot, Walters had done virtually nothing about meth, which was rapidly devastating the red states that had elected his boss. Walters struck a strangely discordant note on the growing epidemic, insisting that even as methamphetamine spread from the West Coast to the East, it remained a regional problem, not a national one, and therefore did not place high on his list of priorities. That September, the House's meth caucus asked Walters to come in for a meeting, to see if they could restore some element of dialogue and begin to rebalance the budget. The drug czar, once again downplaying the issue, sent Murray in his place. The congressmen, who had excluded the press to prevent grandstanding, went through the budget in detail and told the drug deputy what they wanted restored to fight meth. But, according to one staffer, Murray just sat there: "He didn't even bother to ask a question."

Incensed, Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Drug Policy, walked out of the room and held an angry press conference. Murray's testimony, he said, had been "pathetic" and "an embarrassment," and Walters was not doing his job: "If he does not lead, we need a change of the drug czar." Sen. Grassley, the Iowa Republican, echoed Souder a few days later. "What I've never understood," he said, "is why they took marijuana so much more seriously than methamphetamine, when methamphetamine is a much more serious drug."

By virtually every objective measure, the White House had lost the War on Drugs. Last year, Walters boasted that drug use among teenagers has fallen since 2002 — ignoring the fact that overall drug use remains unchanged. The deeper problem is that the drug czar has stopped measuring anything other than drug use. During the 1990s, at the direction of Gen. McCaffrey, Carnevale had created a comprehensive system to measure whether we were winning the drug war. The system took into account drug price and availability in the United States, how difficult it was for drug smugglers to get their product into the country and the consequences of drug use on public health and crime. But Walters simply tossed out that system of evaluation — as well as the unflattering facts it highlighted. "Had we kept it," Carnevale tells me, "we would see that the Bush administration has not made a positive impact on any of the measures."

Most unexpectedly of all, crime — a problem that seemed to have been licked a decade ago — is beginning to creep back up. In October 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum released a report declaring that violent crime in the country was "accelerating at an alarming pace." Murders were up twenty-seven percent in Boston over the previous year, sixty percent in San Antonio and more than 300 percent in Orlando. Even in the cloistered world of policing, complaints began to build about the numbers and about the cuts in federal funding. "The reality is a lot of police officers are politically conservative folks," says Ron Brooks, the president of the National Narcotics Officers' Association. "But there's been a lack of leadership in this administration on this issue."

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