How America Lost the War on Drugs

Page 12 of 12

12. The Privateers

Even by conservative estimates, the War on Drugs now costs the United States $50 billion each year and has overcrowded prisons to the breaking point — all with little discernible impact on the drug trade. A report by the Government Accountability Office released at the end of September estimated that ninety percent of the cocaine moving into the United States now arrives through Mexico, up from sixty-six percent in 2000. Even Walters acknowledges that for all of the efforts the Bush administration has devoted to overseas drug enforcement, the price of cocaine has dropped while its purity has risen. More than forty percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, yet the government continues to target pot smokers. In October, the administration announced it was planning a new military offensive, dubbed Plan Mexico, with a price tag of $1.4 billion. Things look so bleak that Walters was recently moved to describe a momentary upward blip in drug prices as "historic progress."

There are a handful of battles in the War on Drugs that have actually been won, times when fresh thinking prevailed over politics — but they are not the kind of victories that the Bush administration is eager to trumpet. In the summer of 2003, the police department in High Point, North Carolina, held its annual command-staff retreat in a small conference center themed to look like the log cabins of the pioneers who settled the region. One topic dominated the conversation: an increase in violent crime that was concentrated in three drug-dealing neighborhoods in the city. "The place we were at was that all the traditional enforcement was making no difference," says the department's deputy chief, Marty Sumner. "We agreed we weren't going to be able to eliminate drug use. We weren't even going to try to go after drug use. We wanted to change the marketing of the drug."

Sumner's department called in the Harvard criminologist David Kennedy. The High Point police had worked with Kennedy before, adopting the Boston Gun Project's policy of trying to break the link between drugs and crime. Now the criminologist told them that he had a new kind of project to propose, one that went beyond the Boston experiment. Kennedy's pitch was simple: The trick, he said, wasn't to focus on eliminating drugs but rather to shut down the most "overt" drug markets, the ones operating so openly that they attracted prostitution and violent crime. "Instead of looking at it as a drug problem, we decided to think of it as a drug-market problem," Sumner says. "What the public really couldn't stand was the violence associated with public drug markets." Dealers operating in the open are targets for stickup men and other would-be robbers, and the public swagger and turf consciousness of street slingers can cradle violent, simmering beefs.

High Point police began in the West End neighborhood, one of the city's three overt drug markets. A team of officers staked out the site, videotaping hundreds of hand-to-hand sales and mapping out a complete anthropology of the West End drug market. They found it was strikingly small: Sumner had expected as many as fifty dealers working there, but it turned out there were only sixteen. Before long, the officers had enough evidence to put away each of the sixteen dealers for good. But they didn't. Instead, Sumner and Kennedy called them in for a meeting. They showed each of them the portfolio of evidence against them and said that unless they stopped dealing drugs, the whole file would be handed over to the prosecutors and they'd be in jail for years. Family members were brought in to urge the dealers to stop, and social-service providers pledged assistance with food, housing and job training.

"We didn't think it would work," Sumner tells me, "but the drug markets have disappeared."

For five years before the program went into effect, the number of drug-related murders in High Point had stayed steady, around fifteen a year. In 2007, in the program's fourth year, it has plummeted to two. Violent crime in the West End has declined by thirty-five percent. "The use of drugs isn't something we could affect," says Kennedy. "But the violence was." His logic has an appealing clarity for overworked police departments: There are now more than sixty cities in the United States that use some version of Kennedy's program, edging away from thirty-five years of punitive measures that have turned the United States into the world's leading jailer to a social-work model that encourages communities and cops to engage the problem on a more human level. The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats — the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of government.

In 2000, voters in California, whose prisons now hold nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed to incarcerate, passed a referendum called Proposition 36, which has since sent more than 150,000 nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. The program is not perfect: Though the outcomes for those who make it through treatment are surprisingly strong, many convicts simply skip the sessions, and there are few enforcement mechanisms to compel them to attend. But the program, according to a study conducted by researchers at UCLA, still saves tax­payers $2.50 for every dollar put in. And a pilot program in Honolulu — which requires near-constant drug tests of those on probation and provides incremental punishments for each extra failed test — suggests an effective model for treating hardcore addicts, says Angela Hawken of UCLA and Pepperdine University. "It offers the promise that we might really be able to solve this problem."

In recent years, there have been flickers of political progress that suggest America's drug policy is ready for a historic shift. Democrats in both the House and Senate have voted to cut proposed funding for Plan Colombia and have pushed for hearings on sentencing reform. As the politics of crime and drugs have lost their power to move votes, some conservatives, including Republican senators Jeff Sessions and Sam Brownback, have begun to question the logic of mandatory-minimum sentences. "There is a more promising environment for drug-policy reform than at any time since the Carter administration," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of the country's foremost critics of the drug war.

But despite their evident success, the most forward-looking programs remain buried at the fringes of drug policy, featured not in the president's budgets but in academic journals and water-cooler talk in cities like High Point. Experimentation at the community level is more imaginative than programs that are federally sanctioned. "We haven't had the kind of national leadership that blesses this and encourages it," says Caulkins, the RAND researcher from Carnegie Mellon. "So this kind of innovation stays below the radar." Thirty-five years after Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the most promising programs continue to be shunted aside by Washington's unswerving emphasis on law and order.

The drug war, in the end, has been undone in no small part by the sweeping and inflexible nature of its own metaphor. At the beginning, in the days of Escobar, the campaign was a war as seen from the situation room, a complicated assault that spanned multiple fronts, but one which had identifiable enemies and a goal. Today, the government's anti-drug effort resembles a war as seen from the trenches, an eternal slog, where victory seems not only unattainable but somehow beside the point. For the drug agents and veterans who busted Escobar, the last decade and a half have been a slow, agonizing history of defeat after defeat, the enemy shifting but never retreating.

"You get frustrated," Joe Toft, a former DEA country attache in Colombia, tells me. "We've never had a true effort where the U.S. as a whole says, 'We're never going to crack this problem without a real demand-reduction program.' That's something that's just never happened."

Toft, now a private security consultant, thinks back to the heady days after the fall of Escobar, the days when winning the War on Drugs seemed only a matter of dispatching more American helicopters to the Andes. "The first couple years, I had this very naive idea that I was really going to make a huge impact," he says. "But after a while, you start realizing that without a concerted effort to reduce demand, it's not going to happen. Over the years, I came to see my job as basically keeping the lid on the garbage can — trying to sit on that lid and prevent that garbage can from overflowing. If you talk to a hundred agents, that's what almost all of them would say. We're just being realistic."

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