AMERICA’S LONG-RUNNING WAR ON DRUGS HAS, literally, gone to pot. More than two decades after it was launched in response to the spread of crack cocaine — and in the midst of a brand-new wave of methamphetamine use sweeping the country — the government crackdown has shifted from hard drugs to marijuana. Pot now accounts for nearly half of drug arrests nationwide — up from barely a quarter of all busts a decade ago. Spurred by a Supreme Court decision in June affirming the right of federal agents to crack down on medical marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration has launched a series of high-profile raids against pot clinics in California, and police in New York, Memphis and Philadelphia have been waging major offensives against pot smokers that are racking up thousands of arrests.
By almost any measure, however, the war has been as monumental a failure as the invasion of Iraq. All told, the government sinks an estimated $35 billion a year into the War on Drugs. Yet illegal drugs remain cheap and plentiful, and coca cultivation in the Andes — where the Bush administration has spent $5.4 billion to eradicate cocaine — rose twenty-nine percent last year. “Drug prices are at an all-time low, drug purity is at an all-time high, and polls show that drugs are more available than ever,” says Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug-reform organization in Washington, D.C. Drug smugglers and South American cocaine growers, he adds, are fast developing new ways to evade U.S. eradication efforts. “All they have to do is double their efforts,” he says. “They can adapt more quickly than the government can.”
Given the government’s failure to halt the flow of drugs, many soldiers who eagerly enlisted in the war are beginning to desert the cause. In March, the archconservative American Enterprise Institute published a report — titled “Are We Losing the War on Drugs?” — that concluded “criminal punishment of marijuana use does not appear to be justified.” Scores of states and cities, whose jails and courts are bursting at the seams with people serving lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses, are rejecting harsh sentencing laws backed by the White House. And most schools and employers are deciding not to test students and workers for drugs, despite a national testing push by John Walters, the tough-talking drug warrior who became America’s “drug czar” in 2001. Even the Pentagon, engaged in fighting real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has quietly cut back on its efforts to interdict drug traffickers in the Caribbean and Central America.
“Americans will be disappointed to learn that the War on Drugs is not what they thought it was,” says Mitch Earleywine, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Many of us grew up supporting this war, thinking it would imprison high-level traffickers of hard drugs and keep cocaine and heroin off the streets. Instead, law enforcement officers devote precious hours on hundreds of thousands of arrests for possession of a little marijuana.”
SINCE TAKING OVER AS DRUG CZAR, Walters has launched an extraordinary effort to depict marijuana as an addictive “gateway” to other, more powerful drugs. “Marijuana use, especially during the teen years, can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and schizophrenia,” he declared in May. Trying to capitalize on fears of terrorism, Walters has linked drugs to terror, running a much-derided series of television ads suggesting that the money marijuana users spend on pot winds up funding terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
“For Walters, it’s all marijuana, all the time,” says Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He is reinforcing the atmosphere that marijuana is the drug we should care about, and that the government will do everything it can, including locking everyone up, if that’s what it comes to.”
In June, the anti-pot crusade got a boost from the Supreme Court, which ruled that federal authorities can crack down on medical marijuana, even in states where it has been legalized. A few weeks after the ruling, as part of Operation Urban Harvest, scores of federal agents swooped down on pot clubs that supply patients in San Francisco. They raided dozens of homes, businesses and growing areas, seizing 9,300 pot plants and arresting fifteen people on federal drug charges. At one dispensary, the Herbal Relief Center, agents seized computer records, medical files and plants.
“We can’t disregard the federal law,” said Javier Pena, special agent in charge at the DEA. “The Supreme Court reiterates that we have the power to enforce the federal drug laws — even if they are not popular. We’re going to continue to do that.”
Since 1992, according to a recent analysis of federal crime statistics by the Sentencing Project, arrests for marijuana have soared from 300,000 a year to 700,000. The government spends an estimated $4 billion a year arresting and prosecuting marijuana crimes — more than it spends on treating addiction for all drugs — and more and more of those busts are for possession rather than dealing. One in four people currently in state prisons for pot offenses are classified as “low-level offenders.” In New York, arrests for possession — which now account for nine of every ten busts — are up twenty-five-fold during the past decade. In Memphis, marijuana arrests are up nineteenfold, and large spikes have also been recorded in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Houston.
Walters insists that the surge in arrests is having a “deterrent effect,” scaring kids away from smoking pot. Testifying before Congress in February, he reported that the administration has exceeded its goal of reducing teen drug use by ten percent. “Over the past three years,” he declared, “there has been a seventeen percent decrease in teenage drug use.”
But in reality the numbers for pot use have remained remarkably steady. About a third of all teens and young adults report having smoked pot in the past year, as do one in seven adults over thirty-five. And despite the government’s all-out assault on marijuana, there’s still plenty to go around. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, part of the Justice Department, as much as 19,000 tons of pot are still harvested each year in the United States, with more coming from abroad. Drop
To catch more marijuana users, Walters has launched a nationwide effort to persuade schools to conduct drug tests on student athletes — and even entire student populations. The drug czar has asked Congress for $25 million to support drug testing next year, up from $10 million this year and just $2 million in 2004, and he is leading a series of national summits on student drug testing. The Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of students involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, and the Bush administration believes “extracurricular activity” can be stretched to include any student who parks on campus. “The court did not elaborate on random drug testing of student populations,” says Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “But we think that schools would be on very safe ground to conduct that kind of testing.”
Studies have shown, however, that such tests fail to deter students from using drugs. They’re also inaccurate: Because hard drugs such as cocaine and crack exit a user’s system quickly, most tests manage to detect only marijuana use. “Drug testing is, in effect, marijuana testing, because that is what stays in your system,” says Boyd of the ACLU. As a result, fewer than five percent of schools currently conduct drug tests, and many companies are giving up on the practice as well. According to a survey by the American Management Association, only forty-four percent of firms currently screen employees for drugs — down from sixty-eight percent a decade ago.
The administration is also running into widespread opposition over its efforts to force welfare recipients and public-housing residents to pass drug tests in order to qualify for benefits. Michigan, the only state that requires welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, recently suspended its program when a federal court declared such testing illegal.
Even more striking, states are backing away from the tough mandatory-minimum sentencing laws that have put tens of thousands of pot smokers behind bars for years, stretching state budgets to the breaking point. Unlike federal drug hawks, who continue to call for even harsher penalties, more than two dozen states have rolled back or repealed state mandatory minimums. “The federal government continues its love affair with mandatory minimums, but the states are moving in the other direction,” says Monica Pratt, spokeswoman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Most people aren’t worrying as much about drugs these days. It’s just not at the top of their list anymore.”
THE WAR ON POT DIVERTS MONEY and manpower from fighting far more harmful drugs. While the feds target pot smokers, a burgeoning meth epidemic is swamping rural communities, especially in the West and the Great Plains. Nearly half of state and local law-enforcement agencies identify meth as their greatest drug threat — compared with only one in eight for marijuana — and more than 1 million Americans use the highly addictive drug, which is linked to violent crime, explosions and fires at meth labs, severe health problems, and child and family abuse. In 2003, drug agents busted a staggering 10,182 meth labs, and the fight against meth is straining the resources of local police and sheriffs in small towns. But the White House has proposed slashing federal aid for rural narcotics teams by half. “If those cuts go through, they’re going to totally wipe us out,” says Lt. Steve Dalton, leader of a drug task force in southwest Missouri.
Over the past four years, as the War on Drugs has been eclipsed by the War on Terror, the administration has been forced to scale back its expensive and ineffective efforts to stem the tide of drugs from South America. President Bush has barely mentioned drugs since September 11th, and key federal agencies, from the Department of Defense to the FBI, are quietly bowing out of the anti-drug crusade to concentrate their attention on Iraq and Al Qaeda. “The number-one stated priority for the FBI is to prevent another attack,” says a spokesman for the bureau, which has diverted hundreds of agents from its anti-drug task forces to anti-terrorism work. “Other things are not the primary focus. We’ve had to retool.” Even drug opponents concede that treating pot smokers as criminals “does not appear to be justified.”
For the agencies now grouped within the new Department of Homeland Security, the ones responsible for border security — the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs — preventing terrorists from entering the country trumps their anti-drug mission. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has shipped troops responsible for drug interdiction in South and Central America to the Middle East. Surveillance flights in the Caribbean have been cut back by more than two-thirds. “We’re concerned about the ability of the Defense Department to continue to provide support to law enforcement for drug interdiction,” says an aide to Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the War on Drugs.
For the military, the drug war has become a convenient training ground for troops heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. Joint Task Force North, a unit under the U.S. Northern Command, is supposed to provide military assistance to U.S. law enforcement agencies, especially in Southwestern states along the Mexican border. But after soldiers from a Stryker brigade based in Alaska recently spent sixty days training in “rugged desert terrain” to support the border patrol, they were promptly given their marching orders for Iraq.
“This is what we term a win-win situation,” says Armando Carrasco, a North-com spokesman. “We provide assistance, and we get training directly related to our activities.”
Those “activities” have left the feds with fewer troops to fight the drug war. With America engaged in a quagmire in Iraq, at great cost in lives and money, the administration is simply unable to push its anti-drug agenda with the same intensity. “The president could sell the War on Drugs in peacetime,” says Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the conservative Cato Institute. “But they don’t want to embarrass themselves now that we’re in the midst of an honest-to-God shooting war. To continue that kind of rhetoric in the middle of a real war, when American soldiers are getting blown up in Iraq, makes it look trivial. There’s just no comparison.”