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A Separate Peace

The Clinton administration has abandoned the rhetoric of the war on drugs, but it hasn’t stopped fighting the war

Bill Clinton, Roger Clinton

Roger (L) and Bill Clinton

Ron Sachs/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bill Clinton uses personal narratives the way Ronald Reagan used anecdotes. Clinton is, as we’re often reminded, the product of a compelling journey from a place called Hope. But just as Reagan unfurled his anecdotes of gold-plated welfare mamas to distract from honest discussions of poverty and welfare, Clinton’s personal narratives often obscure more than they reveal.

This is certainly true for the president’s rhetorical uses of his brother’s drug experiences. Roger Clinton was a cocaine addict who went to prison for drug dealing while his brother was governor of Arkansas. This singular history is yet another validation of the hardscrabble life the president rose above. More important, it is a conversation stopper. Roger’s tale forms the bulwark of the president’s defense against drug-legalization arguments. “If drugs were legal,” Clinton has said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today.” End of discussion.

Legalizing drugs for 250 million Americans may or may not be a terrible idea. But is it terrible because Bill Clinton thinks his little brother might have died under such a regime?

Such logical short circuits abound in the nation’s drug policy. After a decade in which close to $80 billion in federal funds and much more than that in state, local and private money fueled a losing war on drugs, the White House has all but declared an armistice. The Clintonites, Attorney General Janet Reno and White House drug-policy director Lee Brown most adamantly among them, recoil from that once capital phrase: war on drugs. “You won’t hear us using the metaphor ‘drug war,’ ” Brown says. “We should help those who need help and arrest those who are trafficking in drugs. But I don’t think we should declare war against our own people.”

But while the administration has absorbed the lesson that virtually every American viscerally understands — that the drug war has been a colossal failure — it seems unable to follow through on that knowledge. Though as recently as late October the president was promoting a “new direction in the control of illegal drugs,” the national drug strategy the White House unveiled in February largely conforms to the established paradigm of failure.

The Clinton-Gore campaign called for sufficient federal aid to “help communities dramatically increase their ability to offer drug treatment to everyone who needs help.” The new strategy proposes a 14-percent increase in treatment funds — enough, according to the Drug Policy Foundation, to serve a mere 5 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.7 million addicts. Beyond that, the strategy’s most daring element is a $94 million cut from the $1.3 billion interdiction budget. Though the budget says otherwise, the administration claims to be replacing interdiction, a failed policy of the ’80s, with a renewed emphasis on source reduction, a failed policy of the ’70s. In effect, the White House continues to calibrate knobs and subtly adjust levers on a machine that ceased functioning long ago.

Of course, had Clinton wanted to alter the works, he wouldn’t have hired Lee Brown, a former police chief in Houston and New York, to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The unyielding politics of race condemns every black in public life to play some kind of race card: Brown has prospered by playing his close to the vest. Seated at a conference-room table, surrounded by aides, Brown fends off reportorial incursions with a faint wrinkle of his mustache. He strings words into a rhetorical noose, choking their meaning. For example, will Brown promote needle-exchange programs to counter the spread of AIDS? “The culmination of all the research that I’ve seen at this point tells me,” he says, “that the position that we will take until additional research changes our mind is not to take a stance supporting needle exchange.”

Brown started his job last July, five months after most Cabinet members began their jobs and five months after Clinton had cut the ONDCP staff by 80 percent. Despite the cut, Clinton promised to raise the status of the office by raising the ONDCP director to Cabinet rank. Brown, who initially told reporters his reduced staff was “not sufficient to carry out the mandate of this office,” now says everything’s fine.

“The reason is that President Clinton has elevated this office to a Cabinet-level position,” Brown says. “It means I have access to the federal government, to whatever I need to get the job done.” Instead, the Cabinet elevation has simply magnified the ONDCP’s growing irrelevance. When the House voted last July to cut $231 million from drug-treatment and prevention programs, the White House, without consulting Brown, failed to mount a protest.

To its credit, the White House has acknowledged that the hard-core addict population — those most difficult to sway from drugs and crime — is at the base of the problem. The easy years of castigating nose-candied investment bankers are over. Brown even gamely refers to the “root causes” of the drug culture, allowing chronic poverty, systemic educational failure and massive inner-city unemployment to elbow their way into the discussion. But what of it?

The vengeful cries that met Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders’ suggestion last December that the time had come to study drug legalization served notice on anyone too eager to consider a “new direction.” Within hours of Elders’ remarks, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers announced that the president was “not inclined in this case to even study the issue.” Republicans piled on, with Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma accusing the White House of “surrender” in the drug war. A repentant Elders promptly issued a statement assuring the public that her office was conducting no studies.

The story line, of course, is familiar: How can Clinton afford to extend himself on drug policy (or fill in the blank) when he is engulfed by battles over health-care reform and the fine points of Arkansan ethics? Pinching pennies, forever hoarding scarce political capital in its efforts to surmount yesterday’s crisis, the White House has accompanied its welcome deflation of drug-war talk with a comparable deflation of political imagination. For by the White House’s now predictable accounting, imagination equals political risk — and risk, after all, can be costly. It is impossible to gauge how many lives are doomed by this equation.

Polled at the start of the Clinton presidency, a majority of Americans concluded that Clinton would not make substantial progress in dealing with the drug problem. With little pressure to perform, the White House maintains a status quo approach to drugs without the moralistic excesses of the past. Though it promises familiar results, this tack at least merits a new slogan: The drug war is dead. Long live the drug war.

The United States has 88,633 miles of coastline. It has more than 7,500 miles of borders with Mexico and Canada and 300 ports of entry. Thus it both amused and horrified serious drug-policy analysts when, at the height of mid-’80s drug hysteria, the House passed an amendment requiring the military to “seal the borders” against drugs within 45 days. The amendment ultimately died in the Senate but not before driving home just how unhinged the drug debate had become.

Through most of the drug war, that kind of thinking has diverted two-thirds of the federal drug budget to law enforcement, interdiction and foreign cooperation. Ironically, the ratio was nearly inverse when Nixon started the war on drugs in the early ’70s. Though Nixon began the first interdiction program, he also was responsible for expanding methadone clinics to treat heroin addicts.

In response to the failure of interdiction, the Carter administration shifted toward a policy of eradication. (Carter’s suggestion that it might make sense to decriminalize marijuana didn’t stop him from encouraging Mexico to spray marijuana plants with the herbicide Paraquat.) Reagan raised the stakes of the drug war by enlisting the Pentagon in the fight, which the generals resisted until they got hooked on drug budgets. But it took George Bush, forever fighting his wimp image, to really go over the top. Bush spent more on the drug war than all previous presidents combined.

But to what avail? Any respectable Colombian drug lord with a bustling cartel considers U.S. interdiction efforts as another cost of doing business, a small, if nettlesome, tax on an otherwise hugely profitable enterprise. For every 10 kilos distributed in the United States, perhaps one or two are paid in tribute to the ingenuity and persistence of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its cohorts.

The proud agents who stage their photo ops with caches of white powder are, however, more likely a boost than a hindrance to the international flow of drugs. Harvard professor Mark Kleiman has noted that the “total amount of cocaine shipped from source countries to the United States will tend to rise along with the success of the interdiction effort, as source-country suppliers sell enough to meet the (largely unaffected) final retail demand plus the ‘demand’ represented by seizure.”

Brown routinely likens the flow of drugs into this country to a horde of bees swarming across the border. The solution, he says, is to target the “beehive.” What’s disturbing is that he says this as though the long history of U.S. source-reduction programs — crop-eradication-and-replacement programs, the State Department’s Andean Strategy to build up South American economies and infrastructure — never existed. In 1992 alone, the governments of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia destroyed hundreds of cocaine-production sites. Yet according to the U.S. government’s own estimates, neither total cocaine production nor the total availability of cocaine in the United States was affected.

“Drug crops are so plentiful, so cheap and so little restricted by geography that it is hard to see how any plausible set of crop-eradication efforts abroad could make any difference to the availability of drugs at home,” Kleiman has written.

But if border interdiction is futile and source-country programs all but hopeless, what is the point of source-reduction policy? “The truth is all this has very little to do with stopping drugs,” says a government consultant.

Recalling that most unfortunate of American analogies, the Vietnam War, the United States maintains its fruitless interdiction policy not to stop the unstoppable flow of drugs but to demonstrate its resolve to do so. The country currently propels its international drug policy against the winds of failure due to a combination of moral imperative (it’s wrong to permit drug smugglers to violate U.S. borders and laws with impunity) and foreign-policy imperative (having staked national prestige and specific international relations on combating the global drug trade, the United States cannot afford to abandon this very public commitment).

“All we’re doing is basically making a statement,” says the government consultant. “These are basically foreign-policy objectives we’re pursuing. When it comes to what’s happening on the street corner, the answer is it has nothing to do with it. But pulling out would be a great loss of face for the United States. We would create a lot of [international] enmity down the road. In a way, we’re sort of stuck.”

Saving face abroad is complicated by the continued failure of drug policies at home. Repercussions from the drug war’s disfigurement of American society will endure for generations. The overload and subsequent breakdown of the criminal-justice system, the evolution of impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods into hyperviolence, the imprisonment and further marginalization of a vast army of unskilled, uneducated young black men, the births of tens of thousands of addicted children and the abandonment of thousands more all will leave lasting scars.

The simple logic of the drug war — that we can arrest and incarcerate enough “enemy” drug criminals to solve the problem by attrition and deterrence — has been confounded by two decades of reality. The pointlessness of this approach is confirmed not by the failure of law-enforcement agencies to fulfill their mandate but by their generally impressive record of accomplishment.

The nation’s police have been remarkably busy. According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice reform group, total arrests for drug sales increased 242 percent between 1981 and 1990. Arrests for drug possession went up 84 percent in the same period. In a yearlong survey of 254 young crack users and dealers in Miami by social scientists, 87 percent were arrested sometime during the year. At the height of the crack epidemic in 1988, three-fourths of male arrestees in New York City tested positive for cocaine. More than half the male arrestees in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago still do.

Clearly, police have not only been making huge numbers of arrests — if the point of the drug war is to attack drug use, they appear to have been making mostly the right arrests. Drug users and sellers have been swept off the streets time and time again. Primarily as a result of drug-related arrests, the number of offenders imprisoned, jailed, on probation or on parole increased an astonishing 44 percent between 1985 and 1990. The number of inmates in state and federal prisons increased 168 percent in the ’80s. If it were possible to police our way out of the crisis, we surely would have succeeded by now.

The worst effects of the drug problem are now concentrated in those urban ghettos least able to deal with them. Between 1983 and 1989 the ratio of black to white juvenile arrests more than tripled as city kids were sucked into the drug trade. Meanwhile, black kids’ prospects of becoming a murder statistic rose dramatically.

Brown maintains that the “violence we’re seeing is not restricted to ghettos. You find it in the suburbs and increasingly in your rural areas.” It’s true that drugs are everywhere. But in police precincts across the country, high homicide rates correspond to the presence of high-volume drug markets, and the people paying the ultimate price generally don’t live in suburban Connecticut or rural Kansas. They are urban blacks and Hispanics.

Many liberals argue that the only rational, humane response is a massive shift of resources from law enforcement and interdiction to treatment, prevention and education programs. Democrats campaigning in urban centers routinely include “treatment on demand” in their election-year wish lists, just as Clinton and Gore did in 1992.

But the efficacy of most demand-reduction measures is uncertain, and massive investment in them is unlikely to provide the easy solution many hope for. Despite its pervasive familiarity, much about drug abuse remains a mystery. The government’s key data on the quantity and quality of drug abusers are extrapolated from household and high-school surveys of voluntary respondents. There is no way to gauge the accuracy of their answers. Moreover, hard-core users, who seldom maintain stable households, tend to be overlooked altogether.

The primary targets of treatment are also those who are the hardest to reach. According to the government’s admittedly unsure projections, casual cocaine users in 1972 accounted for roughly half the nation’s cocaine consumption. By 1992, however, their consumption had fallen to one-third of the total. Meantime, according to a Rand study, total cocaine consumption increased roughly by a factor of six, to an estimated 300 metric tons per year. If these calculations are even generally correct, the inescapable conclusion is that a small portion of the population is consuming a vast quantity of cocaine.

These heavy abusers are extremely difficult to lure into treatment programs requiring sustained abstinence and self-discipline. Whereas many middle-class addicts may have functional families or realistic job prospects to help them manage the transition to sobriety, hard-core addicts may not have a home, much less a chance at employment. As with most social issues, the economy profoundly shapes the drug problem. Yet for some reason, we continue to wonder why people who don’t have jobs or viable economic prospects fail to behave as if they do.

“The fact that endemic drug abuse is a predictable response to social conditions that destroy self-esteem, hope, solidarity, stability and a sense of purpose strongly limits most conventional anti-drug strategies,” writes Elliott Currie in Reckoning, his excellent chronicle of drug-war failings. “It limits our ability to ‘deter’ drug use and drug dealing through the courts and prisons; it limits the capacity of treatment programs to ‘cure’ — or even enroll — addicts; and it limits our ability to reduce drug use and the associated risks of death and disease through education and prevention.”

Members of the Clinton Administration bring with them to power a different set of experiences and attitudes about drugs. At one Washington party, young administration aides danced and chatted amiably as marijuana fumes wafted indiscreetly through the house. Both the president and vice president have admitted using marijuana. Between them, they undoubtedly know many peers whose drug experimentation was more ambitious — or problematic. And there is always the cautionary tale of Roger Clinton.

Despite this cultural shift, the polarization long characteristic of domestic Cold War politics lives on in the drug debate. The Clinton administration — which declines even to study models of legalization, shuns European harm-reduction innovations and insists on repeating its predecessors’ mistakes — is as fearful of being labeled soft on drugs as past Democrats were of being called soft on communism.

Though it has adopted a more sophisticated posture, there is no escaping the conclusion that this administration has no realistic agenda for handling the drug problem. The Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Department will still spend billions collecting their meager drug tax in the form of seized shipments. Intravenous drug users will continue to spread AIDS. Young drug merchants will still be shipped off to jail, only to return — without skills or education or prospects — to the same streets where they were first arrested.

It is difficult to imagine any combination of policies proving less effective than those now in place. Bombarding hardcore addicts, the mainstays of the drug market, with social services and treatment would be no panacea. But could it be any worse than bombarding them with police and prisons? Kevin Zeese of the Drug Policy Foundation has estimated that drug treatment on demand could be had nationwide for little more than $1 billion. (The Defense Department alone spends $760 million on interdiction.) To couple treatment with job training and social services would cost considerably more. Much of this money would likely be wasted on substandard treatment and intractable addictions. But such an investment would provide at least one critical ingredient missing from the Reagan-Bush-Clinton recipe: hope.

Like poverty and alcoholism, two resilient institutions with which it is closely linked, drug abuse will continue to carve its passage through the nation’s economy and culture, violently changing America the way a powerful stream cuts through a mountainside. Neither hapless attempts at interdiction nor halfhearted efforts at treatment will uproot the crisis. No number of jail cells will contain it. The drug war at last is ended. But without a serious commitment to cities and the courage to explore drastically different policies, the drug problem may be just settling in.

In This Article: Coverwall, War on Drugs


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