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How America Lost the War on Drugs

After thirty-five years and $500 billion, drugs are as cheap and plentiful as ever. An anatomy of a failure

COLOMBIA - NOVEMBER 1996:  Cocaine is worth billions of dollars to the Colombian drug traffickers. More than 70,000 people have died in the cartel wars, and Colombia's elite Special Forces have battled hard to stem the flow of drugs from the jungle region of Guaviare which covers an area of 26,000 sq miles and produces more than half the world's cocaine.  Picture shows Special Forces surrounded by coca plants near a coca-processing lab in the heart of the Colombian jungle.  (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Members of Columbia's elite special forces in the jungle region of Guaviare, Columbia.

Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

1. After Pablo

On the day of his death, December 2nd, 1993, the Colombian billionaire drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was on the run and living in a small, tiled-roof house in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellín, close to the soccer stadium. He died, theatrically, ridiculously, gunned down by a Colombian police manhunt squad while he tried to flee across the barrio’s rooftops, a fat, bearded man who had kicked off his flip-flops to try to outrun the bullets. The first thing the American drug agents who arrived on the scene wanted to do was to make sure that the corpse was actually Escobar’s. The second thing was to check his house.

The last time Escobar had hastily fled one of his residences — la Catedral, the luxurious private prison he built for himself to avoid extradition to the United States — he had left behind bizarre, enchanting detritus, the raw stuff of what would become his own myth: the photos of himself dressed up as a Capone-era gangster with a Tommy gun, the odd collection of novels ranging from Graham Greene to the Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, arriving after the kingpin had fled, found neat shelves lined with loose-leaf binders, carefully organized by content. They were, says John Coleman, then the DEA’s assistant administrator for operations, “filled with DEA reports” — internal documents that laid out, in extraordinary detail, the agency’s repeated attempts to capture Escobar.

This article appeared in the December 13, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

“He had shelves and shelves and shelves of these things,” Coleman tells me. “It was stunning. A lot of the informants we had, he’d figured out who they were. All the agents we had chasing him — who we trusted in the Colombian police — it was right there. He knew so much more about what we were doing than we knew about what he was doing.”

Coleman and other agents began to work deductively, backward. “We had always wondered why his guys, when we caught them, would always go to trial and risk lots of jail time, even when they would have saved themselves a lot of time if they’d just plead guilty,” he says. “What we realized when we saw those binders was that they were doing a job. Their job was to stay on trial and have their lawyers use discovery to get all the information on DEA operations they could. Then they’d send copies back to Medellín, and Escobar would put it all together and figure out who we had tracking him.”

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The loose-leaf binders crammed in Escobar’s office on the ground floor gave Coleman and his agents a sense of triumph: The whole mysterious drug trade had an organization, a structure and a brain, and they’d just removed it. In the thrill of the moment, clinking champagne glasses with officials from the Colombian police and taking congratulatory calls from Washington, the agents in Medellín believed the War on Drugs could finally be won. “We had an endgame,” Coleman says. “We were literally making the greatest plans.”

At the headquarters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, staffers tacked up a poster with photographs of sixteen of its most wanted men, cartel leaders from across the Andes. Solemnly, ceremoniously, a staffer took a red magic marker and drew an X over Escobar’s portrait. “We felt like it was one down, fifteen to go,” recalls John Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. “There was this feeling that if we got all sixteen, it’s not like the whole thing would be over, but that was a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

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Man by man, sixteen red X’s eventually went up over the faces of the cartel leaders: killed. extradited. killed. José Santacruz Londoño, a leading drug trafficker, was gunned down by Colombian police in a shootout. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the heads of the Cali cartel, were extradited after they got greedy and tried to keep running their organization from prison. Some U.S. drug warriors believed that the busts were largely public-relations events, a showy way for the Colombian government to look tough on the drug trade, but most were less cynical. The crack epidemic was over. Drug-related murders were in decline. Winning the War on Drugs didn’t seem such a quixotic and open-ended mission, like the War on Poverty, but rather something tangible, a fat guy with a big organization and binders full of internal DEA reports, sixteen faces on a poster, a piñata you could reach out and smack. Richard Cañas, a veteran DEA official who headed counternarcotics efforts on the National Security Council under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, can still recall the euphoria of those days. “We were moving,” he says, “from success to success.”

This is the story of how that momentary success turned into one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered. It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a piñata, swung to hit it and missed.

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2. The Making of a Tragedy

For Cañas and other drug warriors, the death of Escobar had the feel of a real pivot, the end of one kind of battle against drugs and the beginning of another. The war itself had begun during the Nixon administration, when the White House began to get reports that a generation of soldiers was about to come back from Vietnam stoned, with habits weaned on the cheap marijuana and heroin of Southeast Asia and hothoused in the twitchy-fingered freakout of a jungle guerrilla war. For those in Washington, the problem of drugs was still so strange and new in the early Seventies that Nixon officials grappled with ideas that, by the standards of the later debate among politicians, were unthinkably radical: They appointed a panel that recommended the decriminalization of casual marijuana use and even considered buying up the world’s entire supply of opium to prevent it from being converted into heroin. But Nixon was a law-and-order politician, an operator who understood very well the panic many Americans felt about the cities, the hippies and crime. Calling narcotics “public enemy number one in the United States,” he used the issue to escalate the culture war that pitted Middle Americans against the radicals and the hippies, strengthening penalties for drug dealers and devoting federal funds to bolster prosecutions. In 1973, Nixon gave the job of policing these get-tough laws to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Administration.

By the mid-1980s, as crack leeched out from New York, Miami and Los Angeles into the American interior, the devastations inflicted by the drug were becoming more vivid and frightening. The Reagan White House seemed to capture the current of the moment: Nancy Reagan’s plaintive urging to “just say no,” and her husband’s decision to hand police and prosecutors even greater powers to lock up street dealers, and to devote more resources to stop cocaine’s production at the source, in the Andes. In 1986, trying to cope with crack’s corrosive effects, Congress adopted mandatory-minimum laws, which hit inner-city crack users with penalties as severe as those levied on Wall Street brokers possessing 100 times more powder cocaine. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans would be locked up for drug offenses.

The War on Drugs became an actual war during the first Bush administration, when the bombastic conservative intellectual Bill Bennett was appointed drug czar. “Two words sum up my entire approach,” Bennett declared, “consequences and confrontation.” Bush and Bennett doubled annual spending on the drug war to $12 billion, devoting much of the money to expensive weaponry: fighter jets to take on the Colombian trafficking cartels, Navy submarines to chase cocaine-smuggling boats in the Caribbean. If narcotics were the enemy, America would vanquish its foe with torpedoes and F-16s — and throw an entire generation of drug users in jail.

Though many on the left suspected that things had gone seriously awry, drug policy under Reagan and Bush was largely conducted in a fog of ignorance. The kinds of long-term studies that policy-makers needed — those that would show what measures would actually reduce drug use and dampen its consequences — did not yet exist. When it came to research, there was “absolutely nothing” that examined “how each program was or wasn’t working,” says Peter Reuter, a drug scholar who founded the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp.

But after Escobar was killed in 1993 — and after U.S. drug agents began systematically busting up the Colombian cartels — doubt was replaced with hard data. Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded. We continue to treat marijuana as a major threat to public health, even though we know it isn’t. We continue to lock up generations of teenage drug dealers, even though we know imprisonment does little to reduce the amount of drugs sold on the street. And we continue to spend billions to fight drugs abroad, even though we know that military efforts are an ineffective way to cut the supply of narcotics in America or raise the price.

All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs — with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes — a twelvefold increase since 1980 — with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana — and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.

“What we learned was that in drug work, nothing ever stands still,” says Coleman, the former DEA official and current president of Drug Watch International, a law-and-order advocacy group. For every move the drug warriors made, the traffickers adapted. “The other guys were learning just as we were learning,” Coleman says. “We had this hubris.”


3. Brainiacs & Cold Warriors

“At the beginning of the Clinton administration,” Cañas tells me, “the War on Drugs was like the War on Terror is now.” It was, he means, an orienting fight, the next in a sequence of abstract, generational struggles that the country launched itself into after finding no one willing to actually square up and face it on a battlefield. After the Cold War, in the flush and optimism of victory, it felt to drug warriors and the American public that abstractions could be beaten. “It was really a pivot point,” recalls Rand Beers, who served on the National Security Council for four different presidents. “We started to look carefully at our drug policies and ask if everything we were doing really made sense.” The man Clinton appointed to manage this new era was Lee Brown.

Brown had been a cop for almost thirty years when Clinton tapped him to be the nation’s drug czar in 1993. He had started out working narcotics in San Jose, California, just as the Sixties began to swell, and ended up leading the New York Police Department when the city was the symbolic center of the crack epidemic, with kids being killed by stray bullets that barreled through locked doors. A big, shy man in his fifties, Brown had made his reputation with a simple insight: Cops can’t do much without the trust of people in their communities, who are needed to turn in offenders and serve as witnesses at trial. Being a good cop meant understanding the everyday act of police work not as chasing crooks but as meeting people and making allies.

“When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers,” Brown tells me. “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I stepped back and asked myself, ‘What impact is all of this having on the drug problem? There has to be a better way.'”

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, this philosophy — known as community policing — had made Brown a national phenomenon. The Clinton administration asked him to take the drug-czar post, and though Brown was skeptical, he agreed on the condition that the White House make it a Cabinet-level position. Brown stacked his small office with liberals who had spent the long Democratic exile doing drug-policy work for Congress and swearing they would improve things when they retook power. “There were basic assumptions that Republicans had been making for fifteen years that had never been challenged,” says Carol Bergman, a congressional staffer who became Brown’s legislative liaison. “The way Lee Brown looked at it, the drug war was focused on locking kids up for increasing amounts of time, and there wasn’t enough emphasis on treatment. He really wanted to take a different tactic.”

Brown’s staff became intrigued by a new study on drug policy from the RAND Corp., the Strangelove-esque think tank that during the Cold War had employed mathematicians to crank out analyses for the Pentagon. Like Lockheed Martin, the jet manufacturer that had turned to managing welfare reform after the Cold War ended, RAND was scouting for other government projects that might need its brains. It found the drug war. The think tank assigned Susan Everingham, a young expert in mathematical modeling, to help run the group’s signature project: dividing up the federal government’s annual drug budget of $13 billion into its component parts and deciding what worked and what didn’t when it came to fighting cocaine.

Everingham and her team sorted the drug war into two categories. There were supply-side programs, like the radar and ships in the Caribbean and the efforts to arrest traffickers in Colombia and Mexico, which were designed to make it more expensive for traffickers to bring their product to market. There were also demand-side programs, like drug treatment, which were designed to reduce the market for drugs in the United States. To evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each approach, the mathematicians set up a series of formulas to calculate precisely how much additional money would have to be spent on supply programs and demand programs to reduce cocaine consumption by one percent nationwide.

“If you had asked me at the outset,” Everingham says, “my guess would have been that the best use of taxpayer money was in the source countries in South America” — that it would be possible to stop cocaine before it reached the U.S. But what the study found surprised her. Overseas military efforts were the least effective way to decrease drug use, and imprisoning addicts was prohibitively expensive. The only cost-effective way to put a dent in the market, it turned out, was drug treatment. “It’s not a magic bullet,” says Reuter, the RAND scholar who helped supervise the study, “but it works.” The study ultimately ushered RAND, this vaguely creepy Cold War relic, into a position as the permanent, pragmatic left wing of American drug policy, the most consistent force for innovating and reinventing our national conception of the War on Drugs.

When Everingham’s team looked more closely at drug treatment, they found that thirteen percent of hardcore cocaine users who receive help substantially reduced their use or kicked the habit completely. They also found that a larger and larger portion of illegal drugs in the U.S. were being used by a comparatively small group of hardcore addicts. There was, the study concluded, a fundamental imbalance: The crack epidemic was basically a domestic problem, but we had been fighting it more aggres­sively overseas. “What we began to realize,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studied drug policy for RAND, “was that even if you only get a percentage of this small group of heavy drug users to abstain forever, it’s still a really great deal.”

Thirteen years later, the study remains the gold standard on drug policy. “It’s still the consensus recommendation supplied by the scholarship,” says Reuter. “Yet as well as it’s stood up, it’s never really been tried.”

To Brown, RAND’s conclusions seemed exactly right. “I saw how little we were doing to help addicts, and I thought, ‘This is crazy,'” he recalls. “‘This is how we should be breaking the cycle of addiction and crime, and we’re just doing nothing.'”

The federal budget that Brown’s office submitted in 1994 remains a kind of fetish object for certain liberals in the field, the moment when their own ideas came close to making it into law. The budget sought to cut overseas interdiction, beef up community policing, funnel low-level drug criminals into treatment programs instead of prison, and devote $355 million to treating hardcore addicts, the drug users responsible for much of the illegal-drug market and most of the crime associated with it. White House political handlers, wary of appearing soft on crime, were skeptical of even this limited commitment, but Brown persuaded the president to offer his support, and the plan stayed.


Still, the politics of the issue were difficult. Convincing Congress to dramatically alter the direction of America’s drug war required a brilliant sales job. “And Lee Brown,” says Bergman, his former legislative liaison, “was not an effective salesman.” With a kind of loving earnestness, the drug czar arranged tours of treatment centers for congressmen to show them the kinds of programs whose funding his bill would increase. Few legislators came. Most politicians were skeptical about such a radical departure from the mainstream consensus on crime. Congress rewrote the budget, slashing the $355 million for treatment programs by more than eighty percent. “There were too many of us who had a strong law-and-order focus,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who opposed the reform bill and serves as co-chair of the Senate’s drug-policy caucus.

For some veteran drug warriors, Brown’s tenure as drug czar still lingers as the last moment when federal drug policy really made sense. “Lee Brown came the closest of anyone to really getting it,” says Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. “But the bottom line was, the drug issue and Lee Brown were largely ignored by the Clinton administration.” When Brown tried to repeat his treatment-centered initiative in 1995, it was poorly timed: Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had seized control of the House after portraying C