I strongly recommend taking the time to read Ben Wallace-Wells’ phenomenal 15,000-word piece on “How America Lost the War on Drugs,”in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine.
Yes, Rolling Stone is principally a music magazine, one whose tastes may not be your own. (They actually claim that Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made the two best albums of 2006.) But the magazine occasionally publishes some excellent investigative work, and this is a great example. Slate Editor Jack Shafer is absolutely right to call Wallace-Wells’ article “the smartest drug story of the year.”
It is based on months of interviews with people involved in all aspects of U.S. drug policy. Its conclusions are devastating.
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 piÃ±ata, swung to hit it and missed. â€¦
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 [Pablo] 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.
Even though CIP’s work on Colombia has made me a critic of the drug war for a long time now, Wallace-Wells uncovers many pieces of the drug-war narrative that I didn’t know about. Here are a few excerpts showing a few things I learned – but if you have time, do read the entire article instead.
1. Serious studies of how to fight the United Statesâ€™ drug problem, based on years of data collection, began in the mid-1990s. Even when carried out by â€œconservativeâ€ think-tanks, these studies pointed in a very different direction from the current policy: treatment of addicts at home. But they were ignored.
[A]fter [Pablo] 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. …
[President Clintonâ€™s first â€œdrug czar,â€ Lee] 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 [Peter] 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.”
[The RAND study is available online.]
2. President Clintonâ€™s first â€œdrug czar,â€ former New York City Police Chief Lee Brown, tried to move in this direction in 1993-1994, but was thwarted for being perceived as â€œtoo softâ€ on drugs.
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. …
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 Âopposed 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 Clinton as soft on crime. The authority to oversee the War on Drugs passed from Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit liberal, to a retired wrestling coach from Illinois who was tired of drugs in the schools â€“ a rising Republican star named Dennis Hastert. Reeling from the defeat at the polls, Clinton decided to give up on drug reform and get tough on crime.
3. The article includes some intriguing details about how Mexican cartels increased their involvement during the mid-1990s.
The remaining leaders of the weakened Cali cartel, DEA agents say, traveled up to Guadalajara for a series of meetings with Mexican traffickers. By 1996, the Colombians had decided to hand over more control of the cocaine trade to the Mexicans. The Cali cartel would now ship cocaine to Guadalajara, sell the drugs to the Mexican groups and then be done with it. “This wasn’t just happenstance,” says Jerome McArdle, then a DEA assistant agent for special operations. “This was the Colombians saying they were willing to reduce their profits in exchange for reducing their risk and exposure, and handing it over to the Mexicans. The whole nature of the supply chain changed.”
Around the same time, DEA agents found themselves picking up Mexican distributors, rather than Colombians, on the streets of New York. Immigration and customs officials on the border were meanwhile overwhelmed by the sheer number of tractor-trailers – many of them loaded with drugs – suddenly pouring across the Mexican border as a consequence of NAFTA, which had been enacted in 1994. â€¦
Mexican officials along the border, whose PRI party had kept a lock on national power for seventy years, allowed traffickers to move their product in exchange for reduced violence. “In order to coexist, the government looked the other way as long as the cartels didn’t wreak havoc in the country,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It became somewhat of a safety valve in terms of dealing with organized crime, as a way of mitigating the political instability.” Though the U.S. government pushed Mexican officials to crack down on corruption, its pleas and threats went largely unheeded. By 1997, Carrillo Fuentes – the Lord of the Skies – was moving tons of cocaine across the border every year and had amassed a fortune worth $25 billion. But that same year, Carrillo Fuentes died on an operating table in Mexico City, where he had been undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance and avoid detection: In the ghoulish post-mortem photographs, his face is speckled like a snake’s skin, two shades of brown and one of pink. JuÃ¡rez fell into a testy, three-way competition for control of the drug trade, and the murders took on a symbolic vocabulary of their own: Tortured victims piled in oil barrels filled with concrete and buried alive, members of opposing cartels murdered and left to rot in car trunks in their own neighborhoods, snitches killed and left on the side of the road. The violence between cartels is so pervasive, Payan says, “if you move into a home in JuÃ¡rez, you will never know whether there’s a body underneath the floor in your dining room.”
At the beginning of the Bush administration, it looked like Mexico might actually begin to bust corrupt cops who did business with drug smugglers. In 2000, when Vicente Fox, the reforming, conservative rancher and friend of George W. Bush, took power, he began prosecuting dirty police officers, throwing tens of thousands of them off the force. “There were unintended consequences,” says Peter Andreas, a Brown University professor who has studied drug trafficking along the border. “Many of the corrupt cops went to work in the drug trade” – a shift in power that had the effect of professionalizing the violence. In addition, an estimated 90,000 Mexican soldiers deserted during the Fox administration, many of them signing up with the cartels.
4. Clintonâ€™s second â€œdrug czar,â€ Gen. Barry McCaffrey, ended up squandering much of his political capital in a crusade against medical marijuana.
McCaffrey had taken the drug war in a new direction, one that had little obvious connection with preventing drug abuse. For the first time, the full force of the federal government was being brought to bear on patients dying from terminal diseases. Even the General’s allies in Congress were appalled. “I can’t tell you how many times I went to the Hill with him and sat in on closed-doors meetings,” Bergman recalls. “Members said to him, ‘What in the world are you doing? We have real drug problems in the country with meth and cocaine. What the hell are you doing with medical marijuana? We get no calls from our constituents about that. Nobody cares about that.’ McCaffrey was just mystified by their response, because he truly believed marijuana was a gateway drug. He truly believed in what he was doing.”
5. Republican drug warriors pushed the Clinton administration toward introducing the mostly military “Plan Colombia” aid package by floating their own, even more military, proposal in 1999. (We have never seen this document.)
Rand Beers of the State Department and Charlie Wilhelm of the Defense Department â€¦ had gotten a call from the Republican caucus on the Hill. Dennis Hastert, who had been elevated to Speaker of the House six months earlier, wanted to see them right away. “It was kind of unusual,” Beers recalls – but when Hastert called, you came.
When Beers and Wilhelm arrived, Rep. Porter Goss, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, handed them a piece of paper. It was a copy of a supplemental spending authorization that the Republicans planned to offer immediately. Crafted by Bobby Charles, Hastert’s longtime aide, the bill would have more than doubled military aid to Colombia to take on the rebels and narcotraffickers -to a staggering $1.2 billion a year. But it was the politics of the situation that worried Beers as much as the money. “It occurred to me that if the administration was going to do anything on Colombia, it better do it soon,” he says now, “or the Republicans would once again outflank what they perceived as the I-never-inhaled Clinton administration.” Beers told the Republicans he would take a look, and then hurried to [National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger’s meeting. â€¦
Berger decided to act. Rather than oppose the Republican plan, he agreed to negotiate on an assistance package to bail out the Colombian government. The result was Plan Colombia – nearly $1.6 billion to escalate the War on Drugs in the Andes. The new program would arm the military and police in their fight against the FARC, launch an ambitious effort to spray herbicide on coca crops from the air and provide economic assistance to poor farmers in rural villages. The initial aid, officials decided, would be heavily concentrated in Putumayo, a rebel-run province in the jungle.
No one is sure what convinced President Clinton to approve such an ambitious escalation in the War on Drugs. But some observers at the time speculated that the critical factor was a conversation with Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, whose state is home to the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft. In early 2000, Clinton unveiled Plan Colombia – and Sikorksy promptly received an order for eighteen of its Blackhawk helicopters at a cost of $15 million each. “Much has been made of the notion that this was Dodd looking to sell Blackhawks to Colombia,” Beers tells me. He pauses before adding, “I am not in a position to tell you it didn’t happen.”
6. In 2000-2001, the incoming Bush administration actually supported more emphasis on drug treatment at home. This ended, however, with the nomination of John Walters to be Bushâ€™s â€œdrug czar.â€
This was a strange moment in the politics of the drug war: Just as the Clinton administration was toughening its rhetoric, influential Republicans were going all soft and gentle. John DiIulio, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania who would become a key Bush adviser, was disgusted by the “perverse consequences” of harsh sentencing laws that had put millions of young Americans in prison, disbelieved the “sweeping scientific claims” made about the dangers of medical marijuana and wanted to expand “meaningful drug-treatment opportunities in urban areas.” … But it did seem, for a moment during the 2000 campaign, as if some moderation were possible.
Three months later, when the Bush campaign released its drug policy, even the most experienced drug warriors were impressed. The platform balanced spending between demand- and Âsupply-side programs, stressed treatment and doubled the number of community anti-drug coalitions. â€¦
“If you look back at that campaign document, it really is pretty impressive,” says Carnevale, who ended up heading the drug office’s transition team for the Bush administration. “Which is kind of remarkable, given what happened next. They’ve appointed a drug czar who ran like hell from a very sensible policy.”
It took Bush nearly a year to pick his drug czar, and almost no one felt encouraged by his choice: John Walters, a laconic Midwesterner who had served as Bill Bennett’s chief of staff during the administration of George H.W. Bush. “We all knew who Walters was,” one longtime drug warrior tells me, “but he wasn’t what you would call an inspiring figure, even to conservatives.” When Walters submitted his first National Drug Control Strategy to Bush in February 2002, it became clear that the administration’s focus had narrowed: Walters was devoted to Plan Colombia and to a prevention campaign that would keep kids from trying drugs for the first time, aimed particularly at marijuana – even though the number of first-time pot smokers had been flat for half a decade. Longtime drug warriors like Carnevale were stunned. “We were going back to an Eighties-style drug policy,” he says – one that emphasized the kind of military and law-and-order programs that had been proven not to work, while ignoring programs, particularly treatment, that did. â€¦
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.
7. The current environment is increasingly favorable for a change in U.S. drug policy, as localities experiment with new approaches. Without support from the top levels of government, however, change is unlikely.
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 [North Carolina, where a community policing approach has reduced violence, though drug dealing continues]. 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 ÂMellon. “So this kind of innovation stays below the radar.” Thirty-five years after Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the most promising Âprograms continue to be shunted aside by Washington’s unswerving emphasis on law and order.