With each passing month, the “war on drugs” looks increasingly like the war in Vietnam. The more money and manpower we pour into it, the more the enemy seems to advance. During the last five years, the budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has almost doubled, to more than half a billion dollars. Over the same period, the staff of the US Customs Service has grown from 12,000 to 16,000. To detect smugglers, the Reagan administration set up a national interdiction center in El Paso, Texas, installed radar-bearing blimps on the Mexican border, and sent sophisticated AWACS planes over the Caribbean. In Latin America, CIA agents are gathering intelligence on cocaine producers, the State Department is deploying expensive Huey helicopters, and the Green Berets are instructing local policemen in the art of paramilitary war.
Despite all this, narcotics continue to flow into the country with the same ease with which Viet Cong troops slipped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cocaine from the Andean nations of South America, heroin from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, marijuana from Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica—all cross our borders like a silent invading army. As many as fifty countries are involved in the production, processing, and transporting of narcotics, forming an international network aimed at indulging American consumers. Every year, Americans spend between $50 billion and $100 billion on drugs. And that sum does not begin to measure the real cost to the nation—the crime, the accidents, the lost work days, not to speak of the destroyed lives. The toll is so great that drugs have surpassed even communism as a subject of national concern.
No substance causes as much damage as cocaine. An estimated 6 million Americans regularly use the drug. It has wrecked promising athletic careers, sparked violent gang wars, turned children into dealers, and, in the ubiquitous and relatively cheap form of crack, laid waste to our inner cities. For years now, the government has made cocaine its primary target. Nevertheless, more of the drug is entering the United States than ever before, causing a free fall in its price. Every April, the government issues a National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, considered the most reliable source on domestic drug consumption. For cocaine in 1987, it stated, “wholesale prices during the year were the lowest ever reported, and the purity remained at high levels, reflecting wide-spread availability.” In 1980, a kilogram of wholesale cocaine sold in Miami for $60,000; today, it goes for $14,000.
As in Vietnam, the lack of results in the drug war has prompted calls for escalation. The new anti-narcotics law, passed by Congress in October, provides for a multinational task force designed to strike at trafficking organizations around the world. Mayor Koch of New York has suggested that the United States send tanks and bombers to level Medellín, seat of the infamous Colombian cartel, which is made up of the largest traders in cocaine. “I am beginning to think that …
'The War on Cocaine': An Exchange March 2, 1989