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What Ever Happened to the ‘War on Drugs’?

The Search for Rational Drug Control

by Franklin E. Zimring, by Gordon Hawkins
Cambridge University Press, 219 pp., $24.95

Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results

by Mark A. R. Kleiman
Basic Books, 474 pp., $26.00

Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs

by Clarence Lusane, with Dennis Desmond
South End Press, 293 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Four years ago, during the last presidential campaign, the drug issue was never far from the political spotlight. According to opinion polls, drugs were the nation’s leading concern, and candidates competed to propose solutions. Every day, stories about crack dealers and drug busts were featured on the front pages of newspapers and on television, and Congress, caught in an election year frenzy, worked overtime to pass a multibillion-dollar drug-control act. The concern continued into President Bush’s first year in office. “This scourge will end,” he promised in his inaugural address. And, in September 1989, the President devoted an entire speech to the subject, appearing on television holding a bag of crack, which was later revealed to have been purchased by an undercover agent in a park across from the White House. Three months later, US troops invaded Panama and seized Manuel Noriega in what could have been called the largest drug bust in history.

Today the “war on drugs” commands little attention. The presidential candidates seldom mention the drug issue, and journalists seem interested only in Bill Clinton’s denial that he inhaled marijuana at Oxford. The networks and national newspapers have radically cut back their coverage of the subject. Before the jury’s verdict in April, the Noriega trial was relegated to the inside pages when it was reported at all. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush mentioned drugs once, and then only in connection with the need to fight crime.

The recent upheaval in Los Angeles has drawn new attention to the domestic policies of the Bush administration. The drug issue provides an especially good opportunity for examining the Republican approach to urban issues. The most serious drug problem in the nation’s history has occurred during three Republican administrations. How well have done in addressing it?

Only a year ago, the Bush administration seemed ready to score points on the drug issue. The statistical trends concerning drug abuse seemed highly promising. A 1990 household survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated that 12.9 million Americans had used illegal drugs in the past month—11 percent fewer than in its previous survey, conducted two years before. Cocaine use, in particular, seemed to be declining. The number estimated to be using the drug once a week or more fell by 23 percent, from 862,000 in 1988 to 662,000 in 1990. The number of monthly users declined from 2.9 million to 1.6 million. Among adolescents, the estimated rate of cocaine use dropped almost in half. President Bush declared the news “very encouraging.”

But the 1991 figures, when they came, could hardly have been more discouraging. According to NIDA, the number of monthly users of cocaine, including crack, had jumped 18 percent, to 1.9 million. The number of weekly users had increased by 29 percent, to 855,000—virtually the same level as in 1988. The government’s Drug Abuse Warning Network, which measures drug-related visits to hospital emergency rooms, reported a 30 percent rise in cocaine emergencies. And, for the first time in years, heroin use, too, seemed to be moving upward. Particularly among blacks and the unemployed, drug use was increasing.

As these figures indicate, the drug problem has not gone away; it has simply changed its appearance. Among members of the middle class, drug use has steadily declined since the mid-1980s. The casual sharing of joints at parties and occasional weekend flings with cocaine have become a memory for many well-off Americans. In the inner city, however, drugs remain a fixture of daily life. Seven years after it first struck the nation’s cities, crack continues to live up to its initial billing as a particularly addictive and harmful substance. Though its original appeal has faded to some degree, especially among younger urban residents who have witnessed its destructive powers firsthand, this smokable form of cocaine still has powerful appeal among poor blacks.

When it comes to drugs, America is today, as in the memorable phrase from the Kerner Commission report, “two societies…separate and unequal”: the one largely white, well-off, and increasingly hostile to drugs; the other poor, black and Hispanic, and more vulnerable to drugs than ever. Overall, fewer Americans are using drugs, but those who do have a much more serious problem, and helping them will prove far more difficult than anything that has so far been attempted.


The current failure to deal with the drug problem should come as no surprise. It is the logical outgrowth of the policies pursued by the federal government over the last decade. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, Washington has been much more concerned to prevent recreational drug use than to help habitual users. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, with its emphasis on willpower and moral fiber, was intended mostly to persuade young people not to use drugs and casual users to give them up. Those who had serious drug habits and wanted to break them had little encouragement from the Reagan White House. Indeed, even as Nancy Reagan was traveling from state to state preaching abstinence from drugs, her husband was slashing federal treatment funds. During his first term, funding for treatment fell by almost 40 percent, after being adjusted for inflation.

The full impact of the cuts would not become apparent until 1985, when crack began to take hold in the nation’s cities. Cocaine had previously been available only in powder form, at a price well beyond the reach of ghetto residents. Most of those who could afford the drug snorted it, but serious users seeking a more intense high usually began smoking, or freebasing. This required removing the impurities from cocaine powder through a cumbersome process that was as dangerous as it was messy. Users began asking their dealers to prepare the product for them in advance. Experimenting, the dealers found that cocaine, mixed with baking soda and water and brought to a boil, produced a crystalline mass that, when broken into pebble-sized chunks, could be put in a pipe and smoked. The dealers began packaging these chunks in tiny vials and selling them for a few dollars apiece. For the first time, cocaine became available to a mass market. From the start, crack consumption was concentrated in poor urban neighborhoods, where its intense, pleasurable high offered a quick release from the bleakness of the surroundings.

Since crack proved extremely addictive, many users found themselves embarking on extended, exhausting binges. Treatment centers—already affected by the Reagan administration’s budget cuts—were besieged by a huge new generation of drug abusers. It was not only the numbers that overwhelmed but the extent of their needs. Largely unemployed, often homeless, commonly suffering from AIDS or other diseases, these desperate people placed unprecedented demands on the public health care system. Waiting lists lengthened, and many of those wanting help gave up seeking it.

Paradoxically, just as the drug problem was worsening in the inner city, with its attendant rise in crime, it was tapering off in the suburbs. The “Just Say No” campaign—though widely scorned as a cynical effort in image-making—did much to dramatize the dangers of drug use. Many treatment experts—including some liberals—now grudgingly credit Nancy Reagan with having helped to encourage the broad public disillusionment with drugs that began to set in during the mid-1980s. The most dramatic turning point, though, came in June 1986, when the college basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. The press gave the event extensive attention and, for months thereafter, ran stories highlighting the perils of using cocaine. For many educated Americans, drugs no longer seemed worth the risk.

A dividing line was increasingly visible in American society. “Rich vs. Poor: Drug Patterns Are Diverging,” The New York Times noted in a front-page headline in August 1987. “Americans generally appear to be turning away from the use of illegal drugs, but, at the same time, the poor face mounting deaths and an ever bleaker future because of drug abuse,” the article reported, pointing to a surge of crack use among urban minorities. Heroin, long concentrated among the poor, remained primarily an inner-city drug as well. Clearly, any headway in the war on drugs would require dramatic action directed at the hard core of urban drug users.

The Bush administration did make some gestures in direction. During its first year in office, the White House increased treatment funding by about 50 percent, to $1.6 billion, most of it going in grants to states, which in turn distributed it to nonresidential clinics and to therapeutic communities, like Daytop Village and Phoenix House, where many cocaine and crack addicts were being treated. But the demand for treatment, not to mention the need for it, continued greatly to exceed the supply. At the same time, the administration continued the longstanding Republican preoccupation with casual middle-class drug use. In its first major policy document, the National Drug Control Strategy, issued in September 1989, the administration struck a strangely contradictory note. On the one hand, it cited the growing use of crack in American cities

as our most intense and immediate problem…. It is an acid that is fast corroding the hopes and possibilities of an entire generation of disadvantaged young people. They need help. Their neighborhoods need help. A decent and responsible America must fully mobilize to provide it.

On the other hand, the strategy lumped together all kinds of drugs and all manners of using them. “We declare clearly and emphatically that there is no such thing as innocent drug use,” it asserted, adding:

the highest priority of our drug policy must be a stubborn determination further to reduce the overall level of drug use nationwide—experimental first use, “casual” use, regular use, and addiction alike.

The National Drug Control Strategy was published under the direction of William Bennett, the nation’s first drug czar. The Bennett approach receives a thoroughgoing analysis—one might say drubbing—in The Search for Rational Drug Control, written by Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, and Gordon Hawkins, a senior legal fellow there. The strategy, they write, “is not…an ordinary government document” in that it is actually “meant to be read.” It includes a fourteen-page introduction personally written by Bennett that seeks to lay the “philosophical foundation” for a broad campaign against drug abuse involving not only government but also employers, community groups, and the private sector. A “manifesto for a long-term drug control strategy in the United States,” the report illustrates “the powerful role of ideology” in US drug policy, Zimring and Hawkins write.

More specifically, they maintain, the report reflects a “legalist” approach to the drug issue, one focusing narrowly on the act of using illicit drugs rather than on the harm they might cause. For Bennett and company, “the taking of drugs prohibited by the government is an act of rebellion, of defiance of lawful authority, that threatens the social fabric,” Zimring and Hawkins write. They express dismay at Bennett’s eagerness “to seek out and punish casual, nonaddicted users,” as well as his insistence that all drugs are “equally pernicious.” Such reasoning leads to some strange twists, the authors assert: for example, the report “must simultaneously argue that crack cocaine is the worst drug in human history and also that marijuana is just as bad as crack cocaine.”

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