What Ever Happened to the ‘War on Drugs’?

The Search for Rational Drug Control

by Franklin E. Zimring and 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.”

In the final chapter, “Memorandum to a New Drug Czar,” Zimring and Hawkins call on the government to undertake a far more interventionist, and humane, approach. So far as it goes, their program makes sense. They would like to see more spent on helping pregnant women who use drugs and on intravenous drug users who have, or may develop, AIDS. And, rather than stigmatize addicts by imposing criminal penalties, they would like the government to pursue an “open-door policy” in which hard-core users are encouraged to seek treatment. As for William Bennett, Zimring and Hawkins deplore his tendency to turn “every public pronouncement into a rhetorical event.” With characteristic understatement, they suggest that Bennett’s successor be “a somewhat less gifted rhetorician.”

In that, at least, they have gotten their wish. The current drug czar, former Florida governor Bob Martinez, is a colorless administrator with little zest for the public spotlight. Virtually the only time he has made headlines in recent months was when he attempted to divert funds left over from his last gubernatorial race into the Bush reelection campaign—a legally questionable maneuver that was quickly reversed once it came to light. Martinez’s disappearing act has no doubt contributed to the fading of the drug issue. In any case, he has made few changes in Bennett’s approach. The Bush administration continues to urge states to pursue casual drug users with a variety of legal sanctions.

The decline in casual drug use has certainly been dramatic. It’s unclear, though, how important sanctions have been in bringing it about. In Cocaine Changes: The Experience of Using and Quitting, Dan Waldorf, a research sociologist, Craig Reinarman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Sheigla Murphy, a drug researcher, analyze the experiences of 228 heavy cocaine users in northern California. These users were surveyed between 1985 and 1987—too early for many crack addicts to be included. Still, the book provides a useful account of what was happening to middle-class users during the mid-1980s, when so many were deciding to quit. About half of those interviewed for the book had stopped using cocaine. To find out why, the researchers presented them with a list of thirteen possible motives. Fear of arrest placed sixth. Mentioned far more frequently were (in order) health problems, financial difficulties, problems at work, and pressure from a spouse or lover. As the authors put it,

What keeps many heavy users from falling into the abyss of abuse, and what helps pull back those who do fall, is [a] stake in conventional life. Jobs, families, friends—the ingredients of a normal identity—turned—out to be the ballast that allowed many of our users to control their use or to return from abuse to occasional, controlled use [emphasis in original].

The sample included nine employees of an engineering consulting firm near San Jose, California. Of the company’s fifty workers, about half had used some cocaine—thirteen of them heavily. By 1985, though, the demand for cocaine at the company had begun to fall off as one person after another cut back or quit. This had to do not with law enforcement but with the workplace. “These jobs mattered to the people who held them,” the authors write. As absenteeism and missed deadlines mounted because of excessive drug use, many decided to give up their habits. The authors conclude: “The idea that investment in a job and a work-based identity can moderate one’s drug use helps explain why the consequences of cocaine use appear more devastating among the unemployed of the inner cities than among our working- and middle-class respondents.”


For a firsthand look at how the government’s drug policy is made, one must turn to Dead on Delivery: Inside the Drug Wars, Straight From the Street by Robert M. Stutman, former chief of the DEA’s New York office, and Newsday journalist Richard Esposito. During his time in New York, from 1985 to 1989, Stutman acquired a reputation as both a maverick and a self-promoter. His fondness for talking to the press earned him the nickname “Video Bob.” The most dramatic bit of news he has to offer concerns his meeting with John Gotti to seek his help in hunting down a man who murdered one of his agents. Gotti told Stutman to get lost, but a month later, the murderer was rubbed out. Stutman implies that the two events were linked but gives no evidence. In its own unwitting way, though, Dead on Delivery provides some remarkable insights on how the “drug war” is conducted.

From the start of his career, Stutman was eager for press attention. When he was first hired by the DEA, in 1965, a “pudgy, moonfaced Jew” in the then largely Irish-American world of law enforcement, Stutman was assigned to work the streets of Washington, DC. He and his partner made a number of heroin busts, but it was only after they began to pursue marijuana users on college campuses that they got any attention. Stutman’s arrest of an American University student for selling pot made the front page of The Washington Post. “It was my first case to make the papers and I felt great,” he writes. The reaction was “so favorable,” in fact, that his supervisor told him to drop his heroin cases and work full-time on marijuana.

Stutman’s really big break came soon after, when he arrested a congressman’s daughter for possessing a small amount of grass. Until then, members of Congress had been largely indifferent to drugs, but “all of a sudden lawmakers were reading about their kids. Now they wanted marijuana stopped.” The result was a sharp change in policy:

Before 1966 we concentrated purely on heroin and nobody paid attention. The predominant attitude among most Americans, and certainly most agents, was, “Who cares who sells it as long as only black people are using it?”…Drugs were [now] leaving the ghetto, so all of a sudden they were becoming understood as a truly American problem.

High addiction rates among poor blacks apparently did not present an American problem.

Twenty years later, something similar happened with crack. Stutman first encountered the drug in October 1985, shortly after taking up his job as director of the New York office. In Dead on Delivery, the event is described as if it were the opening of a crime novel: “[Agent] John Maltz walked softly into my office with the tiny bluecapped vial lost in the caverns of his broad right hand…. A watery sadness clouded his eyes. Then he unceremoniously dropped the vial onto my green desk blotter…. I stared down at the vial in wonder.” Stutman realized he would “have to act fast” if he were to ward off the crisis in New York.

He decided to concentrate on New York’s Washington Heights. Located at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, the Heights was easily accessible to New Jersey and Westchester County. The result, Stutman writes, is that it achieved special notoriety: “The newspapers had picked Washington Heights from among a half-dozen crack-plagued neighborhoods as the flashpoint for outrage. It was the caravan of naive suburbanites arriving in these tough streets that had caught the press’s attention.”

Naturally, the suburban visitors caught Stutman’s attention as well. Intent on moving against the crack gangs that controlled the Heights, he first had to obtain Washington’s approval. As a federal agency, the DEA normally limited itself to cases of national or regional importance. At that point, crack had yet to make its way out of New York, and officials in Washington remained skeptical about whether it would be sold more widely. To win them over, Stutman writes, “I needed to make [crack] a national issue and quickly.” For help, he turned again to the press, judiciously leaking DEA intelligence about the new drug. Reporters “were only too willing to cooperate” because crack was “the hottest combat-reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War.” The many alarmed reports that followed helped to establish the crack menace in the national consciousness.

With the groundwork thus laid, Stutman says he coaxed Jack Lawn, the head of the DEA, to New York for a presentation about the new drug. Stutman regaled Lawn with photographs and videotapes of lines of expensive cars double-parked while their young drivers bought vials of crack. A local drug expert was brought in to “dispel the illusion that the drug was limited to the ghetto.” The “overwhelming majority of people who use crack in this country,” Lawn was told, “are middle-class employed people.” This was almost certainly untrue. From the start, crack use was concentrated among the urban poor. No matter: the presentation “erased any doubts Lawn might have had about my planned anticrack efforts,” Stutman writes. Lawn gave the goahead, and DEA agents soon began arresting white visitors to the Heights and impounding their cars. Eventually more than a thousand cars were seized, and two major crack rings were put out of business.

Stutman recounts this tale with the brio typical of drug-war stories, in which the Feds always get their man. But there’s a twist. Stutman confesses that, despite all the headlines, the operation in Washington Heights had virtually no effect on the availability of crack in that part of the city. Police action, “ultimately fails when it is not attached to mandatory treatment and education,” he admits, adding:

There is no way for law enforcement to keep up the kind of pressure that we applied to Washington Heights. And that is what increasingly has troubled me about a law enforcement response to what is so clearly a social problem.

This is the central theme of Stutman’s book. Crack dealers, cocaine kingpins, and Colombian cartel leaders “are all easily replaceable, if America continues to have an insatiable appetite for drugs,” he writes. “No cop with a gun will ever stop the craving, no occupying army can shut off the flow.” It’s all been said before, but, coming from the DEA’s top man in New York City, the point takes on added force.

Enforcement continues to have its defenders, of course. Among the most spirited is Mark A.R. Kleiman. An associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former analyst at the Department of Justice during the Reagan administration, Kleiman is one of the nation’s most knowledgeable, and least predictable, drug experts. He has given advice to both Democrats (Joseph Biden) and Republicans (Bennett’s office) on the issue. In Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, he stakes out a resolutely nonideological approach to the problem. “This is a book without a clarion call,” he begins, criticizing the “spirit of fanaticism” that has characterized discussions of the drug issue.

Kleiman seems to have read virtually every monograph written on the subject over the last twenty years, and his book ranges widely from painkillers to detoxification, the Mafia to moonshine. Kleiman is bullish on methadone (for helping to reduce crime), cautionary about prescription drugs (a major source of abuse), and critical of anti-drug commercials on TV (for, among other things, urging employers to fire workers who use drugs). Kleiman is scandalized by the government’s lack of attention to alcohol and tobacco, both of which, he believes, cause far more harm than illegal drugs. Raising cigarette taxes to a dollar a pack, he argues, would eventually reduce the number of smokers by 10 percent, thereby saving 40,000 lives a year.

As for illicit drugs, Kleiman does not, like William Bennett, find them all equally pernicious. Marijuana, he believes, is a relatively benign drug—certainly more so than alcohol. Since young people tend to substitute these substances for one another, cracking down on marijuana is likely to have a negative net effect on health. “It is hard to see the benefits from anything more than minimal, semi-symbolic efforts to squeeze marijuana production and distribution,” Kleiman writes. “A policy of informal grudging toleration, like that currently applied to the still-illegal forms of gambling, would seem to be in order.” He is far less forbearing toward the harder drugs, especially cocaine. Kleiman ponders a number of ways in which the drug might be made legally available but in the end rejects them all. “Even the various attempts to qualify legalization or otherwise fancy it up…cannot escape the fundamental problem that, particularly in the [form] of crack, freely available cocaine is likely to give rise to self-destructive habits for an unacceptably large proportion of users,” he writes.

Kleiman has his own solution: more law enforcement. Against Excess offers perhaps the most lucid case we are likely to get in favor of increased drug enforcement. How well does it hold up? Kleiman proposes that we spend at least $20 billion a year more on enforcement, at all levels of government, on top of the $60 billion currently being spent. These additional funds would go not for border interdiction or high-level federal investigations, which he believes are futile enterprises, but for street-level police work. “The most vulnerable point in the drug distribution system is the sale to the retail customer,” Kleiman writes. Noting that retail markets tend to be “geographically concentrated,” he adds, more police should be deployed to break them up.

But what is to be done with those who are arrested in such operations? As it is, drug cases are clogging the criminal justice system. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of drug arrests nationwide increased from 471,000 in 1980 to 1,247,000 in 1989. To handle them, states have had to hire many more judges and prosecutors, yet the backlogs persist. The number of prison inmates nationwide, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the last decade, to more than one million people—the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized country. About half the inmates in federal prisons are there on drug offenses. In Florida, so many drug offenders have been sentenced to prison under the state’s mandatory minimum laws that many violent criminals have had to be released to make room for them.

Kleiman is well aware of such developments. “A diligent retail-level enforcement program can all too easily bring the rest of the criminal justice system to a screeching halt,” he writes. As a solution, he proposes that the police cease relying on arrests and imprisonment and instead resort to “less formal” ways of discouraging drug buying. Overgrown vegetation in parks and vacant lots that provide cover for drug dealers can be cut down. Tenants dealing drugs can be threatened with eviction from their apartments. The shops or houses in which drug dealing takes place can be closed down by applying health, fire, and safety regulations. “Finally,” he writes, “enforcement directed at sellers can and should be supplemented with enforcement directed at buyers.” Particularly vulnerable, he writes, are “inner-city markets with many suburban buyers,” since such buyers “are both more conspicuous and less willing and able to wait around until the coast is clear than buyers who live nearby.”

This, of course, is exactly what Robert Stutman tried in Washington Heights. It didn’t work there. Nor has it worked in many of the other neighborhoods in which it has been attempted. Kleiman’s book itself helps to understand why. In a chapter on cocaine, he calculates that casual drug users account for, at most, one fifth of overall drug consumption. Even this proportion is shrinking. The remaining compulsive, or “binge,” users, he notes, are increasingly concentrated among the poor. In other words, those buying drugs in the inner city tend increasingly to be from the inner city itself. Harassing suburban buyers, then, seems unlikely to have much effect on the overall level of drug dealing.

Moreover, to call for a large increase in law enforcement at this point seems odd. Since 1981, the nation has been engaged in a vast and costly experiment in drug control, with enforcement at its core. Of the federal funds allocated for drug control, two thirds, or more than $8 billion goes for law enforcement and interdiction. The DEA, the FBI, and the Pentagon have all received tremendous increases in funding for going after drug traffickers; in 1991, the defense department alone received $1.27 billion.1 The US has created a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, established a CIA Counter-Narcotics Center, set up aerostat balloons on the Mexican border, and mounted an elaborate manhunt for Pablo Escobar. He, along with many other leading members of the Medellín Cartel, is now in jail. Despite all such efforts, the flow of cocaine into the United States continues unabated. Similarly, special police operations designed to sweep clean drug-infested neighborhoods have done little to reduce the available amounts of crack and cocaine.

Minorities have been disproportionately affected by these operations. In New York City, an estimated 90 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black or Hispanic. On an average day in Washington, DC, as many as 42 percent of the city’s black males between the ages of 18 and 35 are in jail, on probation or parole, or otherwise in the grip of the criminal justice system, according to a recent report by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. Its director estimates that over half the young men in trouble were arrested on drug charges or for committing crimes to get money for drugs.2

In many states, the courts treat crack far more severely than cocaine, the effect of which is to imprison blacks for much longer than whites. In Minnesota, for instance, first-time crack users convicted under a 1989 law received a four-year prison term, while first-time users of cocaine powder received probation; about 95 percent of those charged for crack were black, and 80 percent of those charged for cocaine powder were white. Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the law was unconstitutional for discriminating against blacks. Nonetheless, as long as our current draconian policy continues, such discrimination will, too.

Doing something about the nation’s hard-core drug problem would require a radical revision in the way we think about drugs. The recent trends—the fall-off in casual use, the rise in habitual use, the growing abstinence among middle-class users, the spread of addiction among the poor and unemployed—all point to the increasing importance of race and class in shaping patterns of drug abuse. Sadly, few researchers have explored these factors. In Against Excess, for instance, Mark Kleiman explicitly dismisses their importance. Advocates of legalization, too, have tended to overlook the social setting of drug abuse. To make drugs generally available in the inner city without first addressing the conditions prevailing there could lead to an exponential increase in consumption.

From the start, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to consider the social setting of drug abuse. Its 1992 drug strategy contains this statement of principle:

Drug use is not caused by poverty (most poor people do not use drugs), racism (most minority individuals do not use drugs), or unemployment (most people who are unemployed do not use drugs). Nor is it caused by being a single parent or a teenage mother, or by low educational attainment. These are circumstances that can make life harder, indeed very hard, and they are important factors in locating and influencing drug use. But to explain the drug problem by pointing to social conditions is to “victimize” drug users and deprive them of personal autonomy—the freedom and will not to use drugs. It is to deny the dignity of those who live in similar circumstances and do not use drugs. In short, the drug problem reflects bad decisions by individuals with free wills.3

There is some truth to these assertions. Most poor people do not in fact use drugs. Yet the survey data uniformly point to a growing incidence of drug abuse among the poor. The strategy itself acknowledges this. “The drug problem,” it states, “is becoming increasingly concentrated in our inner-city and minority neighborhoods.” Charts contained in the document show that inner-city hospitals receive twice as many drug-related emergencies as suburban ones, and that blacks are admitted at three times the rate as whites. Elsewhere, the strategy recognizes the need to reach “those in our communities who are at a higher risk of drug use or the effects of drug use—dropouts, gang members, runaway and homeless youth, and neglected and abused children….”4

Since 1989, the Bush administration has nearly doubled the federal anti-drug budget, to more than $12.7 billion. To its credit, it has substantially increased the amount of money available for treating and preventing drug abuse, mainly through making more funds available to the states. Still, that sum—about $4 billion—is entirely inadequate. In particular, the Bush administration has done little to help the very high-risk populations that it singles out in its strategy. School dropouts, gang members, abused children, teen-age mothers—these are the groups we must reach if we are to make any headway in the war on drugs. Providing more treatment facilities and anti-drug programs will accomplish little unless we also provide better opportunities for neglected youths. These young people must be reached as early as possible, before they are sucked up into the streets. Special education classes, adolescent counseling programs, recreational facilities, job-training programs—this is where we should be putting most of our anti-drug money. The drug problem will not subside until we face up to the more general crisis engulfing the inner city.

It’s possible, of course, to take this logic too far. Consider, for example, Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs, by Clarence Lusane. A staff member of the Democratic Study Group in the House of Representatives, Lusane fully appreciates the connection between drugs and poverty. “While drug trafficking and abuse have transcended all social, economic, and racial lines,” he writes, “its most sinister effects are on poor and working-class Black and Latino youth.” In a history of the drug problem in Washington, DC, Lusane (joined in this section by co-writer Dennis Desmond) describes the devastating effect drugs have had on the city’s blacks, and the government’s long record of ignoring them. Washington, the book reports, has an estimated 20,000 crack addicts and 17,000 IV drug users, yet treatment centers are equipped to help only 4,000 of them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to suggesting remedies, Lusane descends into multicultural mumbo-jumbo. “To stop importation of illegal drugs into the United States, egalitarian economic development, social opportunity, and political reform must be created in the Third World,” he declares grandly. At home, he asserts,

economic development, social equality, and the elimination of poverty are the “magic bullets” to end drug trafficking and abuse in poor communities and communities of color…. A radical redistribution of wealth and an examination of the prejudices of the capitalist economic system must be at the core of a movement led by people of color and working people for fundamental economic reform.

Lusane would also like to eliminate racism in American society, expose the CIA’s role in drug trafficking, and end white collusion in the flow of drugs into the ghetto.

If all this is necessary to solve the drug problem, it will be around for decades to come. Yet if we fail to intervene more forcefully in the places that have been hardest hit, the problem is certain to get worse. What to do about long-term, hard-core drug use is the key element missing in the current drug debate. It would make a good campaign issue.

  1. 1

    The White House, National Drug Control Strategy: Budget Summary, January 1992, p. 200.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, April 18, 1992, p. 1.

  3. 3

    The White House, National Drug Control Strategy, January 1992, p. 2.

  4. 4

    The White House, National Drug Control Strategy, p. 34.