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 …

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