The title “drug czar,” which George Bush recently conferred on William Bennett, nicely suggests the nature of the American drug bureaucracy; like prerevolutionary Russia, it is backward-looking, unmanageable, and feudal. Active in the “war on drugs” are eleven departments and thirty-seven federal agencies, ranging from the Pentagon and the FBI to the IRS and the Secret Service. In Congress, seventy-four committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over narcotics matters. Their latest handiwork, the 264-page Anti–Drug Abuse Act of 1988, contains hundreds of programs addressing everything from herbicides to runaway youth. US drug agents are scattered across four continents, monitoring, investigating, tracking, and training.
“Czar” seems appropriate, too, for the person who will fill the position. Like the Russian monarchs, William Bennett brings no particular qualifications to the job. He has no experience with police departments or undercover agents, customs officials or eradication teams, treatment programs or rehabilitation centers. Nor, leaving aside a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, does Bennett know much about the nature of addiction.
Within 180 days of his confirmation, Bennett must submit to Congress a blueprint for fighting drugs. He clearly has much homework to do. Fortunately a number of books have recently appeared on the subject. What, if anything, might Bennett learn from them?
The Pizza Connection: Lawyers, Money, Drugs, Mafia provides a detailed account of the landmark case in which a Sicilian Mafia ring was tried for importing one-and-a-half tons of pure heroin into the United States. The trial, held in Manhattan from October 1985 to February 1987, was the longest and most expensive criminal proceeding in US history. Shana Alexander had previously written three books about trials (including Very Much a Lady, on the Jean Harris case), but none of them quite prepared her for this one. “Despite the colorfulness of this trial, its excitement, challenge, and bravado, it was turning out to be even harder to follow than the others had been,” she writes in her preface. “I found myself gradually sinking deeper and deeper into the legal ooze, swamps of confusion, vast bogs of befuddlement.” To help us keep track of the “ranks of look-alike defendants,” Alexander supplies a seating chart, family tree, and cast of characters eighty-seven names long. If you get lost, she adds, “take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.”
Not exactly what one wants to hear upon opening a 442-page book. Alas, it’s only a matter of pages before we’re knee-deep in “ooze.” No fewer than twenty-two people are on trial here, each with his own lawyer. The government, led by US attorney Rudolph Giuliani, has five prosecutors. Day after day, month after month, the government painstakingly, laboriously, amasses its evidence, attempting to prove that the defendants conspired to import heroin from the Middle East and distribute it in the United States through a network of pizzerias in the East and Midwest. In all, 236 witnesses take the stand. Actors are brought in to reenact phone conversations, and huge charts are set up to track financial transactions. Alexander dutifully records it all, forcing us to plow through one name-clogged passage after another.
The author’s undisguised bias in favor of the defendants does not help matters. In the preface, Alexander notes that she is a close friend of Michael Kennedy, the lawyer for Mafia capo Gaetano Badalamenti, the most prominent of the defendants. Kennedy is portrayed as a valiant “Lone Ranger” going up against a heartless, unmerciful government. Throughout the trial, Alexander sits next to Kennedy’s “brainy, beautiful wife,” Eleanore, who provides a running commentary on the case. (Example: “Eleanore Kennedy fears this entire flap is a stall, a maneuver to permit the government to caucus before Kennedy’s cross-examination. She is unhappy. Her husband, she explains, ‘is like a race horse,’ all prepared to cross-examine, who has now been forced to spend an entire day cooling his heels.”) With Eleanore’s whispered asides, the months of arid testimony, and the inky seas of data, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than a new drug czar or his assistant making it to the end of this book.
In its own way, though, The Pizza Connection is instructive. By its very excess, it shows the lengths to which the government was willing to go in pursuing drug traffickers. Giuliani’s office spent five years gathering evidence in the case. His associates videotaped meetings, gathered airline passenger seat lists, recovered ticket stubs, pored over hotel registers, kept surveillance logs, and retrieved immigration records. Teams of six agents listened to forty-seven telephones around the clock, taping a total of 55,000 conversations; the 900 most important were transcribed and collated in nine bound volumes. So vast was the evidence that it took a full year to be presented in court.
In the end, the government was rewarded for its pains. All but two of the defendants were convicted, and most were sentenced to long terms. Still, as Alexander observes, the case
did not make the slightest dent in the nation’s desperate drug problem. More heroin, and more cocaine, is on the streets today than before Pizza began. The trial severely over-taxed every branch of our legal system—law enforcement, bench, and bar—and taxed the unfortunate jurors worst of all.
Here, then, was the government’s single most sustained law-enforcement effort against a drug-trafficking ring, and it had absolutely no effect.
Law enforcement is also the principal concern of The Cocaine Wars, written by a team of reporters headed by Paul Eddy, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. The Cocaine Wars is every bit as dense as The Pizza Connection. Its cast of characters is 120 names long. Obscure persons pop up, vanish, then reappear pages later, swirling amid the other dim players. The venue continually shifts, from Miami to Colombia to Miami to the Bahamas to Miami again to Colombia to Miami once again, with such abruptness as to produce motion sickness.
Hidden among the mass of facts are a few interesting details about the limits of law enforcement in the war on drugs. The book’s title refers to the bloody period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Colombian traffickers were muscling their way into Miami’s cocaine trade, long dominated by Cuban-Americans. Here the war is shown through the eyes of local police officers. “The foot soldiers of Reagan’s war in Miami are the under-cover narcotics detectives of the Miami and Metro-Dade police departments who, day after day, fight their battles on the streets,” the book states. We are introduced to two such detectives, Preston Lucas and Luis Fernández, who are said to be real-life models for the detectives in Miami Vice. The two men spend their days prowling the streets of the city, identifying dealers by their “uniforms”—designer clothes, a roll of quarters (for pay phones), and telephone beepers. These detectives are very good at what they do, racking up one arrest after another without ever having to fire a shot. Nevertheless, they regard the whole enterprise as a charade. Like all “soldiers at the front,” The Cocaine Wars observes, they saw “no winning strategy nor any real evidence of a will to win from the top.”
Of the 120 characters in The Cocaine Wars, the most colorful is Kojak, an immensely successful smuggler. Kojak (so called for his shaven head) directs a fleet of high-powered speedboats that, traveling ninety miles an hour, run cocaine from remote islands in the Bahamas to hidden drop-off points along the Florida coast. To win the cooperation of Bahamian officials, Kojak resorts to extensive bribery. To evade the Coast Guard, he sets up an elaborate radio network enabling him to direct his boatmen as they near the Florida coast. Kojak’s unmatched knowledge of the waters off Miami, together with the Coast Guard’s limited resources, makes his chances of being detected close to nil. Overall, he estimates, 98 percent of his shipments get through. As The Cocaine Wars shows, drug traffickers are so ingenious in their smuggling techniques that they can foil even the most determined efforts to stop them.
Anyone who doubts this should examine a recent RAND Corporation report, Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction. The study was commissioned by the Defense Department in response to growing demands that it become more involved in the antidrug effort. Some believe that the armed forces, by deploying advanced surveillance aircraft, could construct an impenetrable electronic net around the country. To test that presumption, a team of RAND analysts, headed by Peter Reuter, devised a mathematical model to estimate the impact that increased spending on interdiction would have on domestic drug consumption. The results were striking: a more stringent interdiction policy, RAND calculated, would cut cocaine consumption by not even 5 percent. Our borders are too porous and the smugglers too adaptable. In one case, a ton of cocaine was found hidden in a cargo of frozen fruit pulp arriving from Ecuador; in another, four tons were uncovered in a shipment of Brazilian lumber.1
Four tons! A decade ago, cocaine was shipped here a few kilos at a time. Now it’s arriving in silo-sized quantities. How the cocaine business went from a cottage industry to an international conglomerate is the central question of Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel—An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money and International Corruption. Despite its overheated subtitle, the book, by Miami Herald reporters Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, seems sure to become the standard account of the origins and expansion of the Colombian drug trade. Well paced and crisply written, Kings of Cocaine reads like a suspense novel, pitting the heroes of the Drug Enforcement Administration against the villains of the drug trade. Unfortunately, the bad guys win.
The most fascinating bad guy is Carlos Lehder, one of the principal architects of the Colombian trade. Lehder learned about cocaine smuggling at, of all places, the minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where he served a sentence for marijuana trafficking in the mid-1970s. Gugliotta and Leen have tracked down Lehder’s cellmate, George Jung (one of more than 300 people interviewed for the book). Jung tells of Lehder’s ambitious reading habits (everything from Plato to Hemingway), his fanatical anti-Americanism (he idolized Che Guevara), his megalomania (he wanted to become president of Colombia), and, finally, his dream of importing cocaine by the bushel. At the time, cocaine was small-time stuff, brought into the United States in suitcases or concealed on the bodies of smugglers. Lehder and Jung, in “the kind of inspiration that serves as a pivot for history,” recognized that cocaine could be smuggled into the United States the same way marijuana was—in small airplanes carrying hundreds of pounds at a time.
After leaving prison, Lehder proceeded to set up such a delivery system. The main challenge was to locate a site at which small planes traveling from Colombia to Florida could refuel. (The trip was too long to be made directly.) Lehder found it on Norman’s Cay, a remote island in the Bahamas with its own 3,000-foot runway. Lehder bought a house on the island and, using armed guards and Doberman pinschers, cleared it of all residents. He then hired some half-dozen pilots and set them to work. The pilots flew to clandestine airstrips in Colombia, loaded the cocaine, and returned to the Bahamas, where they refueled and, after dark, slipped into American airspace. The cocaine was unloaded and driven to Miami for delivery to Lehder’s distributors. Before long, America was swimming in cocaine.
Kings of Cocaine recounts these events with much skill, but it is less skillful at analyzing them. For example, the book occasionally refers to “narcoterrorism,” a controversial Reagan administration notion asserting close ties between Colombia’s drug traffickers and its Marxist guerrillas. Some links clearly exist, but the book never examines them in any systematic way, making it hard to assess the accuracy of the term. Similarly, Kings of Cocaine accepts without question the notion that the Medellín traffickers make up a “cartel.” True, the industry is dominated by a handful of cooperating families, but cartels are defined by the ability of their members to control prices, and this the Colombians are unable to do.
Despite such shortcomings, Kings of Cocaine helps us to grasp how immense, and uncontrollable, the cocaine business has become. The most revealing episode occurred in 1984, when the DEA uncovered a huge processing facility in Colombia’s southeastern jungle. Called Tranquilandia, it had fourteen labs, seven airplanes, 11,000 drums of chemicals, and barracks for hundreds of workers—a “cocaine industrial park,” as one agent put it. In all, 13.8 tons of cocaine were seized. Elated DEA agents believed they had dealt the narcotraffickers a crushing blow. Sure enough, soon after the raid, the wholesale price of cocaine—then $14,000 per kilo—began rising for the first time in years. Alas, the celebrating did not last long. Within five months, the price had slid back to $14,000 and was dropping further. The cocaine “poured in like never before,” Leen and Gugliotta write. Clearly, Tranquilandia was but one of many cocaine industrial parks.
The Reagan administration, in retrospect, had one excellent shot at breaking the Medellín operation but botched it out of an excess of ideological zeal. In 1984, Kings of Cocaine reports, the DEA gained its best connected informant ever: Barry Seal, a fat, brash, fast-talking American who was the Colombians’ most trusted pilot. Arrested on smuggling charges, Seal, seeking leniency, agreed to work for the government. At the time, the Colombians were busy establishing Nicaragua as a transshipment point for cocaine, and they asked Seal to fly in to pick up a load. When the CIA got wind of the operation, it arranged to have Seal’s plane rigged with two hidden cameras. On June 25, 1984, Seal took off from Key West and landed at the Los Brasiles military base outside Managua. Seal was met by two of Colombia’s leading drug traffickers and a middle-level Sandinista official, and, as they loaded duffel bags of cocaine onto the plane, the hidden cameras snapped away. Seal then flew back to Florida.
Expecting to return for another pickup, Seal proposed luring the drug kings out of Nicaragua and into Mexico, where they could be arrested. But things never got that far. Word of Seal’s mission to Nicaragua was leaked to The Washington Times, which ran a detailed, front-page story about the operation. The resulting publicity made it impossible for Seal to return to Nicaragua. “The DEA was poised for what might have been a sensational coup,” Gugliotta and Leen observe, “but the case suddenly unraveled. The Sandinista involvement was so politically hot that it burned a hole through the investigation.”
The source of the leak was never conclusively established, but DEA officials believe it was Oliver North, who had closely followed Seal’s mission. North would later incorporate several of Seal’s photographs into his procontra slide show. President Reagan himself displayed one of the photos during a 1986 pitch for contra aid; top Nicaraguan officials, he claimed, were involved in the drug trade. What the President did not say was that his own administration, in its eagerness to discredit the Sandinistas, had undermined a promising DEA operation. Moreover, Gugliotta and Leen point out, any effort to squeeze the drug trade into neat ideological categories is futile:
The cartel had no politics. Governments tied to the cartel included Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Drug-corrupted police and public officials came from almost every nation in the hemisphere…. The Medellín cartel was marching across Central America, infecting governments far more readily than communism ever had.
Mexico should be added to the list of corrupted countries, to judge from Elaine Shannon’s Desperadoes: Latin Drug Lords, US Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win. The book concentrates on the case of Enrique Camarena, the DEA agent who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the police in Mexico in 1985. At the time of his death, Camarena knew a lot about the involvement of high Mexican officials in the international drug trade. According to Shannon, those officials not only helped to plan Camarena’s murder but also created an elaborate cover-up—one that continues to this day. From Shannon’s account, the Mexican government’s involvement in narcotics would seem to be second only to Panama’s.
Shannon’s investigation of the Camarena case has received much attention—it appeared on the cover of Time magazine, where Shannon is a correspondent. Less attention has been paid to her strong criticism of US drug policy. Shannon has developed some excellent sources at the DEA, who have expressed their frustrations to her. William Bennett should spend some time with her book.
It won’t necessarily be pleasurable. Shannon has virtually emptied her notebooks into Desperadoes, and the book sags with facts. At 499 pages, it seems at least one hundred pages too long. Moreover, Shannon is too kind to her sources. Over the years, the DEA has come in for a lot of criticism. Its agents, rough-and-ready types, tend to be preoccupied with specific results—arrests and seizures—at the expense of more concerted global strategies. They also tend to support extreme measures against offending governments, regardless of the long-term diplomatic consequences. According to Desperadoes, however, the DEA can do no wrong.
That said, the book contains a lot of interesting material. It tells, for instance, of fierce interagency battles over narcotics policy, rivaling in their intensity anything that occurred over Central America. The FBI fought with the DEA, the DEA with the attorney general, the attorney general with Customs, and Customs with the State Department. The latter comes in for particularly harsh treatment. “When meeting with reporters and Congressional delegations,” Shannon writes, “State Department officials responsible for narcotics aid were vague and cheerful, like Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, always saying that something would soon turn up—if Congress kept the money coming.” In the case of Mexico, the department kept insisting that its marijuana eradication program was a “model” success, even as DEA agents in the field were filing reports about its breakdown. After reading Desperadoes, it’s hard to put much faith in the assessments of the State Department.
President Reagan does not come off well, either. “Federal officers responsible for drug enforcement and interdiction were overjoyed when Reagan took office,” Shannon writes. “They were soon disappointed: Reagan talked a good game, but despite his speeches bemoaning the threat of violent crime, when it came to more money for fighting crime, including drug traffickers, Reagan was as parsimonious as Carter.” In 1981, Reagan, under the prodding of David Stockman, declared a 12 percent across-the-board cut for all federal agencies except the Pentagon. Drug enforcement was not spared, and the effects were felt immediately. “DEA and Customs cars and airplanes were grounded,” Shannon writes. “Money to make undercover buys ran out. One DEA office held a bake sale to pay for gasoline so night stakeouts could continue.” And so it went throughout the Reagan years, the resources always lagging behind the rhetoric.
Typical of the Reagan approach was the South Florida Task Force. Set up with much fanfare in 1982, it brought together representatives of the DEA, Customs, the Coast Guard, the FBI, and other federal agencies in a concerted effort to drive the traffickers from their base in Miami. Despite all the tough talk, though, the administration allocated little money for the program; instead, it simply reassigned agents from existing projects. The DEA office in Florida, already understaffed, now found its men taken off their ongoing investigations and reassigned to the task force. Drug seizures that the DEA would have made in any case were now credited to the task force, which held periodic press conferences to show off its loot. It was all “smoke and mirrors,” as one DEA official put it.
In the end, the task force made hundreds of arrests and seized many tons of cocaine, but the drugs kept flowing in. The traffickers, scared away from Florida, simply began flying their cargo to northern Mexico, where they transferred it to land vehicles and drove it across the border. “We could have the whole country surrounded, and people who want to get drugs are going to get drugs, even if they have to manufacture them themselves,” John Lawn, the current DEA administrator, told Shannon. The only solution to America’s drug problem, Lawn believed, was a “dramatic change in attitude on the part of the American people.”
By now, most Americans would probably agree. The clear failure of interdiction and law enforcement to do anything about the supply of drugs has created new support for policies aimed at demand. In 1988, Congress for the first time earmarked as much money for programs for treatment, prevention, education, and research as for programs designed to reduce the supply of drugs.
For readers interested in how the demand for drugs might be reduced, two kinds of publications are available. On the one hand are works of a scholarly nature. These generally take the form of abstruse technical papers written by professionals for professionals. For instance, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the research organization of the federal government, issues a regular monograph series with such titles as Biological Vulnerability to Drug Abuse and Needle Sharing Among Intravenous Drug Abusers. Beyond that, though, little is available. In contrast to alcoholism, about which there is an abundant literature, drug abuse has yet to produce even a good textbook; the field is still too new and too small. Nina Peyser, director of planning for “substance abuse services” at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, says that, aside from chapters on intravenous drug users in books on AIDS, “I can’t think of anything on the subject that’s less than ten years old.” For current information, Peyser relies heavily on newspapers, newsmagazines, and TV, which, she says, contain “a lot of breaking news.”
On the other hand are popular books directed at people with drug problems. Among the most eye-catching are firstperson accounts written by former addicts. Though lurid at times, these books provide a hair-raising glimpse into the horror of addiction. A good example is White Rabbit: A Doctor’s Story of Her Addiction and Recovery, by Martha Morrison, MD. In it, she describes how she went from being a twelve-year-old who stole her mother’s Darvon to being a “junkie doctor” whose daily intake included codeine, Dilaudid, Demerol, Seconal, pentobarbital, morphine, cocaine, Preludin, Desoxyn, amphetamine sulfate, MDA, STP, THC, and PCP. Such a diet left Morrison feeling paranoid and suicidal, but, as is inevitable in such books, salvation eventually comes—in this case, by way of God:
I knelt on the ground, tears streaming down my face. I screamed that simple prayer: “God, help me. I give up. Please let me die or let me get better.”
Suddenly, I felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders…. The warmth, the peace of mind, the profound sense of relief, just washed over me…. That all-powerful, overwhelming urge to use drugs had been lifted from me, and I knew a freedom I had never known before.
Alas, it isn’t always so easy. In most cases, getting off drugs comes not through any sudden conversion but through a long, painful process marked by repeated false starts. For those curious about the journey, there has emerged a whole new genre of self-help books. Addressed primarily to middle-class users or to the parents of addicted young people, these books combine factual descriptions of the nature of addiction (often in Q & A form) with consumer-like guides to available treatment (complete with addresses and phone numbers). Though sometimes off-beat in their prescription—one book lists fifty “sugar-foods” to avoid—these books all stress that there are no shortcuts on the road to recovery. To get clean, they assert, the abuser must face up to his addiction and commit himself fully to licking it. A few titles help convey the genre’s flavor:
Cocaine: The Human Danger, the Social Costs, the Treatment Alternatives, by Roger D. Weiss, MD, and Steven M. Mirin, MD.
Getting Over Getting High: How To Overcome Dependency on Cocaine, Caffeine, Hallucinogens, Marijuana, Speed, and Other Stimulants the Natural and Permanent Way, by Bernard Green, MD.
How To Keep the Children You Love Off Drugs, by Ken Barun and Philip Bashe.
The 100 Best Treatment Centers for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, by Linda Sunshine and John W. Wright.
Unfortunately, while there are plenty of books for people who abuse drugs, there are few for the reader who wants to learn more about how we might reduce the demand for them. The Congressional Research Service recently carried out a computer search of all books published on narcotics in 1988 and 1989. Of the 130 entries, no more than a handful dealt with the political, social, or economic aspects of demand. This is not surprising. Until recently, few people paid much attention to reducing demand; all the action, so far as funding and publicity were concerned, was in interdiction and law enforcement. Moreover, the problems of education and prevention don’t lend themselves to sensational treatment. They involve no brutal drug lords or brash pilots, colorful smugglers or gruff government agents. So publishers have paid little attention to the subject. The result is a dearth of information about some of the most pressing questions of the day. How do we educate young people about drugs without tempting them to use them? What part should the schools play? Once teenagers are hooked on drugs, how do we get them off? What form of antidrug advertising is most effective? What is the best way to treat people addicted to crack?
The extent of our ignorance is described in a December 1987 report by the US General Accounting Office. Entitled Drug Abuse Prevention: Further Efforts Needed to Identify Programs That Work, the report observes that the “state of drug abuse prevention and education efforts nationwide is largely unknown.” Since the early 1970s, it notes, most programs for education about drugs have sought to prevent drug use by increasing young people’s knowledge of the subject. Such efforts, however, have had “virtually no impact on drug abuse or the intent to abuse drugs.” The GAO concludes:
Without a data base covering the current status and accomplishments of drug abuse prevention and education programs, there is little foundation for making hard decisions on how best to use funds.
Lack of knowledge seems most acute where the problem is most urgent: crack. This cheap form of smokable cocaine has hit our streets with unprecedented fury, devastating lives and ruining communities. Yet we know less about it than we do about the cocaine traffickers of Colombia or the marijuana dealers of Mexico. Little, for instance, has been written about the relationship between crack and violence. The crack trade is far more violent than that for any other drug, but we don’t understand why. Similarly, we know little about the national network that has sprung up to distribute crack. Who sells it? How is it marketed? We’re not even sure who buys the stuff. “Is the huge crack market being supported exclusively by poor people?” Don DesJarlais, a researcher in AIDS and drug use at the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services, asked when I talked to him recently. “If it is, where are they getting the money for it?”
This question—who uses drugs?—is in some ways the most interesting of all. Contrary to the popular notion that narcotics are used throughout American society, drug use seems to be developing along well-defined class lines. On the one hand, the consumption of cocaine by the middle class has been steadily falling. Once considered glamorous and safe, cocaine is now widely viewed as a menace. The newsweeklies, movies, TV commercials, books like Martha Morrison’s—all send the same message: cocaine can kill. Educated Americans are responding. Recently, for instance, the Gordon B. Black Corporation of Rochester, New York, in a survey of 1,461 college students, found that only 6 percent acknowledged “occasional” use of cocaine in 1988—down from 11 percent in 1987. Those who said they had friends who used cocaine socially dropped from 36 percent to 31 percent. Citing such surveys, The Washington Post concluded that “use of cocaine and marijuana among many segments of the population, particularly middle-class professionals and college students, has declined sharply.”2
In the inner cities, the story is very different. There the use of drugs—especially crack—is soaring. Three years ago, crack was sold only in large cities like Los Angeles and New York; today, it’s available in places like Kansas City, Denver, and Dallas—everywhere, in fact, with a large minority population. Cocaine, once popular in Hollywood and on Wall Street, is fast becoming the narcotic of the ghetto. Mark Gold, founder of the nation’s first cocaine “hotline” six years ago, told The Washington Post that, when the service was introduced, most callers were whites with college degrees and high salaries; now, more than half are unemployed and only 16 percent college educated. Noting such evidence, David Musto, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, says we are fast moving toward a “two-tier system” of drug consumption, marked by declining use among middle-class whites and increasing use among poor minorities.
Musto, the author of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, believes we are repeating an earlier cycle of drug use. At the turn of the century, drugs were widely consumed and broadly tolerated; cocaine was so popular that Coca-Cola used it in its formula. As the incidence of abuse mounted, however, consumption dropped off, and social attitudes turned much sterner. In 1919, the Supreme Court outlawed the sale and prescription of drugs to maintain addiction. In 1934, the Motion Picture Association banned the portrayal of narcotics use in movies. In 1956, the death penalty was imposed for the sale of heroin to minors. By that point, Musto writes, drug use was so rare that “personal knowledge of a ‘dope fiend’ was unusual for the vast majority of Americans.”
That, ironically, set the stage for the drug explosion of the 1960s. By then, awareness of earlier abuses had long since faded, and the generation of the “counterculture” took up pot and LSD with the same freedom that had marked the early 1900s. As before, however, widespread use led to widespread abuse, and social tolerance soon began to fade. Today, Musto observes, “schools, judges, the criminal courts, newspapers—everyone is moving in the same direction [against drugs], and this is having an enormous impact on general attitudes.” Consumption of many drugs—although certainly not crack—has dropped, particularly among the middle class. At the same time, though, intolerance is mounting, leading Musto to fear a backlash against those who continue to use drugs.
The threat seems particularly serious in light of the two-tier effect. As drug use comes to be associated more and more with minorities, public support for treatment could dry up, giving way to renewed demands for more police, more jails, and harsher sentences—none of which, as the books under review suggest, has much promise of reducing the demand for drugs. “My concern is that, as drug use declines among middle-class Americans, they will refuse to invest in the long-term needs of the inner city, like education and jobs,” Musto says. One of the “main tasks” facing William Bennett, he adds, is “harnessing the current antidrug energy and making it productive.”
What should we expect from the new drug czar? It’s hard to say. The drug bureaucracy is so enormous and fragmented that there’s a limit to what any one man can do. Bennett is hardly the nation’s first drug czar. There has been a succession of them—though some had different titles—dating back to 1969, when Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs and put Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe in charge of it. None of these officials has had much success, and there’s no reason to think Bennett will be any different. Certainly his background is not encouraging. As secretary of education, Bennett proved to be an energetic polemicist, but when it came to seeking more resources for the nation’s schools, he proved every bit as parsimonious as Ronald Reagan. A similar approach to the war on drugs—much talk, few bucks—would be disastrous.
As for George Bush, he does not come off well in the current batch of drug books. As vice-president, he showed a fondness for strategies based on interdiction and law enforcement; the more hightech and hard-line the venture, the more enthusiastic his support. The ill-fated South Florida Task Force, with its emphasis on radar and press releases, was an initiative of Bush’s. “George Bush’s antidrug projects were never taken seriously by many officials in the federal lawenforcement community, who suspected that they existed mainly to add a few lines to Bush’s political resume,” Elaine Shannon writes in Desperadoes.
Since becoming president, however, Bush has sent some different sounding signals. Soon after taking office, he told reporters that he planned to place education at the heart of his antidrug effort. “The answer to the problem of drugs lies more on solving the demand side of the equation than it does on the supply side, than it does on interdiction or sealing the borders or something of that nature,” he said. “And so it is going to have to be a major educational effort, and the private sector and the schools are all going to have to be involved in this.”
This is significant. For the first time, a president has publicly recognized the central importance of reducing demand. Further encouragement comes from Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 1990. It recommends spending $5.96 billion for anti-drug programs, up from the $5.14 billion proposed by President Reagan.
Still, this is far from enough. Consider this absurdity: at a time when public officials are wringing their hands over drugs, the nation is suffering a critical shortage of treatment facilities, so that even those who want help can’t find it. “We get 200 to 225 calls a day from people wanting treatment,” I was told by Monsignor William B. O’Brien, the president of Daytop, New York State’s largest drug rehabilitation program. Daytop has only 875 beds, so callers “have to wait four or five months just to be interviewed,” O’Brien says. In New York State alone, 2,000 addicts are waiting for treatment. The problem has grown so acute that late last year a South Bronx crack addict, desperate to enter a facility, smashed windows at two police stations. Once arrested, he reasoned, he would be committed. But the policemen ignored his plea. Only when a sympathetic judge intervened on his behalf was the addict finally admitted to a rehabilitation center.3
State and local governments are doing little to address the shortage. Mario Cuomo, for instance, in his most recent State of the State message, proposed creating only 200 new beds—a wholly inadequate figure. This is the same Governor Cuomo who listed as his state’s three top problems drugs, drugs, and drugs. If Cuomo and other public officials are really serious about the drug problem, they should commit themselves to one overriding goal: making treatment available for all those who seek it. Such a policy, if carried out, could have a real effect. According to Dr. Bernard Bahari, director of the Kings County Addictive Disease Hospital in Brooklyn, providing adequate treatment facilities could, over a five-year period, reduce drug demand in America by 40 to 50 percent. Such a program would not require breaking the bank. Last year, the presidential commission on AIDS estimated that making treatment for drug abuse available on demand would cost about $1.67 billion a year—a real bargain, given the potential benefit. Certainly it’s worth experimenting with such a policy before running headlong into the untested world of legalizing drugs, as some have suggested.
Sadly, even with more treatment beds, our drug problem will remain. Treatment can help only those who seek it. For every addict who approaches a facility like Daytop, three or four don’t. These abusers, broken by the bleakness of ghetto life, have simply lost hope. Helping them would require not just solving the treatment shortage but addressing the more fundamental problems afflicting our inner cities. Until we do something about unemployment, malnutrition, crumbling schools, and broken families, the drug “scourge,” as George Bush called it in his inaugural address, will not end.
March 30, 1989