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The Drug Legalization Debate

Stop the War

A Former Police -Chiefs Plea to Clinton's New Drug Czar

By Joseph D. McNamara

The Washington Post - Sunday, May 19, 1996

President Clinton appointed the wrong general as drug czar. There is no question of Gen. Barry McCaffrey's courage, dedication to duty and ability. I experienced danger and was injured a few times during my 35-year police career, but came nowhere close to being a hero like McCaffrey, who was wounded three times in combat. I admire him. My questions about his appointment result from what he said a few weeks ago in Miami.

While accompanying the president to announce a 'new' anti drug strategy, McCaffrey called the 'drug war' a bad metaphor. It is more appropriate, he said, to describe America's drug problem as a cancer. I concur. That's what leads me to conclude that Clinton should have appointed a surgeon general not an Army general, to head the campaign against drugs.

Of course, responding to the zany politics of drug control, the president, in the past, fired a surgeon general who dared to suggest that drug abuse was more of a medical than a criminal problem Now, by appointing a man of McCaffrey's stature, Clinton finessed Republican efforts to nail him as being soft on drugs. To complete the coup, the White House and its drug czar announced yet another renewed effort against drugs.

Each time public attention begins to focus on the colossal costs and failures of drug prohibition, a 'new' program is announced or "new' progress is cited. Such campaigns and claims of victory have been endless since President Nixon first declared the drug war in 1972. Yet, despite frequent reports of the biggest bust or drug seizure ever or increased cooperation from other nations, the public and law enforcement officers across the country see the drug problem as unabated or worsening.

In fact, the latest tactics coming from the White House are essentially the same strategies pursued by the government for decades: encouraging other countries to stop production of drugs, interdicting drugs at the border, massive law enforcement and harsh mandatory sentences for drug crimes domestically, coupled with aggressive seizure of private property connected however tangentially to the 'drug trade.' And, of course, increased prevention and treatment efforts.

Equally troubling is the continuation of a kind of pharmacological McCarthyism. Those who question the government's faded strategies are labeled traitors. These critics are said to encourage drug use and undermine law enforcement. Consequently, William Bennett and his successors were quick to blame critics as being responsible for increases in drug use, not failed government policies. Naturally, when there are periodic claims of decreases in drug use, government takes the credit

Still, one has to admire President Clinton's political chutzpah. The one truly new announcement in Miami was that the government has concluded that Clinton's 'new' strategies will take 10 years to succeed. After all, as Bennett (the first drug czar, appointed by President Bush to end the "scourge of drugs"), said, "We're in this for the long haul." He resigned and went on to other things 18 months later.

McCaffrey, like his predecessor, Lee Brown, says that the answer is not to lock up another million Americans. Unfortunately, despite his dislike of the war metaphor, the general will find, as Brown did, that this war will continue to lock up hundreds of thousands of people.

A corrections administrator responsible for running San Francisco jails told me recently that when the county of San Francisco decided that smoking would no longer allowed in public buildings, cigarettes were banned in the jail. The immediate consequence: The price of cigarettes the underground jail market went to $120 a pack. It sums up prohibition; $500 worth of drugs in a foreign country can bring as much as $100,000 on the streets of an American city merely because they are illegal. All of the armies, cops and prisons in the world can not stop that kind of economic force.

It is said that the first casualty in any war is truth. At West Point, McCaffrey studied the wars and battles of history so that during his career he would not repeat the mistakes of past warriors. Even the greatest military leaders in history were defeated when they settled on a vision of what they wished instead of reality. It would be helpful to pursue the same West Point scholarship for the drug war.

Most Americans are startled to hear that until the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, drug use was viewed as a medical and social problem and was not against the criminal law. There was no billion-dollar black market. No violent drug trade No widespread official corruption. No widespread disrespect for drug laws. Drug users went to their doctors if they needed treatment.

There were drug problems. In fact, around the turn of the century large numbers of housewives were addicted to opium. Nerve medicine for women, containing opium, was sold across the counter at drug stores. Other addictive substances were sold as patent medicines. Gradually. the medical profession became more aware of the addictive nature of some drugs and supported the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required labeling and warnings for habit-forming substances.

That law was a civil one; it did not criminalize drug users. It is instructive. The number of addicts and users was greatly reduced by educating them, not by arresting them.

Criminalizing drugs in the United States was a remarkable change in public policy. But it wasn't the police who were lobbying for the passage of the Harrison Act, which was the cornerstone of increasingly punitive laws against drug users and sellers. The Protestant missionary societies in China, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League and other organized religions were the prime movers. In their view, drug use was sinful and people had to be saved from their baser instincts. In effect, they managed to get their version of sin enacted into the penal code, an old habit of power elites in America.

This view of drug users as M criminals continues to haunt us and makes rational political debate impossible. It is too appealing for politicians to picture themselves as the good guys fighting evil.

A ear ago, some of the nation's top law enforcement officials gathered at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for a two day seminar to ponder the drug problem. They concluded that the drug war was a failure and that more education and prevention would be better than more arrests and prisons. They recommended that a national commission be appointed to study the harm that the drug war causes and to consider alternative approaches to discouraging drug use.

The top cops were concerned about some of the costs of the present policies as well as their failure to curb drug use. For example, the arrest and imprisonment rates for nonwhites are four to five times greater than for whites, although 80 percent of drug crimes are committed by whites. Criminologist Alfred Blumstein describes it as an assault on the African-American community.

It is difficult enough to motivate youngsters in these areas to stay in school and find jobs in the few legitimate businesses in the inner cities. Easy drug money and glamour associated with the trade are creating well armed and vicious teenaged gangsters just as Prohibition did during the days of Al Capone.

Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, doing a comparative analysis with homicide rates during Prohibition, estimated that as many as 10,000 murders a year are caused by the illegality of drugs. In addition, corruption of law enforcement, the legal profession and even the armed forces related to drug money is spreading.

Congress and the president should put aside their demagoguery and appoint an objective commission to report on the costs and achievements of the drug war. We should immediately stop arresting people whose only crime is possessing wall amounts of drugs for their own use. The Supreme Court has ruled that being a drug addict is not a crime.

Putting a halt to demonizing drug users will allow us to pursue drug maintenance experiments similar to those in other countries, In the United States, public health campaigns caused a reduction in smoking and consumption of hard liquor and high cholesterol foods, without putting people in jail and establishing a black market.

Marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol and cigarettes. There is much conflicting medical evidence as to whether pot is more dangerous than alcohol or nicotine, yet it is unthinkable that we would give the death penalty or fife in prison to those who sell booze or cigarettes. The claim that marijuana is a stepping stone to crime and harder drugs is not supported by facts.

Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, most of the cops I hired during my 18 years as police chief and some 70 million Americans have tried marijuana. They have not gone on to mainlining heroin, snorting cocaine and robbing banks. At a time when the public is concerned about violent crime, the police should not be wasting scarce resources arresting a half million or so people every year for marijuana offenses.

One of the women in a Miami drug rehab program told McCaffrey that Clinton's new policy excluding drug users from public housing made it impossible for those trying to kick the habit to get a place to live and a job. The general mused that his gut told him it was like throwing one person in a lifeboat overboard 'to save the other nine.' However, there is no evidence that throwing people overboard stops others from using drugs. More importantly, how could we throw 70 million Americans overboard and remain the free nation that McCaffrey fought so valiantly to preserve?

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