Agency of Fear
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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 23 - Private Knowledge


While the Nixon administration was operating on the public front to inject fear-provoking stereotypes of incurable addicts into primetime television, to disseminate authoritative-sounding statistics suggesting that there was an uncontrollable heroin epidemic sweeping the nation-,-and to inform journalists about the $18-billion crime wave being conducted in America by new hordes of addicts, on the private front it was receiving information from its own agencies which did not fit the picture of imminent national peril, and this information was kept private. As early as December, 1970, an interagency committee on narcotics and drug abuse composed of representatives from the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Veterans Administration. and the National Institute of Mental Health reported to the Domestic Council that "in terms of the size of the problem. for example compared to the problems of alcoholism, mental illness. automobile injuries and fatalities, the problem of drug abuse is relatively small." It further cautioned:  

Hasty and ill-considered policies may not only be ineffective, but they may generate different types of casualties and adverse consequences of the medical, social, and legal nature, such as loss of respect for the law, extensive arrest records [for youthful violations] ... and accidental death and levels of dependence hitherto unknown as a result, of leaks in widely dispersed or poorly conceived methadone maintenance programs. 

Since there were then more than 9 million alcoholics compared to fewer than 100,000 known narcotics addicts, the White House strategists agreed that the problem could not be presented simply in terms of a menace to public health. A Domestic Council staff report on national drug programs was prepared in December, 1970, with the assistance of the National Institute of Mental Health and other government agencies involved in drug-abuse evaluation. It noted: 

Alcoholism, though a much greater public health and safety problem than other forms of drug abuse, is not perceived in the public and political minds as a great social and moral evil.... If the misuse of all drugs-illicit drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco-was discussed in only medical and public health terms, the problem of drug abuse would not take on inflated importance requiring an undeserved federal response for political purposes. 

This report further observed, "If the misuse of drugs is viewed with proper perspective, it is not in actuality a paramount national problem.... However, because of the political significance of the Problem, visible, hard-hitting programs must be highlighted to preclude irrational criticism." In this private report the agencies of government dealing with drug abuse admitted not only that narcotics was not a paramount national problem but also that "the dimension of the drug-using population is not known with any degree of accuracy; we don't even know how many users are being treated. . . ." In the spring of 197 1, the Domestic Council found that there were no "hard" estimates in any agency of the government of the number of addicts, the amount they spent on narcotics each year, the amount of theft they committed, or the effectiveness of law enforcement on reducing addiction or theft. According to Egli Krogh's recollection, the president himself closely questioned John Ingersoll, asking him such questions as "Are there less narcotics on the street [now]? ... Are there fewer addicts? Is there less crime related to the use of narcotics? Can you show me that the problem itself is being corrected by these operational indices of success? Ingersoll bluntly told the President that that the government had not yet approached answering these questions, and the president, according to Krogh, "just shook his head in disbelief."

Since the data of other government agencies were equally elusive when it came to answering these central questions about addiction posed by the president, Krogh ordered the Office of Science and Technology, in August, 1971, immediately to commission a complete analysis of all available data on narcotics addiction and crime. He subsequently explained to me that because of the president's "sense of discomfort over ... the statistical work" of the government agencies directly engaged in drug programs, "we wanted an independent unit under the Office of Science and Technology who were professionals at data collection and analysis to tell us whether or not the assumptions on which our programs have been based were in fact sound." The Office of Science and Technology (which is a part of the executive office of the president) contracted out the special presidential assignment to the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a think tank established by the Joint Chiefs of' Stall' to analyze, independently, military strategies and problems. IDA was given complete access to all the data on drug abuse that the government possessed.

Unlike previous groups that had studied the problems of drug abuse in America, IDA had no bureaucratic or financial interest in the outcome of its study. The systems analysts at IDA began examining the assumption that addicts steal billions of dollars' worth of property to pay for their habit. They quickly found that "expenditures for heroin and the value of addict property crime is not known to within a factor of four or five," which meant, in effect, that the government estimates had no claim to being even a rough measure of reality. The IDA analysts then went on to test the truism, accepted for more than half a century by government agencies and private treatment centers, that addiction was a major cause of crime in America. Even though it was generally known that a "majority of heroin addicts have a history of criminality preceding their abuse of the drug," as John Ingersoll noted in a November 3, 1970, memorandum to Egli Krogh, and therefore were not innocent persons compelled to commit crimes, it was assumed that the cost of maintaining their heroin habit forced them to commit more crimes than they otherwise would have undertaken. To determine whether this time-worn assumption was valid, the IDA team focused on the summer of 1972, when a shipping strike temporarily interrupted the supply of heroin in Eastern cities and quintupled the street price of the drug when it was available at all. If heroin addicts had to finance their habit through theft, and psychologically and physiologically had no choice over the amount of the drug required to avoid physical illness and mental pain (which was the definition of "addiction"), then there should have been either a sharp increase in crime in these Eastern cities or an increase in the number of addicts enrolling in methadone-treatment programs (where they would receive a free substitute for heroin). The analysts found, however, that this elegant hypothesis was, as Lord Keynes put it on another occasion, "murdered by a gang of brutal facts." The crime rates did not go up, even though prices increased, and addicts did not enter treatment programs. The IDA report was thus forced to conclude: 

The little evidence available suggests that during a time of severe heroin shortage, addicts may not be willing or able to increase their crime commensurately with the price increase, and therefore they compensate by reducing their heroin consumption and/or substituting other drugs. Also the data do not suggest that entering treatment is the preferred option [italics in the original]. 

This conclusion undermined the entire theory of the heroin addict as it was developed by Captain Hobson and his successors in American politics: if heroin addicts could substitute other drugs, such as barbiturates and amphetamines-which were manufactured domestically and inexpensively-for heroin when it was unavailable, or even "mature out" of using it entirely in these periods of time, then they were not actually addicted to heroin but had simply chosen it when they could afford it. In this case, those addicts who committed crimes could not be considered to be physically compelled by their habit to commit crimes, but rather they purchased heroin as a consumer good with the proceeds from criminal endeavors.

By examining the records of the jails in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1972, IDA analysts found cogent evidence that criminal addicts could indeed switch from heroin to amphetamines and barbiturates when heroin became more expensive. All arrestees in the Washington jails were subject that year to urinalysis, which would show if they were using opiates (heroin or methadone), amphetamines, or barbiturates. During the East Coast dock strike that summer, IDA researchers found that heroin use in the Washington jails dropped from nearly 20 percent to 0, and commensurately that the use of barbiturates and amphetamines among the arrestees rose from 3 or 4 percent to nearly 20 percent. In other words, most criminal addicts simply replaced heroin with these other drugs without showing any discernible signs of withdrawal or physical discomfort. During this period in Washington, D.C., applicants for the methadone-treatment program actually decreased even though there were no waiting lists or other barriers to obtaining free methadone. (Apparently, illicit drugs, which could be taken intravenously, still had great appeal because of the "rush," or euphoric pleasure, they could provide.) Just as a cigarette smoker is not addicted to a single brand, but can switch to other brands if his preferred choice is unavailable, the data suggested that the criminal addict had great flexibility as to what drug, if any, he would buy at a given time and could adjust consumption to fit his current income. One evaluator of the IDA report commented, "There seems to be very definitely a significant number of addicts who have a choice of which drug they will use or not use, and if they have a choice about it, most of the projections we have been making about heroin epidemics and crime don't really work."

The IDA findings also provided at least some explanation for vexing data coming in from methadone-treatment centers in different cities. This data showed that even when addicts were given a free supply- of the heroin substitute methadone, they did not reduce their theft activity, at least as it was measured by criminal charges filed against them. For example, 416 addicts enrolled in a New York methadone program sponsored by the Addiction and Research Treatment Corporation (ARTC) were evaluated by the Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard University. Among the addicts younger than thirty-one years of age. the only reductions in criminal arraignments one year after they had begun methadone treatment (compared with their records one year prior to treatment) occurred in three categories: drug offenses-by far the largest component of the total reduction; forgery-, and prostitution. In all other categories the rate of criminal charges filed against these addicts actually increased, even though they were receiving daily dosages of free methadone. Robbery charges quadrupled; assault charges were up by almost 50 percent; and even burglary and property-theft charges- increased after one year of methadone treatment. If the full period of a patient's addiction was taken as a measure, rather than merely his peak year, the level of criminal charges was actually higher after he used methadone for one year than it was during an average year on heroin. Since these addicts did not need to steal to finance their habit (which the government financed for them), heroin addiction could not be held to be the motivating force behind their continued (and even criminal

behavior. Instead this evidence strongly suggested that heroin use as well as the consumption of other illicit products was merely a byproduct of a life of crime. 

Finally, the data systematically collected by the Department of Defense in Vietnam in 1972 shattered what remained of the theory that most heroin users were inexorably dependent on heroin. In evaluating the effects of heroin on soldiers, the Department of Defense provided the sort of laboratory conditions that did not exist in civilian life: all soldiers were compelled to submit to urinalysis to determine whether or not they were using heroin or opiates. It turned out, it will be recalled, that several hundred thousand soldiers stationed in Vietnam used heroin between 1970 and 1972, and about 14 percent of these users were classified as addicts, since they met the standard criteria of both continuous heroin use and withdrawal symptoms should they stop using heroin. Yet, when faced with the threat of Army discipline (of not being allowed to leave Vietnam), 93 percent of those classified as addicts (and virtually all the rest of the users) managed to stop using heroin during their remaining months in the Army, where they were subjected to daily urinalysis tests; and when tested one year after their discharge, they were still abstaining from heroin. Dr. Richard Wilbur concluded from this data that "addiction is not a meaningful concept in the vast majority of the cases; most soldiers used heroin because of psychological and peer group pressures, and because it was readily available.... When it was no longer available, or when they faced detection or penalty, they were able to simply give it up." From Vietnam the government was finally able to obtain massive data about the behavior of hundreds of thousands of heroin users, and virtually none of the findings supported the hoary myth of the "drug slave," or the addict who physiologically had no other choice than to do what was necessary to obtain a daily supply of heroin.

 Despite the IDA report (which was never made public) and the other evidence that emerged from treatment centers the United States and Vietnam, the Nixon administration continued to define heroin as "the root cause of crime in America," as Myles Ambrose stated in speeches on drug abuse in 1972. After It became Unmistakably clear to the White House strategists that reducing the supply of heroin in the United States would not diminish crime (since, as the IDA report suggested, criminal addicts would simply move on to another drug), President Nixon continued to demand extraordinary powers to reorganize the investigative agencies of the government so that they could continue the crusade against crime and drugs. Between 1968 and 1974, the federal budget for enforcing narcotics laws rose from $3 million to more than $224 million-a seventyfold increase. And this in turn gave the president an opportunity to create a series of highly unorthodox federal offices. The production of threatening images of the vampire-addict which accompanied these executive actions, and created the atmosphere of fear in which Congress passed without consideration the necessary legislation and appropriations, could not be undercut by the private knowledge that was emerging in the reports and studies commissioned by the White House: far more was at stake.




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