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March 23, 1998

Selected Editorial

The Wrong Drug War

The annual foreign-policy farce called drug certification, in which the Administration verifies that a foreign government is (or is not) cooperating in the fight against drugs, passed on March 1 with relatively little controversy. Mexico was re-certified for aid, Colombia had its sanctions lifted and a handful of strategically marginal nations like Nigeria and Burma received failing grades. This year's certification process raised so little dust because no one in Washington wants to draw attention to the essential irrationality of the war on drugs. Indeed, the White House and the Republicans are in a competition for the wildest antidrug rhetoric. In mid-February, President Clinton and drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey unveiled a $17.1 billion drug-fighting plan, pledging to tighten interdiction and border controls while enhancing treatment and prevention programs aimed at youth. McCaffrey claims he will cut drug use in half in ten years. Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich condemned that plan as "slow, incremental and inadequate," while Republican Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida declared the G.O.P.'s intent to reduce drug use "by 90 percent in five years."

Both McCaffrey and Gingrich pin their promises on dubious premises. McCaffrey's largest budget item includes programs aimed at keeping teenagers from involvement in "gateway drug-using behavior," which basically means smoking pot. But the "gateway drug" theory of marijuana is discredited by serious researchers; for the vast majority of users, marijuana is a "terminus drug" rather than a gateway, and the markets for harder drugs like cocaine and heroin rise and fall independent of the pot-smoking statistics. Gingrich's only specific proposal was to broaden aid to Christian faith-based antidrug programs.

Both McCaffrey and Gingrich envision combining their anti-drug Kulturkampf in the homes of Americans with what Gingrich called a "World War II­style all-out plan for victory" on the supply front. But as Eva Bertram and Kenneth Sharpe pointed out in these pages last April 28, international drug eradication campaigns often stimulate the market, raising the economic incentives for suppliers. Furthermore, around the world, U.S. drug-enforcement aid has become hopelessly entangled in human rights abuses and corruption. The very week the State Department issued its report lifting last year's military-aid sanctions against Colombia, Medellín attorney and human rights activist Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo, who last year exposed links between army units and paramilitary death squads responsible for massacring peasants, was shot dead by gunmen who burst into his office.

U.S. civil liberties, too, continue to be sacrificed to this unwinnable and damaging war. The Justice Department recently announced that it was declining to press civil rights charges in the killing last year of 18-year-old goatherd Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. of Redford, Texas, shot dead by a Marine under the command of the Border Patrol as part of a drug interdiction mission. While the area's Republican Congressman, Lamar Smith, complains that the incident "raises serious questions about the training and supervision of the Border Patrol," this same Border Patrol and those same military squads will hit the jackpot under Washington's new antidrug budget. The remaking of domestic drug policy into a military campaign is one of the most frightening developments: As The Washington Post has reported, in 1996 more than 8,000 members of the armed forces took part in 754 drug-policing operations within the United States, with no measurable impact on the drug trade.

There's an alternative to this transnational insanity. Instead of one-sided "certification" and the market incentives of international eradication campaigns, there are ways to lower incentives and prices worldwide, among them a combination of government-approved drug supplies for hard-core addicts and a strategy for alternative economic development in drug-producing regions. There's also talk of replacing the unpopular U.S. certification plan with a multilateral approach, a subject on the table at a U.N. special session on drugs scheduled for June. U.N. officials talk of combining economic incentives with ending the banking secrecy that protects drug-money laundering.

But drug-policy advocates charge that the United States is undermining the U.N. conference by pushing a tough eradication agenda. That's too bad. Among public health advocates, the notion of "harm reduction" has gained currency as an alternative to prohibitionist drug policies (a dimension sadly missing in the Clinton plan). A broader notion of harm reduction--political and legal as well as medical--ought to be the cornerstone of a new drug policy, uniting the domestic and international arenas.

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