Osama bin Laden is now Public Enemy #1, but that doesn’t mean he’s pushed everybody else off the list. In a series of articles and public hearings last week, anti-drug crusaders redoubled their efforts to demonize the nation’s drug-addled millions. The new charges: Junkies, pill poppers, and street pushers are no longer merely criminals who hook kids and coarsen the culture -- now they supposedly fund terrorists like bin Laden. If you do drugs, you are no longer just a loser: You are a traitor. The drug reformers who normally object to such accusations are, for now, on their heels, unsure how to respond.
For example, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced the Speaker’s Task Force for a Drug Free America on Sept. 21. Task forces for a drug-free U.S.A. are nothing new; similar initiatives have been underway since the Gingrich era. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, however, the claims have gone beyond the old save-the-children rhetoric. "The illegal drug trade is the financial engine that fuels many terrorist organizations around the world, including Osama bin Laden," Hastert said. It goes something like this: Afghans grow poppies, which are later processed into about 70 percent of the world’s heroin supply. The Taliban taxes the heroin trade, making millions that later go to fund terrorists like bin Laden.
On October 3, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson said the same thing to the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human resources. "DEA will continue to aggressively identify and build cases against drug trafficking organizations contributing to global terrorism," he promised in a prepared statement. "In doing so, we will limit the ability of drug traffickers to use their destructive goods as a commodity to fund malicious assaults on humanity and the rule of law."
Prior to Sept. 11, these rants would have elicited an outcry from the drug reform movement, and rightly so. Check out this admission from Hutchinson’s statement: "Although DEA has no direct evidence to confirm that bin Laden is involved in the drug trade, the sanctuary enjoyed by bin Laden is based on the Taliban’s support of the drug trade, which is a primary source of income in Afghanistan." No direct evidence? Would it be wise to divert even more resources and intelligence to the drug war, when there is no direct evidence that bin Laden is using the money to fund terrorism?
By all accounts, most of the heroin consumed in the U.S. comes from Latin America, not Afghanistan. Moreover, if you really want to shift the profits away from terrorists, eradicating supply and demand worldwide is quite possibly the most difficult way to do it. (It certainly hasn’t worked so far.) But the most obvious question is: Why doesn’t organized crime continue to fund domestic strife with money skimmed from illegal bootlegging? Because those profits -- after a healthy tax consideration for Uncle Sam -- go to Seagram’s and Anheuser-Busch instead of to Al Capone. Anyway, as David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, pointed out in a phone interview, there is a huge market for legally obtained opiates such as prescription morphine, and nobody is charging that profits from that industry fund terrorists.
Unfortunately, the normally vocal drug reform movement is stepping gingerly. An article in DRCNet’s weekly reform roundup reveals a deep divide in how various reformers want to respond. It quotes several reform leaders who fear that, as one of them put it, "nothing will hurt us more than being perceived as insensitive to the tragedy that occurred." Another feared that : "Many Americans do not have a high regard for the drug reform movement as it is, and if they see us as being opportunistic, that could really box us in."
Others are taking a more proactive -- if riskier -- approach. Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, said he hopes to point out the flaws in the drug warriors’ reasoning without raising the public’s ire. CSDP is paying for ads linking drug prohibition to terrorist funding, Zeese says; the ads will soon appear in National Review, The Weekly Standard, New Republic, The Progressive, and The Nation. (Full disclosure: Zeese said he is also going to place an ad in REASON. The ads will be available online this week at www.narcoterror.org.)
Two groups that probably won’t be listening are Hastert’s new task force and the subcommittee Hutchinson addressed this week. According to a Hill staffer familiar with both: "I think it’s fair to say that the task force and the subcommittee will not be considering the question of legalization."