Battling the Drug War


The Great Drug War, by Arnold Trebach, New York: Macmillan, 410 pages, $22.50

Dealing with Drugs, edited by Ronald Hamowy, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 385 pages, $40/$12.95

Breaking the Impasse in the War on Drugs, by Steven Wisotsky, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 279 pages, $25

Recently we've witnessed tremendous agitation over the "drug problem" in America. Newsweek, for example, has devoted several cover stories to drugs, and its editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, compared the impact of drug dealers to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, vowing to cover "the drug war" as thoroughly as Vietnam. And that was only the tip of the iceberg: we were bombarded from all directions.

What is missing from all the attention is any sign of reflection, any questioning of the presuppositions of the war against drugs itself. Most of these suppositions are ably examined in three outstanding new books advocating fundamental reform of our drug policies.

Perhaps the most important is Arnold Trebach's The Great Drug War, a manifesto by one of today's most respected drug reformers. Trebach is a professor at the School of Justice at American University in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the Institute on Drugs, Crime and Justice based in both Washington and London. Since the mid-1970s he has been personally involved in nearly every aspect of drug reform and brings all that experience to this vivid and remarkably well-rounded book.

Trebach takes us behind the headlines, from the supposed crack overdose of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias to the all-out-war over drugs in southern Florida. In between, Trebach relates many stories uncovering essential—if usually hidden—aspects of the drug problem.

We watch U.S. helicopters transport military personnel to close down coke labs in Bolivia, only to see the labs pop up elsewhere, and witness the destruction of marijuana crops in California's Humboldt County. We audit formal drug education courses, filled with distortions, and monitor official propaganda about "dangerous drugs," which is equally ill-informed. Customs agents demand that travelers defecate on command, school authorities make junior high school students strip, and urine-testing is demanded for children, employees, and sports stars—all in search of illicit drugs and those who use them.

For those not repelled by these indignities, Trebach points to yet other violations of individual rights. Today, for example, the feds can seize land or other property of free citizens not charged with any crime and can tie up such property indefinitely. The drug laws are also a major impetus behind attempts by governments to rend financial privacy. The total number of prisoners in major institutions jumped from 330,000 in 1980 to 529,000 in July 1986. Reagan drug chief Carlton Turner has bragged about the role drug laws have played in these swollen numbers.

Finally, there is the issue of just how dangerous these drugs are in and of themselves. We hear incessantly that "cocaine kills," for example, but what are the facts? Trebach relates that in 1984 (the latest year for which complete figures are available) a total of eight children in the United States died because of cocaine. There were another 14 "mentions" of cocaine (that is, coke was present in the body of someone who died of a reaction to a lethal mixture of drugs—with alcohol usually the major culprit) in the deaths of people 18 and 19 years of age, and another 273 mentions of coke for all young people in their twenties.

Compare: in 1984 there were 350,000 tobacco-related deaths and 150,000 alcohol-related deaths—the same year that the total number of illicit-drug-related deaths (including heroin) was just under 3,500. There were 18 deaths somewhat loosely attributed to marijuana and 283 deaths from overdoses of aspirin or acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol-like painkillers) or both in various combinations. For youngsters up to age 24 there were also 35 deaths from ingesting toy balloons and 337 deaths in swimming pools.

Yet we don't hear Nancy Reagan telling us that "toy balloons kill" (more than marijuana!) or "swimming pools kill" (more than cocaine!). Where is our sense of perspective?

Trebach also illustrates the relatively benign uses for illicit drugs. Some of them are the most effective painkillers we know, yet even the terminally ill are not allowed to use them. Moreover, he argues persuasively that many people who use opiates and similar drugs appear to be people who suffer from a deficiency of natural painkillers (endorphins).

I shall presently offer some criticisms of Trebach, but in the first three-quarters of his book he is simply outstanding. The Great Drug War illustrates how we have managed to transform a relatively minor problem into a major one and why, the harder we fight our war against drugs, the more dangerous the situation gets.

Two other recent books are also very much worthwhile. In a collection of papers sponsored by the Pacific Institute, Dealing with Drugs, editor Ronald Hamowy brings together nine solid essays by 10 contributors, many of them—Norman Zinberg, David Musto, Arnold Trebach, and the Harvard team of Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar—old pros in the field. They give us "state of the art" essays reflecting the current opinions of what might be called the drug reform establishment. The fiery abolitionist Thomas Szasz gives us a condensed overview of some of the themes in his own book Ceremonial Chemistry (which has just been reissued in paperback).

Other contributors to the book are not so well known, and in many ways their essays are the best. Hamowy's introduction discloses just how badly drug prohibition has failed. He compares expenditures devoted to enforcement with the amount spent on alcohol prohibition decades ago and reveals that Reagan's antidrug crusade has been a total failure; stepped-up enforcement has been attended by an increase in the availability of drugs and an actual decrease in the prices of illicit drugs.

Journalist Jonathan Marshall's contribution is an eye-opening survey of the corruption fostered in international affairs by our attempt to stop the traffic in drugs. There is simply too much money involved—literal fortunes to be made in simply looking the other way. Legal philosopher and scholar Randy Barnett's clever but precise analogy between the harmful effects of drug addiction and the harmful effects of drug-law addiction is more serious than it seems at first.

Other essays systematically expand our knowledge of the history of drug prohibition, its initial "causes," the complex nature of "addiction," and other issues. Dealing with Drugs provides a powerful case for radical reform.

In his forward to Steven Wisotsky's work, Breaking the Impasse in the War on Drugs, Thomas Szasz calls the book "a heroic attempt to stem the tide of this [drug] madness," and he is precisely right. Wisotsky, professor of law at Nova University, begins with the assumption that the wars against marijuana and heroin have simply been lost. His book is a lawyer's brief assaulting the morality, legality, and feasibility of the war against cocaine. While there is some overlap between Wisotsky's chapters and the material covered by the Trebach and Hamowy volumes, Wisotsky's book is far more single-minded.

The value of this book doesn't lie in its challenge to this or that supposition of the drug warriors but in his attempt to overthrow their entire frame of reference. Wisotsky focuses in one section, for example, on the moral dimension of the problem at hand. Drugs are inert substances; to speak of a war against them is absurd. A war on drugs is really directed against those who sell, buy, or consume officially forbidden chemicals. In the case of cocaine, Wisotsky claims that "the Government has grossly distorted the actual risks of taking cocaine by a campaign of scare tactics. Millions of Americans consume billions of lines (or puffs) of cocaine every year, with little or no long-term damage to their physical or emotional well-being." It is a distinct minority of cocaine users, "who fall into the trap of chronic, compulsive use, especially injection or smoking," for whom the drug experience "often ends in disaster."

Wisotsky doesn't pull punches; he combines rigor, research, and a combative style to great effect as he systematically destroys the case for our current policies with regard to cocaine. He is particularly astute in examining the origins of the drug laws. Noting the absence of antidrug laws in the 19th century, he considers the tolerant attitude toward unregulated drug taking then to reflect "the Zeitgeist of laissez-faire capitalism," with its "freewheeling entrepreneurship, self-reliance, and a near absence of governmental regulation." With the success of the Progressive movement, however, there was a profound shift in the American paradigm from individualism to collectivism, and reformers began justifying the "need" for state regulation.

Wisotsky refuses to engage in psychobabble to explain why individuals take drugs. "People take drugs as they have throughout history and across cultures, because they need and like the experience." Until and unless that sinks in, our policies will fail because they are built upon a foundation of lies and deceptions. Breaking the Impasse in the War on Drugs covers considerably more ground, all of it brilliantly.

The clear direction in which all three of these books point is a total repeal of drug prohibition. Neither the Wisotsky book nor Hamowy's collection makes that case strongly enough, however, and one can quarrel with that as one can with any simple matter of judgment. But the conclusion of Arnold Trebach's book is simply terrible.

After providing one of the most ambitious and comprehensive surveys of the contemporary drug scene ever penned, Trebach loses the courage of his convictions and veers off the path of logic. The result is a jumble of humane-sounding proposals that he calls "Drugpeace"—"a bundle of peaceful compromises" that in my view won't do anything to solve the drug problem. In a nutshell, he proposes to modify both the goals of law enforcement officials and the regulations governing the availability of drugs.

In his plan, for example, "greater controls would be placed on the currently legal drugs [alcohol and cigarettes], fewer on those currently illegal." He would curtail military involvement in enforcing drug laws but expand "the role and budget of the Coast Guard in drug control" to fight smuggling. He would pressure law enforcement officials to admit that they can't do much to reduce drug use but would leave them with "responsibility to apprehend the often despicable people involved in the illicit drug trade" (his emphasis).

Trebach wants to protect "our sick…from the excesses of the drug-war mentality." This includes creating "a new right" that would "require a vast infusing of government funds"—that is, "the right to affordable treatment as often as needed."

The problem is that, like our current drug laws, this proposal for reform is based on assumptions that are not true. Trebach knows that most people who use "illicit drugs" are neither addicted nor sick, certainly not in the cases of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and LSD, and perhaps not even heroin in most cases. He knows that the "medical model" for analyzing drug use is seriously flawed. Thus, his "solution" is akin to dealing with the brutal effects of alcohol prohibition by "prescribing" quantities of alcohol to the 10 or 20 percent of imbibers who are true "alcoholics." He would leave fully 75 percent or more of the "drug problem" virtually untouched and intact—along with, obviously, the international illicit drug trade and the entire black-market setting, including all the corruption and violence that we presently face.

Nonetheless, most of Trebach's analysis is so solid that this book can stand on its own without the fuzzy proposals. In any case, if we ever approach sanity on this issue and move toward the abolition of prohibition, all three of these books will have helped pave the way.

Roy Childs is editorial director of Laissez Faire Books in New York City.