Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. In 1972, Richard Nixon announced a total war against dangerous drugs and appointed the first drug czar. In 1982, Ronald Reagan declared war, with a multiagency attack on drug smugglers. Vice President George Bush led the task force. Federal spending on drug enforcement jumped from about $1 billion in 1981 to more than $3 billion in 1988. Drug seizures grew to an all-time high. And today, cocaine is cheaper and more easily available than it has ever been.
Now, it's George Bush's turn. As in every other area of public policy, President Bush isn't pushing anything radically new. A little more money, a few more prison cells, tougher sentences for drug pushers. Even the rhetoric is familiar: "drugs are sapping our strength as a nation"; "drug use is wrong and dangerous"; "the toughest domestic challenge we've faced in decades." With a few minor changes, that speech could have been delivered by any of the last five presidents.
Will Bush's war on drugs be any more successful than his predecessors'? It depends on how one defines success. Bush and drug czar William Bennett have told us their goal. They want to reduce the number of cocaine users by 10 percent over the next two years.
The number of people using cocaine will probably drop by 10 percent, but it won't be because of any drug war. Cocaine use is already in decline. The number of regular users has fallen 48 percent since 1985. There are many reasons for the decline, and federal drug policy is the least important.
The deaths of John Belushi and Len Bias showed that careless use of cocaine can kill. The increased availability of cocaine made it less glamorous. Sitting in a hot tub in Malibu, snorting coke through a $100 bill may be chic, but sitting in an apartment in Harlem with a glass pipe in your hand is definitely gauche. Finally, and probably most important, the baby boom generation is getting older, settling down, and starting families. Parenting is difficult; it's even more difficult if you're wired.
Still, while casual use of cocaine will decline, it will never completely disappear. And there remains the problem of crack addiction among the underclass. While addiction is not unknown among the middle class, it is in the ghettos of America that crack addiction has reached epidemic proportion. President Bush's plan won't change this.
Every time someone uses crack, she risks her life. The emergency rooms of our big-city hospitals are filled with people who have accidentally overdosed on crack. And to get the stuff a person risks being killed in some gang war. If these risks doesn't stop someone from using crack, the threat of imprisonment isn't going to be much of a deterrent.
But crack isn't the real problem in our inner-cities; it's only a symptom. The real problems are broken families, lack of jobs, poor self-esteem, a rotten education system, and everything else that drives a person to seek solace in chemicals. But these are complex problems that can't be solved by pretty speeches, photo ops, and a few more federal dollars.
We can't win a war on drugs, but we could win a war against drug violence. Today, gangs of heavily armed teenagers rule the streets of many large cities, fighting among themselves to control the drug traffic in those neighborhoods. But this is nothing new. During Prohibition, gangs waged war against each other to control the liquor market. We stopped that violence by repealing Prohibition. Legitimate business stepped in, and the huge profits from illegal alcohol disappeared. We could end most of the gang violence today by repealing the Prohibition on cocaine and other drugs.
But George Bush won't do that. And his war on drugs will be about as successful as those of Reagan and Nixon. A few more laws on the book, a few more people in jail, and people will still be able to find whatever drugs they want.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "An Unwinnable War".