George H.W. Bush

Just Say Mo' Money


Three years after George Bush waved a baggie of crack at the American people and declared war on a group of chemical compounds, Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has issued a report that opens with a startling declaration: "The President's drug control strategy must be evaluated against the only goal that matters—winning the war on drugs."

The idea of judging a policy by its success may seem like common sense to you, but in Washington this is still a revelation. "Are we making sufficient progress in reducing drug abuse, ending drug crime, and eliminating the drug supply?" Biden asks.

You can probably guess his answer. A more interesting question: What, exactly, is "sufficient progress"? How do we know when we've won the war on drugs?

The 194-page report from the Senate Judiciary Committee does not address that question. Instead, it argues that Bush's drug war has largely been a failure. The problem is, the Democrats don't understand why. And the evidence of failure they offer is often false, misleading, or ambiguous.

For example, the report refers repeatedly to "900,000 drug-damaged babies" allegedly born in the last three years. No source is cited for this number, but it seems to be based on the assumption that every baby exposed to illegal drugs in the womb suffers harm as a result. Yet the Department of Health and Human Services says more than two-thirds of such babies show no ill effects at birth. The report implies that in-utero exposure causes learning disabilities later in life, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that there's no good evidence of such long-term effects.

Biden and his fellow Democrats also exaggerate the extent of drug addiction, counting as "hard-core addicts" people who use cocaine once a week or even once a month. They assert that Americans who so much as try cocaine or heroin "are on their way to becoming hard-core addicts." And they say drug overdoses are "the inevitable result of hard-core addiction." By this sort of reasoning, every user of cocaine or heroin will eventually drop dead of an overdose.

But the Democrats want to have it both ways: When they're trying to show how terrible illegal drugs are, they deny the distinction between use and abuse, questioning the very notion of "casual" (don't forget the scare quotes) drug consumption. When they're trying to show that Bush is losing the drug war, they note that "the decline in overall drug use is due almost entirely to the reduction in the number of casual drug abusers." Meanwhile, the "entrenched hard-core addict problem" remains.

Similarly, bigger seizures of illegal drugs are either "major successes" (page 117) or "the unmistakable signs of a looming epidemic" (page 8). An increasing number of murders—24,700 in 1991, the "greatest murder toll in the nation's history"—may indicate failure, as the Democrats argue, or increased disputes and competition among dealers resulting from an effective crackdown, as the Office of National Drug Control Policy has suggested.

In the end, the Democrats abandon all talk of measuring success in favor of something they understand better: money. They praise the Bush administration for requesting it, brag about giving more than was asked, and complain that not enough has been spent. They want more money—money for drug interdiction and eradication; money for drug treatment programs; money for antidrug propaganda; money for state and local drug-law enforcement; money to build new prisons; money to hire DEA, FBI, IRS, and Border Patrol agents.

The report offers no evidence that this spending is likely to accomplish anything positive, and there's ample reason to believe it won't. For example, a recent review commissioned by Charles E. Schumer (D–N.Y.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, concludes that government studies of U.S. interdiction and eradication efforts "raise serious doubts about whether any feasible supply-reduction activities can produce a sustained impact on cocaine consumption in the United States."

Calls for more "treatment" may seem less objectionable, but the term is deceptive. Drug treatment differs from most kinds of medical therapy in at least two important ways: It works in only a small minority of cases, and it is imposed on the "patients" whether they want it or not. (Biden would present government-defined "hard-core addicts" with "one of two stark choices—get into treatment, or go to jail and get treatment there.")

Biden wants to hire more cops to arrest drug offenders and build more prisons to put them in. Yet the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the Western world, with more than 1 million people behind bars. If Biden is serious about forcing drug users into treatment, we will need cells to accommodate many millions more.

The Democrats' "alternative" to the war on drugs, as always, is a bigger war on drugs. Yet their catalog of failures suggests that there might be something wrong with this whole approach. Trying to implicate George Bush, Biden writes, "The failure of a $32 billion drug war cannot be blamed on its foot soldiers." Nor can it be blamed on a lack of money.

Rather, the failure is inevitable. No matter how progress is defined, it will never be sufficient, because the government's avowed goal—"a drug-free America"—is impossible to reach. The war on drugs is a civil war between Americans who consider certain substances to be inherently evil and Americans who like to use those substances. It will therefore continue, in one form or another, as long as people have chemical prejudices and the power to impose them on others.