Just Do What?

The drug war's empty promises


The press coverage of President Clinton's "new national strategy to fight drug abuse" did not shed much light on the pros and cons of the administration's plan. But it did reveal something significant: Supporters of the war on drugs are starting to babble, and no one seems to care.

Neither the public nor the press expects to hear a convincing, or even coherent, justification of U.S. drug policy. Despite growing criticism in some circles, drug prohibition remains a given for the vast majority of Americans. It has, in some ways, been a model for government programs, continuing not despite, but because of, its failure. Congress keeps allocating money for the war on drugs because victory is always just around the corner. Drug warriors eagerly seize upon evidence that their approach still hasn't worked–increasing marijuana use among teenagers, rising emergency-room admissions of methamphetamine users–and are rewarded with escalating budgets.

In this context, it's not surprising that the reasoning of prominent prohibitionists is less than rigorous. The New York Times reports that Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, "has been telling anyone who will listen that the drug problem can be solved if the country focuses on it." During an April visit to Miami, McCaffrey asked, "Why would people think this is any different than Desert Storm, polio, the Cold War, or building the interstate highway system?" For one thing, you could tell when those projects were completed: The Iraqis got out of Kuwait, polio was virtually eliminated, the Soviet Union collapsed, the roads were built. By contrast, since policy makers seem to have no clear idea of what "the drug problem" is, let alone what solving it would mean, the drug war goes on and on.

But wait. McCaffrey has another metaphor up his sleeve: "He compares the drug problem to a cancer that requires treatment, cautioning listeners not to expect victory for at least 10 years." An oncologist who told patients not to expect results for a decade or more probably would not inspire much confidence, but it's a convenient time frame for an administration that will be in office another four years at most. The definition of "victory" remains elusive, although the next day McCaffrey said he would like to see drug use return to a "pre-Vietnam-era level." Since Americans consumed vast quantities of amphetamines in the 1940s and '50s (a prescription was not even required until 1954), this goal seems to be at odds with the president's determination to stamp out the use of methamphetamine "before it becomes the crack of the '90s."

In any case, McCaffrey explained, getting there won't be easy. "There is no silver bullet in the drug issue," he said in Miami. "You can't just do law enforcement or prevention or treatment. You have to do all of it." Thus the Clinton administration, which initially emphasized treatment and prevention and was criticized for neglecting law enforcement, is now trying to split the difference. But the president's critics are not falling for this maneuver. According to Reuters, Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, "called Clinton's strategy 'old wine in new bottles.' He said more emphasis should be put on interdicting drugs before they [get] to the United States and eradicating them at the source."

Now there's an idea that hasn't been tried. Studies by the RAND Corporation, the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, and the staff of the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice have concluded that increased spending on interdiction and eradication is not likely to have a lasting effect on availability, because drugs can be produced in myriad places and transported by myriad routes. Furthermore, since imported drugs acquire most of their value after arriving in the United States, interdiction is not a very effective way to raise prices even over the short term.

For his part, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), like a 5-year-old with a favorite riddle, can't stop repeating his penetrating critique of Clinton's approach to drug policy, first offered last year: "President Clinton has been AWOL–absent without leadership–in this war against drugs." As Hatch explained on Meet the Press, "We know that one of the most important things that public leaders can do is speak out against the use of drugs." So the Republican recipe seems to be more interdiction, more eradication, and…more talk.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans offer evidence that tinkering with drug policy will have a noticeable impact on anything other than agency budgets. And there are hints that even the most gung-ho drug warriors recognize that, in the end, the government cannot accomplish much in this area. "It's a matter of parents and teachers," McCaffrey said in Miami. "And where parents make a difference, their children are free from drugs." New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal, second to none in his enthusiasm for the drug war, concedes that drug abuse stems from problems that "no president can cure….The responsibility has to be taken by parents, schools, churches, business, press–and by the addict."

Nevertheless, Rosenthal manages to conclude that "there are many things that the people of the United States need, but none more important than presidential leadership in the war on drugs. Do it, do it." Do what? The fact that neither Rosenthal nor anyone else at the Times saw fit to address that question suggests how empty the mainstream drug policy debate has become after 82 years of failure.