General Confusion


After he took over the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1996, Barry McCaffrey announced an end to the war on drugs. Instead of a military commander fighting an enemy, the retired general suggested, he was really more like an oncologist treating cancer.

In terms of policy, McCaffrey's rhetorical shift has not amounted to much. Whether they're described as enemies or as patients, people who consume politically incorrect chemicals are still arrested, humiliated, jailed, and stripped of their property.

But during the last several years, McCaffrey has invited us to ponder a more interesting distinction: the sometimes fine line between a mistake and a lie. Now that he has announced his resignation, it's a good time to reflect on some of his more memorable misstatements.

"Marijuana is now the second-leading cause of car crashes among young people," McCaffrey wrote in USA Today a couple of years ago. This claim surprised Dale Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who called McCaffrey's office for the source.

Gieringer was referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A NHTSA spokesman confirmed that marijuana is the second most common drug detected after fatal crashes but emphasized that it is not necessarily a cause of those accidents.

As Gieringer noted in his newsletter, a 1990-91 study by NHTSA found that 52 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their blood, compared to 7 percent with traces of marijuana. In analyzing the role that drugs played in the crashes, NHTSA found "no indication that marijuana by itself was a cause of fatal accidents."

Perhaps McCaffrey overlooked this crucial point in his eagerness to demonstrate the menace posed by marijuana. A similar explanation may account for his portrayal of Holland as a country consumed by violence.

"The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States," McCaffrey said in July 1998, attributing the difference to Dutch tolerance of drug use. In fact, as the Dutch government was quick to point out, the U.S. murder rate is about four times as high as Holland's.

If McCaffrey has trouble reading crime statistics, he's not much better when it comes to research on drug education. He offers high praise to Drug Abuse Resistance Education, even though the program's benefits have never been demonstrated.

"Our results are consistent in documenting the absence of beneficial effects associated with the DARE program," the authors of a recent 10-year follow-up study concluded. "This report adds to the accumulating literature on DARE's lack of efficacy in preventing or reducing substance use."

Yet at the annual DARE Officers Association Dinner last July, McCaffrey said, "DARE knows what needs to be done to reduce drug use among children, and you are doing it–successfully." Well, maybe he was just being polite.

That could not be said of McCaffrey's remarks about medical marijuana. "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed," he declared in August 1996. "This is not science. This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax that sounds more like something out of a Cheech and Chong show."

After voters in California and Arizona approved medical marijuana initiatives that November, McCaffrey called a press conference. Asked whether there was "any evidence…that marijuana is useful in a medical situation," McCaffrey replied, "No, none at all. There are hundreds of studies that indicate it isn't."

Just a week after that comment, McCaffrey announced that he was asking the National Academy of Sciences to review the evidence of marijuana's medical utility–the evidence he had repeatedly claimed did not exist. Two years later, the academy's report definitively refuted his sweeping denials.

It's not clear whether McCaffrey's pattern of prevarication reflects intentional deceit or carelessness. Either way, his ability to get away with it–to keep his job for nearly five years, enjoy favorable press, and emerge with the respect of both Democrats and Republicans–shows how empty the drug policy "debate" is in this country. When everyone backs the same basic policy, who is going to question anything that's said in support of it?

Like McCaffrey, I am troubled by the "war on drugs" metaphor, which suggests that the government's targets are inanimate objects rather than human beings. But the term does reflect an important reality: The first casualty of war is the truth.