What's Bill Bennett Smoking?

The former drug czar's latest tirade defies reality.


The latest release from William J. Bennett Inc.–the book and op-ed factory also known as Empower America–appeared Thursday on the commentary pages of the Wall Street Journal. Its subject was familiar–the War on Drugs, and why we need it now more than ever.

Bennett, of course, didn't actually write the piece. "I wrote that," said a proud Kevin Cherry of Empower America when I called and asked who was writing Bennett's thoughts these days. The responsibility for the column, of course, remains with Bennett, under whose name it appeared.

The column (available on this paid site) makes these muddled arguments: 1) Terrorist groups rely on the drug trade as one source of funds; 2) We've yet to rethink our drug policy in light of the new threat from terrorism; 3) Unlike the glorious 20 months in 1989-90 when Bennett was drug czar, the federal government has since neglected the drug war, even as children increased their drug use.

Bennett deployed each of these points to support his ultimate point, the purpose of the essay: That his former sidekick, John Walters, ought to be our next drug czar. "The Taliban have lost control of Afghanistan, despite the nay-sayers," the article states. "And Mr. Walters's own record shows that we can reduce the use and harm of illegal drugs, that lives can be changed and saved."

Whether Mr. Walters is suited for the role of top drug cop is, I believe, moot–any drug czar is likely to be a bad drug czar. Even so, none of Bennett's arguments holds up.

For starters, there is little relationship between American drug use–especially by our youth, who mostly smoke pot–and revenues that supported those terrorists who operated under the Taliban regime. The reason is simple: The heroin used in the U.S. comes primarily from Mexico and Columbia; little comes from Afghanistan.

"The U.S. war on drugs is not connected to the funding of the terrorism we care about," says University of Maryland economist Peter Reuter, co-author of the recent book, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Places, Times and Vices (2001). "It's the large drug markets in Pakistan, Iran, Western Europe, and, increasingly, Russia. We're not significant players in that. It's not like the world oil market where it comes out of one barrel. It's highly segmented." Empower America's Cherry said he's never heard this argument.

But even if the scag here did come from Afghanistan, the point would still be wrong. Drug markets, unlike terrorist networks, are still markets. This makes them extremely difficult to disrupt and impossible to eradicate, since they are populated by highly motivated buyers and sellers who value making the exchange–and keeping it private. Just because the military can wipe out the Taliban doesn't mean Bennett and his friends can wipe out drug production. They can't even keep drug distribution out of prisons, as anyone the former drug czar has helped put behind bars could certainly tell him.

More important, criminal elements are attracted to the drug business precisely because it is an illegal business made extremely profitable (if dangerous) by our War on Drugs. The nastier the government repression, the nastier the people who engage in the trade become. Cherry's response to this point is a non sequitur: "The mafia still makes a living even though prostitution is legal in Las Vegas and gambling is legal in Atlantic City."

Of course, terrorism is just a convenient news hook for a very old obsession of Bennett's. What about his charge that "illegal drug use, especially among our children, is a plague that has lacked serious federal attention–from Democrats and Republicans, as well as from the executive and legislative branches?"

None of this is true. In 2000, one in four high school seniors admitted to having used an illegal drug in the previous 30 days, according to Monitoring the Future. Fewer than one in 10 used a drug other than marijuana. Is this a plague? I don't know.

But I–and Bennett–do know that drug use peaked in 1978, when 38.9 percent of high school seniors copped to using an illegal drug–mostly marijuana–in the previous 30 days. Monthly drug use then went into a long decline, which continued during Bennett's drug czardom, that bottomed out in 1992, at 14.4 percent. Bennett cites cocaine and LSD use among high schoolers, and the fact that they continue to use those drugs after they graduate, as evidence that "the idea of 'youthful experimentation' is all too often a dangerous myth."

I'm not sure what "all too often" means, but here are the data. Very few 16- and 17-year-olds use either cocaine or hallucinogens. According to the government's own 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1.1 percent and 2.3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they used coke or hallucinogens in the past month. Even fewer adults use those drugs, so those trying them do indeed appear to be experimenting. Drug use drops dramatically by age, and the context matters. While nearly one in five college students uses drugs, according to the survey, fewer than one in 20 college graduates do. And it's apparent that people experiment with drugs, enjoy them, and then move on to other things. (Individuals who attended college are far more likely than others to have tried drugs in their lifetime than are people who never attended an institution of higher learning. Yet college graduates are less likely than non-graduates to be regular users.)

But what about those awful 1990s, when the government was ignoring the problem, as compared to Bennett's 20-month reign? "The statistical differences are negligible," says University of Maryland's Reuter, when I tell him of Bennett's boast. "The budget [for drug control] kept on growing, and the percentage going to enforcement didn't change at all. Two-thirds went to enforcement and one-third for treatment and prevention. Prison numbers kept going up. I don't know what he means."

When I told Cherry that I thought the federal government fought the drug war hard in the 1990s, spending more money each year, hiring more cops, arresting more people, and passing more laws, he disagreed. "Not really," he said with a sigh. "Yeah, seizures were up, but so were the amounts imported. You have to recognize that use went up, so something must have been going on. Steaming hours of the Coast Guard were down dramatically. Purity went up, price went down."

So where did all the money go, I asked? "It was not used," replied Cherry, who said that U.S. Customs agents were reassigned away from narcotics.

"Sure, sure, sure," Cherry said when I pointed out that Gen. Barry McCaffrey did everything possible to repress medical marijuana and that Congress passed and that President Clinton signed a bill preventing anyone with a drug conviction from getting student loans. "But," argues Cherry, "I'm saying that Clinton's biggest statement on illegal drugs was, 'I didn't inhale.' That was the message people remember from Bill Clinton about illegal drugs."

But none of that really matters, nor do any of the actual facts of drug use and terrorism. Partisan politics are back. "They want to do to Walters what they did to Ashcroft," Cherry told me. But he was confusing me with someone who cares.