Bill Bennett: 'Bring Back the War on Drugs'

The former drug czar thinks the solution to the "heroin epidemic" is simple: "attack the supply."


Two former drug czars, William J. Bennett and John P. Walters, want to "bring back the war on drugs," as the headline of their recent op-ed piece in The Boston Globe puts it. If you follow drug policy (and even if you don't), you may be puzzled by that recommendation, since neither the federal government nor the states have stopped using violence to suppress the production, distribution, and consumption of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. Even marijuana, although legalized by four states, is still a pretext for appalling invasions of privacy, draconian prison sentences, and the occasional senseless death.

Perhaps Bennett and Walters were fooled by their successor Gil Kerlikowske, who in 2011 announced that the Obama administration had "ended the war on drugs" two years earlier. Kerlikowske has since moved on to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), where his duties include waging the war he said was over. CBP brags that it seizes "10,327 pounds of drugs" on a typical day.

Evidently Bennett and Walters would like to see a bigger haul. They complain that President Obama, faced with "a heroin crisis," has not had the guts to "do what we did" with cocaine in the 1980s and '90s—i.e., "attack the supply." Bennett and Walters' reasoning is impeccable: If there were no heroin, no one would be using it. "The heroin epidemic is inflicted upon us by criminal acts that produce an abundant supply of inexpensive drugs," they write. "Stopping these criminal acts will stop the epidemic."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But while it is easy enough to "attack the supply," it is quite a bit harder to have a noticeable impact on it. You might surmise as much from the fact that the government has been attacking the supply of heroin since 1914, but the drug has never been cheaper or more plentiful.

The basic problem, as drug policy scholars such as Peter Reuter have been explaining for years, is that imported drugs acquire most of their value after arriving in this country. Hence seizing them en route or destroying them at their source does not impose much of burden on traffickers, who treat such losses as a routine cost of doing business. Since the cost is low compared to the street value, its impact on the retail price (or on purity) is generally imperceptible. That means throwing more money at attacking the supply is a highly inefficient way of discouraging consumption.

But Bennett and Walters—who served in the first and second Bush administrations, respectively—claim their supply-side approach was successful. Is that true? Not according to a 2013 analysis by Dan Werb of the Urban Health Research Initiative in Vancouver and four other researchers. "Between 1990 and 2007," Werb and his colleagues reported in the online journal BMJ Open, "the purity of heroin and cocaine, and the potency of cannabis herb, in the US increased, while the inflation-adjusted and purity-adjusted retail street prices of these three drugs declined."

The price of cocaine did rise after that period. But as Geoffrey Ramsey noted in a 2011 InSight Crime essay, the "emphasis on recent price spikes is misleading, as the overall trend of cocaine prices in the U.S. in recent decades has been overwhelmingly down, not up." Ramsey emphasized that "the inflation-adjusted price of cocaine has plummeted since its commercial introduction to the U.S. in the early 1980s."

What about consumption? Survey data indicate that cocaine use in the United States peaked around 1985. By the time Bennett became George H.W. Bush's drug czar in 1989, the percentage of Americans reporting past-month use was less than half what it had been in the middle of the Reagan administration. That number remained more or less steady during Bennett's tenure. Likewise during the George W. Bush administration, when Walters was the drug czar, and since then, under the supposedly soft-on-drugs Obama. Since the whole point of attacking supply is to reduce consumption, it is hard to see why Bennett and Walters think their approach to cocaine was so successful.

By the same token, it is not clear why Bennett and Walters think Obama has the power to reduce heroin consumption by "interrupting" the supply. They complain that he "has not increased military and law enforcement coverage at the border to stop heroin from Mexico." But that sort of interdiction, even if successful, only encourages traffickers to change smuggling methods or routes. Given the huge profits that prohibition guarantees, there will always be a supply to meet the demand. That is true even inside prisons, where security is tighter than anything the government could manage (or anything we'd want it to attempt) at the border.

Bennett and Walters also aver that Obama "has failed to target heroin distribution throughout the United States." Yet according to data collected by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the number of federal heroin cases has risen steadily during the Obama administration, from 1,624 in fiscal year 2009 to 2,665 in fiscal year 2014, compared to 1,474 in the last full fiscal year of the George W. Bush administration.

Although heroin consumed by Americans comes mainly from Mexico, Bennett and Walters say, "the world's greatest opium producer" is Afghanistan, which "supplies most heroin found in Canada and is poised to enter our communities as well." Let us consider the implications of that fact.

American and allied troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and occupied it for 13 years. Between 2000 and 2010, Dan Werb and his co-authors note, "seizures of raw and prepared opium increased by more than 12,000%." To put it another way, the amount of opium seized in 2010, 57,023 kilograms, was 126 times the amount seized in 1990. Yet heroin prices in Europe, which gets most of its heroin from Afghanistan, fell during this period, and today Afghanistan still produces the raw material for about 85 percent of the world's heroin. Last year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, global opium poppy cultivation "reached the highest level since the late 1930s," mainly because of increased production in Afghanistan.

Even when the war on drugs morphs into an actual war, featuring the invasion and occupation of a source country, it fails miserably. The idea that much more modest military measures can succeed in destroying or blocking the supply of heroin is a fantasy that only an armchair drug warrior could entertain.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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  1. If this keeps one child away from heroin, it’s totally worth it. Right?

  2. This is what happens to man without any decent vices.

    Fucking busybody.

    1. Compulsive gambling isn’t a decent vice?

      1. I thought he gave it up.

    2. I assume we are talking about Bill Bennett?
      As “drug czar” he had no credibility because he failed to give up his drug of choice – tobacco.
      Has he “kicked the habit”, yet?

      1. Corporate drugs gooood. Free market drugs baaaaad.

  3. Nobody pays any attention to Bill Bennett. Nobody.

    More people pay attention to me than him.

    There’s nothing to worry about him influencing anyone about anything.

    1. Bill Bennet’s not dead yet? Damn.

      1. There’s plenty more where he was brainwashed.

  4. Bennett. Woodchipper.

  5. LMFAO!!!

    Right….a war on drugs. TOO FUNNY! Bennett knows the only thing a war on drugs would do is increase the black ops money the CIA gets for helping in it’s production and distribution. End of story.

    1. Yeah, Bill is really a big government progressive masquerading as a conservative. When he’s not shilling for Common Core, he wants to start another completely ineffective war on heroin. What’s truly ironic about the heroin epidemic is that it’s currently cheaper to get heroin on the black market than methadone because of all the hoops users have to jump through to get methadone. Where government regulation fails, black markets will always fill the void.

  6. Hi Jacob,

    I’m with you, but the dearth of comments on this article makes me think you’ve lost touch with the central tenets of libertarianism. Let me outline them for you:

    1. making sure that college chicks don’t bitch so much about getting raped and
    2. we all make sure that internet billionaires pay as little tax as possible, because we need more picture swapping apps on our iPhones. More than 28, certainly.

    1. It seems Tony has changed names again…

      1. He’s finally learned to suck his own dick, so he’s distracted more than usual.

        1. He must have a really long neck.

      2. but not his colors or views…. so sad.

    2. ASs is obsessed with associating dick picture swapping apps and capitalism.

    3. american socialist|9.14.15 @ 10:20AM|#
      “Hi Jacob,”

      Hi Asshole, pay your mortgage yet? Or still free-riding on everyone else?

    4. AS – what an ass clown.

      How’s the move to China coming along comrade?

      1. Our pet looter is simply demonstrating that coercive altruists care not a whit about individual rights. None of the socialist parties ever came out for repeal of the various prohibition laws. And there is evidence that American prohibition, by making drugs worth four time as much, helped finance communism before Charlie Wilson, Reagan and Bush realized what was going on and used confiscation proceeds for stinger missiles and guns.

  7. The war on drugs has been a failure. If we legalized all drugs I think there would be a small uptick in usage for a few years but then it would level off. I would like to see a study of what happened after prohibition was removed. Did everybody became an alcoholic no I’m sure there was an increase but probably leveled off. Legalizing would keep from making everyone a criminal for self harm and they maybe be able to get better help instead of going to prison and coming out worse with a record that makes you unemployable.

    1. Yep, pretty simple solution.

    2. There is research on increased availability of gambling opportunities and population prevalence of individuals with a gambling problem (pathological gambling). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23145384

      The conclusions from the study support the idea of a population adapting to the increased availability of ‘x’ (with x being gambling in this case) where by there will be an uptick in the behavior but levels off after a period of time.

      “Recent gambling participation was less than in 1995, despite the continued expansion of gaming opportunities. Disordered gambling was associated with younger age, lower income, and minority group status. The results are consistent with Shaffer’s “adaptation” hypothesis, which posits that following an initial increase in gambling participation, problematic gambling stabilizes at a lower level.”

      1. I dont have any studies to site ATM, but portugal passed a massive decriminalization effort including hard drugs and saw similar results.

        1. Anyone swaggering into Portugal with a kilo of powdered anything will see it nationalized and done up by politicians. It is not yet clear to me whether they get charged under the tariff act or not, but this is way better than branding the individual a felon, then torturing for conversion into a double agent or snitch. I would argue for leaving that in place for barbiturates and opiates (which really are addictive in the meaningful meaning of the word) especially if everything else were available from vending machines. There is a functioning Libertarian Party in Portugal, and another one in the Netherlands, by the way. Otherwise decriminalization could hardly have taken place.

    3. The war on national prohibition was also a failure by 1928, when Republicans took it up as their cause c?l?bre. Repeal was only secured after Herbert Hoover demonstrated that honest prohibition enforcement required abandoning either the income tax or the gold standard and a viable economy–if not all of the above. The Liberal Party, formed by Samuel Hardin Church in 1930, left the Democrats no alternative but to come out for repeal even if it meant alienating ku-klux prohibitionists in the South. All John Raskob, Bernie Baruch and the Du Ponts had to do was threaten to shift the direction of their political donations. The lesson is that nobody cares about rights or freedom. But if you can show that prohibition destroys national economies and devalues your retirement savings (which it does), repeal can be accomplished. Prohibition and The Crash were more than mere coincidence.

    4. That record makes people eminently employable as dealers of confiscated dope, for the police know right where to find the necessary salesman and use them to knock off competitors. But I question whether making Phillip Morris and the distillers compete with nonaddictive recreational drugs is a bad thing. Alcohol is a dangerous stupefacient poison. Marijuana and LSD are not poisonous and the dangerous dose for mescalin amounts to hundreds of strong doses (same effect as ten headache pills). I have watched the alcohol lobby influence tariff policy at NAFTA discussions, and they do have clout. But this latest crash was almost entirely brought about by armed prohibitionism and asset forfeiture, and spread to Europe. Once voters understand the causal nature of how taxes and prohibition together topple economies and wipe out securities values, entrenched pull-peddlers can be overcome.

  8. A Bill Bennet associated with any Bush pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Has there ever been a Bush who wasn’t an abysmal failure?

    As an aside, I am getting a kick out of Trump belittling Jeb as a “low energy candidate.” And the idiot Jeb just sits there and takes it! I love it.

    1. “Has there ever been a Bush who wasn’t an abysmal failure?”

      Well, both of them were better than Obo; why don’t you want to end the Ds?

      1. Probably a big recipient of the free stuff the “D’s” pay for their votes.

      2. Sevo — Obama wouldn’t be fucking up the country as bad as he is now if there hadn’t been a W. Bush fucking up the country as bad as he did then. As a matter of fact, if W wasn’t such a terrible president we wouldn’t even have Obama now!

        And even if both Bushes were better than Obama, and that’s a BIG if, it still doesn’t negate the fact that both Bushes were and are abysmal failures.

        It’s kind of hard to end the Ds when the more accurate term to describe them is Ss, for socialists. And the reason I want to EndTheGOP is because I want a party able to fight and kill off the socialists. The present GOP is only aiding the socialists, fuck them all. I’m hoping McCain, Graham, Boenher, McConnell, ALL the fucking Bushes, Chris Fatso Christie and 99.999% of all present day republican politicians end up like Christ did. If only the we the people had the cojones.

        I imagine you’re in a state of shock the way Trump is steam rolling over your precious Jeb, OMG, what will you do!

  9. A degenerate gambler who has spent tens of millions of dollars on his vices wants to use violence on people attempting to enjoy their vices. It’s frustrating to see how hypocrite morons like Bennett, whose past policies can only be described as self-defeating failures still have a platform and an audience to keep pushing their thoroughly debunked BS.

  10. Mr Bill Bennett, one of the proud originators of “racial profiling,” focused on marijuana and cocaine. heroin slowly got purer than ever, cheaper than ever, more plentiful than ever. teenagers have been dying from heroin since the Viet Nam War. international heroin investment requires people like Bill to compromise police power with marijuana. deflect federal attention from heroin. no thank you, Mr Bennett. drug wars need enlightenment. drug warriors need education.

    1. Bennett is a first class moron. If he really wanted to put a dent in the heroin production, he would see to it that the Taliban found their way back into power.

  11. The Drug War as a Socialist Enterprise by Milton Friedman. And yet Republicans are the last bastion of support.


  12. It’s staggering that with all the real violence in the USA that Bennett and company want to launch another war against non-violent drug possession. It’s a drum the prohibitionists keep on beating no matter how much it fails.

    1. I suspect they envision drugs as a shamanic sacrament in a rival religion. Observe how christians and mohammedans have been murdering each other for ten centuries. Also, shamanic alternative religions were wiped out as witchcraft in Europe, and only survived in the Americas. Ayahoasca (DMT) is a protected sacrament in Brazil, and the DEA was enjoined not to confiscate it from US practitioners claiming mystical beliefs. But these same bigots also banned abortion, condoms, beer and gays, and nobody thought they’d lose those wars.

  13. These 2 are out of the minds?.generally, it shows the complete lack of relying on data in government, low IQs and or both. There was never a drug war needed, hasn’t been a drug issue since it started and we have wasted nearly $2T while ruining millions of lives continually holding 500,000 non-violent drug users in prisons?..the revolving door ruins reputations and lives for doing an activity which harms nobody but the user and in most cases, doesn’t harm them and has been done by nearly 95% of all US citizens. No Victim, no crime. Wake up America?.it’s nobody’s business what you do with your own body.


  14. On top of this?about 50% of all police actions are for drugs, including 50,000 swat raids/yr. as well which find almost zero crimes and are a violation of our civil rights. It’s all a scam and a money making business for law enforcement and prisons.

  15. I could be wrong,but it does appear that this War On Drugs turned out to be a war, but not one on drugs,rather a War On Individual Liberties, at least in-so-far as how it was fought in some locales..

    1. But, “mDrugs are baydm”.

  16. William J. Bennett claims to be a conservative.

    Ok sire, just where in the US Constitution does it state that the government has the authority to tell people what they can or can’t put into their body?

    1. Bennet meant ‘conservative,’ definition 2: pulpit-thumping mystical bigot.

  17. “Attack the supply” worked for a single controlled substance – quaaludes. And the reason it worked was only because quaaludes, uniquely had a major ingredient that was industrially produced by only a few sources, and therefore could be easily tracked, mitigated and “attacked”

    It is this reason that quaaludes are the only thing even resembling a victory that the War on Drugs can claim, and that’s the reason we still here this stupid “attack the supply” mantra. A mantra that has been consistently misapplied other types of drugs that do not share the same central characteristic. A mantra that has served as the failed thesis at the core of the entire War on Drugs strategy. And these two ass-hats now want to act like their suggestion hasn’t been tried before.


  18. David Icke says that Bennett is a pedophile.

  19. So, Bennett… let’s cut to the chase… What do you REALLY WANT?

    You’re looking to be Hillary’s new Drug Czar?
    A lucrative lobbying position?
    Money on the Lecture Circuit?

    You can’t be serious about any other kinds of goals, can you!?

    1. He wants to push you around and tell you what to do. Power is his drug of choice.

  20. Why do we keep getting ignorant people in these positions? Even Obama has not done any better!

  21. The War on Drugs is a Hate Crime.

  22. Deport the illegals and seal the border. Then legalize drugs and watch the crime rate plummet.

  23. Remember the Contra with the big gun on the cover of Reason? Much of the cause of the 1987 flash crash was US intervention in cocaine markets to cut off the money raised for communist causes. Economies soon collapsed all over South America and banks and securities markets scurried to inflate and cover up participation in facilitating that industry. But communism collapsed. Today communism is a dead religion and what we need are free market alternatives. Nobody with normal enzymes and emotions prefers heroin as a recreational drug. The only time it sold during the sixties was when grass, acid and mescaline could not be found. Legalizing alternatives to heroin, much like legalizing alternatives to tobacco, reduces harm. Recreational drugs are less hazardous than driving stone cold sober, and with cellphones, Lyft, Uber and driverless vehicles, remaining hazards can be sharply reduced. I would also lay odds it is safer to drive stoned than inebriated.

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