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Missing the boat on drugs

By C. Robert Zelnick / June 20, 1988



WHEN sealed drug indictments against Gen. Manuel Noriega were opened Feb. 5, an adroit United States effort to encourage a transition to democracy in Panama was transformed into a hysterical anti-Noriega campaign. In subsequent weeks, that campaign damaged America's image throughout Latin America, made life close to unbearable for US businesses in Panama, and may yet destroy that country's middle class, opening the way for a sharp lurch to the left by those running the country. Antidrug zealotry has shifted to focus on the US military. The House of Representatives would give the armed forces 45 days to invent a plan for stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the US. A milder Senate approach would simply make drug interdiction an essential part of the military mission.

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The anti-Noriega and military policies share many unpleasant characteristics, not the least of which is an election year pandering to the real and imagined demands of constituents. But given America's annual $135 billion appetite for illegal drugs, neither can even begin to solve the problem.

Asking the military to seal the borders against illegal drugs is a mission impossible. Trying to reduce supplies by indicting foreign leaders is a mission untenable.

From the poppy fields of South Asia to the coca leaf growing of South American highlands to the marijuana patches of Jamaica, Mexico, and Belize, the crops that feed America's drug craving are integral to the local economies. The peasants who grow these crops are no more ridden by guilt than are America's own tobacco farmers or whiskeymakers. This is not surprising, given their own relative poverty, the comparative affluence of many drug users, and the fact that both tobacco and alcohol pose a far greater health menace than the more sparingly used hard drugs.

Law enforcement and diplomatic experts tell us that drug barons are rarely looked upon as criminals by indigenous populations. Some are highly respected; others roundly feared. Many have great political clout. Some control private armies.

The product they produce is responsible for more than 50 percent of the foreign-currency earnings of countries like Bolivia, Belize, and Peru. Marijuana is one of Jamaica's most valuable exports.

Against these kinds of profits, US threats to cut foreign aid are piddling. Efforts to subsidize legal crop substitutes fall far short of the mark.

Hostile actions against foreign leaders and territories jeopardize other national security interests which cannot lightly be dismissed. Should Afghanistan's ``freedom fighters'' be abandoned because many carry arms in one direction and drugs in the other? Do we call Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq on the carpet for complicity in his country's lucrative heroin trade one day and try to persuade him not to go nuclear the next? Is it worth having our embassy burned in Honduras to expedite prosecution of a single drug merchant? Are decisions of this complexity within the competence of a US attorney or county prosecutor?

Most studies take a pessimistic view of drug interdiction potential. A kilo of cocaine costs about $5,000 at the airport in La Paz, Bolivia, and $100,000 on the streets of New York. Interdicting more cocaine barely affects street prices and, therefore, demand. Suppliers will simply grow and ship more to satisfy faraway customers.

Nor can drugs be stopped in quantities great enough to materially affect their availability. The Pentagon estimates that more than 265 million people entered the country via land last year, 30 million more by air. Also coming in were 421,000 commercial airline flights, 250,000 private planes, 84,000 merchant ships, 125,000 private boats, and more than 7 million cargo containers.

With traffic of that magnitude, most of it innocent, the US must maintain the force not only to locate suspect traffic but the ground intelligence to identify it in the first place and the police presence to make arrests after interdiction.

In response to a congressional inquiry last year, the Pentagon provided the following estimates of the minimal forces needed to stop small boats, planes, and vehicles from bringing drugs into the country: 90 infantry battalions, 50 helicopter companies, 54,000 Army personnel, 100 AWACS aircraft, 50 tethered aerostat radar systems, 1,000 fighter aircraft, 160 cruisers and destroyers, 90 P-3 antisubmarine aircraft, and 30 E-2 airborne radar aircraft. And even this massive diversion of resources from traditional national defense needs would not touch drugs entering the country via cargo ships and commercial aircraft.

If there is an answer to the US drug problem, it has yet to be convincingly articulated. Some suggest legalization, taxation, and medical treatment; others a tough law enforcement crackdown. One Wall Street Journal writer recently proposed a $7 billion jail-building program to house all the drug offenders - including children - he would imprison.

What is clear is that there is no quick fix for a weakness in which an estimated 90 million Americans have indulged at least once and for which so many continue to risk life, wealth, and family.

What is also clear is that those who would transfer our wrath to foreigners who supply drugs to meet our demand or who would enlist the military for a task alien to their tradition, training, and competence are peddling illusions no less disorienting than the drugs themselves.

C. Robert Zelnick is Pentagon correspondent for ABC News.