Stopping the Flow of Drugs

Each year abuse of illegal drugs costs our society $67 billion, and 20,000 Americans suffer drug-related deaths. Despite our collective success in reducing the number of illegal drug users by almost 50 percent in the past 10 years and the number of cocaine users by 28 percent in the past five years, these costs are unacceptably high.

Two trends among our youth should underscore the need for a comprehensive counterdrug strategy: the 10-year trend of drug use at earlier ages; and the six-year trend of greater tolerance by young Americans of drug use. We can further reduce drug use by all Americans and reverse these youth trends in part by attempting to keep illegal drugs out of America. Here are some thoughts on this issue:

We owe the American people an energetic and comprehensive defense of our air, land, and sea frontiers. This is one of the five goals of our national counterdrug strategy. Hemispheric interdiction efforts have consistently intercepted about one-third of the cocaine produced every year. Our 1997 counterdrug budget proposes an increase of 43 percent in national drug-supply reduction efforts to reinforce these and other successes. Nevertheless, the global supply of illegal drugs exceeds US demand. American consumption of heroin accounts for 6 percent of the world's opium crops. Our cocaine consumption accounts for about 30 percent of the world's coca crops. Most of the marijuana consumed by Americans is domestically grown. The demand for synthetic drugs also can be met by domestic production.

But stopping the flow of drugs will be difficult because there are too many windows of opportunity for drug smugglers to pursue. Last year, more than 60 million passengers entered the US on 551,000 commercial aircraft and 125,000 private planes. Some 370 million people, 5 million containers, and more than 116 million vehicles crossed our land borders. More than 6 million people and more than 4 million containers entered the US on 91,000 ships and more than 157,000 private boats. Realistically, we can't completely seal our borders from drugs. But we can and should reduce the tonnages that now cross our inadequately protected frontiers.

We are committed to breaking foreign and domestic drug sources of supply. This is another of our 1996 strategy's five goals. The National Drug Strategy suggests the most effective interdiction approach is one that knocks the profits out of the drug trafficking business. Our success against cocaine is instructive in this regard. The US-led international coalition that is attacking cocaine smuggling via air from Peru to Colombia succeeded in temporarily driving down the price of coca paste by 50 percent. If we can make any aspect of drug production or trafficking unprofitable, we can help break the long chain that connects drug crops in distant lands to drugs on our streets.

The 1996 National Drug Control Strategy released by President Clinton in Miami last April recognizes these realities. Our No. 1 goal is preventing drug abuse by young Americans. Our strategy underscores the need to also shield our air, land, and sea frontiers from the drug threat and to break foreign and domestic drug sources of supply. Prevention, education, treatment, enforcement, and interdiction must all play a role.

The metaphor "war on drugs" is inadequate to describe our national counterdrug efforts. The victims of drug abuse are not our enemies. They're our relatives, coworkers, and classmates. There is no surprise attack that will yield a quick victory. We must instead care for the victims of drug abuse, address its multiple causes, and use scientific knowledge, compassion, and legal remedies to develop effective preventive programs.

*Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey (USA, ret.) is the national drug policy director.

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