War on Drugs, Two Decades Later: Critics Say It's Failed

TWENTY-ONE years ago Richard Nixon became the first United States president to declare a "war on drugs." The antidrug strategies of the next four presidents became increasingly war-like, shifting from an emphasis on treatment of drug abusers and education to catching and imprisoning just about anybody using or peddling illicit narcotics.

The cost? More than $70 billion.

But have the strategies worked?

Spend a night on the streets of inner-city Newark, N.J., Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., watching the extent of open drug activity, and the answer is "no."

Flip through the pages of a handful of government and institutional reports indicating decreased drug use in high schools and colleges, and the answer is a qualified "yes."

But between the reality of the streets and the hope in the reports, abuse of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, remains a complex cultural force menacing the well-being of several generations in the US.

"We're losing the war against drugs," says Mathea Falco, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics under President Carter.

"Heroin and cocaine are cheaper and more freely available now," she says. "I think the important measure is not the amount of drugs seizures, but the quality-of-life questions such as the number of addicts, how safe people feel in their communities, the numbers of drug-affected babies, and the spread of AIDS through drug use. These are the things that really matter."

In May, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a report indicating a 13 percent rise in emergency treatment of people in hospitals for adverse reactions to cocaine, and a 10 percent rise in emergency treatment for heroin users. The report covered the third quarter of 1991, and marked the third consecutive quarter of rising drug-related emergencies.

There are an estimated 6 million people in the US who are considered to be heavy drug users. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, hard-core drug users commit a large proportion of all US crimes. Crime and drugs are so intertwined that in a 1989 Gallup poll 58 percent of the respondents cited drugs as the nation's most serious problem.

The Bush administration has tried to deal with the problem by punishing offenders and cutting off the drug supply. Earlier this year, US Attorney General William Barr said, "The president's commitment to the fight against violent crime and drugs is best demonstrated by his continuing demand for more law-enforcement resources."

Law-enforcement measures have included tougher sentencing of drug offenders and dealers. The Federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 required prison sentences for anyone carrying small amounts of drugs, as well as for major drug dealers.

The result has been an explosion in the number of drug offenders in state and federal prisons, and a huge increase in drug-related cases that has been straining the capacity of courts and prisons to respond quickly and fairly.

The number of arrests for drug possession in the US went up 129 percent between 1980 and 1989. And over the past 10 years, drug prosecutions in federal courts have risen 229 percent. Many courts are so far behind in cases that offenders have multiple arrests. Often they remain free because jails are excessively overcrowded.

" `Are we winning the war against drugs?' is not a coherent question," says Mark Kleiman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University.

"A war is something that happens for a while," he says, "and then you win or lose. Drug policy isn't like that; in five years, the war against drugs will not be over. It's a constant problem, and that calls for policies which are sustainable over time. So, the crisis mode is probably not the way to go."

Mr. Kleiman and others say that the enormous amounts of money spent on Latin American interdiction efforts, planes and drugs agents at borders, and more prisons have not stemmed the flow of drugs into American communities, or significantly reduced the number of addicts. Money better spent, these critics say, would create an equitable balance between treatment and imprisonment of drug offenders.

`What we need is a partnership between law enforcement and prevention treatment," says Ron Ferguson, a Harvard economist who has researched drugs in black communities. "It's hard to make a lot of progress in communities without mobilization at the grass roots, and this effort needs to be concerned with drug treatment and helping people have the kind of lives that give them less of an impulse to get high."

MS. FALCO, the former Carter administration official, contends that the drug "problem" does not lie in the countries that supply drugs. "It's here in the families, schools and communities of America. We should be putting our law-enforcement resources in more community policing, more cops on the streets to help engage the neighborhoods in keeping the dealers out."

In addition to more police on the streets, she suggests a combination of three possible long-range solutions. "Make (drug) treatment available on demand for everybody," she says, "and make therapeutic treatment mandatory in prison, because 1.2 million Americans are behind bars, with 60 percent of them having done drug-related crimes. And I would make sure that every child in America gets exposed to the best drug-prevention programs possible."

Bush administration officials point to the "Weed and Seed" federal antidrug strategy as an initial effort to coordinate law enforcement with community social programs. Under way in 19 cities, the Department of Justice's $12 million effort is designed eventually to "weed" out drug trafficking, and then provide the "seed" for social and educational programs.

But critics charge that, by focusing on small neighborhoods or a few city blocks, the "Weed and Seed" program may only wind up pushing drug problems into neighboring areas.

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