Shifting the Strategy In the War on Drugs

Overseas interdiction has failed; Clinton now wants to switch focus to reducing drug demand at home

THE Clinton administration is preparing to unveil a major Tretargeting of the nation's $8.5 billion-a-year war on illegal narcotics.

Instead of military and police efforts to intercept and destroy drugs in Latin America or at sea, the focus will be on reducing drug consumption at home - a move certain to stir controversy inside and outside the drug-enforcement establishment.

The policy, which may be announced as early as today, represents the latest twist in government efforts since the 1960s to stamp out illegal drug use and the crime associated with it.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, a major role in the drug war shifted from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the Department of Defense. Since 1987, United States advisers, helicopters, Aegis cruisers, aircraft and, in some cases, troops have assisted Latin American militaries in the Andes in search-and-destroy raids on drug fields and labs. They also have tried to intercept shipments by plane and boat.

But administration officials and outside experts say the policy has failed to stop the flow of drugs into the US. Illegal narcotics remain plentiful and cheap. And, in some cases, US military aid intended to fight drugs has instead propped up corrupt militaries and police at a time when fragile democracies have been struggling to take root.

``We can't say the old policy is a total failure,'' says Jim Miller, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. ``We will still require police and military interdiction, but on the demand side and on the public-health side, we want equity: prevention, education, and treatment.''

State Department Counselor Tim Wirth told Congress Sept. 14: ``We will shift emphasis away from transit interdiction,'' which he called ``enormously expensive.''

Sources at the State Department and the White House say the new drug strategy, which has been pushed by Attorney General Janet Reno, is being reviewed at the Pentagon, Treasury, National Security Council, Customs, DEA, and Federal Bureau of Investigation before going to President Clinton for final review.

If Congress agrees to shift funds from foreign drug interdiction to efforts at home, the move is sure to be welcomed by leaders of drug-producing and drug-transit countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Officials in Colombia, Venezuela, Thailand, and elsewhere long have asked why their police should risk their lives and attack their drug merchants when the US has been unable to reduce demand in Los Angeles, Washington, and New York.

Some top officials at the DEA, though, are believed to oppose the move because it would further reduce their role in the drug war. They are also fighting Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s recommendation, as part of his ``reinventing government'' report, to merge the DEA with the FBI.

But one ex-DEA official with much experience in Latin America welcomed the proposed new drug strategy. He characterized the Department of Defense's involvement in the 1980s as ``futile.'' After a decade of undercover work, the DEA veteran says what's needed is to work at home.

John Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council, agrees. ``The real answer to drugs is to increase treatment programs in the US,'' he says. ``They were starved for funds since 1980, when money went to interdiction. But interdiction does not stop the traffic or production in Latin America. It's hard to stop drugs in the US, where kids get $800 a day dealing drugs and won't work at MacDonald's for $5 per hour.''

The move toward treatment is already gaining momentum in some cities and states. Kevin Zeese, vice president of the liberal Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, crafted a plan for Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke last month that stresses treatment over jail, arresting drug dealers over users, and training physicians and nurses in treating addiction.

``Law enforcement alone is a fraud. The solution is domestic and it's health-based,'' Mr. Zeese says.

BUT other experts, even those critical of the Reagan-Bush drug policies, express reservations about the Clinton policy shift.

Larry Birns, head of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, calls treatment programs a ``laudable goal'' and urges crop-substitution programs to assist Latin American drug farmers to shift to bananas and other legal cash crops.

But he says one aspect of the Clinton plan - shifting the antinarcotics effort from farmers' fields to targeting drug kingpins' processing facilities - amounts to the ``same strategy as Bush, only renamed.''

No matter what course is ultimately pursued, there may be relatively little money for it. Reports surfaced last week indicating that the Clinton administration will reduce the budget of Lee Brown, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, from $93 million to $34 million in 1994 - a 60 percent cut.

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