Every hour of every day, somewhere in the United States, a plane loaded with illegal drugs to be sold on the streets, lands on a vacant lot or a remote airfield. It's been this way for some 30 years.
Throughout that period, in increasing amounts, the US has poured hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of man-hours into stopping that flow. It has not succeeded.
This fall, as part of its Election 2000 "Democracy Project," PBS's prestigious "Frontline" series launches a two-part investigation of this long struggle in "Drug Wars" (Oct. 9 and 10, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). This battle has altered our criminal justice system, put millions of people in jail, and created a multibillion dollar, global drug industry.
"We're trying to present an objective history of how we got to where we are now," says producer Martin Smith. "Most people in this country are severely divided over the issues of criminalization or decriminalization, over what the exact [drug] policy should be or shouldn't be."
The most evocative portion of the documentary comes from the Vietnam War era, when reports came back to Washington that servicemen were developing severe heroin habits. The Nixon White House responded with what were then controversial methadone treatments.
The methadone program "was an experiment that worked, and it worked to a very high level," says Robert Dupont, head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during that period. "That's the good news. The bad news - and it's something I struggle with - is how it was lost."
The series tries to show that the Vietnam period is the only time during the past three decades that treatment was given a high priority. From that point onward, the law-enforcement model - interdiction of drugs, legal prosecution of users and pushers - has dominated both the discussion and the dollars.
"The problem is really that there's too much support for the law-enforcement side of the drug-war question," Mr. Smith says.
"It's the politicians," says "Drug Wars" reporter Lowell Bergman, who sprang from behind the camera to big-screen notoriety in the recent movie "The Insider." "The politicians are afraid of being called soft on crime. There's the dilemma."
Law-enforcement officers make their case onscreen. "I think going after product is basically a foolish objective," says Robert Stutman, a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "Whether it be the Medellin, Cali [drug cartels], or anybody else, [they] can afford to lose 90 percent of their product, probably 95 percent of their product, and still turn a profit. Yet, the basic concept of US government and most state drug wars is to go after product. Well, my three-year-old grandson knows that doesn't work."
A dramatic appearance by a drug-cartel operative under federal protection underscores the depth of the problem.
"DEA is an agency that has scored a lot of big goals against the cartels," says Carlos Toro, a former drug trafficker - and a childhood friend of Colombian cartel leader Carlos Lehder - whose testimony helped land Lehder in jail. "But the tentacles of the cartel are greater than any people can imagine." His recommendations echo those of the law-enforcement members who were interviewed in the series.
"All I can tell you is we have to reduce the demand," Mr. Toro says. "As long as there's a great market for consumption, the Colombians, the Bolivians, the Peruvians, those who grow the coca leaf, those Colombians who produce it will be enticed to make the billions of dollars."
The show will be enhanced by companion programming from National Public Radio, whose stations will air a five-part series on "All Things Considered" during the same week.
"We made this film," Smith says, "because for the first time we have people who've spent their entire careers at this endeavor on one side or the other, and these people are retiring and they have a lot to teach us."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society