Drug War: The March of Folly

Article excerpt

President Bill Clinton's nomination of Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey as his new drug czar drew cheers from both Republicans and Democrats. Is this just an election-year maneuver - or might it signal a significant policy change?

Clinton came to office critical of elements of his predecessor's $13 billion-a-year drug strategy. George Bush, he said, "confuses being tough with being smart" - and "thinks locking up addicts instead of treating them" is clever politics. But it just ensures that "when they're released, the problem will just get worse."

Clinton's first drug czar was a reform-minded former New York City police commissioner, Lee Brown, an advocate of community policing, treatment and prevention. Neither Clinton nor Brown challenged the dominant punitive paradigm, but both wanted to supplement punishment with more treatment - and to cut back on wasted and failed programs abroad.

At home, they sought to increase the treatment budget and target hard-core users. But when the going got tough in Congress, they didn't fight. The upshot after four years: some new funds for treatment but a drug war budget that looked a lot like Bush's - about 70 percent for enforcement, 30 percent for treatment and prevention.

Overseas, the Clinton administration at first seemed smart and courageous. It recognized that the billions of dollars Ronald Reagan and Bush had spent to stop drugs from crossing our borders had brought increased seizures, but no significant effect on heroin or cocaine prices - or drug abuse. Then the administration stumbled, blindly trying to shift these funds to an even more flawed strategy that had already proved a total failure: arming and training Latin American police and military to stop cocaine production and refining.

The profits on drugs were just too high for government regulation to affect the logic of the market - to discourage peasants and traffickers from cashing in on lucrative exports to meet U.S. demand. The drug war itself created these profits, raising the market price of a gram of cocaine from a few dollars to $100.

Further, erstwhile Latin allies could always be bought off by the drug traffickers, as recent headlines have dramatized: campaign gifts to Colombia's president from the drug cartel and the extradition of a Mexican cartel leader with close ties to the former president's brother.

The names have changed, but the corruption of political, military and police officials has remained systematic, unrelenting, and well known for years. …