War Ends, Drugs Win; Resisters Say We're Fighting the Wrong Battles

By Bertram, Eva; Sharpe, Kenneth | The Nation, January 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

War Ends, Drugs Win; Resisters Say We're Fighting the Wrong Battles


Bertram, Eva, Sharpe, Kenneth, The Nation


The war on drugs has by all accounts failed. Yet our national dialogue about how to address this failure is trapped in a dead-end, partisan debate over who stands tougher against drug use and dealing. The concept of legalizing drugs has sparked some significant discussions and controversy - but primarily among limited circles of academics and analysts. At the local level, citizens periodically signal an openness to rethink the war on drugs - witness the passage of initiatives in California and Arizona allowing the medical use of marijuana - but more consistently they demand a "get tough" approach.

Focusing on the limits of these public debates, however, misses an important part of the current struggle over drug control: Opposition to elements of the drug war is quietly cropping up in courthouses, police departments, hospitals and treatment centers across the country. Perhaps most striking, that opposition is coming from those who might be expected to be the drug war's most ardent supporters. On its front lines, the war is sowing the seeds of its own opposition.

The resistance among criminal justice officials, treatment providers and others involved in the drug war takes different forms. Some simply defect; others seek modest reforms emphasizing treatment rather than punishment. Still others challenge the fundamental goals of the drug war through harm-reduction programs. Together, they tell a story about the possibilities and politics of drug reform.

Dissenters among judges, police, federal and local officials and military leaders are forming a growing corps of drug war defectors, signalling a loss of confidence in the policy at the highest levels. Frustrated by the impossible task of interdicting, arresting, prosecuting and jailing an endless stream of traffickers, dealers and users - while other serious crimes go unpunished and drug abuse continues unabated - many have publicly criticized the drug war, or even chosen to go AWOL.

In April 1993, for example, The New York Times reported that two of New York City's most prominent federal judges announced "that the emphasis on arrests and imprisonments rather than prevention and treatment, has been a failure, and that they were withdrawing from the effort." Court officials estimate that in 1993 some fifty of the nation's 680 federal judges are refusing to hear drug cases.

U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving, a Reagan appointee in San Diego who resigned in 1990, is one of many who have objected to mandatory sentencing laws under which a small-time drug dealer may receive a harsher sentence than someone convicted of murder. "l can't continue to give out sentences I feel in some instances are unconscionable," says Irving. When "mules" - mostly Latinos - who drive a couple of kilos across the border for $500 are convicted, "you're talking ten, fifteen, twenty years in prison." Others, like U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, argue for an end to prohibition and a focus on "those conditions which result in drug use.... If we are not willing to become our brothers' keepers, then we will have to become our brothers' jailers."

Former San Jose, California, police chief Joseph McNamara compares waging war on the drug supply to, "throwing sand against the tide." A growing number of his peers agree. Some 60 percent of police chiefs polled in a March 1996 nationwide survey believe that current antidrug efforts have been ineffective. Said retired chief detective Ralph Salerno after forty-two years in law enforcement, "police officers and all other Americans... are being lied to" by political leaders. "As someone who has been on the front lines of the war on drugs, I know it will never work."

Even top federal law officials have challenged the drug war strategy. In December 1993 Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said it was possible that "we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized" and called for further study; that position, among others, cost Elders her job.

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