How America Lost the War on Drugs

Rolling Stone has a terrific article chronicling the failures of American drug policy over the last 14 years. Here’s one lost opportunity:

“At the beginning of the Clinton administration,” Cañas tells me, “the War on Drugs was like the War on Terror is now.” It was, he means, an orienting fight, the next in a sequence of abstract, generational struggles that the country launched itself into after finding no one willing to actually square up and face it on a battlefield. After the Cold War, in the flush and optimism of victory, it felt to drug warriors and the American public that abstractions could be beaten. “It was really a pivot point,” recalls Rand Beers, who served on the National Security Council for four different presidents. “We started to look carefully at our drug policies and ask if everything we were doing really made sense.” The man Clinton appointed to manage this new era was Lee Brown.

Brown had been a cop for almost thirty years when Clinton tapped him to be the nation’s drug czar in 1993. He had started out working narcotics in San Jose, California, just as the Sixties began to swell, and ended up leading the New York Police Department when the city was the symbolic center of the crack epidemic, with kids being killed by stray bullets that barreled through locked doors. A big, shy man in his fifties, Brown had made his reputation with a simple insight: Cops can’t do much without the trust of people in their communities, who are needed to turn in offenders and serve as witnesses at trial. Being a good cop meant understanding the everyday act of police work not as chasing crooks but as meeting people and making allies.

“When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers,” Brown tells me. “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I stepped back and asked myself, ‘What impact is all of this having on the drug problem? There has to be a better way.’ ”

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, this philosophy – known as community policing – had made Brown a national phenomenon. The Clinton administration asked him to take the drug-czar post, and though Brown was skeptical, he agreed on the condition that the White House make it a Cabinet-level position. Brown stacked his small office with liberals who had spent the long Democratic exile doing drug-policy work for Congress and swearing they would improve things when they retook power. “There were basic assumptions that Republicans had been making for fifteen years that had never been challenged,” says Carol Bergman, a congressional staffer who became Brown’s legislative liaison. “The way Lee Brown looked at it, the drug war was focused on locking kids up for increasing amounts of time, and there wasn’t enough emphasis on treatment. He really wanted to take a different tactic.”

Brown’s staff became intrigued by a new study on drug policy from the RAND Corp., the Strangelove-esque think tank that during the Cold War had employed mathematicians to crank out analyses for the Pentagon. Like Lockheed Martin, the jet manufacturer that had turned to managing welfare reform after the Cold War ended, RAND was scouting for other government projects that might need its brains. It found the drug war. The think tank assigned Susan Everingham, a young expert in mathematical modeling, to help run the group’s signature project: dividing up the federal government’s annual drug budget of $13 billion into its component parts and deciding what worked and what didn’t when it came to fighting cocaine.

Everingham and her team sorted the drug war into two categories. There were supply-side programs, like the radar and ships in the Caribbean and the efforts to arrest traffickers in Colombia and Mexico, which were designed to make it more expensive for traffickers to bring their product to market. There were also demand-side programs, like drug treatment, which were designed to reduce the market for drugs in the United States. To evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each approach, the mathematicians set up a series of formulas to calculate precisely how much additional money would have to be spent on supply programs and demand programs to reduce cocaine consumption by one percent nationwide.

“If you had asked me at the outset,” Everingham says, “my guess would have been that the best use of taxpayer money was in the source countries in South America” – that it would be possible to stop cocaine before it reached the U.S. But what the study found surprised her. Overseas military efforts were the least effective way to decrease drug use, and imprisoning addicts was prohibitively expensive. The only cost-effective way to put a dent in the market, it turned out, was drug treatment. “It’s not a magic bullet,” says Reuter, the RAND scholar who helped supervise the study, “but it works.” The study ultimately ushered RAND, this vaguely creepy Cold War relic, into a position as the permanent, pragmatic left wing of American drug policy, the most consistent force for innovating and reinventing our national conception of the War on Drugs.

When Everingham’s team looked more closely at drug treatment, they found that thirteen percent of hardcore cocaine users who receive help substantially reduced their use or kicked the habit completely. They also found that a larger and larger portion of illegal drugs in the U.S. were being used by a comparatively small group of hardcore addicts. There was, the study concluded, a fundamental imbalance: The crack epidemic was basically a domestic problem, but we had been fighting it more aggressively overseas. “What we began to realize,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studied drug policy for RAND, “was that even if you only get a percentage of this small group of heavy drug users to abstain forever, it’s still a really great deal.”

Thirteen years later, the study remains the gold standard on drug policy. “It’s still the consensus recommendation supplied by the scholarship,” says Reuter. “Yet as well as it’s stood up, it’s never really been tried.”

To Brown, RAND’s conclusions seemed exactly right. “I saw how little we were doing to help addicts, and I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he recalls. ” ‘This is how we should be breaking the cycle of addiction and crime, and we’re just doing nothing.’ ”

The federal budget that Brown’s office submitted in 1994 remains a kind of fetish object for certain liberals in the field, the moment when their own ideas came close to making it into law. The budget sought to cut overseas interdiction, beef up community policing, funnel low-level drug criminals into treatment programs instead of prison, and devote $355 million to treating hardcore addicts, the drug users responsible for much of the illegal-drug market and most of the crime associated with it. White House political handlers, wary of appearing soft on crime, were skeptical of even this limited commitment, but Brown persuaded the president to offer his support, and the plan stayed.

Still, the politics of the issue were difficult. Convincing Congress to dramatically alter the direction of America’s drug war required a brilliant sales job. “And Lee Brown,” says Bergman, his former legislative liaison, “was not an effective salesman.” With a kind of loving earnestness, the drug czar arranged tours of treatment centers for congressmen to show them the kinds of programs whose funding his bill would increase. Few legislators came. Most politicians were skeptical about such a radical departure from the mainstream consensus on crime. Congress rewrote the budget, slashing the $355 million for treatment programs by more than eighty percent. “There we
re too many of us who had a strong law-and-order focus,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who ­opposed the reform bill and serves as co-chair of the Senate’s drug-policy caucus.

For some veteran drug warriors, Brown’s tenure as drug czar still lingers as the last moment when federal drug policy really made sense. “Lee Brown came the closest of anyone to really getting it,” says Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. “But the bottom line was, the drug issue and Lee Brown were largely ignored by the Clinton administration.” When Brown tried to repeat his treatment-centered initiative in 1995, it was poorly timed: Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had seized control of the House after portraying Clinton as soft on crime. The authority to oversee the War on Drugs passed from Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit liberal, to a retired wrestling coach from Illinois who was tired of drugs in the schools – a rising Republican star named Dennis Hastert. Reeling from the defeat at the polls, Clinton decided to give up on drug reform and get tough on crime. “The feeling was that the drug czar’s office was one of the weak areas when it came to the administration’s efforts to confront crime,” recalls Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff.

What I find encouraging is that I see no reason to believe the window of opportunity for that 1995 plan was permanently closed. In fact, it seems that it may be opening again right now. There seems to be a growing bipartisan consensus that the drug war’s emphasis on incarceration has been a disaster. It seems to me that the only reason we haven’t changed course is that Washington doesn’t see a politically viable alternative. Public interest in relatively low, I suspect that this is because the public also doesn’t see any good options. The time may be right for a sensible alternative to emerge from the din of the legalization and tough on crime crowds. Obama and Huckabee have laid some groundwork but other candidates are more wary.

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