This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill which, if it were to become law, would hold the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) accountable for results in return for continued funding of that office. Significant progress, in the form of 50% reductions in the number of Americans who use drugs and in "drug-related" crime, as well as an 80% reduction in the availability of heroin and cocaine on America's streets, all in the next four years, are the benchmarks that the Republican-controlled congress has set. While the Clinton administration bemoans the requirements as "unattainable," claiming that their goal is a 50% reduction in the number of drug users over ten, rather than four years, and Republicans denigrate current efforts and call for a "real war," advocates of drug policy reform are left to contemplate what all of this means for liberty, sanity and the future of our children.
There is a fear, on the one hand, that the pursuit of such impossible goals will lead to the further trampling of civil rights, massive increases in incarceration rates, stepped-up surveillance of citizens, the recruitment of large numbers of men, women and children as informants against their neighbors, and increasing military involvement both at home and in Latin America. In short, a police state predicated on "winning" the Drug War (or at least on salvaging control over the effort for the executive branch). There is a sense, on the other hand, that this is simply a political game, designed to soften up the Democrats for a frontal assault on the issue of drugs during the 2000 campaign. In addition, there is skepticism over whether such patently ridiculous mandates can even make it out of the Senate, much less survive a near-certain presidential veto.
But there is another way to look at the situation. For far too long, it has been apparent that money, tax money, oodles and oodles of tax money, has been thrown at "the drug problem" in spite of, even because of the fact that all of the money thrown at it previously has failed to produce results. And, save the occasional GAO report, there has been nary a call for accountability to this fact. With this act, the United States Congress has finally demanded to know what, exactly, American citizens are buying in terms of results. As reformers, quite aware that the honest answer to this question begins with "not much" and ends with "except for the destruction of our cities, the erosion of our rights, and the mass incarceration of people of color," the question raised by the congress needs to be asked over and over again, and as publicly as possible.
Barry McCaffrey, the "Drug Czar" whose office would be held to the bill's requirements, admitted as much in a letter to Newt Gingrich when he wrote that such "unrealistic targets" could "hurt our efforts against drug use when the public, seeing the inevitable failure to meet these goals, becomes convinced the effort is lost." And that is exactly the point. No one, not even the Republican legislators who wrote the bill, can seriously believe that the availability of heroin and cocaine in America can be reduced by 80% under Prohibition. Students of history will note, in fact, that under alcohol prohibition the number of "speakeasies" was greater than the number of legitimate taverns which they had replaced. In other words, Prohibition, by its very nature, increases, rather than decreases the availability of a substance, and at markedly higher prices and at vastly uncertain levels of purity and safety.
The bill's other requirements also deserve examination. The first, and most ironic, is the demand for a plan to reduce "drug-related" crime by 50% over the next four years. Such a reduction is eminently achievable, to be sure, but not under the current system. In fact, under a Prohibitionist system, the only way to drastically reduce crime is to reduce, rather than step-up enforcement. As we have seen in our own cities, and as we are seeing now in Mexico, the violence of the trade increases when key groups are broken up by law enforcement, leading to turf wars and assassinations between newly empowered rivals seeking to fill the lucrative void. And to the extent that Prohibition is successful in reducing supply and thus driving up prices, more property will be stolen to finance the same levels of consumption by the hard-core users and addicts who make up 80% of the market by volume.
The final performance requirement, however, is the most revealing. That is that a plan be introduced which will reduce the number of Americans using illegal drugs from 6.1% of the population to 3% in four years. While we could quibble with their numbers, which are, at best, very rough estimates, we ought to look closely to see what this means. There are approximately 260,000,000 living Americans. 6% of that number comes to 15,600,000 criminals, er, drug users. To reduce this number by half will mean convincing or forcing around 7.8 million people to stop using drugs. And let us not forget that the vast majority of these, and the ones most likely to cease and desist, are occasional and non-problematic users of substances, overwhelmingly marijuana.
Last year, the federal government spent over $17 billion directly on the Drug War. This doesn't include the massive costs of federal courts and prisons brought about by the War, nor does it count expenditures on enforcement against related crimes, such as money laundering, which are paid for out of the general budgets of federal agencies. None of which, of course, includes any of the tens of billions of dollars spent each year at the state and local levels. That is all well and good, of course, until we factor in the consideration that even at these rapidly rising levels of expenditure, drug use, especially among kids, has been increasing rather than decreasing. A "real" Drug War, we can only presume, would mean more military involvement throughout the hemisphere, more prisons, more enforcement and a vastly higher price tag. And of course the nature of the beast is that if we were to find an effective level of engagement, we would be forced to spend this sum, or very close to it, in perpetuity, lest the pipeline be reopened and a new generation of users, er, criminals emerge. And oh, we might mention here that there is not one scintilla of credible evidence that any of this would work in the first place.
Given all of this, it seems that we reformers might do well to align ourselves with the hawks on this one. Let us call for accountability. Let us encourage them to set standards, to demand "victory" such that, as Barry McCaffrey says, "the public, seeing the inevitable failure to meet these goals, becomes convinced the effort is lost." Because those of us who have studied both the problem and the current "solutions" already know that the "effort," along with many of our civil rights, the moral authority of our laws and our government, a generation of young men of color, and billions upon billions of dollars of our tax money are already "lost."
The 1988 "Drugs Bill" mandated a "drug free America" by the year 1995. I kid you not. By law, America has been drug free for well over two years now. The absurdity of just this one instance of political delusion should have been enough to bring many people to their senses on the issue. But the sad fact is, almost no one knows that it happened. This is true in part because no one has been held to answer either for their failure, or for the patent impossibility of the mission.
So perhaps what we should do is to call our Senators and demand that they vote for strict accountability, with the precise numeric goals called for by the congress. And insist that they work, if necessary, to override the president's veto. But demand, as well, that a non-partisan commission be established both to oversee the effort and to study alternatives to the current system. And tell your Senators that once it becomes apparent that these goals will not, cannot be met in a free society (or in any other kind of society,) that you will expect them to bring those results, plus the findings of the commission, back to your state for a good old-fashioned debate about where we go from here. And that if he or she doesn't do this, tell Senator so-and-so that you will personally see to it that someone is elected who will.
Would such a law, if passed, make things worse in the short run? Perhaps. But in time, it can only serve to educate the public about the futility of these expenditures, as well as all of the non-economic costs of the current system. And in the end, by demanding accountability for results, the warriors, despite themselves, will get exactly what they have asked for.
Adam J. Smith