U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey was supposed to be going to Europe this week to observe the ways in which other countries are dealing with their drug problems, but statements leading up to and during the first leg of his trip revealed that the retired General left with pre-determined conclusions and ignorance of some basic, non-expert level facts.
McCaffrey's misstatements, and the conclusions he drew from them, elicited sharp and angry responses from the Dutch just days before McCaffrey was scheduled to arrive in The Netherlands. The strange and very un-diplomatic string of incidents cast our nation's top drug warrior as well as his Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in a less-than-favorable light. This was compounded by several odd statements made by ONDCP spokespersons, at least one of which was later retracted, in an apparent attempt to cover the ex-general's flank. As you read the following chronology, ask yourselves, if you were leading the fight to preserve prohibition, is this what you would do?
JULY 9: On CNN's "Talkback Live," McCaffrey engages in a brief debate over the Dutch policy with "Drug Crazy" author Mike Gray. McCaffrey says, ominously, it turns out, "We ought to agree to disagree on the facts." Shortly afterward, he calls the Dutch experience "an unmitigated disaster." Gray warns that a diplomatic protest could come from the Dutch embassy, which has been alerted that McCaffrey and his office are misrepresenting the facts about Dutch policy and results. McCaffrey changes the subject, saying the Dutch have received protests from the French and Germans over the results of their drug policy. Gray counters that the French have a higher addiction rate than the Dutch, and that the U.S. has a higher addiction rate than the Dutch. Here, again, McCaffrey says: "I probably would again dispute you on the facts."
JULY 10: McCaffrey tells the Associated Press he's not interested in visiting Dutch "coffeeshops," the hallmark of the nation's tolerant policy toward marijuana and hashish. "Coffeeshops would be a bad photo op," he explains. And, "I'm not sure there's much to be learned by watching someone smoking pot."
JULY 11: From Washington, the Dutch ambassador to the U.S., Joris M. Vos, writes to McCaffrey, that he is "confounded and dismayed" by the czar's depiction of the Dutch policy. "I must say that I find the timing of your remarks, just six days before your planned visit to the Netherlands with a view to gaining firsthand knowledge about Dutch drug policy and its results, rather astonishing." A McCaffrey deputy spokesman, Rob Housman, tells the AP in Washington he hopes the incident will not affect McCaffrey's European trip.
JULY 13: In Stockholm, where he is beginning his European trip, McCaffrey comes out swinging. He says, "The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States. The per capita crime rates are much higher than the United States." He provides statistics to the media. In 1995, McCaffrey says, the U.S. had 8.22 murders per 100,000 people, while the Netherlands had 17.58 per 100,000 (2.13 times the U.S. rate). Also, at the Stockholm press conference, McCaffrey's staff hands out copies of the complaint letter to McCaffrey from ambassador Joris Vos. It will later turn out that the Dutch Embassy in Washington is none too pleased with McCaffrey's release of the letter saying that the communique was meant to be "private and confidential."
JULY 14: A Dutch agency, the Central Bureau of Statistics, publishes crime data contradicting McCaffrey's claims. The 1995 murder rate, rather than being double that of the U.S., is instead 1.8 per 100,000 in the Netherlands, making the U.S. rate 4.6 times higher than in The Netherlands. There were 273 murders total in 1995, fewer than most U.S. cities. However, for the year 1995, the Dutch ATTEMPTED HOMICIDE rate was 17.6 -- likely the number McCaffrey had cited. (We initially thought McCaffrey had simply misplaced a decimal point. Note that while most Americans could not tell you the homicide rate here or anywhere else, most readers of newspapers, not just drug and crime policy experts, are well aware that the rate is much higher here than anywhere in western Europe.)
DRCNet, after researching the Dutch homicide rate, contacted the Dutch Embassy to confirm the statistics and to get their reaction to McCaffrey's claims. The embassy confirms the rate of 1.8 per 100,000 and expresses its concern over what is now becoming an international incident.
DRCNet then contacts ONDCP seeking either a retraction or reiteration of McCaffrey's claim. Spokesperson David DuRoche tells The Week Online that while he hasn't spoken to McCaffrey on the matter, "The general stands by what he said."
DRCNet issues the following press release to over 100 media outlets:
Later, Dutch officials tell the Reuters news agency, "The figure (McCaffrey is using) is not right. He is adding in attempted murders." Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Birgitta Tazelaar adds, "(McCaffrey's) statements show... that he is not coming totally unbiased. We hope he is coming here to learn from the Dutch drug policy, and one can only learn if open-minded... We hope his opinions will... come more into line with the facts."
JULY 15: In a Washington Times story, McCaffrey spokesman James McDonough, responding to a Dutch official who pointed out that the drug czar had used the wrong number, attempted homicide instead of homicide, when comparing crime stats between the U.S. and Netherlands, says, "Let's say she's right. What you are left with is that they are a much more violent society and more inept [at murder], and that's not much to brag about."
DRCNet searches for U.S. statistics on "attempted homicide." Apparently, this is not a category that is kept by the FBI or any other federal agency. What is kept by the FBI is "aggravated assault". The FBI definition for this offense reads as follows: "Aggravated assault is an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm."
The two definitions are not absolutely identical, but in practice cover basically the same set of offenses. Hence we compare them here. In 1995, the rate of "attempted murder" in The Netherlands was 17.58 per 100,000 while for the same year, according to the FBI, the U.S. rate for "aggravated assault" was 418.3 per 100,000, more than 20 times higher than in The Netherlands.
DRCNet again contacts ONDCP, whereupon Mr. DuRoche tells The Week Online that "those figures for the Dutch murder rate come directly from Interpol. I cannot speculate on why the Dutch Government would report one set of numbers to Interpol and another to their public." Pressed as to whether it would not have been proper, given the Dutch government's vehement protest over the veracity of the numbers, to check into the matter further, especially since McCaffrey publicly proclaimed that Dutch drug policy was responsible for this shocking rate of homicide, DuRoche said that the matter was between Interpol and the Dutch. Asked whether, if it turned out that the number was erroneous, and it was shown that the U.S. murder rate was in fact 4.6 times higher than that in The Netherlands, his office would retract their contention that Dutch society was "much more violent" than the U.S., DuRoche told The week Online, "well, it's really not relevant to compare the two societies. The Dutch have universal health care, near 100% literacy, an homogeneous population and effective gun control." Told that it was McCaffrey, and not the reform movement that had made the comparison, DuRoche responded, "Isn't Mike Gray on your advisory board? This was all in response to Mike Gray's comments on CNN. We didn't bring this up."
But regardless of whether or not McCaffrey spread false information about Dutch drug policy of his own volition or in response to a statement (made days earlier) by an American on CNN, it is not the first time that U.S. officials had so blatantly misstated facts about The Netherlands that the Dutch were moved to respond diplomatically. In 1995, a booklet on "legalization" put out by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) merited the following official response, translated by Mario Lap of the International Foundation for Human Rights:
Monday 9 Jan 1995, The HagueDRCNet contacted the Dutch Embassy, at which time Mr. Morris indicated that, according to several Dutch newspapers, published nearly ten hours earlier, Interpol had acknowledged that they had used the wrong figures in the category of homicide, and that the numbers were therefore "misleading". Interpol has reportedly stated that that the error would be corrected in its next publication.
Morris further stated that "We really don't want to poison the waters any further on the eve of Mr. McCaffrey's arrival in The Netherlands. Obviously there is a difference of opinion over drug policy, and over the success of the Dutch system. The Dutch government is justifiably proud of the progress we have made under our system, and, while we certainly don't put ourselves in the position of advising other nations what to do domestically, we are comfortable that the strategies that we have adopted, evolving as they are, are in the best interests of Dutch society."
Later the same day (7/15) the Associated Press ran a story on the brewing controversy in which Robert Housman, a McCaffrey spokesperson was quoted, saying that the Dutch government was being "pulled into an internal political debate" in the United States by those who support decriminalizing drugs. "These legalizers put American children at risk," the statement said. "The Dutch government should be renouncing them, not siding with them... Every nation is free to set their own policies domestically. However, other nations must respect the sovereignty of others and be keenly aware of the impacts of their policies on the global community."
Three hours later, according to the Associated Press, ONDCP called the news services to retract the statement, saying that the statement "no longer stands" because it didn't reflect McCaffrey's views. No further information was given.
Later in the day, McCaffrey traveled to Switzerland, where a successful three-year pilot program in opiate maintenance has just been completed amidst glowing reports of its success, and much discussion of its emulation across Europe and even in Canada. Leading up to the meetings, McCaffrey had made statements which indicated his opposition to such programs, including his belief that maintenance is "like giving alcohol to the alcoholic" and "our own worry would be that in the longer term it will contribute to an inexorable growth in the rate of heroin use and become a dysfunctional aspect of drug prevention in society at large." When the two sides emerged from their meetings, a Dutch reporter asked McCaffrey about the ongoing controversy. McCaffrey responded that "It's probably less helpful to continue a debate through the press over the nature of Dutch drug policy than to have a face to face, open evaluation of it."
A wire report from that press conference said that "[A] Swiss health official said... McCaffrey had backed down from some of his comments about addiction in Switzerland after his meetings. Thomas Zeltner, head of the Swiss federal health bureau, said he told McCaffrey that the maintenance program was limited to below 10 percent of all chronic heroin users and that Swiss officials had produced data to show that the U.S. adviser's conclusions about Swiss addiction rates were wrong."
McCaffrey arrived in The Netherlands early in the morning (7/16) US eastern time. The following is a report from Harry Bego in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Director of Legalize! and a co-coordinator of the Global Coalition for Alternatives to the Drug War:Finally, in a statement that could potentially draw umbrage from U.S. police, McCaffrey told Reuters in The Netherlands: "I came with a bias that Dutch police were good... I cautioned my Dutch partners that police of this high caliber can allow policy to work adequately even when it may not be good policy." (Editor's Note: This can mean either that American prohibition is working 'adequately' or that our police are simply too 'low caliber' to make work a clearly superior policy. Which one is it?)