David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
One might have thought that nostalgia for past eras -- the self-liberation and social consciousness of the 1960's, for example -- would be a help to the cause of rational drug policy reform, or at least not an impediment. After all, the prison binge at its current extent is unique to the past 25-30 years; Alcohol Prohibition and its repeal is still etched upon the national consciousness; and currently illegal drugs themselves were legal once upon a time that the eldest of our elders can still remember.
Unfortunately, nostalgia may turn out to be as much of an obstacle for reformers to overcome. The problem is that as time goes by, more of the past enters the window of time that is ripe for nostalgic reminiscing. When I and some friends met up at our college just a few years after graduating, it seemed too soon for our club to be having an "80's party," as they were that night. But by now the 80's are clearly fair game for nostalgia, and that presents a challenge for drug reformers.
That's because the 80's are a period of time for which certain data, if chosen and applied very selectively and without regard to their limitations or the actual cause and effect relationships underlying them, create an appearance that US drug policy -- i.e., the "war on drugs" and the "just say no" climate that accompanies it -- worked. The drug warriors' basic line is that during the 80's and early 90's, drug use in America fell dramatically, by as much as 2/3 in the case of the drug cocaine, but started to rise again in 1992.
Republican drug warriors take it a step further and argue that Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush led the nation in a vigorous drug war that reduced drug use and in America, but that the Democrats led by Bill Clinton "retreated" in the war on drugs and drug use consequently went back up. Bob Dole, for example, used that line in an attempt to re-ignite the 80's anti-drug fervor during his failed 1996 election bid. It tied in to the Reagan nostalgia movement, too
It didn't work. Americans intuitively understand, as repeated polls illustrate, that our drug policy is a failure. And while the public mood is not always a sound measure of policy realities -- the ecstasy and OxyContin panics are good examples of how the public can be misled -- in this case the public perception is on target. The drug war has never worked, neither now nor in the 80's, and the stats that drug warriors use to create the appearance of past success are deceptive, simple-minded and fall far wayward of the mark for what should concern Americans with regard to substance abuse and related policies.
First, the government's own research calls the validity of the data, which is derived from self-reporting anonymous forms submitted to the government surveys, into serious question. One of the problems is underreporting -- that is, the unwillingness of some survey participants to confess to illegal drug use on a document being turned over to the government, albeit without their names on it. Research has suggested that the rate of underreporting increased during the '80s as the level of anti-drug rhetoric escalated and public opinions hardened. Hence, it is not clear that the drop in drug use was nearly as dramatic during that time period as the surveys suggest; it may only be that fewer people were willing to admit to using drugs.
It may also be that there was some decline in certain types of drug use. As harm reductionist Imani Woods said once, "'Just Say No' works for some people. Those are the people who fill out the National Household Survey." Yet the same 12 years that saw an uncertain drop in casual drug use, nevertheless saw no decline in the addiction rate; saw sharp increases in drug-related AIDS and hepatitis and in the violence rate; and saw the emergence of new and more dangerous forms of drugs such as crack cocaine, unknown in 1980 but widespread and taking a terrible toll by 1986. Though casual drug use by young people is not inconsequential, all the most problematic aspects of drug use, all the things about which Americans are really the most concerned when they say they are against drugs, grew worse or stayed as bad during this time of supposed success.
And proving that not all Reaganites were fooled by drug war rhetoric, conservative columnist William F. Buckley a few years ago blasted what he called "the planted axiom," the assumption that drug use during the '80s declined as a result of the drug war, at a time when alcohol and tobacco use dropped without the use of imprisonment. Indeed, to the extent that casual use did actually decline during that time, other measures prove that it cannot have been a result of supply-side anti-drug enforcement, which makes up the bulk of the drug war. Supply-side enforcement seeks to raise the price of drugs in order to decrease demand and make the supply more scarce.
Yet drug prices, as pointed out in the recent Economist magazine report, had plummeted to a fraction of their 1980 value by the end of the decade, and more teenagers than ever report having "easy" or "very easy" access to hard drugs than ever before. By its own direct measures, the drug war during the '80s failed very dramatically; any reduction in drug use during that time was more likely the result of suasion, not enforcement or interdiction.
Last but not least, warriors like drug czar nominee John Walters have lied outright in blaming rising post-Republican drug use on the drug war's de-escalation. In reality, no de-escalation took place, but rather a dramatic escalation in drug arrests, interdiction and prosecutions: More people were imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses during Bill Clinton's two terms than during his Republican predecessors' three terms combined.
It is more than mere nostalgia that makes these one- and two- decade old statistics important to drug reformers today. As the new Bush administration's drug policy team slowly but surely settles into place -- people like Walters or DEA chief Asa Hutchinson -- 1980's drug warrior nostalgia is likely to resurge at least somewhat. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with historical revisionism.
This issue of the Week Online deals with a particularly nasty, little-discussed consequence of the 80's drug war: the formation of abusive drug treatment programs using destructive mind control techniques to manipulate parents and children and subject large numbers of young people to emotional and sometimes physical abuse. One of the worst examples was a Florida program called "Straight, Inc." whose founders are powerful friends of some of the drug war's top leaders. This dark legacy continues to take new forms as negative publicity and lawsuits disable the previous ones.
Let the true drug war history of the 80's be told.