Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN), outgoing head of the House's Government Reform and Oversight Committee, has a well-deserved reputation as a virulent drug warrior and vicious partisan, but his remarks at a committee hearing on Colombian heroin trafficking last week suggest that the veteran drug-fighter is starting to wonder if he's been wrong all these years -- even if he couldn't bear to allow the word "legalization" to pass his lips.
What should have been just another dog and pony show for the drug warriors went south in a big way when Burton, after having heard more than an hour's worth of testimony from DEA agents about Colombian heroin making inroads in the suburban Baltimore area, interrupted the proceedings to make the following comments (quoted here verbatim in their entirety, thanks to reporting by Jeremy Bigwood and Sanho Tree, who attended the hearing):
"I want to tell you something. I have been in probably a hundred or a hundred and fifty hearings like this at various times in my political career, and the story is always the same. This goes back to the sixties. You know, 30 or 35 years ago. And every time I have a hearing, I hear that people who get hooked on heroin and cocaine become addicted and they very rarely get off of it. And the scourge expands and expands and expands. And we have very fine law enforcement officers like you go out and fight the fight. And you see it growing and growing, and you see these horrible tragedies occur. But there is no end to it.
"And I see young guys driving around in tough areas of Indianapolis in cars that I know they can't afford and I know where they are getting their money. I mean that there is no question. A kid can't be driving a brand-new Corvette when he lives in the inner city of Indianapolis in a ghetto. You know that he has gotta be making that money in some way that is probably not legal and probably involves drugs.
"Over seventy percent of all crime is drug-related. And you alluded to that today. We saw on television recently Pablo Escobar gunned down and everybody applauded and said 'that's the end of the Medellín cartel.' But it wasn't the end. There is still a cartel down there. They are still all over the place. When you kill one, there's ten or twenty or fifty waiting to take his place. You know why? It's because of what you just said a minute ago, Mr. Carr, Mr. Marcocci. And that is that there is so much money to be made in it there is always going to be another person in line to make that money.
"And we go into drug eradication and we go into rehabilitation and we go into education, and we do all of these things... And the drug problem continues to increase. And it continues to cost us not billions, but trillions of dollars. Trillions! And we continue to build more and more prisons, and we put more and more people in jail, and we know that the crimes most of the time are related to drugs.
"So I have one question I would like to ask all of you, and I think this is a question that needs to be asked. I hate drugs. I hate people who succumb to drug addiction, and I hate what it does to our society. It has hit every one of us in our families or friends of ours. But I have one question that nobody ever asks, and that is this question: What would happen if there was no profit in drugs? If there was no profit in drugs, what would happen. If they couldn't make any money out of selling drugs, what would happen?"
At that point, witness David Carr, administrator of the Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) attempted to break in. "I would like to comment. If we made illegal... what you are arguing then is complete legalization?"
"No," Burton replied. "I am not arguing anything. I am asking the question. Because we have been fighting this fight for thirty to forty years and the problem never goes way... I don't think that the people in Colombia would be planting coca if they couldn't make any money, and I don't think they would be refining coca and heroin in Colombia if they couldn't make any money. And I don't think that Al Capone would have been the menace to society that he was if he couldn't sell alcohol on the black market, and he did, and we had a horrible, horrible crime problem. Now the people who are producing drugs in Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia and Colombia and everyplace else, they don't do it because they like to do it. They don't fill those rooms full of money because they like to fill them full of money. They do it because they are making money.
"At some point we to have to look at the overall picture -- and I am not saying that there are not going to be people who are addicted. There is going to have to be education and rehabilitation and all of those things that you are talking about -- but one of the parts of the equation that has never been talked about because politicians are afraid to talk about it. This is my last committee hearing as Chairman. Last time! And I thought about this and thought about this, and thought about this. And one of the things that ought to be asked is "What part of the equation are we leaving out?" And "Is it an important part of the equation?" And that is the profit in drugs. Don't just talk about education. Don't just talk about eradication. Don't just talk about killing people like Escobar, who is going to be replaced by somebody else. Let's talk about what would happen if we started addressing how to get the profit out of drugs."
Burton's office did not return calls this week seeking clarification of his position. But his remarks represent a stunning near-epiphany for a man best known in drug policy circles as an ardent advocate of ever-increasing military and especially police assistance to Colombia. He cosponsored the 1998 Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, designed to funnel more assistance to his favored Colombian drug fighters, and was a harsh and vitriolic critic of Clinton administration drug policy in the hemisphere. (Burton was also one of the House leaders in the failed effort to impeach Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.) He was one of a handful of House Republicans to advocate for former Colombian National Police head Rosso José Serrano to lead the United Nations' drug control bureaucracy -- an effort that failed -- and he was one of a handful of congressional Republicans who wrote President Bush early in his term to demand that Bush not downgrade the US drug czar from a cabinet level position.
But for all his partisanship and hostility toward drugs, drug dealers and drug users, Burton has also occasionally displayed flashes of irritation at narcocrats who are unresponsive to public concerns. "When Americans are killed, why does it take so long to get an explanation?" he fumed in the wake of the plane shootdown over the Amazon that killed US missionary Ronnie Bowers and her infant child. Burton was also notable for intervening in a misbegotten DEA investigation in Houston that unfairly targeted a local rap record company. And the highly partisan Burton has even criticized the Bush administration for its attempts to stonewall congressional requests for program information.
But with Burton leaving the chairmanship of the government oversight panel, his remarks last week may well be his swan song on drug policy. Although he dared not utter the word "legalization," he posed questions to the stunned drug warriors arrayed before him whose only answer includes that word.
Visit http://video.c-span.org:8080/ramgen/ldrive/e121202_heroin.rm to view Burton's remarks online. Burton's soliliquoy begins at the 1:18:00 mark. Check out Rep. Janice Schackowsky's followup remarks as well.