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Smartest Drug Story of the Year?

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In a 15,000 word story for Rolling Stone -- which Slate has called the "smartest drug story of the year" -- Ben Wallace-Wells provides a devastatingly compelling history of "How America Lost the War on Drugs." It is well worth reading and deserves wide dissemination.

However, it falls somewhat short in its analysis of both the ability of a "drug war" to be won by removing precursor chemicals from the market and in its positive spin on President Clinton's drug policy in general and on Lee Brown's tenure as "drug czar" in particular.

The story brilliantly exposes the incredible naivety of the Drug Enforcement Administration -- demonstrating that many officials actually believed that taking out high level Colombian cocaine dealers like Pablo Escobar would devastate the cocaine trade.

Wallace-Wells writes:

"We felt like it was one down, 15 to go," recalls John Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. "There was this feeling that if we got all 16, it's not like the whole thing would be over, but that was a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs."

Another official quoted says that the agency believed taking out these dealers would be an "endgame." Of course, the cocaine industry didn't exactly go out of business -- and breaking up those cartels made it more violent and harder to police, without significantly interrupting supply or raising price.

Wallace-Wells writes that in 1993, around the time of these busts, the crack epidemic "was over," and quotes another DEA official as saying that of that time, ""We were moving...from success to success."

He continues: "This is the story of how that momentary success [in 1993] turned into one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered. It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a piñata, swung to hit it and missed."

However, although Rolling Stone means to expose the "momentary success" as a DEA fantasy, the article misses just how far from reality it was. Crack use had been declining from the time the government first measured it in 1986 -- before these big busts occurred.

The epidemic peaked -- never extending far beyond the inner cities as drug warriors claimed it would -- not because law enforcement met with success, but because users' families and neighbors saw the horror wrought by the drug and began to steer clear.

The story notes one drug war success -- the elimination of quaaludes, a kind of tranquilizer popular in the late '70s and early '80s -- and suggests that a similar success could have been had fighting methamphetamine if lobbyists hadn't delayed the enactment of restrictions on precursor chemicals.

But the two drugs are not comparable: Quaaludes were a prescription drug which fell out of favor with doctors; they didn't have a lengthy history as a street drug and there were many similar substances available. Once medicine replaced them with other tranquilizers which were harder to overdose on, manufacture ceased. And those other tranquilizers are primarily benzodiazepines (like Valium and Ambien), which, while therapeutically useful for many, are still also widely misused.

Wallace-Wells says that the DEA chemical control administrator who "beat" quaaludes believes that he could have prevented today's methamphetamine problem if he'd been able to tighten restrictions on precursor chemicals in 1986. But this misses the fact that when the precursor restrictions went into effect, they didn't cut off the supply but merely outsourced production to Mexico.

Rolling Stone also claims that Mexican drug gangs came to dominate the meth market long before Congress enacted tight precursor regulations in 2005. But the fact that 20 percent of high school seniors had taken amphetamine in 1982 suggests that a large market for stimulants well pre-dated any DEA efforts (and in fact, some argue that efforts to restrict precursors for amphetamine led illegal manufacturers to switch to making the more potent and harmful methamphetamine in the first place).

The idea that a massive switch of funding from law enforcement to treatment under the Clinton administration could have "won" the drug war is also problematic. Wallace-Wells seems to assume that what he calls "drug war liberals" are more pragmatic about drug policy than conservatives.

But what he leaves out is that liberals are at least as enthusiastic -- often more so -- about the drug war as conservatives are. The mandatory minimums that liberals now decry for locking up so many African Americans? They were championed by none other than arch-liberal Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) -- though, admirably, he now wants to reform them.

Rolling Stone itself became a drug war cheerleader in the 1980s -- even going as far as to drug test its employees.

While Wallace-Wells paints Clinton's drug czar Lee Brown as having had a chance at instituting a drug policy that supported treatment rather than punishment but for his poor salesmanship, this doesn't quite capture the politics of the time.

Clinton's body of drug policies and pronouncements -- from his vapid "I didn't inhale" statement about his own marijuana use to his failure to lift a federal ban on funding for needle exchange despite abundant evidence that it both fights AIDS and increases treatment uptake -- suggest that reform under his administration was never a real possibility. Like the rest of the establishment (both liberal and conservative), Clinton consistently sacrificed effective but potentially controversial drug policies to political expedience.

In such a situation, even if more money had been switched from enforcement to treatment, without eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and with the dominance of what we now know are harmful methods of treatment at that time, all that would have happened is that treatment would have served as another stop on the way to decades in prison.

Finally, there is one further problem with Rolling Stone's analysis of the drug war. The article notes that many localities have discovered that focusing on drug-market-related violence, rather than on drug-dealing itself, can dramatically reduce the crime and disorder often associated with illicit drug markets. Wallace-Wells writes, "Such evidence suggested that drug enforcement needed to focus more narrowly on those responsible for the violence."

But that isn't really drug enforcement -- nor can it honestly be seen as a "drug war" tactic. Such policies do not focus on the key aim of drug warriors: reducing drug use. Instead, they ignore use and even some dealing and try to reduce drug-related harm -- a strategy that is anathema to drug warriors.

Unless warriors want to declare victory and go home, reducing drug-related violence while ignoring dealing isn't a win in the drug war. It's a recognition that such a war cannot be won and that a much more worthwhile goal is reducing violence, disorder, infections and damage associated with addiction. That philosophy -- espoused by drug war opponents like George Soros -- is known as harm reduction.

The bottom line is that America lost the drug war not by making tactical errors-- but by picking the wrong enemy. Nonetheless, Wallace-Wells deserves credit for making a strong case for just how wrong that went.

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