For most Americans, including some presidential candidates, the record on the U.S.-led drug war is settled: After spending more than $1 trillion on efforts that have taken or destroyed the lives of millions around the world, drug purity has risen, prices have fallen and rates of use have remained the same. It has, in no uncertain terms, been a catastrophic failure.
But in an op-ed published in The Boston Globe this week, two former drug czars say we have it all wrong. It's time to "Bring back the war on drugs," they argue, and recommit to an enforcement-first policy that puts forth incarceration and interdiction as the best tools to address surging heroin overdose rates.
The column, written by William J. Bennett and John P. Walters, drug czars under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, is based on the controversial premise that the drug policies of the last quarter century have actually been effective.
"For 25 years before President Obama, U.S. policy confronted drug addiction with effective public health measures, emphasizing education, prevention, and treatment and, crucially, programs to reduce production, interdict the drugs, and lead international partnerships to destroy drug cartels," they write. "It worked."
The drug czars don't provide any metric to explain how they arrived at this conclusion. And the notion that the drug war did much of anything to reduce the supply of drugs is befuddling.
Heroin wasn't the drug of choice during the height of the drug war in the 1980s, but the price of cocaine -- a key target for drug warriors of that period -- gradually fell throughout the decade, reflecting an increase in supply. To address crack-cocaine use, politicians enacted harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, throwing people in jail for simple possession and treating 5 grams of crack the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine. These laws have long been criticized as racially biased, and in 2010, Congress finally lowered the sentencing disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 -- so today, 5 grams of crack is treated like 90 grams of cocaine.
The basic claim that Obama has somehow reversed drug control priorities -- requiring someone to "bring back the war on drugs" -- also seems wildly overstated. While Obama has indeed shifted efforts toward treatment, his 2015 drug control budget still allocated $14.5 billion to domestic law enforcement, interdiction and international operations. He requested $10.9 billion for treatment and prevention the same year.
Bennett and Walters employ revisionist history and at least one prohibitionist aphorism to conclude that we need a return to the "war on drugs" of the 1980s and 1990s to combat heroin. Stopping "criminal acts will stop the epidemic," they write, suggesting overdose deaths could be prevented if not for a lack of political will from the White House.
But the Obama administration "refuses to attack supply," the drug czars argue, instead dedicating resources to overdose-reversal medication and treatment. They also write that Obama's concerns about the drug war's legacy on mass incarceration represent a "deadly falsehood."
It's unclear what's false about criticizing a set of drug war-era policies that helped make the U.S. home to what is now 25 percent of the world's prisoners, despite being home to less than 5 percent of its population. What's clearer is that Bennett and Walters have grossly oversimplified the very serious issue of opioid abuse.
One thing the drug czars zip past is an inconvenient fact: this addiction crisis isn't just about heroin. Thousands and thousands of people are also addicted to -- and dying from -- prescription pain medications. The effort to restrict that supply has already greatly harmed those in genuine need of pain pills, yet people are still addicted. We will never entirely eliminate the supply of pain medications -- they are legal, beneficial and highly profitable products, after all -- and so, the only sensible route is to treat the addiction itself.
The drug czars also overlook a key factor in how the epidemic spreads. Addicts who have blown through their savings and have no income need money to fund their habits. What they often do is turn to people they know and suggest that, as a group, they all go in together and buy a bag. An addict doesn't have much, but access to a dealer is a valuable commodity, and in exchange for that access, the addict will get a free hit and split the rest with friends or associates. That makes an addict not just a single, static casualty, but also a source of spreading addiction. If you can treat that addict, they will stop spreading the disease, so to speak.
But for Bennett and Walters, Obama is partly to blame for this proliferation, because he permitted states like Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, which they say has allowed drug gangs to spread addiction and drug use "on a widening scale."
Kevin Sabet, who worked for both Walters and his successor, said the drug czars are "tapping into a legitimate criticism," and seconded their concern about loosening marijuana laws and the message it sends. But banging the war drums isn't necessarily helpful, Sabet said in an email to The Huffington Post. "I don't think using War analogies is particularly helpful, nor do I think [heroin addiction] is a partisan issue. Interestingly, the only person to make real substantive mention of this issue so far has been Hillary, and she should be commended for that."
But let's not even go there with the gateway thing. Seriously? As a broader principle, it's simply not true. We've also done an awful lot of reporting on the opiate crisis over the last few years, and none of us have met a single person who said something like, "The moment it all fell apart for me was when I took that first puff of a joint." That's just not how it happens.
Furthermore, the former drug czars accuse Obama of reducing U.S. drug interdiction capacity at the border due to fears of coming across “as anti-immigrant." This is just wrong. The number of Border Patrol agents deployed doubled to roughly 21,000 over the 10 years since 2003 -- an increase begun under George W. Bush and continued under Obama. Presumably, Border Patrol agents have more time to devote to finding drugs since, by fall 2014, crossings into the U.S. by undocumented migrants had plummeted to around a quarter of the 1.7 million apprehensions recorded back in 2000.
The U.S. government has attacked supply in Latin America relentlessly for years, primarily through multi-billion dollar military cooperation agreements with Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and other places in the region.
The logic behind this drug war strategy is that if the U.S. can destroy enough coca plants or poppy seeds, cocaine and heroin will be too expensive in this country for people to afford. Instead, the price of illegal drugs has plummeted since the strategy was implemented across Latin America in the 1980s, a 2008 study by the Brookings Institution revealed.
“Spikes in prices have been minor and short-lived,” the study says. “In the United States, the steep decline in prices has taken place despite a yearly outlay of at least $21 billion, or three quarters of the U.S. counternarcotics budget, for supply reduction abroad and law enforcement at home.”
The price that Latin American civilians pay for these loser policies is far higher than the relatively small number of overdose deaths in the United States. Drug war policies since the 1980s helped fuel an insurgency and finance paramilitaries in Colombia, killing tens of thousands of people.
Since 2006, Mexico’s government has ramped up its domestic drug war more enthusiastically than Bennett and Walters could ever imagine the U.S. government attempting. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100,000 thousand people have been killed in drug war-related violence since Mexico’s frontal assault on the country’s drug cartels began.
The result, as the drug czars freely admit, is that heroin use in the U.S. went up, not down.
The money has continued to flow from the United States to Mexico, without so much as a rebuke from the Obama administration over widespread human rights violations committed in Mexico by the U.S.-financed military, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture. Not even the horrific mishandling of Mexico’s federal investigation into the abduction and presumed killing of the 43 students in the city of Iguala -- which has galvanized an international protest movement -- has merited so much as a critical word from the government, much less a threat to halt the drug war policies that helped create the tragedy.
Bennett and Walters are right about one thing: Heroin and opioid abuse is a devastating epidemic that has spread at a frightening pace since the 1990s. But to address this challenge, policymakers must navigate a complex set of issues, weighing the effects of education, prevention and treatment on crippling addiction.
An approach limited to strict adherence to drug prohibition and enforcement has proven, time and time again, to be a woefully insufficient strategy to combat drug use. More importantly, those destructive policies do nothing to help people suffering from addiction.