WAR is a dirty business, and the war on drugs involves plenty of filth: deceit, corruption and damage to civil liberties, not to mention outright violence—and that’s just from the good guys. Every struggle has to have heroes, and America’s anti-drugs campaign makes its casting billboard-clear. The white hats are enforcement agents stamping out narcotics at home and abroad, police sweeping dealers and users off the streets, judges jailing drug offenders, not to mention plucky little civilians who “just say no”. The black hats are shadowy figures: greedy drug barons, mostly foreign, who exploit their own countrymen and corrupt America’s children. Congress and Hollywood, spurred on by alarmed parents, have created such a drugs mythology that the good and evil of narcotics is now as distinct, to many, as Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein.
Yet today’s highly militarised drugs campaign originated in more than medicine and morality. From the start the war has involved political interest and financial gain, as well as frequent misunderstanding—not to mention downright misrepresentation—of the best evidence about drugs’ medical and social effects.
If these were novel or incidental mistakes, the war might be more understandable. But, along with social concern and good sense, modern drug policy has from the start involved fear and unreason, often directed against foreigners or outsiders. It is almost 125 years since authorities in San Francisco launched an early salvo in the western war on drugs by clamping down on opium use among the growing population of Chinese labourers. In the years leading up to the Harrison Act of 1914, which amounted to the first federal ban on non-medical narcotics, its drafters played on fears of drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes to win support in the South.
Then 20 years later, the spectre of the sky-high, violent Mexican immigrant was played up to sell the public on the criminalising of marijuana. At several times since the 1930s, governments have used the drug card, whether to lean on dispensible foreign dictators or to brush back homegrown countercultures.
One thing that has changed, though, are the high stakes that America is willing to play. In 1980, the federal government spent around $1 billion on drug control; federal, state and local spending last year exceeded $30 billion, which includes much expanded programmes of crop eradication, border patrolling and sting operations. Only a third of the federal government’s drug-control spending goes on drugs education or drugs treatment.
How much success this money buys depends on your definition. According to United Nations estimates, Americans are spending almost $60 billion on illegal drugs a year, mainly on the “soft” drug, marijuana, and its “hard” counterparts, cocaine and heroin. These are, unavoidably, guesstimates. But nobody seriously contests that drugs continue to pour into America and that prices have fallen. Cocaine costs half or less what it did in the early 1980s and heroin sells for just under $1,000 a gram, three-fifths of its price a decade ago. Purity has also increased. In the 1980s, street heroin was so adulterated that injecting straight into the blood was the surest way to achieve a high. Now fixes are commonly more than 50% pure, which means that users who might be deterred by needles can smoke or snort the drug instead.
A third of all Americans admit to having tried drugs and at least 13m are occasional users. Drug arrests were 1.1m in 1995, double the 1980 figure. There are 400,000 Americans behind bars for drug offences, eight times the number 19 years ago.
Those who fight the war on drugs, with its strict penalties at home and sharp punishment abroad, point to seizures of both drugs and their users as victories. In their terms, they are. And if slowing the spread of hard drugs is a sensible goal, which it seems to be, there is indeed good news. Nationwide studies of drug use, such as the University of Michigan survey of high-school students, suggest that although teenage marijuana use has risen in recent years, experimentation with cocaine or heroin among young, first-time users has stayed fairly steady. Those who question or oppose the drugs war, however, reckon that this is the wrong body count. Although casual hard-drug consumption may be dropping, the number of hard-core hard drug users—those most directly associated with the private and collective misery of drugs—has scarcely budged since the war began.
Instead the war’s critics propose an entirely new approach that drops or downplays military means and abandons unconditional surrender as the goal. The anti-war doves, as will be seen, form a growing and disputatious camp. Yet whether they favour disapproval or toleration, continued prohibition or legalisation, most doves accept that core drug abuse is not going to be eradicated at an acceptable price, that crusading moralism is counterproductive and that drugs policy should be refocused on education for the young and “harm reduction” for habitual users—for example, methadone programmes, needle-exchange centres or prescription heroin.
It sounds like common sense. But good sense alone will not end the war on drugs. Both the law makers and law breakers have too much invested in the conflict for either to lay down arms easily. Even amid falling prices, drug producers continue to profit from the risk premium that prohibition puts on their multi-billion dollar industry. The anti-drug warriors’ jobs and budgets depend on expensive enforcement and lucrative asset seizures. Having demonised their foes, they can only with great difficulty now make peace with the devil.
Neither side is above massaging the drugs statistics. But anyone who suspects that the critics of the drugs war are toying with the facts should read “Drug Crazy”. This book describes the origins and consequences of America’s present narcotics policy. It moves from gangland drug busts to Colombian coca plantations to Mexican border patrols. This is reportage from the front line, told with all the verve of an action film, a style which no doubt owes much to the fact that its author, Mike Gray, is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer.
Mr Gray does not shrink from describing the violence of the drugs war, from shoot-outs in the ghettoes of Chicago to explosions on the streets of Bogota. But the legal burden of America’s current drug policy comes through most clearly in his description of how drug dealers are brought to justice. Chicago’s county court, which has seen its caseload quadruple in the last 20 years largely because of continued tightening of policy on drugs, now runs round the clock.
Although most people who take crack cocaine are white, 96% of the crack defendants in federal courts are black or Hispanic. This is largely because white people, being richer, do their deals behind closed doors, while blacks and Hispanics tend to trade on the streets, where they are more easily watched and arrested.
The night shift at Cook County court catches only the foot soldiers of such drug armies as Chicago’s Gangster Disciples. The officers stay out of sight and, generally, out of jail. Justice is summary, and baffling: ten-minute trials lead to five-year sentences for possession of a fifth of an ounce of crack, while the same amount of powdered cocaine lands its owner a few weeks in prison. Crack is cocaine mixed with baking soda to make it smokable and stronger. But concentrating the drug also concentrates the penalty, introduced during the crack scare of the 1980s. As blacks use more crack than powdered cocaine, the punishment falls disproportionately on them. Arrest and imprisonment are scarcely deterrents. A young lawyer at the county court is quoted as saying, “We’re not producing justice here. We’re manufacturing revolutionaries.”
On a continent once famous for revolutionaries—Latin America—the tough position of the United States has had mixed effects. The Bush administration spent $2 billion on crop eradication and substitution, spraying the jungle and bribing peasants to plant passion fruit rather than coca plants—with little success. By 1992, cocaine production had grown by 15% and the business had spread across an area the size of the continental United States. It had also become frighteningly efficient, first dominated by Pablo Escobar (a “ruthless killer”, as Mr Gray describes him, with “a pleasant side”) in Medellin and then the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers in Cali. The high-tech barriers America erected along its borders have succeeded in diverting entry of South American cocaine from Florida to California and Texas via Mexico, thereby drawing another country into the violence and corruption which has plagued Colombia. And the high premium that the criminalisation of drugs places on them means that South America has turned its eye to heroin, a far more profitable drug than cocaine.
None of this, as Mr Gray stresses, should come as a surprise. America’s last concerted effort at substance control, prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, had similar effects. It inflated prices, drove bootleg suppliers to organise, encouraged the spread of guns and crime, corrupted a quarter of the federal enforcement agents—and doubled the consumption of hard liquor, all within a decade. Nor does “Drug Crazy” neglect the influence of stubborn or strong-minded individuals. It is full of outsize characters from the past: Hamilton Wright, for example, an American doctor turned diplomat, who tried to bully the world into drug prohibition, crafted the Harrison Narcotics Act and was later sacked for drinking on the job. Or Harry Anslinger, head of drug enforcement from 1930 to 1962, who perfected the sledge hammer school of narcotics control and invoked every menace from axemen to communism.
Because the drugs war is so noisy and so visible, it is often easy to forget that drugs are not just an American issue. Martin Booth’s “Opium: A History” charts the rise of heroin from its ancient origins in the poppies of Eastern Europe to modern-day trade on the streets of America. The book’s wealth of detail is remarkable: all aspects botanical, political, economic, cultural and pharmacological are discussed (including the unexpected etymology of such slang as “hip”, “hype” and “junkie”). Unlike “Drug Crazy” which is mainly focused on the Americas, much of “Opium” is set in Europe and Asia, giving the book a more international perspective and more comprehensive feel.
Although Mr Booth’s accounts of famous addicts, from Clive of India to John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola, make for interesting reading, the real fascination of “Opium” is in its account of the common man’s habit through history. Until the Harrison Act, morphine and opium—mainly in the tincture laudanum or as patent medicine—were freely available in America, as they were in Europe. Opium was a sovereign cure in Victorian England for afflictions ranging from diarrhoea to depression. Babies were fed the drug in soothing syrups such as Godfrey’s Cordial, leading to claims of physical and mental retardation, exactly the same concerns voiced about today’s “crack babies”.
In 1868, British public health authorities took most opiates out of the hands of grocers and put them into those of dispensing doctors and pharmacists (as, in America, did the Harrison Act). Starting with the International Opium Commission of 1909, American efforts to curtail world manufacture, sale and distribution of opium and its derivatives met with lively resistance from Europe, India and other countries with a stake in the international trade. Yet from the 1920s to the 1980s, a series of international treaties forced countries to clamp down on the production, trade and consumption of opiates, whether for ritual, for fun or as self-administered medicine. In that time, the penalties for peddling and possession tended to climb, especially in America.
One clear historical lesson that emerges from “Opium” is that people will take drugs whether or not they are proscribed, and they will do so for all sorts of reasons—to escape life’s burdens, for adventure, for straightforward fun. In 19th-century Britain, Mr Booth tells us, the Fens of East Anglia were awash in opium. Agricultural labourers took their pennyworth of “elevation” along with a nightly beer as a lift out of working drudgery. This is not so far from the plight of crack addicts in America’s inner cities, boxed in by poverty, dead-end jobs and broken families.
What does vary widely with history, however, are official attitudes towards the drug trade. As Britain followed America’s line in the 1980s and got “tough on drugs”, complaints were regularly fired against heroin-producing nations, such as Pakistan. Supply-side control was seen as the solution to the drug problem; if only these people would pull up their poppies, then Western drug use would plummet. Ironically, exactly the same argument was used against the British in the early 19th century, when they foisted opium from India on the Chinese in exchange for tea. When China’s then drug czar, Lin Tsê-hsu, complained to the British that they were breaking imperial edicts banning opium import and possession, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, replied that the opium trade was a Chinese problem and that it should be dealt with by controlling consumption. His logic sounds familiar today.
Copyright © 2001 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.