The War on Drugs: unwinnable, profligate, corrupting 'Smoke and Mirrors': The latest book argues politicians wage the battle to serve their own interests.


"A politician normally prospers under a democracy in proportion ... as he excels in the invention of imaginary perils and imaginary defenses against them." - H.L. Mencken

Six months ago, what should have been a traumatic event in the life of a modern American city occurred in Baltimore and went almost completely unnoticed. There were no cries of outrage. No civic convulsions. An army of social scientists that should have descended to pick apart our municipal soul never materialized.

What Baltimore did was to declare a partial cease fire in The War on Drugs.

Today, if you want to walk around Charm City with up to 30 doses of crack or heroin in your pocket, if you're stupid or desperate enough to use it, go right ahead. You won't be arrested, prosecuted or jailed.

The president of The International Association of Chiefs of Police called it a 'brave' decision - a decision that just a few years ago would have been all but unthinkable. There was so much zealotry afoot in the land back then that anything short of all-out persecution for drug users was considered, well, un-American.

But that was before "The City That Reads" became "The City That Bleeds." Before the courts and prisons were jammed with junkies. Before the treasury was emptied. Before our dawning realization that the War on Drugs was turning into Baltimore's own regional Vietnam - an unwinnable conflict that has been sapping our strength to deal with far greater problems.

As if to confirm those fears, now comes "Smoke and Mirrors, The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure," by Dan Baum (Little, Brown & Company. 337 pages. $24.95). Among a recent surge of books and commentaries arguing for a saner approach to American drug policy, this one flatly states that we've been lied to about the magnitude of the so-called "drug crisis" to further the political aspirations of Republicans and Democrats alike.

From Nixon and Carter to Reagan and Clinton, Baum assembles a running diary of American life, marking off each step that led the nation to spend an astronomical $65 billion in the past 15 years alone - most of it on anti-drug law enforcement - without making so much as a dent in the supply, price or general availability of illegal drugs.

To grasp the magnitude of the spending spree, consider that $65 billion would be enough to provide a free Harvard education for every child in the state of Maryland in grades K-12. That's a lot of little rocket scientists.

Instead, we have squandered it by jailing young men in record numbers -notably young black men - triggering a crisis in our courts and prisons and diverting the attention of law enforcement away from combating violent crime. In its zeal to generate big drug arrest numbers in the early-1990s, for example, the Baltimore Police Department all but abandoned the investigation of sex crimes.

The bill for these excesses is only now coming due as states grapple with the dilemma of either shortening sentences to drain off the excess population in the nation's dungeons or embarking on extravagant new prison-building programs to punish this special class of non-violent offenders. If that's upsetting to you, wait, it only gets worse. Consider the following exchange:

"Since Bill Clinton was elected ... the number of drug addicts is up," charged House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a Las Vegas speech earlier this year.

Not true.

No increases

The per-capita number of hardcore addicts has remained relatively constant for more than a decade, and street prices for cocaine and heroin have actually fallen. Even the casual recreational use of marijuana has been declining.

But a few weeks after Gingrich's broadside blast, Bill Clinton responded with a speech of his own in Miami. He demanded that the Republican-controlled Congress approve a 9.3 percent increase in the federal anti-drug budget - bringing it to $15.1 billion at a time when everything from school lunches to Medicare for the elderly is being axed.

"Make no mistake about it, this has got to be a bipartisan, American, non-political effort," the president said.

Make no mistake about this: both Clinton and Gingrich remember that the last Democrat to occupy the White House lost his job partly because of his administration's support from the drug decriminalization movement back in the 1970s. Ron Reagan made Jimmy Carter pay dearly for being "soft on drugs."

Thus has the tit-for-tat drug policy debate proceeded in this country for almost three decades - ever since Richard Nixon invented the "drug plague" to explain away the massive unrest among anti-war demonstrators and civil rights marchers.

In a world seemingly gone mad, a world in which the values of the "silent majority" were being rejected and scorned by recalcitrant Baby Boomers, the image of young people driven crazy by pot provided some comfort to a despondent electorate.

Today, of course, marijuana is the least of our worries. Yet, few seem to appreciate the fact that a generation that was supposedly headed straight to hell on billows of reefer smoke is now running the country quite nicely, thank you.

Captains of industry, lions of Wall Street, the President and the speaker of the House himself, have all acknowledged their interludes with the evil weed -the so called "Gateway Drug" that was supposed to lead them inexorably to cocaine, heroin and eternal damnation.

Yes, we were lied to. Again and again.

At the height of his anti-drug fervor, Nixon warned that the number of heroin users in the country was exploding and that their voracious appetite for dope had spurred them to steal $2 billion in property from honest, hard-working Americans in 1971.

Not to be outdone, archliberal George McGovern thundered on the Senate floor in 1972 that junkies had ripped off $4.4 billion. Not so, said Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, the real number was $10 billion to $15 billion. The Nixon administration then revised its $2 billion figure up to $18 billion.

"In fact," Baum writes, "only $1.28 billion worth of property was stolen in the United States in 1972 ... The combined value of everything swiped in burglaries, robberies and muggings, everything shoplifted, filched off the back of a truck, or boosted from a warehouse was $1.28 billion."

But in the grips of drug hysteria, no one had any trouble believing that addicts had stolen as much as 15 times the value of everything taken in the country that year, or in granting Nixon a sweeping mandate to expand the search and seizure authority of police and spend hundreds of millions rooting out this imaginary menace.

Huckster cuisine

Yes, we were lied to. And the trend continued through the Reagan-Bush years, and on into the Clinton admininistration with stunning consistency. The books were cooked, the numbers inflated, beyond the conscience of the most shameless huckster.

All the while, Congress and the presidents were cutting funding for education, drug rehabilitation, job training - just about anything that had shown promise in reducing the motive to use dope among the young and poor - while sidestepping the far more debilitating and expensive drain posed by cigarette and alcohol addiction among the middle-aged.

Meanwhile, six months have passed in Baltimore since the mayor, his police chief and the city's top prosecutor announced the end of our unconditional War on Drugs, and contrary to what some might have predicted in November, the sky has not fallen.

Be not confused, Kurt Schmoke says. We're not advocating legalization. The hammer of the law is still poised for big-time dealers. It's just time to try something else - treatment, counseling, who knows?

What is clear at this point is that the course we have been on has taken us exactly nowhere.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun, His 12-year career has concentrated on coverage of police, courts, criminal justice, including two extensive investigations of police misconduct, and great deal of work on narcotics policies. He has worked for the Virginian-Pilot, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub date: 5/19/96

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