Drug War Blues

“Drug Wars,” Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, October 9 and 10, 2000.
“Drug Wars,” Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, October 3, 2000.

What kind of a man would stand up to the Republican mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, and tell him flat out that he is wrong? Tell him, “No, Rudy, just busting addicts doesn’t clean up the streets like you say. In fact, it does just the opposite. Busting ’em raises crime.” I can think of one guy, a lifelong Republican who held a much higher office. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon will always be known for his cover-up of the Watergate Hotel break-in, but who would have thought that he would have taken such a radical stance on drugs? “A program of law enforcement alone is not enough,” a composed President Nixon is seen saying in a two-hour Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Frontline series, “because as we succeed in the law enforcement side, we may increase crime, increase crime because of the inability of those who are unable to obtain drugs to feed their habit, and so this means on the treatment of addicts we go parallel with a program that is strong in this field,” a program that uses methadone as a substitute for heroin. Why would our government ever substitute one drug for another? Because methadone works and Nixon knew it.

The PBS Frontline documentary Drug Wars was reported and produced by a team led by former CBS News 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. The result is the most comprehensive treatment of U.S. counter-narcotics policy available on film. Drug Wars credits and builds upon the path-breaking work of the 1998 book, The Fix, by Michael Massing, which documented Nixon’s unconventional drug policies. The PBS series was produced in coordination with National Public Radio (NPR) in a live panel moderated by Juan Williams at Georgetown University Law Center. The speakers included many of the same former U.S. drug control officials who appear in the Frontline series. Their collective discussion of the drug war includes many telling anecdotes and other surprises, especially about policies at home.

Yet anyone seeking to understand current U.S. counter-narcotics policies overseas will be disappointed by both productions. While they each answer the compelling question “How did we get to the point where we are now in the drug war?,” they barely mention the $1.3 billion in military aid that the United States is now providing to Colombia. This latest package has led the Andean nation to surpass El Salvador as the site of the largest U.S.-backed counter-insurgency effort since the Vietnam War.

What the PBS documentary does do is present Colombian drug traffickers like two of the infamous Ochoa brothers on camera for the first time. They chronicle the rise of the cocaine trade from the late 1970s into the early 1990s and its spread to other nations, including the Bahamas and Mexico. Their exclusive interviews underscore a point that is also made in the film by none other than another former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, when he said that trying to stop drugs from crossing borders is as futile as “carrying water in a sieve.”

Both the PBS series and the NPR panel also present a number of former American drug war veterans who have since changed their own views. William Alden was the second-in-command of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for seven years beginning in 1986, the year the college basketball star, Len Bias, died from a new cocaine-based drug called “crack.” Although he once championed law enforcement efforts to control the problem, Alden now says, like Nixon did nearly three decades
ago, that this approach does not work by itself. Jack Lawn was Alden’s boss at the DEA under President Reagan, and he too told Frontline the same thing. The shifts in the U.S. policy pendulum between law enforcement and drug treatment is a thread throughout the PBS film.

The Vietnam Crisis

Why was Nixon the first to prioritize treatment for drug addicts? He was no fan of either the drug culture or the Haight-Ashbury crowd in San Francisco that unabashedly promoted marijuana and LSD while protesting the Vietnam War. However, cracking down on the cultural revolution that was part of the anti-war movement, notes author Michael Massing in the PBS documentary, might not have been to Nixon’s political advantage. When it came to drugs, his attention was focused elsewhere. As U.S. support for
South Vietnam was declining and U.S. servicemen were returning home by the thousands, two U.S. congressmen coming back from South Vietnam broke the news to the nation in April 1971. Robert Steele, a Republican from Connecticut, and Morgan Murphy, a Democrat from Illinois, told the country that 10 to 15 percent of returning GI’s were addicted to heroin.

Purple Heart bearers were among those coming back on smack, and Nixon was determined to use state-of-the-art treatment to help them get clean. Drug abuse is “public enemy number one in the United States” and it “is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive,” he said in the White House pressroom in June 1971. President Nixon was standing next to a psychiatrist, Jerome Jaffe, who once taught at Yeshiva University in the Bronx. “I consider this problem so urgent,” Nixon went on, “that it had to be brought into the White House.” Nixon was the first U.S. president to create an executive office to coordinate a national policy on drugs, and he picked Jaffe to run it on the strength of his successful heroin treatment programs in Illinois. Jaffe had become the nation’s “drug czar,” seventeen years before journalists coined the term to describe William Bennett’s job in the Bush administration.

Like Bennet, Jaffe was no moralist. Instead, the Nixon administration favored a pragmatic approach and Jaffe was given the budget and resources to make methadone available to heroin addicts nationwide. Within just one year in the wait for treatment in New York City dropped from six months to less than one month. Nationwide, the number of clients in federally funded treatment programs tripled to 60,000 by the fall of 1972. Although Nixon prioritized treatment in his national plan, he also included law enforcement efforts and diplomacy. U.S. pressure and support helped compel France and other states to break up the infamous French connection in 1972 for heroin en route from Asia to the United States. France was a key trans-shipment nation for heroin smugglers.

The combination worked and crime plunged. Crime in the District of Columbia had dropped by half, Nixon told voters as he campaigned against Democratic challenger, George McGovern, in 1972. In New York City, crime dropped 21.1 percent in the first five months of the year. Though in public much credit was given to law enforcement, Nixon privately acknowledged the importance of treatment for the policy’s success. Indicative of the drug war debate to come, Nixon was in a helicopter over New York City when he pointed down to Brooklyn and said to one of his aides, “You and I care about treatment, but those people down there, they want those people off the street.”

While Nixon continued treatment programs, he also escalated law enforcement efforts. In 1973, after he won re-election, he created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and, by the time he was forced to resign later in the year over Watergate, civil liberty abuses by DEA special agents were already rising.


While Nixon’s legacy in the drug war remains as controversial as it was mixed, his Republican successor, Gerald Ford, backed off from all previously instigated policy initiatives, just as the nation’s attitudes toward drugs seemed to be changing. By then heroin treatment had helped enough addicts kick their habits that President Ford had no further plans. But Robert DuPont, his drug czar, did. DuPont had been hired by Nixon and then, under Ford, managed a smaller national drug policy office. DuPont told Frontline how Nixon had warned him that he would fire him if he ever made “any hint of support for decriminalization” of marijuana. But with Ford, DuPont had his chance. The new president admitted that his twenty-three year-old son, Jack, had “smoked marijuana.” DuPont soon prepared a White House study that recommended making marijuana a “low priority” for U.S. law enforcement. Not long after, in November 1974, DuPont even spoke at a conference organized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana

Laws (NORML)

Tolerance for recreational drug use was on the rise in 1976 when Ford’s democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, campaigned in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana. Marijuana use reached its highest peak ever across the United States two years later when one in ten high school seniors got stoned daily, and 40 percent took a hit once a month. Yet President Carter, and his drug czar, Peter Bourne, were undaunted by the news. Instead, the Carter administration maintained that marijuana was a relatively harmless drug that did not warrant much attention. Bourne was a British-born doctor who had run drug treatment programs across Georgia, and like his predecessors he focused on hard-core heroin use. Both Carter and Bourne, however, severely underestimated the reaction that marijuana use among kids would have among middle-class suburban communities. In 1976, Keith Schuchard, a parent in the suburbs of Atlanta recalls that he “saw flickering lights” that he first thought were cigarettes at a party in his backyard for his seventh-grade daughter: “They were stoned, but we didn’t realize [it until later], and that’s when we got alarmed and said, ‘The party’s over.'” Schuchard would help organize a movement against the “normalization” of marijuana use in the United States. Carter and Bourne dismissed them as mere gadflies, a mistake that still seems to haunt the Democratic party. The parents invited Bourne to speak in Georgia, and when he did they gave him “the bong show.” But to the outrage of parents like Schuchard, Bourne did not
seem to care.

Later in 1978, Bourne did a few things that today are hard to believe. He wrote a fake prescription for a downer called quaaludes for a member of his staff, and he attended a party hosted by none other than the head of NORML, Keith Stroup, where not only marijuana but cocaine was also apparently consumed. Stroup, angry that the Carter administration was not fulfilling its pledge to decriminalize marijuana, later confirmed rumors about Bourne’s attendance at the drug party to the press. “I made what I think was without question the stupidest decision in my life,” said Stroup.

One might then think that the Reagan administration reacted to the above by taking a hard-line turn away from normalization to moralization about drugs. But Ronald Reagan himself only made that transition slowly. When he took office in 1981, he briefly advocated a return to Nixon’s pioneering formula to focus on reducing addicts’ demand as opposed to traffickers’ supply of drugs. The reason, said Reagan, is that the influx of drugs could not be stopped.

“With borders like ours that, as the main method of halting the drug problem in America, [it] is virtually impossible. It’s like carrying water in a sieve. It is my belief, firm belief, that the answer to the drug problem comes through winning over the users to the point that we take the customers away from drugs, not take the drugs necessarily. Try that, of course. You don’t let up on that. But it’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.”

But Reagan’s pragmatic approach to drugs would be short-lived. It would not be long before the same parents’ movement that had been snubbed by Carter and Bourne would be embraced by Reagan and his wife, Nancy, whose “Just Say No” campaign steered the nation toward a “zero-tolerance” approach. By then U.S. law enforcement spending on drug control was already greater than spending on treatment.

Tough Laws

The advent of “crack” in inner cities across the country changed the drug war debate as well. The new substance was both much cheaper and more addictive than either powdered cocaine or heroin. Moreover, it decentralized trafficking syndicates like never before. “The [new] organization was a twenty year-old guy and three ten year-old kids,” said one DEA agent. Congress’ response was swift after basketball player Len Bias tragically died from crack and the man who sold it to him effectively walked away from the crime. As if trying to show who could be tougher on the new, dangerous drug, House and Senate committees competed with each other to pass mandatory minimum sentences for hard crack that were 100 times greater than the penalties for powdered cocaine. The result put a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics in jail. The new law caused street dealers, who transformed cocaine into crack, to do far more time in jail than the wholesale cocaine traffickers. Although it was not mentioned in either of the productions, Congress also passed a law for LSD possession in the 1980s that based sentences upon the weight of the drug including its carrier. The law would ultimately sentence to decades in jail many harmless white twenty year-olds who were caught with acid-soaked s sugar cubes.

The trend continued under President George Bush, who in 1989 created the modern Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed a former secretary of education, William Bennett, to run it. He staffed the office with people who, like him, were hostile to most drug treatment programs, and they elevated the drug war to a crusade against all users of illegal drugs. “The casual user, the weekend user, the so-called recreational user that person needs to be confronted and face consequences, too,” Bennett said.

Bennett was so zealous about drug use that he and his staff initially greeted good news as bad news when the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported an unexpectedly good trend. The number of casual drug users had, in fact, fallen 37 percent, from 23 million in 1985 to 14.5 million in 1988, while chronic drug use, which Bennett spoke of less often, was soaring. The drug czar’s staff member David Tell said: “We were surprised and a little distressed because we’ve got this big report that everybody’s expecting and here’s data that seems to indicate the problem’s barely more than half the size we thought it was. So there was a moment’s wondering whether this was real or just hysteria, I think. On the other hand, it was quite apparent even from that very same survey that the problem that was driving public concern real, hard-core cocaine addiction was exploding.”

However, Bennett did little to address hard-core addiction, whether it stemmed from crack or heroin. Instead, he continued his call that all drug users of any kind must be punished. The Clinton administration did little better, even though President Clinton, like President Reagan before him, began his tenure by saying that he would reduce the demand not the supply of drugs. Clinton briefly prioritized treatment, but within two years he reversed course, returning to the traditional model that remains today of federal law enforcement efforts outspending federal treatment programs by two to one.

The apparent message of the Frontline series is that treatment works. Moralism has led the United States to incarcerate people at a rate only matched by Russia among industrialized countries. Well over half of the nation’s federal prisoners are in on drug charges, and two-thirds of them are minorities: 48 percent are black and 10 percent are Hispanic. The prison population is projected to pass 2 million inmates for the first time. Yet the United States is at an impasse in the drug war debate, as politicians cannot seem to get past “looking tough” on the issue.

If there was one moment of illumination in the recent forums, it came from a woman who walked to a microphone at NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She asked the panel a question that seemed to challenge whether law enforcement, as a way to control drug abuse, worked, and she identified herself Kendra Wright of Family Watch. “What is that?” asked the program’s host. Wright responded that Family Watch is an organization that takes the fundamental premise held dear by law and order advocates like William Bennett and turns it on its head. While in the past many groups have claimed that more law enforcement is necessary to protect families from drugs, Family Watch argues that it in fact hurts families by putting fathers and mothers in jail. “They are doing more harm than good,” Wright said. It is a radical notion, but so was Nixon’s idea nearly thirty years ago that treatment works.

SAIS Review, Winter-Spring 2001 Volume XXI, Number One