Use is rising even though we spend billions fighting it. Hard drugs are cheaper and more plentiful than they have been in ages, and for users illegality is no deterrent. As the NYPD gears up for an all-out effort to combat drug crime in the city, it's time to ask whether the ongoing national war on drugs - now at a quarter-century and counting - is worth continuing. There is a better way.
A joint DEA and FBI heroin-bust
conference in downtown
"At these press conferences,
it's always the biggest seizure
ever or the biggest bust ever."
Inside the crowded and noisy storefront, a miasma of cigarette smoke practically obscures the room's details. It's probably just as well. With its broken floor tiles, filthy carpet, decaying wall paint, and fluorescent lighting, the place could, if it were fixed up a little, pass for a seedy bus-station waiting room. In the back, a couple of volunteer doctors treat leg ulcers, abscesses, and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the opportunistic infection that strikes people with HIV. It's mostly triage, but they also give physicals, flu shots, and TB tests.
A few feet in front of the doctors, a counselor performs magic behind a flimsy screen, struggling to get addicts into treatment programs, solve housing problems, and defuse almost every imaginable personal crisis. There are even people to teach drug users safer ways to shoot up: "Always put the needle in at a 45-degree angle, or you risk puncturing an artery. Make sure you're injecting in the same direction the blood is traveling. Rotate injection spots to avoid scarring. Don't wipe the syringe in your mouth, You must rinse with bleach and water at least three times each to effectively clean your works." (The counselors should know - about 40 of the 60 volunteers at the exchange are active users of heroin or cocaine.)
The actual needle trading takes place quickly at a long white Formica table near the front door. The exchange rate is one for one (plus five more for good measure). Clients choose between "blue tips" for thicker veins, and "diabetics," or insulin syringes, for thinner ones. They also choose from a buffet table of shooter's supplies: alcohol pads; cotton balls; cookers; condoms; and small, hotel-size shampoo bottles filled with either bleach or water (homeless junkies often have no ready source of H²O). On a typical night, the exchange hands out about 1,000 needles an hour.
Though there are people from the suburbs, as well as the occasional limo, most of the regulars are like Terri, an indigent 29-year-old Hispanic mother of two with expectant brown eyes and a life defined entirely by addiction. "In the beginning, it was fun. I felt like Superman," she says, barely audible over the last verse of Springsteen's "Born to Run." "It was like I had an S on my chest and I had my mask on, and I could conquer the world. The drugs took away the bad feelings." Terri pauses for a moment, pats her short, freshly washed hair; and seems to consider whether to go on. Perhaps the tale of how she lost everything - her children, her apartment, the respect of her family - is simply too wrenching, too intimate, for this setting. "Depression, heartache, loneliness, failure," she finally continues. "You know, whatever kind of pain I had was taken care of."
Within a few months, however, Terri's $200-a-day heroin habit - which began seven and a half years ago when a boyfriend asked her if she wanted to get high - was causing more pain than it was relieving. Inevitably, Terri started selling heroin to support her use (clearing $25 for every $100 worth of drugs she sold). About a year and a half ago, she sold a $10 bag to an undercover cop on 7th Street. She pleaded guilty and lost custody of her kids, lost her public housing, and was shunned by her family. While serving eight months at Rikers, she tried to kill herself with pills. "I was really ashamed," she says. After getting out, she spent some time as an outpatient at Daytop Village, a treatment center, but was drug-free only intermittently. "I just couldn't do it that way," she says, almost apologetically. Now Terri's enrolled in a methadone program at Beth Israel Medical Center where she must go every morning for her dose. So far she has been clean for about sixteen weeks.
While Terri sits in a hard-back metal chair and tells her story, activity at the exchange continues to swirl around her. The scene is at once ghastly and hopeful. Though the harrowing effects of addiction (and poverty) are on vivid display, so is a rare enlightened attitude toward the afflicted. "This place gives me hope and it makes me feel loved," says Terri, who also volunteers at the needle exchange. "This place keeps you from hurting yourself until you're able to make a choice to straighten yourself out."
Most important, needle-exchange programs save lives. Virtually every study done both here and in Europe has confirmed the fact that clean needles dramatically slow the spread of the AIDS virus. According to two separate reports last year, drug users accounted for nearly 75 percent of all new HIV infections nationally. Other reports - including one published recently by the federal Centers for Disease Control - confirm that distributing clean needles does not promote or increase drug use. In England, Australia, and the Netherlands, needle exchange has been employed successfully for nearly a decade.
or get rid of it,"
Gingrich said last
the games that . . .
make us look
pathetic and weak."
But the real problem with drug policy goes much deeper than simple disagreement over the merits of particular strategies. There is a fundamental intransigence that stifles debate, discourages innovation, and precludes almost any meaningful discussion of reform. In the new Washington, the one dominated by the bracing conservative ethos that all issues and programs should be on the table, drug policy sits alone very much off the table with Social Security reform as a subject you just don't talk about. Though the Republicans have amply demonstrated that once you break through the p.c. barriers, you can raise all sorts of previously unimaginable possibilities - who would've thought even two or three years ago that it would become widely accepted policy to deny welfare benefits to poor people for their own good? - the drug war has been subjected to no similarly rigorous, unsentimental analysis. In fact, one of the top-ranking Republicans in the House, upstate-New York representative Gerald Solomon, even introduced a bill last April to punish any group that advocates changing our approach to drugs. The bill - one of ten punitive drug-related measures he's written recently - would take away the tax-exempt status of any organization that merely favors drug legalization. The proposal, which is quite obviously and ludicrously unconstitutional, has languished in committee.
We all know the reason for this sort of posturing, of course, Drugs are hopelessly intertwined with deeply ingrained notions of morality and sin, religious-style certitude, and righteous indignation. ("The people who say the drug war should be abandoned because we're losing it," says Solomon's chief of staff, Geoff Gleason, "are those who think everybody should be allowed to smoke dope and crack no matter what the consequences to society in general.") When the subject of drugs comes up, otherwise open-minded people stick to principle even when principle has little empirical support or practical value. Listen to Nancy Reagan's old pal Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, the highly respected head of New York's Phoenix House. On needle exchange, he says, "the jury is still out." It is not - there's an incontrovertible body of research that says needle exchange works. "It's simplistic," Rosenthal continues, "to think that you give them [drug users] a clean needle and they're going to be good parents and good citizens and have safe sex." This is sophistry - no one has advocated needle exchange as anything other than a means to slow the spread of HIV infection. Which it does.
Or listen to Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, whose district could potentially reap major benefits if real progress were made in dealing with drugs. "I'm not for any damn reform," he shouts and then, with a gravel-voiced protest, cuts me off when I try to ask him about specific measures. "I'm not going to talk about it. Needle exchange, legalization, decriminalization, methadone . . . those people who have given up talk about this stuff. I know we haven't done what we can do. I know we haven't waged a battle. Look, I do understand the frustration of those people who say, Take the violence out of it. If [drugs] are what those people want, let them have it. If they can 't afford if, give it to them. Well, I don't belong to that group, and I have withdrawn from the public debate on that."
Rangel is not alone. While the drug problem gets no better, the sounds of any real discussion get harder and harder to hear. What is clearly audible, however, is more of the same old high-testosterone tough talk. More calls for "stepping up" the drug war and making more arrests. More talk of "zero tolerance" and a "drug-free society." Impose longer sentences, build more prisons, intensify border patrols . . .
There is a small but growing chorus of anti-prohibitionists among the journalist and think-tank set, including predictably reformist outfits like the Washington Monthly and the libertarian Cato Institute, as well as some surprising ones: a foundation started by multibillionaire global capitalist and philanthropist George Soros, and Bill Buckley's National Review, which in its current issue pronounces the drug war unwinnable and some form of legalization the right answer. But this is mere bleating into a hurricane: Simply bringing up reform in official Washington is understood to be tantamount to saying, Please do not reelect me.
"The fundamental issue here is not, should drugs be legalized or decriminalized, or should there be needle exchange or different mandatory-sentence structures for different drugs," says Dr. Robert Newman, president and chief executive officer of Beth Israel Medical Center on First Avenue, which runs the largest drug-treatment program in the world. "The fundamental issue is, should it be permissible to openly discuss the current approach?"
IT IS EASY TO DEMONIZE JUNKIES LIKE TERRI and the others who frequent the Lower East Side Needle Exchange. They lie, steal, abuse their children, and sell themselves. They lead unproductive, wasted lives. All because they can't control their urges. Aren't these people completely without self-control, without remorse or even the most basic sense of right and wrong? Aren't they, when you come right down to it, without humanity?
[A caption beneath a photo of the Feb. 12, 1996 National Review magazine cover, which states in large bold caps: "The War On Drugs Is Lost":]
The National Review's
current issue: Breaking
ranks with the right.
Tune In, Turn On, Get 20 to Life
What They're Getting Arrested For How Much Time They're Serving State and local Average sentence imposed, drug arrests in months, by U.S. reported each year. district courts. * 150 1,500,000 Total + + 135 + Drug Arrests + 1,200,000 + 120 + Violent + + Offenses + + * 105 + 900,000 + * + + + * * * * 90 + + + * * * * 600,000 + * * Possession Arrests 75 * * * * Drug ^ ^ 60 * Offenses 300,000 ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ * ^ ^ Sales/Manufacturing 45 * ^ ^ ^ Arrests 0 30 '83'84'85'86'87'88'89'90'91'92'93'94 '80 '85 '90 '92 Years Years U.S. Department of Justice * Violent-offenses figure includes crimes in which the violent offense was the most serious conviction. Drug offenses figure includes crimes in which the drug offense was the most serious conviction.
Though the idea sounds good to some people, an actual decision to declare a Vietnam-style peace with honor would be excruciating. Relaxing prohibition would open the door for more abuse and addiction, though no one can say with even a modicum of certainty to what degree. In the years immediately following the end of alcohol prohibition, use went up about 25 percent, although alcohol-related deaths actually went down. Still, today's anti-drug warriors continue to predict confidently that the addict population could double, triple, increase tenfold.
When Alaska decriminalized marijuana in 1975, use by teenagers jumped dramatically and Alaska voters passed a referendum in 1990 to recriminalize. On the other hand, when Oregon, Maine, and California decriminalized personal possession of pot, use apparently did not go up. And does anyone seriously imagine that people who do not use heroin refrain because it is illegal?
In any event, ending prohibition doesn't mean that crack will suddenly show up on supermarket shelves. There are vast tracts of unexplored territory between the extremes of total legalization at one end of the spectrum and a ferocious drug war at the other. The first, modest objective of reform might be what is referred to as "harm reduction," the endorsement and thorough implementation of measures like needle exchange, treatment on demand, full and immediate access to methadone, and, most important, a decision to stop arresting users. The goal of this approach would be to transform drug abuse from a criminal problem to a public-health problem.
But whatever shape reform might ultimately take, it is hard to imagine that drugs could be much more available than they are right now. In fact, most of what is generally labeled as the "drug problem" is actually the illegal-drug-trade problem - the pervasive, devastating collateral damage from a black market that now grosses nearly $60 billion a year.
THEN THERE'S THE IMPACT OF THE DRUG WAR ITSELF, which has criminalized much of the young black male population, not to mention drifters like Terri, the needle-exchange regular. According to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based think tank, one third of all black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are entangled in the criminal-justice system: either in prison, on parole or probation, or being prosecuted. In some inner-city neighborhoods, the figure is actually more than one in two. A Rand study reported that a quarter of all the black men born in Washington, D.C., in 1967 would be arrested for selling drugs by the age of 29. In the past decade, the drug war has made felons of even casual users. The numbers are astonishing. According to the FBI, there were about 1 million arrests for drug possession alone in 1994, up from about 700,000 only three years earlier. And of all drug arrests - 1.35 million - dealers accounted for only 27 percent, down from 33 percent in 1991 (see graph above left).
In New York City, there are almost 150 drug arrests made every day just for possession. The jails are full, but not with violent predators. In 1994, there were 23,140 new inmates sent to New York State prisons, and 10,508 of those were sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses. That's 45 percent. Many are truly penny-ante crooks: Under the state's Draconian Rockefeller drug laws, someone convicted of possessing four ounces or attempting to sell two ounces of cocaine or heroin gets a mandatory fifteen years to life. Violent felons, meanwhile, represented only 33 percent of the people sent to prison in 1994. By comparison, in 1981, the year New York's prison-building boom began - 39,651 new prison beds at a cost of more than $4 billion during the Cuomo years - 60 percent of those locked up were violent offenders, and 10 percent were nonviolent drug offenders.
Nevertheless, drug use continues to rise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is staunchly hawkish on the drug war, reports, alarmingly, that marijuana use among eighth-graders more than doubled between 1991 and 1994. Among adults, use of all drugs has consistently gone up, though most of this increase is attributable to the runaway popularity of marijuana.
Using the new Republican cost-benefit template, the drug war simply doesn't make economic sense. New York spends $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in state prison, The most comprehensive residential treatment costs between $17,000 and $20,000, and outpatient-treatment costs run from $2,700 to $3,600. The cost of incarcerating the more than 10,000 people sentenced in 1994 for nonviolent drug offenses? More than $315 million a year.
At a time of wrenching budget cuts, what kind of sense does it make to spend this kind of money on a failing drug war? Indeed, one of the factors that finally brought an end to alcohol prohibition in 1933 was the Depression - Prohibition simply became a battle that government could no longer afford. Last year the federal government spent $13.2 billion fighting the drug war, two thirds of it on law enforcement. (This doesn't include incarceration costs.) In 1996, the number is expected to go up to $14.6 billion. Spending by state and local governments will more than double that figure. Just ten years ago, federal, state, and local expenditures combined totaled $5 billion. Today, all told, the direct budgetary costs of drug prohibition in America probably approach $100 billion yearly.
are full, but not
predators. In 1994,
45 percent of
JOSEPH MCNAMARA, WHO HAS SPENT 35 YEARS AS A COP, remembers the day nearly 29 years ago when he first realized that the police would never be able to control drug use or the drug trade. It was a bright. sunny afternoon in 1957, and McNamara was on his beat in Harlem. "My partner and I were arresting an addict on the top floor of a tenement building, which in those days were often used as shooting galleries," says McNamara, who worked his way up the NYPD greasy pole to deputy inspector and later was chief of police in Kansas City and San Jose.
"The guy was cooperative and surrendered the needle that he'd hidden in his belt. But he pleaded with us, 'Please give me a break - I'm just a junkie. I can't take a bust right now. Let me go and I'll give you a pusher.' I was a young cowboy back then who liked to turn on the lights and the siren and drive on the sidewalk. So my instinct was to say no way," remembers McNamara, whose maturation process has included earning a doctorate in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he did his dissertation on the history of drug-control efforts. "But my partner was older and more sensible. So we told the junkie okay. We'd follow him and he'd make his connection, and then we'd jump in and get the collar.
"We trailed him down Lenox Avenue, creeping along in the patrol car, never more than about fifteen feet away. It was a beautiful summer day, and the streets were filled with people. The junkie talked to one guy and then another, neither of whom made a deal with him. But the third guy he spoke to took him into a hallway to do business. We ran in and made the arrest and let the addict 'escape.' But while I had been sitting in the car and watching all this, watching how people were willing to do drug deals on a busy street in broad daylight with a marked police car right there, I realized this was crazy, The first two dealers weren't scared off by us; they were just out of supply," says McNamara.
"I had been a willing warrior, but I knew from that day on how truly futile the police effort really is. Millions of crimes just like the one we witnessed take place every day, and there's little the police can really do."
This belief, that the drug war is unwinnable, will get its most acute test starting this year, when the New York Police Department, hot off its near-halving of the murder rate, will target drugs, which have yet to give in to the NYPD's law-enforcement ministrations. "Despite two very good years, with a good track record," concedes Police Commissioner William Bratton, "to get at the heart of what's still scaring the hell out of the city, we're going to have to do more in this [drugs] area."
Though the specifics of the forthcoming NYPD assault are still being worked out, the general strategies are likely to mirror those drummed into every officer's head over the past two years: "Accurate, timely intelligence; relentless follow-up; a degree of local precinct autonomy; and management by results." While history indicates that the department may be headed for its first major failure under Bratton and company, there is a swaggering confidence at One Police Plaza. The always-ebullient Jack Maple, deputy commissioner for crime-control strategies, has little interest in discussing the failure of others.
"We're gonna go for the win here, just like we did with all the other crimes. If I had told you two years ago we'd cut the murder rate by 35 or 40 percent, what would you have said to me? You would have said I was crazy, right? We are going to mount the most comprehensive law-enforcement effort to knock down street narcotics in the history of this country. Nothing like this has ever been done before. It will be different in scope, in numbers of personnel, in coordination, and in the size of the areas affected. Believe me, we are going to take out the drug cells."
Despite his enthusiasm, Maple suggests that the department's offensive will not be a police action against drug users, a high-body-count strategy of simply rounding up the usual suspects. Lessons have been learned from past mistakes, Bratton says, about the difference between deft assertiveness and goony aggressiveness. When the mother of all drug offensives does get under way, probably in the spring, it will be critical, Bratton says, for the cops to work closely with residents of the affected neighborhoods.
A demonstrably good
idea: Michele Moreno
trades needles at the
Lower East Side
AT THE VERY LEAST, THE WAR ON DRUGS, as it was declared by Richard Nixon in 1972, is supposed to stop narcotics from getting into the country. This sounds not only like a manifestly good idea but one that's doable as well. So why do the borders remain porous? Lack of commitment, say the hardliners. "We can deal with the terrorist threat," says John Walters, chief of staff under William Bennett when he ran the Office of National Drug Control Policy, "but we can't stop drug trafficking, when traffickers have to move hundreds of metric tons of product into this country? And then they have to retail it, so they're exposed at a variety of points? Then they have to move vast sums of money? And to do all of this, they have to have a whole range of support structures and people?" The reason interdiction and cartel-busting don't work, Waiters says, is because the DEA and the FBI have "no plan. The management of this is not serious and focused."
In fact, just as Charles
Murray argued against
welfare, one can make a
strong case that the
is making the
rather than better.
But even when the drug war was at the height of its military and propagandistic frenzy - remember Nancy Reagan? Remember Bill Bennett? - the results were highly debatable. The number of casual drug users was cut in half between 1979 and 1992, from 24 million to around 12 million. This is clearly a victory, but one that was overwhelmingly the result of education and persuasion - an early-to-mid-eighties surge of credible stories in the media about the dangers of cocaine, for instance. Still, casual users are not and have never been the primary problem. Though their money does fuel the drug trade. they play almost no role in driving the crime rate, clogging the criminal-justice system, and increasing the cost of public health care. The most serious problem is not use of drugs generally; it's addiction to heroin and cocaine. And no one claims that those numbers fell during the eighties.
Walters says the Reagan-era drug efforts produced a real victory when it came to interdiction: The amount of drugs coming into the country was cut substantially, he says, and this had a significant impact on price (it went up), purity levels (down), and use.
But when you look at the practical aspects of interdiction, it seems clear that it can never work. A year's supply of cocaine, enough to take care of every user in America, can be stored in thirteen truck trailers. It takes only twenty square miles of land, an area slightly smaller than Manhattan, to grow enough opium poppies to supply every junkie in America with a year's worth of heroin. "The war at the borders and in source countries cannot work," says McNamara. "Not as long as $5,000 worth of heroin or coke in its country of origin will bring $100,000 on the streets of any American city."
Even the vaunted goal of "going after the big guys, the kingpins," seems to have little real-world impact. Though just-departed federal drug czar Lee Brown defends his often criticized record, and that of the president, by boasting that six of the seven leaders of the Cali cartel have been arrested and the seventh is on the run, he fails to demonstrate what impact this has had on the availability of drugs in America. No one is claiming that supplies are tight or prices are high. In fact, the opposite is true.
McNamara further believes that even when interdiction appears to work, it doesn't really. "The DEA officially says they seize 10 to 15 percent of what comes in," he says. "Off the record, they say it's more like one percent. At all these press conferences, it's always the biggest seizure ever or the biggest bust ever. But what do the seizures and the busts mean? The media never ask the questions. Seizures get reported just like body counts were reported during the Vietnam War. The reporters just print the DEA handouts, while in the meantime, the efforts of law enforcement often actually work to solidify and promote the most efficient distributors of drugs."
Bennett's man Walters insists, however, that after treatment, interference with production in the source countries is the most cost-effective use of federal dollars. Clinton is often criticized for dropping the drug problem to last on his list of 29 foreign-policy priorities.
But according to McNamara, it doesn't make any difference. "Every DEA meeting was the same," he says. "They would say, 'The good news is we got Turkey to stop growing opium. The bad news is it's now growing in Burma.' We called it the sausage effect. You know, you squeeze one end and the other one swells up. If the drug war worked, I'd be all for it, but it doesn't. And when you look at what politicians say to get elected, you realize there's this bipartisan insanity. They say let's get tougher on drugs and do more and more of what hasn't worked for the past 80 years."
LIKE ANY LASTING CRUSADE, the Drug War has at times used fear, hype, half-truths, and well-crafted mythology to sustain itself. For the past decade, its mythmaking machinery has been conveniently sustained by crack. Here was a drug so addictive and destructive that, like a tornado, it wiped out everything in its path. Everyone it touched was damaged, and every neighborhood it went into was ruined. Mothers had no interest in their kids; fathers couldn't work; teenagers beat up and stole from their grandparents; horrible, depraved, and unimaginably violent crimes were committed because of the drug's mind-altering effects.
The drug-war hawks couldn't have invented a better menace than crack. As it happens, they did invent it - some of it, anyway. "You had this disgusting pandering of the media," says Dr. John Morgan, a pharmacologist and a professor at City College. "If you look back to '85, '86, '87, you see these astonishing stories. You know, '48 Hours on Crack Street' in Time and Newsweek and on the television magazine shows, all depicting this drug that was destroying a generation of young people in the city. But all those stories were done before there were any data about crack's biology and its actual harm."
What We Get for $100 Billion a Year
A small dent in hard-drug usage ...and a rise in teenage consumption Estimated number Percentage of twelfth- of Americans (in graders who say they thousands) ages 12 have used illicit drugs or older who have in their lifetime. used illicit drugs in their lifetime. 50% Any Illicit Drug + 80,000 45% + + + + + + + Any Illicit Drug + + + + + + + 70,000 + + + * 40% + * + * * * * * + * * * * 60,000 + + + + * * * 35% * * Marijuana * * * Marijuana * * * * * * 50,000 30% ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ 40,000 ^ Any ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ 25% ^ ^ ^ ^ Illicit Drug Other Any Illicit Drug ^ ^ ^ ^ Than Marijuana Other Than Marijuana 30,000 20% '79'80'81'82'83'84'85'86'87'88'89'90'91'92'93'94 '91 '92 '93 '94 '95 Years Years U.S. Department of Health and Human Services University of Michigan
Now that some time has passed, the truth is a little easier to see. To begin with, crack is not instantly addictive. Its "discontinuation rate" is about the same as cocaine's, which makes sense since they are more or less identical pharmacologically. "The claims of instant addiction all came from the treatment people," says Morgan, who is considered a radical among the reformers. His credentials to analyze drugs, however, are unimpeachable: He writes the drug-dependency sections of the Merck Manual, the widely used medication textbook. The primary difference between the two drugs is that crack is a quicker, more intense high. Cocaine is a comparatively longer, smoother experience.
Most of the havoc created by the drug had little to do with its pharmacology but a lot to do with the economic and demographic vagaries of the illegal-drug market. It was the very fact that cocaine became so expensive that created the market niche for crack in the first place - another example of the sausage effect. And because crack was sold so cheaply - a couple of rocks cost $5 - and its effects were so brief, people needed to use it again and again during a single day. Low cost was also responsible for crack's reach and the explosion of low-level street crime. A pocketbook, even if it had only a few bucks in it, was enough to get high.
"Crack emerged during the eighties, when there was a lot of interest in cocaine but it was too expensive for a lot of people," says Morgan. "But it's important to understand that in the context of poverty, a disruptive drug war, the loss of 400,000 low-level jobs in this city, and the continuing ravages of the Reagan years, the drug was given powers and blamed for things for which it was not responsible."
Probably the most compelling piece of crack agitprop was the crack baby: the indelible, heart-wrenching image of that tiny, scrawny, newborn infant crying inconsolably because of its hunger for drugs. According to a number of academic medical studies, this image is misleading. "All these kids who are supposedly damaged because their mothers smoked crack? Well," says Morgan, "it turns out not to be true. Yet everyone in America talked about it. It became a war cry, didn't it? But even people who first published papers about low birth weight and low head circumference have now decided that if you control for everything else, it wasn't the crack. It was multiple drug exposure, bad prenatal care, bad nutrition, and, more important, exposure to alcohol and cigarettes."
ON THE EXTREME WEST END OF 125TH STREET, only a block or so shy of where the legendary boulevard meets the Hudson River, half a dozen people are huddled in front of a small, plain building with a dull-red front door. It is a little before ten on a cool, sunny morning, and they are all sipping hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and feverishly smoking cigarettes. Awaiting them behind the red door is Reality House, a 28-year-old drug-treatment center that offers detox, methadone, acupuncture, and drug-free therapy. Anything that might work.
Executive director Sydney Moshette, an exceedingly buoyant middle-aged black man who in his wire-rims and conservative shirt and tie looks like an academic, says Reality House is the end of the line for most of its clients. Many come from the courts, and many have tried treatment before. Most have already been to jail. "For the majority of users, jail is a part of the culture. They'll say, 'Jail don't mean nothin' to me. I've been there, it's nothin' new.' " The typical profile is of a male between 24 and 39, the father of at least one child he doesn't live with, a tenth- or eleventh-grade education, and a long-running habit. There is a high incidence of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and most of the addicts suffer from multiple problems - which usually include a dual addiction, like crack and alcohol.
Because Reality House is devoted to Harlem residents, it is a good place to see the havoc that has been caused by drugs in the inner city. It is also a good place to get a sense of the ambivalence black people have about the drug war. It is a war that has been waged primarily in their communities and against their young men. Though there was a flurry of agitated publicity recently about the disparity in the federal sentencing structure - five grams of crack, a fraction of an ounce, carries a mandatory minimum five-year sentence; to get the same sentence for powdered cocaine requires more than a pound - that was, in most respects, a side issue. There were only 3,400 people convicted under the federal crack guidelines in 1994, and the overwhelming majority of them were hardened criminals or serious offenders. Only 51 were convicted after being arrested with only a small amount of crack, no previous record, and no weapon.
The far more critical issue, the one that should be viewed as a national emergency, is that an entire generation of young blacks is being sacrificed, lost probably forever as men who can be counted on by their families or by society Yet when I ask Reality House's Moshette whether he favors legalizing drugs, his answer is a flat no. And when I ask about decriminalization, he says, "That's for white folks trying to protect their sons from getting a record."
"All these kids
who are supposedly
Well, it turns out
not to be quite true
. . . it wasn't
The choice between the status quo and reform can seem, for inner-city blacks, to be a lose-lose situation. Clearly desperate for some relief, they know that intensifying the drug war would just mean burning more of the village in order to save it. All of the most negative and debilitating consequences of the war on drugs are concentrated in the inner cities: astronomical arrest rates, violence as a way of life, splintered and ruined families, dealers as role models, the lure of drug money, overdoses, AIDS, police corruption. "The drug war has become a race war," says Joseph McNarnara, who is white, only a bit hyperbolically, "of mostly white cops arresting mostly black men. It's the most un-American, racist, and disgraceful thing I can think of."
Nevertheless, most black leaders are as unwilling to consider serious drug-policy reform as anyone else. As a result, they often find themselves walking an impossibly thin ideological line. Julie Stewart, the director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, ran into this recently when she appeared at a press conference with Jesse Jackson and South Central L.A. congresswoman Maxine Waters. After attacking the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession and its impact on blacks, Jackson and Waters then called on President Clinton to step up the drug war. "I told Jackson I thought it was the worst possible terminology to use," says Stewart. "It's a way for him to sound tough on crime, but it gives the Republicans the endorsement of a civil-rights leader to intensify the drug war. It just leads to more punitive policies, more lock-'em-up stuff. And who gets locked up more than anybody?"
Open-air crack dealing:
the drug was blamed
for everything wrong
with the inner city.
"We're gonna go for the win
here," says the NYPD's Maple, "just like
we did with all the other crimes."
"Here you're saying that the schools are not working, the kids are dropping out, the children are born out of wedlock, the goddamned people are killing each other, they're filling up our jails . . . so give them some drugs? I say hey, open one up in your community. Just don't tell me you've done all you can in my schools; don't do that to me.
"Damn it to hell," he says in utter frustration after a brief pause. "We've beaten Communism around the world . . ." Rangel and Lee Brown, who is also black, have both often said that lifting prohibition would amount to "genocide" in the black community. There is a convincing argument to be made, however, that that's what is happening now.
The worst-case legalization scenario is put forth in a recently released white paper from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. According to the report, only 39 percent of American adults say they can get cocaine now. The conclusion, obviously, is that the increased availability of drugs in a post-prohibition world would dramatically drive up the number of addicts. Dr. Jack Homer of USC argues that without retail-level street busts, which reduce availability and increase the danger of arrest for buyers, the number of compulsive cocaine users would rise to between 10 million and 32 million, five to sixteen times the present level.
But the paper is most chilling in its claims about the impact of legalization on teenagers. There are, the paper states, already 3 million adolescents who smoke cigarettes and 12 million teens who drink. "Since we have been unable to keep legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol out of the hands of children," the report says, "legalization of illegal drugs could cause a pediatric pandemic of drug abuse and addiction."
The clear subtext of this argument, though, is pediatric pandemic in the suburbs. There already is a pandemic in the inner cities. Rut reformers, derided by prohibitionists as out-of-touch cultural elites, will not have an easy time selling legalization to blacks. "Reformers can easily be misunderstood as saying, "I want to protect my white wife and my white kids from crime and all those other things, so let them use it legally,' " Beth Israel's Dr. Newman says. "For someone to go into a black neighborhood and say, 'Wow, have I got good news for you. I'm gonna advocate being nice to addicts' . . . Well, that's going to take a lot of sensitive discussion."
One thing that would help is refining the pitch. "Legalization has become a loaded word that most people react to negatively," says Ethan Nadelmann, who heads the Lindesmith Center, the research group dedicated to drug-policy reform that's funded by George Soros. "We should be talking about the repeal of prohibition, not legalization," Nadelmann says. "There's a rhetorical element to this. Blacks don't like the message of government making drugs legally available, but when you talk about decriminalization - which means it's not legal to sell it but you're not prosecuting people for using or possessing - it's a different story. Clearly they don 't want more young black men getting locked up."
Jeremy Schneider, the former head of Legal Aid's narcotics division, now in private practice, agrees. "We are putting the wrong people in jail for the wrong reasons for the wrong length of time," he says. The system, Schneider says, accomplishes little beyond further ruining the lives of people already on the edge. When someone without a record is picked up for possessing or selling a small amount of drugs, he is typically offered this choice: Plead guilty and take probation, which means no jail time but a felony conviction on his record. Or go to trial. Since the person often has no job, little education, and no roots in the community, if he chooses to go to trial, he can languish in jail for at least as long as six months until his case is heard.
"Everybody pleads and takes probation," Schneider says, sitting in his office across from the Manhattan criminal-courts building. "But then several things happen. They couldn't get a job before, now how are they going to get one with a record? And since they are now what's called a predicate felon, next time they get popped they face a minimum sentence of four and a half to nine years. And by the way, if the person's a user, probation is the worst thing, because you know they're going to violate it."
To really understand how little sense this approach makes, consider the fact that while there are more than 68,000 people in New York's state prisons - an overwhelming majority of whom have a drug problem - there are only 300 intensive-treatment beds in the entire system. Nationally it's even worse: more than 1.3 million inmates and fewer than 5,000 slots.
"So what gets accomplished?" Schneider asks. "If the person goes to jail for small-time dealing, the community doesn't gain anything because there's ten people to take his place. And when he gets out, is he a better person? Will he stop using drugs? Has he been effectively punished and rehabilitated so he won't commit the same offense again?" Schneider shrugs his shoulders and sticks out his hands, palms up, in a classic New York what-are-you-kidding-me gesture. "It's all about perception, about making the system look like it's working."
BEFORE THE 1914 PASSAGE OF THE HARRISON ACT, which is the cornerstone of today's drug laws, there were maybe one million drug addicts in this country out of a population of less than 100 million. Most were housewives hooked on opiates they could buy over the counter as remedies for a variety of ailments. There was no black market, and the addicted were treated, if at all, as a health-care problem, not a criminal one. Today, with a population two and a half times larger, there are approximately 5 million hard-core addicts among the 20 million or so Americans who use drugs. To place this drug use in context, there are 50 million people addicted to nicotine and 18 million alcoholics.
One reason prohibition has lost some of its moral charge is capriciousness. Why can people be trusted to manage their cigarette and alcohol use but not be trusted to use marijuana or cocaine? Nicotine is, by all accounts, at least as addictive as any other drug, legal or illegal, and is responsible for 400,000 deaths a year. And one in four families is affected by alcohol-related problems. Still, it has been sensibly determined that education and prevention efforts, along with advertising and sales restrictions, are enough.
"It's become a
race war, of
mostly white cops
It's the most
thing I can think of."
Why should this be so? There can be no question among reasonable people that government and the civic society generally do have a responsibility in a democracy to educate citizens about the dangers of drugs and to discourage use. And when anti-drug warriors like Bennett and Jim Burke, who heads the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, try to amp up the societal sanctions against drug use, they should be applauded. But the fact is. when people want these "immoral" substances they will find a way to get them - just as they did from 1919 to 1933, during Prohibition.
It is easy to paint a post-drug-prohibition picture of America as a nation of doped-up, unproductive zombies. "Are you going to give the stuff away?" asks Dr. Herbert Kleber, executive vice-president and medical director of Columbia's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "If cocaine sells for about $80 a gram now, the actual cost, if it were legal, would be about $10 a gram. That means that a dose of cocaine could then be sold for 50 cents. There's no question that use would explode."
But there are many indicators that use would not in fact "explode." Even the ultraconservative Dr. Rosenthal at Phoenix House concedes that most people can use drugs with some "sanity," the same way most people can use alcohol with some sanity. Surveys done by the pro-legalization Drug Policy Foundation show that nearly everyone who has an interest in using drugs already does. People predisposed to use heroin or cocaine are rarely deterred by the stigma of illegality. Fewer than 2 percent of those questioned by the institute who don't use drugs now say they might be inclined to experiment if drugs were legalized.
There are also lessons to be learned from alternative policies tried in Europe. The best-known European drug experiment remains Switzerland's "Needle Park."' It is also the most overused example, regularly cited to prove that relaxing prohibition in this country would be a catastrophe. But Needle Park was never about lifting prohibition. Zurich's authorities, beginning in the late eighties, only tried to locate the drug scene where they thought they could manage it, creating a sort of narcotics "combat zone." They forced users and dealers into one place, and it became a scene of enormous disorder, almost a microcosm of prohibition, with dealers fighting over turf. When it was shut down in 1992, it was a failure of police policy more than a failure of progressive drug policy. For the past two years, the Swiss have been road-testing a program of prescription heroin for addicts. Though it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions, the results have been positive enough for the government to expand the experiment from Zurich to more than a dozen other Swiss cities. The Dutch and the Australians now have similar plans in the works.
It has been nearly two decades since the Dutch adopted a policy of separating the soft- and hard-drug markets. Marijuana is sold in small quantities for personal use in hundreds of coffeehouses. There are no ads, no displays, and no legal sales to minors. Consumption among teenagers has nearly tripled, but use remains at half the level it is in the U.S. (For anyone who thinks marijuana has been effectively decriminalized here, there were 480,000 arrests last year for marijuana possession.)
"The people who lose it to drugs," says Dr. John Morgan at City College, "are overwhelmingly people who have very little at stake, very little hope, and are most often encircled by poverty, oppression, and a lack of a future."
Morgan supports his claims with empirical evidence from his own neighborhood. "Crack is sold extensively by Dominican dealers on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues between 106th and 110th Streets," he says. "But the drug has no foothold with the white middle-class kids who live to the west of the dealing areas. Its devastating foothold is completely on the other side, where poverty and a lack of hope already exist. Draconian law may deter some use, but it deters use among those people who would not have any trouble with drugs anyway - middle-class recreational users."
TO EVEN BEGIN TO DEAL WITH THESE PROBLEMS, public officials must start an honest, open debate about the drug issue. Then they must let go of the self-important moralizing and the ideological posturing. The same kind of harsh, clear-eyed assessment and approach that is bringing an end to welfare-statism must be applied to the drug problem. We don't have to endorse drug use; we need only to recognize that there are more effective ways to deal with drug addiction. Our wholesale, indiscriminate prohibition policy has led to a kind of slow social suicide. It has ravaged the inner cities, decimated young blacks, corrupted the police and wasted billions of dollars on enforcement that could be spent on prevention and treatment.
Though drug warriors always use the rhetorical scare tactic of asking, "Are you going to legalize crack?," that's the wrong question to ask right now. Decriminalization can be done in steps. Recognize that whatever measures we take are not irreversible, and, as with welfare, states and cities should be encouraged to experiment until they find the best solutions. And policy-makers should enthusiastically embrace what already has been proved effective: education and prevention, treatment programs in prisons, methadone, and needle exchange. They should, at the very least, do something. A continuation of the present policy is little more than a prescription for failure, more despair.
"We can't, to paraphrase Voltaire, continue to let the best become the enemy of the good," Beth Israel's Dr. Newman says. Decriminalization may not be a perfect solution, but, he says, it "is imperative from every conceivable perspective: for the individual, for the family, for the community. It is simply insanity to keep locking these people up."
[sidebar, p. 31:]
Max Frankel, columnist, The New York Times Magazine: I don't know how to proceed with drug legalization or treatment, but I know that the war is lost. Start from there. Then take the profit out of the drug business; then use that money to track down users and treat them.
Dr. Spencer Foremen, president, Montefiore Medical Center: Many of the social ills ascribed to the drug problem - crime, violence, HIV, destitution - are consequences of control strategies designed to prevent people from using. People think that we can mop up the problem if we throw more money at it, but there's always a kid who's willing to run drugs.
Pat Murphy, former New York City police commissioner: If Americans weren't subject to anti-drug rhetoric, they would recognize that treatment on demand is a good investment. Now recreational users who support the drug business can afford treatment if they get hooked, whereas the poor addict ends up committing crimes. I wouldn't go as far as legalization, but it's fair to put the marijuana issue on the table.
Lester Grinspoon, professor of psychiatry, Harvard University: The government's attitude toward drugs is scientifically unsound, ignorant, and arrogant. It's tragic that marijuana - a drug as versatile, inexpensive, and nontoxic as the wonder drug of the forties, penicillin - isn't medically available.
Barney Frank (D-Mass.), U.S. representative: We should get out of the business of physically preventing drugs from entering the U.S. Drugs remain illegal because of the crime that accompanies this type of trade, because users steal to buy them, and because political fear accompanies violence.
Milton Friedman, economist, University of Chicago: Legalization is tenable - we don't regulate addictive and harmful drugs like tobacco or alcohol. Drug addiction is no different than TB or cancer, and its victims shouldn't get treatment on demand.
Dr. Robert DuPont, former Nixon drug czar: Cocaine in the Safeway - I can't think of a dumber idea! We just need to make the consequences of using and selling drugs more visible. We don't have to shoot people - punishments don't need to be that extreme - but we must get the message across. Drug-test in the workplace, schools, homeless shelters: People lose privacy when they go through airport metal detectors, but the ACLU doesn't have a problem with that.
Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services: We should provide users with treatment on demand and accept no excuses. But our priority should be to prevent people from using at all.
James E. Burke, chairman, Partnership for a Drug-Free America: The debate on legalization seems oddly out of step with a national movement that emphasizes the welfare of our children. Legalization, explicitly and implicitly, communicates a point of view about drugs that will erode key anti-drug attitudes among kids.
A. M. Rosenthal, columnist, The New York Times: Legalization is an insensitive economic measure that will create more addicts and will not substantially reduce crime. The affluent might not get bothered by hustlers as frequently, but the black and gray markets in crime-stricken neighborhoods would flourish.
[By] Vanessa Grigoriadis
[sidebar, p. 32:]
The New York Poll
Fight On, Drug-War Soldiers
New Yorkers Believe We're Losing the Battle, But They're Not Ready to Give Up Just Yet
Drug addiction is not a criminal problem - it is a medical one. People who are addicted to drugs should be given help by a doctor or other professional who understands how to treat dependency and can really help the person. We know that just making drugs illegal isn't working; it's time to focus on prevention and treatment if we are ever going to make a real difference.
Strongly agree -- 59 percent Somewhat agree -- 23 percent Somewhat disagree -- 6 percent Strongly disagree -- 8 percent
More and more judges and district attorneys understand that the war on drugs is destroying our judicial system, violating civil rights, and letting violent criminals out to commit more crimes. It's just ridiculous to continue letting the rapists and murderers out of jail and in some cases letting them off, without any prison time - to make room for nonviolent drug abusers.
Strongly agree -- 49 percent Somewhat agree -- 24 percent Somewhat disagree -- 13 percent Strongly disagree -- 12 percent
The war on drugs is simply costing too much money and is not getting the job done. We already spend $100 billion a year, and we're losing the war. It's becoming like Vietnam, with no clear mission, and no real commitment to win. If we're not going to get serious about the drug war, let's admit it's not working and stop wasting taxpayers' hard-earned money.
Strongly agree -- 32 percent Somewhat agree -- 33 percent Somewhat disagree -- 13 percent Strongly disagree -- 19 percent
A huge part of the crime problem that we have in this country - the shootings, the carjackings, the robberies - is a direct result of the war on drugs. If drugs weren't illegal, they wouldn't be so valuable and cost so much money, and people wouldn't have to kill and steal to afford them or to protect their gang turf.
Strongly agree -- 22 percent Somewhat agree -- 26 percent Somewhat disagree -- l5 percent Strongly disagree -- 35 percent
Do you think that law enforcement's war on drugs should continue as is, or do you think it is time that we at least consider alternatives, like decriminalization or legalization, to the war on drugs?
Continue -- 49 percent Consider alternatives -- 44 percent
Some people argue that drugs should never be decriminalized or legalized. They say that addiction is a horrible disease, and that we should never even consider condoning the further spread of drugs across America. Every society where drugs have been legalized has failed, and under no condition should we consider these out-of-touch ideas for America.
Strongly agree -- 45 percent Somewhat agree -- 21 percent Somewhat disagree -- 15 percent Strongly disagree -- 15 percent
Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bratton are planning their own drug-war initiative that will begin this year. Do you think this will do a lot, some, not much, or nothing to help solve the drug problem in New York?
A lot -- 15 percent Some -- 44 percent Not much -- 22 percent Nothing -- 19 percent
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