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Baum/War on Drugs? I Can't Even Drive On Drugs

by Peter Werbe

With all of the sound and fury of the election thankfully over, it's easy to forget that "reefer madness" had emerged as a presidential campaign issue after the Clinton administration announced marijuana smoking had risen among teen-agers by 141 percent and overall teen drug use doubled between 1992 and 1995.

During the Clinton-Bob Dole debates, the candidates fell over each other trying to prove who was tougher on drugs. Then, charge and counter-charge followed with Dole launching the mangled syntax of his unsuccessful "Just Don't Do It" anti-drug slogan of. Clinton campaign officials suffering their own embarrassment when they had to return an unsolicited contribution from a Miami drug dealer.

Scrambling to keep ahead of the curve, President Clinton, in a Oct. 19 weekly radio address, called for instituting drug tests for teens applying for drivers' licenses. Not to be outdone, the Republicans quickly suggested perhaps testing everone applying, not just teens, would be in order.

Author Dan Baum's "Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure" (Little, Brown and Company) charges this political hysteria about current drug policy results from an expensive phantom war.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars into the Drug War," he says, and "nobody claims victory." Baum argues the crusade against drugs not just hopelessly ineffective, but waste enormous sums of money as well. He says it also assaults civil liberties, distorts political dialogue on the issue, and makes the real problems of drug abuse harder to confront.

A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Baum has written for numerous other publications such as the Atlanta Constitution, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and The Nation.

Peter Werbe: If there is such a massive war on drugs, the fact that it hasn't succeeded after so many years must mean there's a serious drug problem.

Baum: I interviewed John Erlichman [a Nixon White House aide] who said, "We knew drugs were not the health problem we were making it out to be, but there were political benefits to be gained."

Every administration since then has known drugs are not a statistically significant threat to the nation's health. But they've all understood the political advantage of a war on drugs.

PW: If there's no problem, there would have to be a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Baum I wouldn't say there is no problem. The other day I was on radio with Gen. Barry McCaffrey (sp?), the current drug czar. He referred to 67 million users of illegal drugs in this country, as though that is the nation's drug problem. Later, he talked about 2.5 million drug addicts in this country, about 3 percent of users.

I said, "Hello. What's the problem here." It sounds like we've got 64.5 million Americans who use illegal drugs without becoming addicted, without losing their jobs, without their families falling apart. If General McCaffrey [sp.]is right, there are 64.5 million Americans in this country who understand these drugs can be used by many, many people the way some people drink a beer on a Friday night or have a glass of scotch after work. Our real drug problem, addicts, and kids getting drugs. is a relatively tiny public health problem.

PW: Even at 2.5 million, that's a substantial number of people.

Baum: Okay, but let's talk about what we're doing about the problem. We're now defining the drug problem as 67 million users of drugs. That means we have criminalized a third to half the adults in this country.

I will concede 2.5 million drug addicts is a problem that the government needs to address. I'm a parent, and I agree that keeping drugs away from kids is a legitimate and important public health concern and one I want the government involved in. Just as I want government to keep alcohol and tobacco, and guns and cars away from kids.

PW: Does the government really want to win the War on Drugs? It employs a lot of people. who have a vested interest in the maintenance of drug use and its attempted suppression.

Baum: Nobody wants to win the war on drugs. It involves big money. In the 1980s, the U.S. spent more money fighting drugs than on Head Start, child immunization, Star Wars and the entire EPA combined. $120 billion in the Bush administration alone. This is a budget buster. Next to the welfare budget, this is a giant.

You could say any government money eventually makes its way back into the economy, but we could be building roads and bridges, we could be training people, we could be educating people. What we're doing is building an enormous police state and a prison-industrial complex. And, getting ourselves further and further away from handling what drug problem we have in a rational manner.

PW: Does drug policy have a liberal or conservative character to it?

Baum: It does. I argue in the book that the war on drugs has been part of a conservative, mostly Republican ideology for the last 30 years, to redefine what we used to call social problems as being the fault of bad individuals with bad values. We used to talk about poverty and racism and exclusion and lack of opportunity as causing crime and drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. Now, we look at people who do drugs and get pregnant when they're very young and commit crimes and say, well, they're just bad.

The drug war is a convenient way to retreat from considering society as a collection of social problems for which we all bear responsibility. In the old days, people in the white suburbs felt some responsibility for what was going on in the inner cities, and were willing to pay some taxes and thought racism was bad and we needed to correct these things. Now, we've come to the point where there's no sense of responsibility on the part of the white mainstream for the less fortunate.

The Democrats in their inimitable fashion have merely toadied along. They think there is no political mileage to be gained in opposing this conservative trend, but rather in who can prove themselves tougher on drugs. Right now, Bill Clinton is spending more on the war on drugs than [Republican drug czar Bill] Bennett ever dreamed of, and his spending is more wildly weighted in favor of enforcement and imprisonment over treatment and education than George Bush's drug budget or Ronald Reagan's. Still, the Republicans are hammering him for abandoning the war on drugs.

This year Bill Clinton had an opportunity to do the right thing. I'm sure you have heard that the sentencing for crack and powder cocaine are wildly different. And it's racist. Crack sentences are 100 times more severe than those for powder cocaine. And crack is more associated with blacks, and powder is more associated with whites. This disparity makes no sense pharmacologically, because crack and cocaine are the same drug. It was a Jesse Helms bill back in the late '90s and we're stuck with it. This year the bipartisan federal sentencing commission, which writes and manages federal sentencing, came out with a report explicitly asking Bill Clinton to repeal this and asking Congress to repeal it. Clinton went out of his way to give a speech refusing to repeal it, because you can imagine what Bob Dole would do with Bill Clinton coming out in favor of reducing sentences for crack dealers.

PW: If you take marijuana out of the total 67 million people using illegal intoxicants, what are you left with?

Baum: About 5 million, maybe 7 or 8 million. It's a squirrely number to get. I've decided not to argue with the drug czar about his numbers. I think the government numbers are more or less okay.

We profess to care a lot about kids, and we justify much of the war on drugs because of kids. But if you consider there are 67 million users of illegal drugs in this country, that's 67 million adults who are doing one of two things to their children. They're either lying to them about their drug use, or they're involving them in a criminal conspiracy.

And I know adults of both stripe. I know adults who either go out to the garage to smoke pot, and behave exactly the way they did when they were in high school 30 years ago. It's hilarious. Hiding their pot smoking from their children exactly the way they began adulthood hiding their pot smoking from their parents.

Or, they're smoking pot in front of their kids and being very honest, telling them, look, you can't tell anybody that we do this, because if you do, the police will come, take away our house, send us to prison and put you in foster care.

Then we're trying to educate kids about drugs. Kids see this and they don't listen to us. What scares me is they think we're lying to them about everything. I think crack is a scary drug, right. I don't want my kid coming anywhere near it. But if we're lying to them about marijuana, if we're lying to them about drug use in general, kids think we're lying to them about everything, and that scares me a lot.

PW: If you legalized marijuana, would you have much left to fight?

Baum: I argue in my book that marijuana is politically, not pharmacologically, the most important illegal drug. If you made me look into a crystal ball, I'd guess marijuana will be the last drug decriminalized or legalized, not the first. The war on drugs absolutely depends on marijuana prohibition.

PW: The War on Drugs is an interesting phrase. What's it origin?

Baum: Richard Nixon came up with that as a thumb-in-eye to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. However, Clinton has forbade use of the term. They don't call it a war on drugs, to which I reply, we never called Korea a war either, but 53,000 American died there.

This is a full-on war, not on the drugs, but on the people who use them. The drugs that are criminalized are those that are associated with blacks, the left, the young, the experimental, the intellectual, the rebellious. We're not criminalizing scotch. We not criminalizing Halcyon, and we're not criminalizing Prozac, but only certain drugs, ones that you can argue are much less harmful than the legal ones, because of the people they're associated with.

PW: Do you support the drug legalization ?

Baum: When you start to talk about drug policy reform, immediately they'll say, oh, you're a legalizer. You're a decriminalizer. You want it sold in schools. You want it sold in vending machines and advertised on TV. And, the debate is over.

For my book, I interviewed everybody who had anything to do with drug policy starting in 1967 to the present. What astounded me was how candid people were about their politics. Beginning with Jimmy Carter's second drug czar up to the present, the people who have been creating drug policy told me they were about more than just protecting the public health from potentially dangerous substances. They were about changing the way people thought. They wanted to limit the debate. Erase the distinctions between drug use and drug abuse. Erase the distinctions between hard and soft drugs. Make certain types of discussion about drug abuse virtually forbidden.

The climax of this was when Joycelyn Elders, Clinton's U.S. Surgeon General, the country's leading health official, was not allowed to say, perhaps we should study some other way of controlling the harms drug abuse causes, perhaps we should look for some other path than what we're doing now. She said that and was fired. If she can't say it, nobody can.

PW: How does law enforcement figure into this?

Baum: You know, you can't blame police. State, local and county police are under the same fiscal pressure as school boards and social service agencies. But there's a difference. The police have a way out, and that is to seize the assets of drug users and drug dealers. And, they are completely dependent on it. It's in the billions of dollars. We now have free-market law enforcement in the United States. It's basically bounty hunting. Piracy.

PW: What do we do? Repeal all drug laws?

Baum: I'm not a legalizer. First of all, I don't know what the term means. Is alcohol legal? It is in certain circumstances, and it's very illegal in others. If you drive drunk or give it to kids, you go to jail. I advocate opening up the debate, stop demonizing people who want to talk about this, and let us discuss what our real drug problem is in this country. Then talk about what are the harms of drug abuse and how can we ameliorate those harms.

Drugs are with us to stay, and I think the drug policy reform people have to be honest. Any liberalization of drug laws probably would result in an increase in addiction, just as the end of prohibition in 1933 marked an increase in alcohol-related disease. The country made a cost-benefit analysis then, that the corruption and the violence of prohibition was not worth holding down the rate of alcohol-related disease. The public was willing to accept higher rates of alcoholism because they said, if we're not fighting this war against the alcohol gangs, we'll have money left over to treat alcoholics and for social expenditures.

We're stuck with alcohol. We're stuck with drugs. Our real drug problem in this country is addicts, particularly addicts who harm other people, and keeping drugs away from kids.

If we redefine the drug problem that way, suddenly the war on drugs is an issue that will not break the bank, tear up the Constitution, imprison a third of the black men in this country, engender violence and racial division, but rather will be a small, smart, lean, targeted program to ameliorate, though never solve, this statistically small yet individually tragic problem.

PW: War on drugs; I can't even drive on drugs.

Peter Werbe is the Public Affairs Director for WCSX-FM in Detroit.

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Last modified: November 17, 1997