Why the drug war has amounted to one long and costly mistake. By Hoover fellow Joseph D. McNamara.
The average white American’s image of drug users is that of dangerous young people of color—males who will rob them to obtain money to buy drugs or youthful black female prostitutes spreading disease and delivering crack babies as a result of enslavement to drugs. These cherished misconceptions are the enduring and erroneous foundations of the ill-conceived “war on drugs.”
Actually, the overwhelming majority of American drug users have historically been Caucasians. The fact that minorities are arrested and incarcerated at vastly disproportionate rates for drug offenses contributes to false stereotypes and permits the continuation of one of the most irrational public policies in the history of the United States. Blacks make up approximately 15 percent of America’s drug users, but more than one-third of adults arrested for drug violations are black. Similar distortions in drug arrests and incarcerations apply to Hispanics.
Relatively few of America’s estimated 90 million illegal drug users go on to commit non-drug crimes. In fact, the majority of police I hired during my 18 years as police chief in two of the largest cities in America admitted prior use of illegal drugs. They did not commit other crimes and grew out of their early drug use. As one candidate put it to me, “Of course, I smoked pot. I was in the Army. I went to college.”
And I can remember, some 40 years ago, as a young policeman in Harlem, gathering with my colleagues in a tavern after work, listening to them complain vigorously about the junkies who made our work so difficult. During our discussions, we drank prodigious amounts of beer without the slightest awareness that we were consuming a drug that could be as lethal as heroin. Indeed, far more of my fellow police died in driving accidents after these drinking sessions than were slain in the line of duty.
Even today, 90 years after the federal government first outlawed narcotics with the Harrison Narcotic Act, December 17, 1914, public and police attitudes toward the dangerousness of drugs are shaped by ignorance of their impact and by mistaken prejudices regarding their users. Stereotypes created more than a century ago by nativist American elites targeting blacks, immigrant Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish populations and their “strange” religions, languages, and cultures led to anti-drug legislation.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who held many of the same racial, ethnic, and class biases, greatly encouraged the anti-drug groups. Roosevelt, who was not an alcohol prohibitionist, was motivated by an anti-opium attitude, as well as by a desire to develop America into one of the great world powers. He hoped that stopping England, France, Holland, and Spain from compelling the unwilling China to accept highly profitable (for the exporting nations) opium shipments would win Chinese goodwill and allow Americans to compete with the colonial trading nations in opening the vast China market to other goods.
Despite revelations from Rush Limbaugh, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush (when questioned about prior drug use he didn’t deny it, simply said that he did young and foolish things), our government continues to paint users of certain chemicals as evil and immoral, when in fact they often are successful people from across the political spectrum. Luckily for most of them, they didn’t get busted under today’s draconian laws and were able to mature into careers that most of us can admire.
A Drug-Free America?
For the first 140 years of this republic, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness included the right to consume whatever substance one pleased. In fact, Thomas Jefferson criticized France for passing laws regulating diet and drugs on the basis that “a government that tries to control what kind of food you eat and medicine that you take will soon try to control how you think.”
The idea that pleasure could be derived from sex, gambling, dancing, consumption of alcohol, or other drugs struck many influential groups as sinful and immoral. In The Symbolic Crusade, the sociologist Joseph Gusfield described how these same biased irrationalities led to passage of the failed Eighteenth Amendment, the criminal prohibition of alcohol.
This odd (for a secular government) tendency to impose the heavy hand of criminal law to “sinful” and “immoral” behavior leads to numerous anomalies. For one thing, it diverts scarce resources from pursuing de facto crimes such as murder, assault, rape, theft, and the increasing threat of terrorism. In addition, individuals taking Prozac (fluoxetine), Valium (diazepam), or other psychoactive prescription drugs are regarded as patients. Yet millions of our own citizens using heroin, cocaine, or marijuana have been, and are still, regarded as dangerous enough to be caged in brutal prisons, frequently under mandatory sentences more characteristic of a totalitarian society than a democracy. State and local police alone average around 1,600,000 drug arrests a year. All except a couple of hundred thousand are for possession of small amounts of drugs but nevertheless frequently trigger long mandatory prison sentences.
The impetus for the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 came from the lobbying efforts of American missionary societies in China. These groups enlisted the aid of other alcohol temperance organizations and religious groups in the United States to get their version of sin written into the penal code. The anti-drug arguments advocating the Harrison Act were replete with statements claiming that it was the duty of whites to save the inferior races. Those moving to criminalize drugs made references to Negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking marijuana, and “Chinamen” seducing white women with drugs. This racist nonsense would be laughed at today, but it was quite influential in the passage of anti-drug legislation.
Dr. David Musto, the renowned drug historian and professor of child psychiatry and the history of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine, wrote in The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control, “Consequently, the story of the Harrison Act’s passage contains many examples of the South’s fear of the Negro as a ground for permitting a deviation from the strict interpretation of the Constitution.” Musto also noted that opium use in the United States had been declining for about 16 years before the federal government saw fit to outlaw it.
The Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 represented a gross departure from past federal practice of not interfering with state police powers. The racist arguments convinced southern representatives, who were reluctant to acknowledge federal power over states’ rights, to vote for the act. Uneasiness regarding the law’s constitutionality caused Congress to label the act a revenue measure, but in 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court correctly interpreted it as a penal statute, making it the cornerstone of laws leading to the present “war on drugs.” Similarly, queasiness over constitutionality led Congress to label the 1937 law prohibiting marijuana, the Marijuana Tax Act.
It is one of the ironies of history that national black political leadership today paradoxically seems to accept the racist implications of white southern politicians in 1914: that Negroes were especially susceptible to the negative impact of drug use. With the notable exception of Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, who called for the medicalization of drug use, many African-American politicians describe decriminalization of drugs as racial genocide, thus subliminally reinforcing fears that people of color are more susceptible to drug use and the harm it can cause.
Government Thought Control
The Harrison Act was a remarkably radical change in public policy. Racism, religious pressure, and an elitist concern to ensure that the lower classes were protected from temptations to lead “immoral” lives prevailed over the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s fears of government thought control have come to fruition in the drug war.
That may sound far-fetched, but the Clinton White House was embarrassed when a journalist disclosed that the government had been secretly paying television entertainment and news programs, magazines, and newspapers to covertly insert “correct” material on drug use for our education. Now the government openly spends millions of dollars on simplistic anti-drug ads during the television Super Bowl extravaganza, right alongside commercial ads pushing beer, drugs to cure erectile dysfunction and other real or imagined illnesses, and food that the government itself has labeled as dangerously unhealthy.
What Price Glory?
Since 1914, American drug control efforts have ebbed and peaked. However, a sea change occurred in 1972 when Richard Nixon saw political advantage in telling the citizenry that a war against drugs was necessary. The federal budget for the war was roughly $101 million that year. Presently, it is around $20 billion a year. By comparison, the average monthly Social Security retirement check in 1972 was $177. Presently, the payment averages slightly more than $900 a month. If, however, Social Security benefits had increased at the same rate as drug war spending, today’s check would be around $30,000 a month. The annual cost of the drug war exceeds $40 billion a year when state and local costs are added to federal costs.
The magnitude of increase and paucity of positive results have recently begun to cause concern among some of the leading academic supporters of the drug war. A major focus of government strategy has been to reduce foreign production of illegal drugs. Yet a dozen years after the U.S. Congress proclaimed that we would have a drug-free America by 1995 (the United Nations has made an even more grandiose claim for a drug-free world), opium production has doubled in Southeast Asia and cocaine crops have increased by a third in Central and South America. Opium production has also greatly increased in liberated Afghanistan.
Periodic government announcements of epidemic increases in the use of “designer drugs” such as methamphetamines and ecstasy are intended to mobilize more public support for the drug war. What the anti-drug propaganda really illustrates, however, is the futility of attempts by the United States to reduce world drug production since domestically produced drugs are quickly substituted. The government has been forced to concede that, despite intensive efforts at interdiction, around 90 percent of the illegal drugs that arrive in this country are undetected.
The United States, as well as most of the world, is awash in illegal drugs, the violence of the illegal drug black market, and unprecedented police and political corruption resulting from the extreme markup caused by the prohibition of cheaply produced chemical substances.
An Unconscionable War
Reasonable people agree that all drugs—including aspirin and others sold over the counter or those prescribed by physicians—present potential danger to users, especially to children, and should be approached with caution. However, the sheer irrationality of continuing to expand a policy doomed to failure begs an explanation. A jihad comes to mind—a holy war that must be fought regardless of the resulting human horrors. A subcommittee of the National Academy of Science, in response to a request from the Clinton administration to analyze the effectiveness of the nation’s efforts to control drugs, concluded last year that it was “unconscionable” for the government to implement a program of this “magnitude” without measuring its impact. Predictably, this group of researchers recommended more research on the drug war’s impact, not a cease-fire.
Nonetheless, some scholars, bureaucrats, prosecutors, judges, and politicians who can no longer ignore the injustices of long mandatory drug sentences for minor offenders, and the inevitable failure of past practices, now proclaim a new more “humane” solution. The government is eagerly expanding “coerced abstinence” as a compassionate alternative. Coerced abstinence is the practice of continuously drug-testing convicted criminals (and eventually, in all probability, many others), by special drug courts, to detect the presence of illegal drugs in their bodies. In March 2004, a physician who prescribed Oxycontin (oxycodone HCI controlled-release) for pain relief reported that a blood test indicated the patient had not been taking the medicine. The patient was arrested in the doctor’s office.
Presumption of Innocence?
Many judges, who traditionally functioned as impartial legal experts to guarantee due process of law, have now become shamans taking on the responsibilities of judging who is falling under evil spells. We have legions of real-life “Judge Judys” routinely operating with religious fervor, denouncing and incarcerating people not on the basis of crimes they committed but because certain chemicals are present in their urine. Of course, it’s for their own “good,” but some critics call it life on the installment plan.
Scholars who know well the difference between correlation and causation have casually disregarded two axioms of behavioral science by advancing coerced abstinence as new when, in fact, it is the same old demonization of certain drugs present in our culture and the same dehumanization of their users.
It is true that many individuals convicted of crime do have a history of previous use of illegal drugs. But high correlations of illegitimacy, illiteracy, extreme poverty, lack of health care, child abuse, failure in school, smoking, gambling, unhealthy diets, poor employment history, and a host of other variables are also present in criminal populations. Drug use as the sole explanation for criminal behavior is no more persuasive than these other characteristics. In truth, if we foolishly outlawed the conduct mentioned above, we would create the same criminal identities presently imposed on users of illegal drugs. Experts know that past behavior, including the use of certain chemicals, cannot be used to predict the future criminal behavior of a particular individual to the extent that it scientifically or morally justifies imprisonment.
America’s drug war has always trifled with science. But the assumption that the presence of a particular chemical in a person’s bloodstream is sufficient cause for incarceration replaces the fundamental American right of presumption of innocence with the police-state mentality of assumed guilt. Yet, like many repressive governments, advocates of coerced abstinence say that we should not worry. Our children, friends, and relatives in jail cells for minor drug violations are not prisoners. They are simply patients undergoing the new therapy of coerced abstinence, “tough love.”
One advocate of present drug policies argued that certain drugs are not bad because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are bad. History, however, indicates that a century ago the groups that successfully lobbied to criminalize some drugs were equally motivated by their mistaken impression of which and why certain groups used specific chemical substances.
If you’re under the misimpression that such bias has changed, conduct your own experiment. Watch television and count the number of drug commercials. The messages are certainly not that we need a “drug-free America.” Instead, omniscient ads convey the idea that drugs are “cool” depending mostly on who uses them.
Our nation’s drug policy has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars, locked up millions of Americans, destroyed countless families and neighborhoods, and created immeasurable violence and corruption. It is untenable to continue such policies by contending that conditions would be even worse without the drug war.
Joseph D. McNamara is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was chief of police for the city of San Jose, California, for fifteen years.
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