The war on drugs can produce political victories but also human casualties


August 28, 1994|By Cynthia Dockrell | Cynthia Dockrell,Boston Globe

Stories about the drug trade are easy hits for journalists. Colorful characters, eye-popping sums of cash, murder, cops, good guys and bad guys -- it's all there, the tried-and-true fodder of news-as-morality-play. We seem to be hooked on such stories. But how often do we get the good stuff, the stories that satisfy on a level beyond the lurid?

Readers will find two this week, in the latest New Yorker (Aug. 22 and Aug. 29, a double issue) and the September Atlantic. New Yorker reporter-at-large William Finnegan goes into San Augustine County in "Deep East Texas" to show what happened after the sheriff of 40 years stepped down and crack moved in. In San Augustine, a relic of the Old South still largely segregated, Mr. Finnegan writes, "People talk about 'the sheriff' . . . as though he were an intimate, fundamental, inescapable fact of life, like oxygen."

The tone Sheriff Nathan Tindall set in his long reign was an expansive one, cordial to blacks as well as whites. As the county's age-old bootlegging operations gradually gave way to marijuana cultivation and, finally, in the late 1980s, to cocaine trafficking, Mr. Tindall became a casualty, voted out of office in 1988 by whites who claimed he had ignored the drug problem. The investigation launched by his successor culminated in a bust in June 1989 that involved 200-odd federal, state and local agents who arrested 54 suspects, 50 of them black (30 percent (( of the county's population is black). The massive drug ring turned out to be small, but the bust served its political purposes. This is an impeccably reported story, if too long, and chilling in what it implies about overzealous law enforcement figures.

In "Marijuana and the Law," the second of a two-part article in the Atlantic, Eric Schlosser looks at the mandatory-minimum sentences now being slapped on drug offenders and the mess this has caused in the federal prison system.

Mr. Schlosser recounts the case of Mark Young, who in 1991 was arrested for brokering a marijuana sale, refused to plead guilty (he had virtually no information to give prosecutors in exchange for a reduced sentence) and ended up in Leavenworth with a life term. Mr. Schlosser reports that drug offenders like Young, with no history of violent crime -- and no chance for parole -- are being put away in such overwhelming numbers that violent criminals are sometimes being released early to make room for them. The system is so corrupt, says an attorney arguing Young's appeal, that kingpins walk free simply because they'll talk: "It's just the guy who doesn't cooperate who then gets everybody else's time."

So far, politics seems to be the only victor in the war on drugs.

Rethinking addiction

Addiction is a disease, right? Wrong, or so reports Psychology Today in a series of articles in the September/October issue. The recovery movement has so saturated our culture that by now most of us have bought into its basic tenet that alcoholics, drug addicts, overeaters et al. were simply born to abuse their substances of choice.

In "Addiction: A Whole New View," Joann Ellison Rodgers cites recent research that suggests everyone is born with the capacity for addiction, since our brains are wired to reward us for pleasurable experiences; whether we become drunks or chain smokers or sex addicts is determined as much by personality and environment as by genes. Likewise, researchers claim, there is no single, magical treatment model, much as Alcoholics Anonymous and its offshoots would have us believe; some alcoholics simply stop drinking without any outside help, and others actually learn how to drink moderately. This is a provocative, highly readable series.

Also included here is a Q&A with New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, whose Pulitzer Prize not only won her a coveted spot on the Times' op-ed page but elevated her to oracle for working boomer mothers. She admits to being sick of her generation but says little else worth noting, save for a rejoinder to a comment that she practices "mommy journalism": "I don't have any objection to calling it mommy journalism just so long as we call writing about the defense budget 'daddy journalism.' "

Vanity Fair for September, on the other hand, has a not-so-benign profile. Marjorie Williams writes that Ms. Quindlen is "an incorrigible nice girl: a powerful 60-ish white man's idea of a feminist writer" whose voice is "ladylike. Tidy. Careful."

Ms. Williams calls Ms. Quindlen intellectually timid, and surmises that if newspapers hire women like her primarily for their humane working styles, "then the long journey of feminism has brought us full circle back to the Nice Girl, charged with civilizing the men around her." Ms. Quindlen declined to be interviewed for this story, which leads one to wonder if the lack of access had anything to do with the sour-grapes tone.

The future of books

Also in the Atlantic is a lively piece on electronic media vs. books by D. T. Max.

Mr. Max eases the anxieties of publishers and traditionalists who, intimidated by their own ignorance of interactive multimedia, fear that the book will go the way of the horse and buggy. No way, he concludes. After running through the pros and cons of both the book and the computer, with great quotes from the likes of Wired co-founder Louis Rosetto ("The changes going on in the world now are literally a revolution in progress, a revolution that makes political revolution look like a game") and John Updike ("I imagine most of that [fiction] on the information highway is roadkill anyway"), Mr. Max persuades us that words scrolling across a screen are no substitute for the enduring heft of a book.

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