Rethinking the war on drugs Clinton nominee may change tactics

March 03, 1996|By Kenneth E. Sharpe and Eva C. Bertram

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S drug czar nominee, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, won bipartisan praise during a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Mr. Clinton announced General McCaffrey's nomination during his State of the Union address. The president's detractors saw it as a clever election-year ploy to blunt possible attacks by Republicans on Mr. Clinton's drug strategy. But General McCaffrey, a four-star general and the army's most decorated senior officer, could surprise skeptics by bringing clear strategic thinking to a high pitched but often barren political debate.

During the hearing, General McCaffrey described the simplistic metaphor, war on drugs, as "inadequate."

"Wars are relatively straightforward," he said. But in "this struggle against drug abuse there is no silver bullet, no quick way to reduce drug use or the damage it causes."

Perhaps most importantly, he promised early on "to examine what works and what doesn't....We owe our Congress and the American people a full accounting of the costs and payoffs of all components of our drug strategy."

Such a thorough assessment is exactly the right place to start. and in doing so, McCaffrey should press the strategic questions that any good general would ask. If he wants to transform the drug policy debate and lead us out of the current morass, here is what he could do:

* Look at the record. An investment of $65 billion in drug law enforcement since 1981 has yielded little. Coca leaf production has remained relatively stable. There is no evidence of a decline in the amount of drugs crossing U.S. borders. And perhaps most importantly, the prices for a pure gram of both heroin and cocaine (as measured in 1994 dollars) have declined markedly in the last 15 years despite the dramatic escalation of drug law enforcement. The number of casual users -- most of whom are marijuana users -- has declined but the drug war has failed to reduce levels of cocaine or heroin abuse and addiction.

* Confront the reasons for failure. It is easy (and quite common) to conclude that this failure is a result of insufficient means to fight the drug war -- not enough funding or firepower, inadequate coordination. But a hard look at the evidence shows that the problem is not insufficient but inappropriate means: It makes no sense to fight drug abuse at home by waging war against the drug supply abroad and on our borders. The problem is that the "enemy" in the drug war is not the drug producers, cartels or dealers. It is a market in economic goods. And as long as millions of U.S. citizens are willing to buy what they sell, there will always be enough growers, refiners and traffickers.

Attempts to crack down on the market do raise prices for consumers -- but they also raise profits, boosting the market price of a gram of cocaine from a few dollars to a hundred dollars. No matter how many crops are eradicated, tons of cocaine seized, traffickers jailed, there will always be more people willing to cash in on these lucrative exports to the United States. They will find new land to grow coca, new trafficking routes -- and spread the violent drug trade to other countries. Meanwhile, the steady supply they provide assures that the cost of drugs will remain within the reach of most consumers. The war on supply is not simply failing but fatally flawed.

* Assess and prevent the collateral damage. The failure of the deeply flawed strategy would be bad enough, but it's made worse by the unintended harm it causes. Enlisting the military and police in the drug war in Latin America is increasing corruption and threatening democracy and human rights. Low-paid security officials trade their enforcement capability for a share of the profits. And the more efficient U.S. training and assistance make our Latin American allies, the more incentive traffickers have to increase their bribes. Such corruption is undermining governments at the highest levels -- witness recent events in Mexico and Colombia.

Meanwhile, stepped-up coca-eradication efforts in the Bolivian Chapare region -- in response to U.S. pressure -- have led to serious human rights abuses, lawful political opposition has been stifled, and hundreds of civilians arbitrarily detained.

In Colombia, police and military funded by U.S. anti-narcotics dollars regularly participate in murders, disappearances and harassment of legal opposition leaders. Given the fragility of democratic institutions the United States seeks to support in the region, U.S. anti-narcotics aid strengthens militaries against 1b those trying to institute civilian controls.

* Clarify our political objective. The drug war has been fought so long that continuing to fight the good fight has become an end in itself. General McCaffrey should reject the idea of fighting a failed, often harmful, never-ending war on drugs and stake out realistic ends and appropriate means of drug control.

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