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The General Invades (and Insults and Infuriates) The Netherlands

By Adam Smith, Associate Director of DRCNet; cartoon by John Wilson

On January 11, Barry McCaffrey, retired four-star general and current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the Drug Czar), embarked on a scheduled eight-day visit to Europe to see how drug policy was being handled back on the Continent. The tour included scheduled stops in "zero-tolerance" Sweden, harm-reductionist Switzerland, and the pragmatic Netherlands. In the midst of an invigorated domestic debate over the Drug War in the U.S., pulling such a trip off smoothly was certainly going to be tricky. But while diplomacy was clearly called for, McCaffrey, the old soldier, had his guns blazing even before he boarded the plane. Predictably, he shot himself in both feet.

The fiasco started days before his departure, when McCaffrey told a CNN audience that Dutch drug policy is "an unmitigated disaster." Needless to say, this did not go over too well with his soon-to-be hosts in The Netherlands. In response, the Dutch Embassy in Washington sent McCaffrey a private letter calling his remarks, and their timing, "curious" and "astonishing". McCaffrey's statement made one thing clear, however: he was not going to Europe to learn anything. Instead, it was obvious that he felt he already knew all that he needed to know about drug policy, and about the Dutch experience. Over the next several days he proceeded to show everyone, except perhaps himself, how wrong he was.

On the first day of his trip, during his stop in Sweden to praise their policies (which include police pulling kids out of nightspots on mere suspicion and forcibly drug-testing them), McCaffrey handed reporters a "fact booklet." Contained in that booklet, and reiterated by the man himself, was the claim that the "Dutch murder rate is double that of the U.S." In defense of the since-beleaguered Czar, the numbers themselves (17.58 homicides per 100,000 Dutch citizens, and 8.22 per 100,000 U.S. citizens) came from the international agency Interpol. But even casual observers of drug and crime policies knew immediately that something was way, way off. "That's drugs" McCaffrey crowed triumphantly, and questioned "why in the world they (the Dutch) think this is a success."

In fact, Interpol did have its numbers wrong. As they admitted later, they had included attempted murder with murder. The real murder rate in the Netherlands is 1.8 per hundred thousand, less than one-fourth the U.S. rate and among the lowest in the European Union. The Dutch government quickly challenged the claim, and McCaffrey and his office were called upon to retract the statement. But, warriors to the core, ONDCP would concede nothing. "Let's say (that's) right," retorted an ONDCP spokesperson when confronted with the numerical mix-up. "What you are left with is that they are a much more violent society and more inept [at murder], and that's not much to brag about." As curious as that statement is on its face, it is even more erroneous. According to the FBI, the corresponding U.S. rate (for aggravated assault-the U.S. doesn't keep a statistic for attempted murder) is over 20 times higher than in The Netherlands, at over 400 per hundred thousand.

Still later, another ONDCP spokesperson released a statement chiding The Netherlands for being pulled into a domestic policy argument in the U.S. The statement said that The Netherlands should "repudiate" the U.S. "legalizers" and further warned that nations ought to be aware of the impact of their policies and actions on the global community. That statement was retracted just hours later. One can only assume that even McCaffrey and the drug warriors could not attempt to pawn off such hypocrisy with a straight face. America, after all, exports its drug policy by twisting arms to insure that other nations, particularly source and trans-shipment countries, surrender enormous amounts of their own sovereignty in service to the U.S. war.

But if there is a level of self-awareness among the drug war's leadership, it is minimal at best. And the events of this past week illustrate well the crux of the problem.

Barry McCaffrey has spent his entire career as an officer in the United States Army. During the latter part of that career he was among the highest-ranking individuals in the armed forces. He is not accustom to being questioned, much less being called upon to admit he was wrong. And so, on one issue after another, be it the state of medical research on medical marijuana, the efficacy of needle exchange, the economic viability of industrial hemp, or the murder rate in The Netherlands, Barry McCaffrey, even when proven wrong publicly and emphatically, simply cannot admit defeat.

And this is the problem with our entire drug policy, really. Prohibition, for eighty years ineffectual and counter-productive, does not, cannot work. But no one, not the ex-general, not the bureaucrats whose careers depend upon it, not our representatives who play to the fears of the electorate and not our President who famously didn't inhale, no one will admit that the emperor has no clothes.

It is disturbing, to say the least, that a public servant such as McCaffrey, the man we are paying to lead us out of the morass of youth drug abuse and drug-related violence, is so consistently and spectacularly wrong on the facts. Even more disturbing is that he is so self-certain that he feels comfortable making determinations before he has even seen the evidence. But most disturbing of all perhaps, is that he refuses to admit error in the face of insurmountable evidence and that indicates that he will never learn.

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