Drug Bust: The Longest War

 Geraldo Rivera NBC Special


A war is being waged at this very moment in the United States­­a war the White House declared 31 years ago. The "War on Drugs" has cost hundreds of billions, yet 4 million Americans are addicted today; hundreds of thousands are in prison and many drugs are cheaper and more accessible than ever. On Sunday, June 20, NBC News presented "Drug Bust, The Longest War," an hour-long special reported by Geraldo Rivera, that explored the war on drugs.

In numbers and through the lives of those addicted, the special examines how we're fighting the war and asks the question: have we in fact already lost the war-and is this a national policy heading nowhere? "Drug Bust" investigates why drugs continue to flow into the US at an alarming rate, our government's precarious partnership with Mexico and why addicts seeking treatment often end up incarcerated.

Border War

NBC News examines the United States' interdiction policy playing out at the world's busiest border crossing, San Ysidro, CA, where smugglers try to outwit Customs inspectors on a daily basis. Rivera interviews players on both sides of the United States' $57 billion drug habit: a seasoned senior Customs inspector known for finding drugs and a veteran smuggler who made a fortune almost beating the system. The special also visits the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center at March Air Force Base in Riverside, CA where the Government's most sophisticated air radar system ever built tracks every plane entering the US while smugglers relentlessly poke holes in the operation. Yet, after all the effort, the US government only stops 5-10% of the drugs coming across its borders, the same percentage they've been getting for years.

Mexico... Business as Usual?

The special's in-depth investigation into the US alliance with Mexico reveals a partner in the war on drugs has now become the primary source for the drugs entering America-a staging ground for smugglers. With 70% of the drugs sold in the US produced in or shipped through Mexico and all too many in the Mexican government on the payrolls of the cartels, Mexican anti-drug efforts last year were mostly a disaster, according to many US Senators. Rivera also speaks with Jesus Blancornelas, a fearless Mexican journalist upon whom an assassination attempt was made for exposing the corruption all around him.

The Treatment Gap

"Drug Bust" examines why those addicts who really do want to get help have an easier time getting drugs than treatment. A drug budget of close to $18 billion last year provided only 3 billion, 17%, for treatment. Rivera speaks with addicts in San Diego struggling to get treatment only to discover there simply aren't enough beds. He speaks with top treatment professional Jeanne McAlister, the founder of the McAlister Institute, a Southern California treatment clinic, who explains the outcome when addicts don't get help, "Death or incarceration, and that's it. Those are the alternatives." In the special, Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey acknowledges that America has a 50% treatment gap.

"Drug Bust" also explores the human toll on the American side of the border as the supply and demand for drugs continue to rise. In San Diego, Rivera speaks with a group of middle class, well-educated heroin addicts who defy the stereotype of a heroin user. With the cost of dope going down, many middle class users are entering the ranks of America's four million hard-core users. Senator Diane Feinstein (D), a member of the Senate caucus on international narcotics control has seen the price of drugs in California drop dramatically, "In my state you see the cocaine-street price of cocaine-is at a five year low."

The Prisoners of the Drug War

Each year, more than a million and a half people are arrested on drug violations, sending addicts and many casual users flowing into America's jails and prisons and creating a boom in prison construction. Rivera visits Riker's Island jail in New York City to meet the men behind bars for drug offenses. Although treatment is offered at Riker's Island jail, the special finds that treatment is not available to the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. At Bedford Prison in New York state, Rivera visits with inmates who have extraordinarily long sentences for apparent minor offenses-under New York's mandatory minimum Rockefeller drug laws. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters tells NBC News she is particularly concerned about the apparent racial imbalance in sentencing, "Black and browns are being incarcerated at a rate that's literally destroying our communities."

The special overviewed a major American story that has been out of the headlines and off the radar for years-the drug war. It's a story that has never gone away and continues to cost us billions of dollars every year in incarceration, addiction and human misery.