What's missing from the drug war debate?

The Drug Czar's Congressional Testimony at 1st Congressional Drug Legalization Hearings

By G. Patrick Callahan, Prisoner of the Drug War

On July 12 in a little publicized and stacked congressional hearing, the thorny subject of drug legalization was discussed, a remarkably long overdue event. Representatives from the Drug Policy Foundation and other reform groups braved the heaviest flak since the raid on Schweinfurt. I was provided with a transcript of Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey's testimony and in the interest of Truth, Justice and the American Way, I am compelled to comment upon his statistic-riddled presentation.

Mr. McCaffrey began by stating that "proponents of legalization really want easy access to all drugs of abuse." He claimed that, to get their way, drug policy reformists were willing to use "deceptive claims, half-truths and flawed logic to hawk ill-considered beliefs." This was assumably done with a straight face, from the same crowd that brought us propaganda like "Reefer Madness" and will give us mankind's first ever Drug Free Century over our dead or imprisoned bodies. This is the same demagoguery that has, via the drug war, transformed the Land of the Free into the world's largest concentration camp.

What these infernal prima donnas miss in the drug debate is that this country is comprised of a full spectrum of individuality, from military-industrialists like General McCaffrey to rather more gentle persons such as the ex-hippies I knew who settled in Bisbee, Arizona at the end of the Sixties. These people saved what had become a ghost town; they worked, paid taxes, raised their children, smoked some dope and lived simple, productive and contented lives. Most of them favor marijuana over beer and are horrified at killing raggedy Muslim soldiers in the name of Big Oil or starving their children to death through embargo. Drug policy reformists understand the deep-seated hypocrisy defining current dogma, and I daresay they comprehend that not all of us want to be Desert Stormers or cogs in the Wall Street machine.

Violence and corruption were naturally commonplace during alcohol prohibition and threatened basic institutions: the police, the courts and even local political machinery, not to mention the innocent bystander. Disrespect and fear of the government for its increasingly heavy-handed tactics grew exponentially. If this sounds familiar, it ought to. When things started really getting out of hand, reformists and philanthropists, mothers and, finally, politicians, moved to abolish the so-called "noble experiment" that had so badly mauled American society. The drug war is probably about one hundred times worse than Prohibition at it's nadir.

So it is shameful mendacity for McCaffrey and his hidebound philosophical followers to isolate the legalization aspect of the drug debate and slander and belittle reform-minded individuals such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center and others, without: acknowledging the total failure of current policy and the very urgent need for reform. This isn't about drug legalization, but rather preserving our basic institutions and freedoms and putting an end to the incessant criminalization of large segments of this population.
The Drug Czar's testimony machine-gunned statistics left and right, but many of the cartridges were blanks; for instance: "each year drug use contributes to 50,000 deaths." We of the November Coalition keep very close track on these kind of statistics and we have never seen such a high figure for drug mortality quoted anywhere. We are also suspicious of the qualifier "contributes to." What does that mean, anyway? Anyone can spew statistics, but bureaucrats cannot seem to deal with self-evident truth. McCaffrey then smugly added, "We all have an obligation to be honest about our motives." Indeed we do, and the reformist's cards are on the table: someone has to stop this country from becoming one vast gulag. Having said that, we must also make it clear that reformists aren't advocating drug use any more than the government advocates alcohol consumption. What we are urging is a more sensible, workable, and less destructive policy. The government's has not merely failed, it has failed catastrophically.

The Drug Czar also gave Congress a lurid account of five young girls who were killed in a car wreck. The driver lost control because she had been "huffing" a chemical solvent to get high. "Three of the passengers were also found to have used the drug," said McCaffrey. "Five young people, all with bright futures, are dead because of drug use behind the wheel." What drug use? Is the Drug Czar suggesting that we put Pam on the controlled substance schedule, perhaps a sentencing guideline range between level 22 and 24 depending upon how long you've sprayed your frying pan? This is the kind of misdirection the government excels at and we are tired of it.

The General also made the eye-popping inference that reformists had "conjured up a 'drug war.'" In other words, that we had somehow coined the term, not the government, a real visit to Disneyland since it was President Reagan who, on national television, formally declared war on drugs. The Drug Czar capped this foray into the fantasical with the comment that "Those of us who have experienced combat know that such supply-side efforts are a far cry from 'war'."

But there are large numbers of combat veterans doing overly harsh prison sentences who will tell the Czar that when a government takes a person's home and all he possesses; when it destroys his marriage and separates him from his children, leaving them homeless and destitute; when hooded combat-clad stormtroopers splinter his doors, cursing and smashing everyone to the floor and in far too many cases shooting to kill, it's war, buster. It's war when a person is sent to a concentration camp a thousand miles from home. The policies McCaffrey touts have waged this war upon ten million families thus far. Any inordinate term of imprisonment sounds the death knell for these families and casts the children adrift.

Never once in the Drug Czar's testimony was the societal damage of waging this war addressed. With a martini in one hand and an eight dollar cigar in the other, neo-puritans want to make drug law violators pay with their very lives (hiccup). While this might succeed were this country a fundamentalist state, it cannot do so with the glaring paradox of alcohol and nicotine, neither substance of which is addressed, by the way, in the Drug Czar's upcoming $2 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Don't do drugs, kids, but my, aren't those frogs in the Budweiser commercials precious? The government derives enormous tax revenue from alcohol production and sales and we are suspicious that this has something to do with the nature of the media campaign's target, which of itself sends a mixed message.

Ultimately, General McCaffrey gave Congress his glowing promise of reinforcing the Southwest border, increasingly more difficult when ten to twenty percent of the border enforcement cadre is corrupted with drug money. And then there is NAFTA, studiously ignored by the Czar, which has put holes in the border you can literally drive trucks through. In 1996, of nearly three million trucks entering the United States from Mexico, U.S. Customs inspected fewer than three percent.

At the bottom line there is this: the Drug Czar rightly described the 2000 mile border with Mexico as a six million square mile transit zone roughly the size of the continental United States. It is a three dimensional enormity of land, sea and airspace. By comparison is the prison I now reside in, a miniscule, tightly controlled environment, the real iron-fist, replete with strip searches and random sweeps, body scanning equipment, metal detectors and video camera surveillance everywhere at all times. Any prisoner can obtain any illegal drug, from LSD and marijuana to heroin and cocaine. Yet this is what the Drug Czar breathlessly told Congress: "We will create a seamless curtain against drugs... This curtain will not be iron but information-derived from technology and intelligence. It will be held in place by good organization and shared commitment."

If this sounds like Vietnam deja vu, that's because it was uttered by a man with that same 35-year-old mindset. This shiny-eyed drivel needs to be doused with a cold splash of reality. Like Vietnam, the hearts and minds just aren't in this thing. The drug war has made Mexico­­where poverty yet reigns supreme­­a staging ground for contraband that equals wealth. The border, in particular, is a magnet where precious dollars can be earned - albeit illegally from the American viewpoint - by the lowliest farmer. Our prisons are brimming with these mexican farmers and the taxpayer is footing the bill.

And then there is the Central Intelligence Agency, implicated in more drug running than all drug lords combined. The Chicago Tribune several years ago called it the Cocaine Importation Agency for its role in the Contra War. DEA Supervisory Agent Hook, lately returned from Southeast Asia, has attested to CIA complicity in the heroin trade in that region.

One might even go so far as to say that drug enforcement efforts are, therefore, much ado about nothing, as is all the bombast over them. We suspect that, at least in the case of marijuana, the government places too much emphasis upon it and, by getting scientifically and medically slam-dunked at every turn, advertises it in a perverse sort of way. The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was recently asked about Canada's marijuana problem and he cracked a wry smile. He replied that Canada doesn't have a marijuana problem because it chooses not to, that only the United States has a marijuana problem. In all the western world, we are the only country that pits so much manpower and money, so much criminal justice time, resources and effort, into enforcing marijuana laws.

Stephen Sidney, M.D., Associate Director For Clinical Research, Kaiser Permanente had this to say of the General's new goals, "During the past year, drug czar General Barry MaCaffrey announced 97 new goals for the program. The most notable is that of cutting illegal drug user as well as the drug supply itself, by half within the next ten years . . . The record of failure for goals set ten years ago, and the lack of fundamental change in the approach to drug control, makes it unreasonable to believe that these 97 new goals will be met. It is time for politicians to drop expensive programs based upon strategies that do not work. If we are to be truly effective in decreasing drug user we must demand thoughtful alternative policies."

Despite the overall, entrenched business as usual rhetoric he used, there were some hopeful notes to Mr. McCaffrey's testimony. He said that mandatory sentencing should be abolished and we are grateful for that. He stated that judges needed more say in sentencing matters and we concur. He told the committee that drug treatment, rather than prison, should be expanded, and more drug treatment should be offered behind bars as well. But none of this goes far enough; it fails to condemn a drug sentencing system that is nothing short of evil.

Most people sentenced to prison terms for drug possession and conspiracy, whether at the state or federal level, are not necessarily addicts, but usually rather bootleggers and, in the scheme of things, neither are they kingpins, who can usually bargain or buy their way out of a stiff sentence (or any sentence at all). Most people imprisoned in the drug war are not the "hardened criminals" McCaffrey alluded to in his testimony. I am surrounded by these alleged desperados and half of them couldn't punch their way out of the proverbial wet sack. Nearly all of them were family men with homes and jobs and, tragically, with wives and kids. These are not Al Capones nor extras from Miami vice reruns, They are, nevertheless, being given extremely harsh sentences for a disproven concept called deterrence. They are sentenced under guidelines called a catastrophic mistake by their own creators. We have almost two million people in prisons and jails in the United States and roughly half are drug law violators generally doing more time than violent predators. Along with all the other drug war mistakes, this one must be addressed and is the most urgent: overly harsh punishment is an injustice and unworthy of this society; it is cruel, if no longer unusual in the United States.

Finally, there is this: nearly half a million prisoners exit confinement and rejoin the free world every year. What do they feel about this government once it has disassembled the very fabric of their lives? What do their families think when they see the excesses of the American criminal justice system, the venality, the injustice, the draconian sentencing, the outrageous asset forfeitures? Can this government possibly believe that these people are more closely bonded to it, or are they perhaps irrevocably and dangerously estranged from it?