The War on Drugs – Observations from the Front
Dan Cain, President of RS Eden, has 34 years experience in the Chemical Dependency Field as counselor, supervisor and administrator, and has been Chair and CEO of numerous chemical dependency coalitions. Formerly incarcerated himself, Mr. Cain has been awarded the 1991 Corrections Person of the Year and the 2007 Hazelden C.A.R.E. Award for continuous service to the recovery community.
Substance abuse, while existing since the beginning of recorded history, remains enigmatic. And proposed solutions to it have ranged from tolerance, to prohibition, to treatment, to draconian punishment, depending on the politics of the moment.
For many of those alive today, our experience with, and awareness of, illegal substances began in the 1960’s, when we were faced with an influx of illegal drugs, when the mood of the day was one of tolerance and free expression, when the populace was looking for answers to, among other things, an unpopular war and disenchantment with the status quo, and when the explosion of young people; early baby boomers; began to become a political force. Use of marijuana, the most commonly used illegal substance, was largely ignored. For those convicted of possession of drugs like heroin and cocaine, statutes generally called for an indeterminate sentence of 0-5 years with most of those convicted being placed on probation. Treatment, outside of fledgling 12 step programs directed primarily at alcoholism, was limited largely to two separate National Institute of Mental Health, Clinical Research Centers; one located in Lexington, Kentucky and the other in Fort Worth, Texas. Under the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, they were designed to do little more than provide a six month respite, in a secure setting.
However, the mood changed dramatically in 1969 shortly after a series of murders in Southern California by perpetrators commonly referred to as the Manson Family. The high-profile crimes shocked the nation and, since the assailants were stereotyped as “drug crazed hippies”, the tolerant attitude was replaced by one of fear and trepidation.
The term “War on Drugs” was first coined by Richard Nixon in 1971, when he signed into law legislation appropriating $155 million. For whatever reason, whether because he saw a reduction in substance abuse as the keystone to a reduction in crime, because of the high number of Viet-Nam veterans who were returning as narcotic addicts, or for some other more political or less utilitarian reason, $105 million of that was targeted toward treatment and rehabilitation, and only $50 million toward enforcement and interdiction. So the original “War on Drugs” could more appropriately be termed a “War on Drug Abuse”.
The system response continued to focus on rehabilitation throughout much of the 1970’s, however the demand for treatment resulted in a growing number of treatment programs and increased costs per treatment episode. While there was still an emphasis on publically funded treatment, in the late 1970’s we initiated efforts to control costs by reducing treatment stays and expanding the use of outpatient services, and to improve outcomes by implementing various costly, but usually inconsistent, gate-keeping functions. Program lengths of stay were dramatically reduced to accommodate access issues and reduced resources. Effectiveness suffered.
The direction took a dramatic turn with the advent of a new decade, perhaps because of a change in administration, possibly due to awareness of how drug profits were used to finance armed, worldwide, political disturbances or maybe because of the lucrative drug trade being used to finance street gangs. The emphasis became interdiction and enforcement and the treatment response was reduced dramatically. People were told to “Just Say No” to drugs. (one of the more cynical responses to the “Just Say No” campaign came from Abbie Hoffman, a 1960’s radical who opined that telling an addict to “Just Say No” was like telling someone who was clinically depressed to “Just Cheer Up”)
Our policies became somewhat schizophrenic throughout the early part of the decade. Decisions about the dangers of, and political response to, a particular drug were rooted in politics and preference more than pharmacology or potential for harm. For example, marijuana users were again vilified and taunted with messages such as, “if you smoke marijuana, you bear responsibility for the torture and death of Enrique Camarena (a DEA agent killed in Mexico)”. Yet during the same time frame, cocaine use was largely tolerated, presumably because it was the drug of choice for socialites, sports figures and entertainers. It was not until cocaine was marketed as “crack”, a concentrated form of the drug that was more affordable to the lower class, that we developed a more measured response. Prior to 1985, the Minnesota Legislature, and by extension the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, treated sale and possession of cocaine in the same vein as sale and possession of marijuana, with drugs like heroin and methamphetamine prescribed much harsher penalties. In 1985, cocaine penalties were changed by the MSGC to coincide with those for heroin. Shortly thereafter, after defining “crack” as a new and more dangerous drug than cocaine, the legislature took this so called “war” one step further by delineating drug crimes by the amount of drug possessed or sold, and by extension made the penalty for “crack” ten times harsher than the ones for powdered cocaine and heroin. Ultimately this law was overturned as being racially discriminatory as a result of the disparate impact on communities of color.
Our efforts continued to be skewed toward enforcement and interdiction throughout the next several years and in 1989 the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was established. Bill Bennett, whose conservative credentials went unchallenged (until a gambling addiction was uncovered years later), was named the new “Drug Czar”. The purpose of the new ONDCP was to produce a National Drug Control Strategy. The strategy was, control the borders and imprison users.
It was also in 1989 that the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission essentially doubled the penalties for most drug crimes.
With few exceptions we have continued down the path of enforcement and incarceration, with less regard for rehabilitation, for the past 18 years. One of those exceptions has been the advent, and subsequent growth of the drug court movement. In recognition of the need to have both enforcement/accountability and rehabilitation, select court systems formed partnership with the local treatment communities to work in concert with select offenders. These complimentary unions of two systems, with the intent to keep people in their communities has shown promise not only in reducing drug crime, but also in helping people progress toward law abiding, self-sufficient lifestyles.
The positive impact of our actions over the past 4 decades is debatable. Per capita spending on enforcement, interdiction and incarceration is up. We seize more drugs at our borders than at any point in history. Per capita spending on treatment is lower than it has been since the 1970’s. Drug crimes account for the largest growth area in prison populations, and the number of people in prison today is four times what it was in 1980. Populations of color within the corrections system have expanded exponentially. And drug use, as well as drug related crime, has not noticeably declined. On the other hand, there is no way of knowing the outcome had other approaches been followed. The presumption has been, remove drugs and drug users from the community and both drug use and other crimes will go down. Neither of those seem to have happened, but what we don’t know is how bad it would be if we had gone in another direction.
While writing this, I was contacted by a local radio station to get my reaction to the relaxation of FBI eligibility rules. Previously, perspective agents needed to swear under oath that they had not used illegal drugs other than marijuana, and had not used marijuana in over 15 years. The new change only required that they swear they hadn’t used illegal drugs in the recent past, defined as anything less than three years. My reaction was, after one president admittedly smoked marijuana but allegedly didn’t inhale, and another refused to deny using cocaine, an FBI agent who had previously smoked cannibis seemed tame. Furthermore the change was probably motivated by recruiting demands. Given the widespread experimentation of more tolerant times, the Bureau was faced with the lesser of two evils, either accept someone who experimented with drugs, or accept someone you intuitively know to be lying under oath. Similar to the armed forces, the Bureau was undoubtedly faced with either accepting previously disqualifying behavior, or having a candidate pool too small to meet the need. The bright point in all this is that major bureaucratic institutions relaxing their rules may be a signal that we are finally willing to accept that people make mistakes and can not only change, but make major contributions.
As a Nation, over the past 40 years, we have declared war on poverty, war on hunger, war on crime, war on terrorism, war on drugs and war on other countries. War implies casualties. And in the War on Drugs, if not in all these testosterone laden euphemisms, people in poverty and people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the casualty counts. By focusing our efforts on punishment at the expense of rehabilitation, we have created many casualties, not only in the present tense, but for the foreseeable future, since 98% of those imprisoned will eventually be released. And, unless our sole objective in this war was to marginalize whole segments of our population, none of our efforts so far have resulted in victory, at least not by any traditional standard.
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