“This is more serious than the Vietnam War, it really is. It could go to the fabric of America and destroy it.” – William Donald Schaefer, Governor of Maryland.
THE president and other government leaders often tell us that we are in a “war on drugs.” Do you see any evidence at all that the government is waging a “war?” Do you think the plan produced by the drug czar, William H. Bennett, will have any effect at all on the drug traffic? The drug czar is said to be well pleased with the progress that has been made. The city of Washington, D.C., was chosen as a demonstration city for his program. Has drug traffic in the city been affected at all by the federal program? One thing is pretty well agreed upon – the drug situation in the city is worse than it was a year ago. A police official when recently asked by a Washington Post reporter about the federal program said, “We’ve seen no sign of it.”
A war is going on all right, but the government is not a party to it. The war is between drug dealers, and it is mostly being fought in our inner cities, and the purpose of it is solely to establish and defend territories for particular drug dealers and organized drug distributors. The police and the government have no part in it except to gather up the victims each day and announce the body count. A Washington chief of police said the violence in Washington would eventually end when a drug distributor was strong enough to establish the city as his territory. In other words the drug dealers would eventually be the ones to establish the peace and it will be on their terms. As in any war quite a few of the victims are innocent bystanders who happen to be in the line of fire.
As long as the war remains in the inner cities, nothing will be done about it. It is mainly blacks killing blacks, and our society doesn’t care diddly damn about that. It is not uncommon for black leaders to feel that it is all a conspiracy against blacks. I don’t think it is a conspiracy, but it might as well be – indifference has much the same effect. Eventually the war will spread to the suburbs and to the small towns, and then the public will begin to care. Recall the example from the troubled 60’s. It was not until the national guard shot white students at Kent State that the public started questioning the policy of shooting at children.
The drug war will move to the white areas, and it will probably happen soon. Already some southern towns have been invaded by drug dealers who have overwhelmed the local police. If newspaper accounts are correct, Selma, Alabama, for instance, has a drug problem worthy of a big city. So far in Selma, though, it is the Selma blacks who are bearing the brunt of the invasion. But if society is not color blind, we can depend on drugs being so, and everyone in Selma and elsewhere will eventually be a victim, one way or another, of the drug traffic. In the Washington area, Prince George’s County and northern Virginia are already feeling the effects of the war. Open-air drug markets can be found in both , and the turf war has spilled over from D.C.
If anything at all is to be done about the drug traffic, we must first recognize who is responsible for it. It is not the Peruvian farmers, not the Colombian cartel chiefs, not the drug importers, not the distributors, not the street sellers, not the addicts. The person responsible for the drug situation is the recreational user. This is easy to prove. The drug traffic exists for only one reason – money. So much money that is worth any risk. It is said that in the drug business of Washington, D.C., dozens of street dealers can stand at the curb in one block, and each of them sell several thousand dollars worth of cocaine each night.
To whom are they selling? Certainly not to each other; certainly not to inner city blacks. Who has this kind of money? Only one group has it – the group that can afford to pay a billion dollars for one airplane, the group that can afford billions for bail-outs of savings and loans – the common, every-day, middle-class citizen – he’s the only possible source when the figures get into the billions. I guess no one really knows the retail value of the drugs sold per year, but it has been estimated at $150 billion. It is certainly one of the nation’s largest industries. The recreational drug user, the one actually responsible for the drug trade, is seldom mentioned by anyone as a major contributor to the problem.
Some months ago, when President Bush announced the plan for his war on drugs, it was clear that the total effort was to be on the supply side. Great undertakings were to be made in Columbia and Peru to stop the drug production, more interdiction was to be made, and jails were to be built to permit greater penalties for drug sellers and distributors. Hardly a word was said about the real problem – the demand side. Why do politicians so seldom mention the real source of the problem? Is it because it includes a large portion of the voting public?
Why does the drug problem seem so intractable? We have an excellent example in the prohibition of alcohol. The public wanted alcohol, and was willing to spend the necessary money to obtain it, and nothing the government could do had much effect on the production and distribution of alcohol. Bootleggers flourished, turf wars became common, and gangsterism was fostered by prohibition. If you compare the difficulties in distribution of alcohol with that of drug distribution, you will begin to recognize the problem. One can carry drugs in a brief case which are worth more than a truck load of liquor. Nothing can stop the drug traffic as long as the middle class American wants drugs available for his recreational use.
It is virtually hopeless to try to force the Colombian or Peruvian farmer to quit growing plants which are his only hope of income, but suppose these two sources completely dried up. How long do you think it would take for some other supplier to fill the gap? The federal and state governments are unable to prevent marijuana from being a major crop in California, Oregon, and Hawaii. How successfully can the U.S. police the crops of the world?
Attacking the distribution side is next to useless. I saw a TV interview of a teen-aged boy who was a member of one of the Los Angeles gangs which flourish by drug distribution. He had been arrested and sent to jail for trying to establish a drug turf in the east for his gang. He said, “It’s not just me; there’s thousands of us.” In fact there is an unlimited number of distributors and street salesmen. “One’s born every minute,” someone echoed Barnum. You could jail them by the tens of thousands and there would be immediate replacement.
Nor is it easy to see what could be done in the inner city. Suppose the government made a massive effort to increase employment in the city. Right now an 11-year-old boy can make $100 a night by simply serving as a lookout to warn street dealers of the approach of a policeman. The street dealer makes a thousand dollars or more each evening. What kind of jobs are you going to offer these people? Do you think they will be satisfied to work for minimum wages in a fast-food outlet? As it now stands, an uneducated, unskilled man can have a job that gives him the income to live in the style that he sees on TV. Who can really blame him?
Can drugs be interdicted? About the highest interdiction rate that is claimed by the DEA is 5% – like a sales tax. In September 1989, the police and drug agents discovered and confiscated a cache of 21.4 tons of cocaine. Shortly after that, caches of over 14 tons were seized. The removal of nearly 36 tons of cocaine did not affect the price or quality on the local market according to the L.A. police.
The street value of the seized cocaine was estimated to be about $11 billion, but it was not enough to affect the market price. Washington’s largest drug dealer was said at one time to be delivering 200 kilograms every week to the Washington market – over a half-million dollars worth per day. When he was arrested, and his contribution to the market stopped (at least temporarily) it caused no change in the local market. Price, supply, and quality were judged by the police not to have been affected.
What can be done about the drug traffic? I believe there are several things that will have to be done, and that while some of them are dangerous and unpalatable, sooner or later, they will have to come, and I believe all of them have to be done to have any hope of solving the problem. They are:
1. Face the fact that present methods are not working.
2. Correctly identify who causes the drug problem.
3. Legalize drugs.
4. Establish and maintain drug treatment facilities.
5. Sponsor propaganda to make drugs unfashionable.
6. Bring some semblance of social reform to the ghetto.
We have only superficially to observe what is current to see that step one is self-evident. A tiny bit more of the same (the president’s plan) will clearly make little difference.
The Governor of Maryland, William Donald Shaefer, is the only politician I know of who has named the drug user as the source of the problem. Until this is agreed upon, all efforts will be misplaced and will have little effect. Estimates on the number of recreational drug users range up to 20 million. Again, as argued earlier, the real proof of widespread use among the middle-class American is in the money that makes drugs one of our largest businesses.
The only way to stop the violence and crime associated with drugs is to legalize drugs. We have a perfect example in the case of alcohol. Alcohol, right now, is our chief drug problem, but it is a medical and social problem, it is not a criminal problem. Legalizing drugs would overnight solve the violence and crime problem which is now associated with the drug traffic. We could essentially forget about our massive interdiction and enforcement efforts and concentrate on treating the cause of the problem.
Cocaine is estimated to cost, at the source, about 5% of its street price. Legal drugs could be priced at a level where bootlegging would be unprofitable and still supply funds for all the rest of the program. Overnight we would not have a crime problem, only a medical one. There is little doubt that legalizing drugs would increase the use of them, and it is a very unpopular idea with the general public. We have not reached the state where legalization is possible (legislators would not dare vote for it), but I believe it will come. Persuasive arguments were given for legalization by Ethan A. Nadelmann in Science magazine.
With the money derived from drug sales, free treatment facilities could be established and operated. Now they are opened with much publicity and then quietly allowed to expire when operating funds are cut. It is said that 10% of people who use any mood altering drug (including alcohol) will become addicted. Addiction should be recognized and treated as what it is – a medical problem with, at present, no solution except withdrawal and abstinence.
The government should actively sponsor and finance a propaganda campaign to make drugs unfashionable for social occasions. TV can literally change our habits. Consider some of the unlikely products that we now use routinely for no other reason than that we have been taught to do so by TV advertising. If people can be persuaded to believe that artificially-faded denim is valuable, they can surely be taught that drugs are uncouth. That social usage can change is clear in the changed attitudes about smoking and in the decreasing use of hard liquor on social occasions. These changes have come about with no government support.
Something would have to be done to help the inner-city people. Legalization would dry up the biggest source of income for them and make them more desperate than ever. This problem will have to be faced sooner or later anyway; we cannot continue to have unemployment rates of 30% or more in a whole group and maintain social stability.
There is still some way to go before the public becomes concerned enough about the drug traffic and its related violence to adopt such radical changes, but it is clear that present methods are not working, and that the drug problem is constantly growing worse. Radical and unpalatable actions may well become necessary.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Airport Bold. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 380 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
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