America's Lonely Drug War

With the confirmation of John Walters as the new drug czar, the US is committing itself to a punishment-based War on Drugs -- even as most of its allies are declaring cease-fires.

| Fri Dec. 14, 2001 4:00 AM EST

Last December 5th marked the 68th anniversary of the effective end of Prohibition, drawing to close this nation's "noble experiment" with criminalizing alcohol. So it seems ironic that it was also the day on which the United States Senate confirmed John P. Walters as the new director of the Office of National Drug Policy -- the nation's drug czar.

Walters, who spent much of the 90s working in various positions at the federal office he will now lead, has a track record of opposing measures like syringe exchanges while supporting large-scale incarceration for drug users and military action to stop drug production in places like Colombia and Peru. His appointment is the clearest sign yet that the Bush administration is committed to a punishment-based approach to the problems caused by illegal drugs, undeterred by a growing consensus both at home and abroad that the War on Drugs is as ill-conceived as the war on alcohol nearly seven decades ago.

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Over the past five years, Americans have voted in favor of nearly every significant state initiative to reform drug policies, from legalizing medical marijuana in Arizona, to banning the seizure of assets of accused but unconvicted drug dealers in Oregon, to last year's Proposition 36 in California which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for drug users. In most cases, that public support came despite strong opposition from the federal government.

Our allies in Europe have gone much further. The US has had no firmer friend in Europe than the United Kingdom. But even as the UK has enlisted wholeheartedly in the war on terror, it has taken steps towards declaring peace in the War on Drugs.

In late October, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the British government will soon abandon the policy of arresting people for marijuana possession. Blunkett also indicated that the New Labour government is ready to discuss expanding the medically-supervised distribution of heroin to addicts, while some Labour members in Parliament have called for reducing the penalties for the manufacture, sale and possession of Ecstasy.

"The drug war, in Western Europe at least, is essentially over," says Paul Flynn, a Labour member of Parliament since 1987 . "Our course is irreversibly moving toward legalized, regulated markets in so-called soft drugs, availability of drugs like opiates for those who are addicted through various health systems, and a more pragmatic approach to substance abuse generally throughout Europe."

Far from being trendsetters in this regard, Britain trails every European Union nation other than Sweden in moving away form criminally-enforced prohibition, according to a survey by the European Non-Governmental Organizations Council on Drugs and Development, an umbrella group of advocacy organizations. Holland led the shift starting back in the 1970s, when it "normalized" the cannabis trade -- meaning that over the counter sales were tolerated, though not exactly legal. Dutch policymakers hoped that, by separating out the market for "soft" drugs like marijuana from that of "hard" drugs like cocaine and heroin, marijuana users would be less likely to come into contact with more addictive and dangerous substances. That approach seems to have yielded results.

In its latest annual report on drug use, released last month, the European Union's European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that Britain and Ireland rank highest among EU nations in per capita use of cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine. Per capita usage in the Netherlands, the report indicates, is significantly lower. The incidence of intravenous and long-term regular use of opiates, cocaine or amphetamines is also two to three times higher in the UK than in the Netherlands, the report indicates.

Due in part to the success of the Dutch model, most Western European countries have over the past five years begun to soften their approach to personal use of most drugs. Spain and Germany no longer arrest people for possession of "soft" drugs such as marijuana, and this year, Portugal essentially decriminalized drug possession altogether.

More controversially, some EU countries are experimenting with programs under which registered addicts can receive legal, measured doses of heroin, along with other health and social services. Switzerland has established such programs as part of its overall health policy, and the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Denmark are launching pilot programs.

Several European countries are also testing the benefits of safe injection rooms, places where IV drug users can shoot up under some level of medical supervision. Although the data is still inconclusive, several studies suggest that these facilitites can help reduce the incidence of fatal overdoses and syringe sharing. In Frankfurt, for instance, where injection rooms have been open since 1994, city officials report that overdose fatalities declined from 147 in 1992 to 26 in 1999. There are now injection rooms operating in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. City officials in Vancouver, Canada are also considering opening an injection room.

In the US, of course, things are different -- as Walters' nomination makes clear.

"In Europe, the drug problem is viewed as a collection of consequences -- AIDS, crime, addiction -- which must be dealt with. Not so here, where we tend to look at drug use and intoxication as a moral issue," says Eric Sterling, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Indeed, the man set to become America's newest drug czar objects to treatment-based approaches for moral reasons. In 1996, Walters indicated that he opposed syringe exchange on moral grounds; but data from major national and international health organizations -- including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS -- indicate that exchange programs reduce the spread of deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, without increasing drug use.

Walters has also told Congress that he believes foreign drug interdiction programs are "cheap and effective," even though a 1994 federal Government Accounting Office study found that "the supply of illegal drugs reaching the United States via Central America continues virtually uninterrupted, despite years of US drug interdiction efforts." A study the same year by the RAND Corporation, a private research institute, showed that monies spent on treatment are twenty-three times more effective at lowering drug use than those spent on interdiction.

In 1996 Walters, then the president of a private think tank, urged Congress to increase support for a Peruvian policy of shooting suspected drug planes out of the sky, rejecting experts' concerns that the practice would put innocent travellers at risk. Last April, US support for that program was withdrawn after the Peruvian military shot down a plane carrying an American missionary and her daughter -- but no drugs.

Walters has also defended the practice of jailing drug offenders, rejecting arguments that too many Americans are imprisoned for simple drug possession and that drug sentences are too long as "among the great urban myths of our time." Walters clings to his beliefs despite the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Thanks largely to the kinds of policies Walters would continue, the US holds more prisoners for drug crimes than are imprisoned in Western Europe for all crimes combined, according to the British Home Office and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

By 1933, 14 years after its inception, it was clear that alcohol prohibition was a disaster. Crime and homicide rates had increased. Machine gun-toting gangsters had become counter-culture icons. Impure black market alcohol was causing blindess, disease and death. Governmental and police corruption was rampant. Children easily obtained alcohol, drinking out of hip flasks, the status symbol of the time.

Nevertheless, to its champions, Prohibition was seen as indistinguishable from society's "message" that excessive drink was a bad and a dangerous thing. How could we stand firm against the sins of drunkenness, spousal and child abuse, violence and wasted promise, if our laws permitted the legal sale of such deadly stuff? What we needed, according to Prohibitionists, was to re-double our efforts. Those who sought to overturn Prohibition, the hardliners argued, were giving up on our nation, on our quest for an alcohol-free society, on our children.

"We represent here to-day not only organizations of women, but, as a whole, we represent the home, the school, the church, and we stand firmly for no amendment to the eighteenth amendment ... but rather a strengthening," Mrs. Henry Peabody, President of the Women's National Committee for Law Enforcement, told the Senate Judiary Committee on Prohibition in 1926. "We stand for strict law enforcement. ... It is never the policy of a good mother or teacher to say the children are disobedient -- therefore let us give in to them and let them do as they like."

How little things change. Last month, William Bennett, Walters' former boss at ONDCP, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging Walters' speedy confirmation and accusing the Clinton administration -- which oversaw a doubling of the drug war budget and record levels of arrests and incarceration -- of "all but giving up" on our children. It is time, said Bennett, not to "go soft" but to "push back."

Today, around the world, in England, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Canada, a new consensus is emerging. It is one which sees substance abuse as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue. It seeks pragmatic solutions to the problems of addiction, crime and AIDS. Here at home, voters are making a statement at the ballot box that moral absolutism might be a fine opinion, but it makes lousy law. Walters and the Bush administration, however, have yet to get the message.

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