THE NATION	(weekly U.S. progressive magazine)

23 March 1998

The Wrong Drug War

The annual foreign-policy farce called drug certification, in which the 
Administration verifies that a foreign government is (or is not) cooperating 
in the fight against drugs, passed on March 1 with relatively little 
controversy. Mexico was re-certified for aid, Colombia had its sanctions 
lifted and a handful of strategically marginal nations like Nigeria and 
Burma received failing grades. This year's certification process raised so 
little dust because no one in Washington wants to draw attention to the 
essential irrationality of the war on drugs. Indeed, the White House and the 
Republicans are in a competition for the wildest antidrug rhetoric. In mid-
February, President Clinton and drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey unveiled a 
$17.1 billion drug-fighting plan, pledging to tighten interdiction and border 
controls while enhancing treatment and prevention programs aimed at 
youth. McCaffrey claims he will cut drug use in half in ten years. Not to be 
outdone, Newt Gingrich condemned that plan as "slow, incremental and 
inadequate," while Republican Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida 
declared the G.O.P.'s intent to reduce drug use "by 90 percent in five years."

Both McCaffrey and Gingrich pin their promises on dubious premises. 
McCaffrey's largest budget item includes programs aimed at keeping 
teenagers from involvement in "gateway drug-using behavior," which 
basically means smoking pot. But the "gateway drug" theory of marijuana is 
discredited by serious researchers; for the vast majority of users, 
marijuana is a "terminus drug" rather than a gateway, and the markets for 
harder drugs like cocaine and heroin rise and fall independent of the pot-
smoking statistics. Gingrich's only specific proposal was to broaden aid to 
Christian faith-based antidrug programs. 

Both McCaffrey and Gingrich envision combining their anti-drug Kulturkampf 
in the homes of Americans with what Gingrich called a "World War II?style 
all-out plan for victory" on the supply front. But as Eva Bertram and Kenneth 
Sharpe pointed out in these pages last April 28, international drug 
eradication campaigns often stimulate the market, raising the economic 
incentives for suppliers. Furthermore, around the world, U.S. drug-
enforcement aid has become hopelessly entangled in human rights abuses 
and corruption. The very week the State Department issued its report lifting 
last year's military-aid sanctions against Colombia, Medellin activist Jesus 
Maria Valle Jaramillo, who last year
exposed links between army units and paramilitary death squads 
responsible for massacring peasants, was shot dead by gunmen who burst 
into his office. 

U.S. civil liberties, too, continue to be sacrificed to this unwinnable and 
damaging war. The Justice Department recently announced that it was 
declining to press civil rights charges in the killing last year of 18-year-
old goatherd Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. of Redford, Texas, shot dead by a Marine 
under the command of the Border Patrol as part of a drug interdiction 
mission. While the area's Republican Congressman, Lamar Smith, complains 
that the incident "raises serious questions about the training and 
supervision of the Border Patrol," this same Border Patrol and those same 
military squads will hit the jackpot under Washington's new antidrug 
budget. The remaking of domestic drug policy into a military campaign is 
one of the most frightening developments: As The Washington Post has 
reported, in 1996 more than 8,000 members of the armed forces took part 
in 754 drug-policing operations within the United States, with no 
measurable impact on the drug trade.

There's an alternative to this transnational insanity. Instead of one-sided 
"certification" and the market incentives of international eradication 
campaigns, there are ways to lower incentives and prices worldwide, among 
them a combination of
government-approved drug supplies for hard-core addicts and a strategy for 
alternative economic development in drug-producing regions. There's also 
talk of replacing the unpopular U.S. certification plan with a multilateral 
approach, a subject on the table at a U.N. special session on drugs scheduled 
for June. U.N. officials talk of combining economic incentives with ending 
the banking secrecy that protects drug-money laundering.

But drug-policy advocates charge that the United States is undermining the 
U.N. conference by pushing a tough eradication agenda. That's too bad. Among 
public health advocates, the notion of "harm reduction" has gained currency 
as an alternative to prohibitionist drug policies (a dimension sadly missing 
in the Clinton plan). A broader notion of harm reduction--political and legal 
as well as medical--ought to be the cornerstone of a new drug policy, 
uniting the domestic and international arenas.

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