Drug of Choice

Why Washington can't give up the drug war.


HOW PALLID IS the dialogue in the political press? It should suffice to note that the most interesting exchange any American politics rag has published in ages appeared last week in William Buckley's National Review. Proclaiming that "The War on Drugs is Lost," it proceeded to marshal seven well-reasoned essays regarding the virtues of a permanent ceasefire, on terms ranging from decriminalization to government programs for admitted addicts to outright legalization.

The tersest summary of the troubles with prohibition was delivered by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who wrote that it "inflates the price of drugs, inviting new criminals to enter the trade; reduces the number of police officers available to investigate violent crime; fosters adulterated, even poisonous, drugs; and contributes significantly to the transmission of HIV. These are not problems that are merely tangential to the war on drugs. These are problems caused, or made substantially worse, by the war on drugs." To that list he might have added the racism of an enforcement system that imprisons non-whites at a rate four or five times greater than their share of national drug consumption, the mad caprice of mandatory minimum sentences that routinely push violent offenders out of cells and onto the streets early, the government's casual abuse of property forfeiture proceedings, and the steady erosion of due process protections under color of so-called "drug exceptions" to the Bill of Rights.

Most of these points were made in the course of the Review exchange, which was sensible, well-documented--and disingenuous, at least to the extent that it assumed drugs to be the point of the drug war. The rational merits of calling a halt to prohibition are one thing; the political imperatives are another matter entirely. Only Steven Duke, a Yale law professor and drug policy historian, saw fit to state the obvious. "[A]s the war wears on," he wrote, "we have to wonder what its purposes are. If its purpose is to make criminals out of one in three African-American males, it has succeeded. If its purpose is to create one of the highest crime rates in the world--and thus to provide permanent fodder for demagogues who decry crime and promise to do something about it--it is achieving that end. If its purpose is de facto repeal of the Bill of Rights, victory is well in sight."

There you have it. As a practical matter, I've always contended that the drug war was a great success provided that one understood its objectives. They involve more than the self-interest of the drug bureaucracy, potent as that is by now. Currently over 50 federal bodies busy themselves in some facet of drug enforcement, compared with two or three in the late 1960s. There is also a burgeoning private industry. As former Kansas City and San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara pointed out, there now exists a considerable web of enterprises predicated on fighting the good fight--"researchers willing to tell the government what it wants to hear, prison builders, correction and parole officers' associations, drug-testing companies, and dubious purveyors of anti-drug education."

Those entrenched interests notwithstanding, the war on drugs is mainly two things: a means of expanding the state's police powers and prison capacities to meet an era of massive dislocation that is not going to end anytime soon, and a sturdy propaganda line. Along with its stepchild, the war on crime, it's far and away the preeminent sideshow in American politics. The Soviets are gone, after all; one can only talk about sodomy and third-term abortions for so long before the average TV viewer grows restless. Without drugs the whole edifice of crime hysteria begins to crumble, and we are left with perilously few diversions from the real source of rising dread in the land: the march of global capital and the steadily declining fortunes of the populace at large. Washington thus

cannot afford to give up on the drug war. As a lever of public opinion, it's as close as one can get to a perpetual motion machine--ceaselessly recycling the most auspicious casualties of a system in which 80 percent of the public is losing ground, and transmuting them from the victims and petty hustlers they are into the principal threats against peace, prosperity, and the future of the free world.

THE DOLE DEATHWATCH: The Iowa caucuses were bad news for Steve Forbes, the media's anointed spoiler in the Republican field, who managed to draw only 10 percent. They were nearly as grim for Bob Dole. He won only narrowly and now faces a more formidable number-two man in the surging Pat Buchanan, whose combination of fundamentalist piety and anti-NAFTA sermonizing stand him in good stead both with the Christian right and those on the fearful margins of the economy. That's a sizable constituency, and it represents a more corrosive threat to Dole in days to come than the one-note Forbes. In the end the party hierarchy will never accept an America-Firster such as Buchanan, but he may do in Dole along the way.

The likely beneficiary in the event that happens, and thus the biggest winner in Iowa, is Lamar Alexander, who

finished a reasonably strong third with 18 percent of the caucus vote. Alexander himself offered the best analysis of what that means. "I think what we're going to have coming out of Iowa," he said on Sunday, "is a weak Dole, a falling Forbes, a rising Buchanan and a rising Alexander. And of that field, I'm the most likely to be nominated." Finally, the Iowans deserve thanks for dealing a coup de grace to Texas Senator Yertle the Turtle, who will presumably crawl back inside his shell to await the millennium.

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