Three years ago, President George Bush had something so important to say to the American people that he made it the subject of his first national address. He declared war on drugs, holding up a bag of crack cocaine he said had been seized across the street from the White House.
Since that speech, the president has budgeted $45.2 billion for the drug war. But the returns on the money spent so far must not be satisfactory even for Mr. Bush. With the campaign season nearly finished, he has not given a single major speech on his drug war. He has barely even remarked on it.
The one time the president did prominently mention progress against drugs — at the Republican National Convention — he cited a statistic so deceptive that it called attention to how little good there is to say about the drug war. He said, "cocaine use has fallen by 60 percent among young people." Bush was pointing to a drop from 1.1 percent of adolescents reporting regular cocaine use to 0.4 percent claiming such regular use between 1988 and 1991. That is a 60 percent drop, but the problem was a drop in the bucket in the first place.
Why has the president been otherwise silent on the drugs-and-crime issue? Because his record is highly disappointing. Mr. Bush's drug war spending tops the amount spent by all the presidents since Richard Nixon combined. But the chief drug-related concern, crime, has spiraled out of control in this country since President Bush began his drug crackdown.
Violent crime increased every year under the Bush administration's leadership. The FBI reports that the annual number of robberies increased 19 percent between 1988 and 1991. Worse yet, homicides increased 15 percent between 1989 and 1991, reaching a record 24,703 nationwide last year. As many as 6,000 of last year's murders were directly related to the illegal drug trade.
During this same period, Mr. Bush was spending nearly $10 billion a year on just the law enforcement components of the drug war. Drug education and treatment efforts were being shortchanged, together receiving less than a third of the total anti-drug budget. The result: continued long waiting lists for drug treatment combined with vastly expanded budgets for anti-drug police agencies operating at home and abroad.
The people charged with drug law enforcement have been doing theirjobs. Since Mr. Bush's drug war address, there have been 3.5 million drug arrests. The United States now holds record numbers of its citizens behind bars in almost every state and federal prison, with the average prison housing one-third to one-half more prisoners than it was designed to hold. In fact, we now have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the Western world.
Yet the drug war's goal is not high incarceration rates but a safer, healthier society. Mr. Bush's war has largely failed in this mission.
Have drug abuse rates decreased significantly? The answer is both yes and no. Some categories of drug use surveyed by the federal government do show a downward trend, one starting as far back as 1979. For instance, it appears that fewer Americans now use cocaine regularly than did in 1988. The drop is even more dramatic if one looks back to 1985 or 1982.
But the rate of decline slowed significantly during the Bush administration, despite all the increased spending and countless new efforts. It seems that drug use rates have leveled off, with millions of Americans sticking to their drugs of choice despite the threat of arrest and harsh penalties. The number of people who used any illegal drug in a given year dropped only marginally in the Bush years, from 27.9 million in 1988 to 26.1 million in 1991. Close to 20 million Americans smoked marijuana each year.
Meanwhile, federal government estimates of the number of crack users did not change at all between 1988 and 1991. Over the last year, emergency room mentions for cocaine have risen markedly, reversing a downward trend that began before President Bush took office. In addition, there have been consistent reports of the re-emergence of heroin on the American drug scene.
Health care costs related to drug abuse have risen during the Bush term. Hospital emergency rooms are greatly affected by the shootings and woundings related to drug-trade violence. The rapid spread of AIDS by intravenous drug users is threatening to bankrupt our overburdened health care system. One-third of all AIDS cases started with a contaminated needle, but the Bush administration has no policy to attack this problem head-on. Indeed, the lack of a clean needles policy has created conditions for a large-scale resurfacing of tuberculosis.
What about foreign policy, the president's strong suit? Here also, the news is not good for Mr. Bush, even though he has poured billions of dollars into attempts to reduce drug production and trafficking. Since he took the reins of the presidency, the illegal drug supply has become more plentiful, cheaper and purer.
According to estimates by the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee, the leading federal interagency drug intelligence group, the U.S. supply of cocaine increased from 401 metric tons in 1988 to 1,062 metric tons in 1991, an increase of 165 percent. The effect of increased supply is seen in cocaine prices. In New York, kilogram prices of cocaine dropped 26 percent last year, while prices in Los Angeles dropped 14 percent and in Miami, 5 percent.
Given the drug war's disappointments, it is no surprise that President Bush has shied away from talking about it. But why has Gov. Bill Clinton not made an issue of it? Possibly because he does not differ fun-damen-tally with the president on drug policy. Like the Democrats in Congress who help shape our national drug control policy, Governor Clinton supports expanded police efforts, more aggressive attempts to intercept drugs in source countries and at our borders, tougher penalties and more boot camps for drug offenders. Also, he appears unwilling to challenge the traditional Republican dominance on crime issues, despite President Bush's tattered record.
So the voters are left with no real drug policy debate, and Mr. Bush gets a free ride on his $45 billion debacle. The president elevated the drug issue to the top of his domestic agenda, spent more than any other president and committed more troops to the war effort. Yet, we Americans have little to show for it.
Even the commitment of a commander-in-chief spending a king's fortune has not made the drug war successful. Much of the problem lies in the war's heavy focus on law enforcement and its slight attention to drug abuse as a health matter. Regardless of who wins in November, this nation will need to face the crisis in drug policy before we throw more of our tax dollars into this domestic war.
With drug use rates hanging at relatively high levels, and an impasse on the international front, new drug policy questions arise. If the stated goal of the Congress and the White House — "a drug-free society" — cannot be achieved, how then should public policy approach drug users and addicts? If increased militaristic efforts at home and abroad have not stemmed the drug flow at all, should they be continued or changed? Is increased spending the answer?
These are all serious questions for the next president. More of the same simply will not do when it comes to drug policy. It is time for real change.
AST & KBZ