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Books - The Great Drug War
Written by Arnold Trebach   

1 The Scared Summer of '86

WHAT'S happening to us? And why is it happening now?" Randi Henderson asked. "It seems like George Orwell's 1984."

It was actually 1986, near the end of a terrible summer, and she was asldng questions that a number of journalists had been raising with me. Several things disturbed me about my discussion with Ms. Henderson. The most disturbing was the subject of the story the reporter was writing. Deanna Young, 13, of Los Angeles, had heard a sheriff's deputy give an anti-drug lecture at a church meeting. Deanna was impressed enough to go home, collect some cocaine and drug paraphernalia, and take it all to the police, thus accusing her parents of multiple crimes. The young girl, it seemed, had turned in two enemies of the state.

Randi Henderson's reporting became the cover story in the feature section of the Baltimore Sun on August 20. Her story commenced with a quote from Orwell's famous novel: "Hardly a week passed in which the Times did not can-y a paragraph de-scribing how some eavesdropping little sneak—`child hero' was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police." This was followed by a quotation from Joyce Nalepka, a Reagan White House favorite and the leader of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, who applauded Deanna's actions: "We are in such a serious epidemic of drug use right now that it will take work at many levels. . . . This child did exactly the right thing."

I had been concerned about the direction of American drug-control activities for years. During the summer of 1986, my concern escalated to the first stages of real fright. That incipient fright was compounded by the fact that some of the reporters who called me for information seemed as scared for the country as I was.

It was a new experience for me to provide comfort to normally hard-bitten journalists. They asked for both information and as-surance that somehow the country would endure and come through the hysteria. I particularly remember Ms. Henderson's personal concern because it seemed so heartfelt; it deeply affected me.

I want very much to answer her and everyone else who has been asking me recently why we are now in such difficulty over the drug issue. My previous answers have not, in my eyes, been sufficient. Now I would like to attempt better answers to those questions.

In this chapter, I will explain what happened in the scared summer of 1986, when the drug-war fever flashed higher than ever before. Then, in the remainder of the book, I will go back and describe the iiTational forces that broke down our social defenses and allowed that fever to run rampant through the body of Amer-ican society. Finally, I will suggest some measures we can take that might help to curb drug abuse in our families and in our nation, to preserve American freedom, and to make our country safe again.


There are several major reasons why, in my opinion, we have never won a war on drugs and why we are losing the great drug war of today.

We are losing the great drug war because our drug laws are irrational, based upon flawed scientific assumptions, and are out of touch with the desires of millions of Americans. Thus they cannot be enforced, even if we ordered all three million of our military troops and civilian police officers to devote themselves exclusively to that mission.

We are losing the great drug war because we delude one an-other into thinking that certain dangerous drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, are less harmful than other dangerous drugs, such as heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. Yet diseases related to alcohol and tobacco Id11 approximately 500,000 Americans every year. Accord-ing to official federal data, deaths from the most popular illicit drugs—heroin, cocaine, PCP, and marijuana—amounted to 2,177 in 1985. Wars based upon myths are doomed to failure.

We are losing the great drug war because we do not now have, and never had, the capability to manage a successful war on any drug. We should have learned that when we attempted, with the best of motives and for good reasons, alcohol prohibition several generations ago. Alcohol is a terrible drug because it incites people to violence. Today, approximately 9,000 murders and 23,000 drunk-en driving deaths (half the total of all murders and all drunken driving deaths) are related to alcohol use. As bad as alcohol is, however, most Americans concluded by the early Thirties that prohibition—with its massive crime and corruption as well as health problems caused by bathtub gin and whiskey—was worse. They were right.

We are losing the great drug war because our leaders, espe-cially those now in the Reagan administration, have declared all users of illicit drugs to be "the enemy." Thus, they refuse to dis-tinguish between drug use and drug abuse, between responsible drug use and compulsive, addictive use. The Reagan administra-tion has, therefore, declared at least 50 million Americans to be enemies of the state because the most recent government surveys suggest to me that this huge number have tried an illicit drug in some form during recent years. A war waged intensively on 5 percent of our people will be a civil war that will tear the country asunder. This is starting to happen.

We are losing the great drug war because it does not deal with the most important problems related to drugs: abuse, crime, and corruption. Drug abusers (or drug addicts, terms I here use in-terchangeably) need help and treatment. It would not help our 12 million alcohol addicts or our 56 million tobacco addicts if they were disgraced, fired from their jobs, and declared enemies of the state. The same is true of the two-to-three million addicts of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs. The intensifying war on drugs keeps these substances in the black market, keeps prices high, and creates the conditions in which violent traffickers flourish and criminal addicts feel driven to victimize their innocent neigh-bors. Much of this happened during alcohol prohibition. Today, however, addict crime and the profits for traffickers are much greater—and so are police and prosecutor corruption.

We are losing the great drug war because, as so often happens in wars, hysteria and hate are dominating the public discussion. I have personally felt that hysteria and hate because for years I have been a somewhat lonely dissenter on American drug policy and have pleaded for more tolerance, for new thinking about drugs, and for radical new directions in national strategy, including le-galization of some drugs. To oppose the excesses of the current anti-drug war is the same as having opposed the excesses of the McCarthy anti-communist war of the Fifties; then you were ac-cused by the warriors of being soft on communism: now you are accused of being soft on drugs. My students at American Univer-sity tell me that their friends ask them if it is true that I drive a Ferrari, purchased with the profits from my drug dealing. It is, in fact, a solid '76 Volvo—and it would not make much sense to be both a drug trafficker and an advocate of fundamental change in American drug laws and in the drug war. These are traffickers' laws and this is a traffickers' war because both the laws and the war ensure criminal markets and monopoly prices.

I am certain that my opposition to the drug war and its zealots will be interpreted again by some in the popular media and in scholarly research to mean that I view the illegal drugs as harmless as jelly beans--and that I propose selling them over the counter in candy stores. Yet, I view all mind-altering and addicting chem-icals as potentially dangerous to many users. I believe that anyone who uses, say, heroin could well suffer serious physical and mental problems. I believe the same about some users of cocaine, mari-juana, PCP, and all of the many new illegal designer drugs that keep hitting the eager American drug market. Anyone who reads this book and concludes that I just gave all of these drugs a clean bill of health had better take reading lessons again. I personally fear these drugs and I would fear the results if anyone I loved used them, especially if the use was regular and compulsive. My personal fear about those drugs, however, is not exclusive; I also fear the compulsive use of beer and cigarettes. My fears, though, do not lead me to support a war on heroin injectors any more than a war on beer drinkers. Nor do I feel impelled to go to the other extreme and seek relief in a wholesale repeal of the drug laws. I am opposed both to the extremism of the drug warriors and to the extremism of those who advocate repeal of all drug laws. The answers, for me and for a working democratic society, lie some-where in the rational middle.

We must calm down and recognize that this hysterical war diverts us from seeking to accomplish realistic goals. The McCarthy war on every person on the left reduced our ability to deal with an enduring evil, Soviet espionage. The Reagan-Meese war on every individual drug user reduces our ability to help those Amer-icans afflicted with the disease of drug abuse. That multitude of sick neighbors may reach the total of 70 million people if all addicts to illegal and especially legal drugs are counted. The design of programs to assist these unfortunate people should be the main target of our drug-control programs. To these new rehabilitation experiments the nation should commit billions of dollars and the best thinldng of our most innovative treatment specialists. Instead, we devote billions 'to the enforcement of criminal drug laws while too many of our treatment experts, including leading medical doc-tors, are devoting their thinldng to how they can fill beds in their chains of profit-maldng hospitals--even if some of the inmates have only had a few beers or smoked a few joints, so long as they have adequate health insurance. The same type of venality is true of too many government officials, academic scholars, and journalists: they know better but make conscious decisions to obtain money or power by playing the ever-popular and ever-profitable drug-war game. All of these powerful prostitutes must share the blame for the drugged chickens that came home to roost during the summer of 1986.


When 1986 began, relatively few people had heard of either crack or Len Bias. Soon both were to become tragic household words. They dominated headlines and national fears, often pushing aside such concerns as Soviet espionage, nuclear war, terrorism, pov-erty, and crime in the streets.

Crack may well have existed for decades in various quiet back rooms of the drug world. More widespread use of the drug was first noticed by a few experts during the Eighties. Public concern grew with stories of bizarre behavior by users, especially among our youth.

Few drug-abuse experts knew anything about the drug because it was, comparatively speaking, so rarely used. I certainly was ignorant. On April 24, I admitted as much to a nationwide television audience during a heated discussion on the "MacNeil/Lehrer News-hour." Susan Taylor, the editor of Essence magazine, shot back from New York that I certainly wasn't much of a scholar and that it was time to get hysterical about crack in order to save our children. Five weeks later, on another television interview show, Dr. Arnold Washton, a nationally renowned physician in the co-caine-treatment business, countered my plea for calm measures by declaring, twice, that we should get hysterical about crack. Dr. Washton had been quoted frequently in the media to that effect, declaring at times that "crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now" and that it caused "almost instantaneous ad-diction."

Virtually every major print and electronic media vehicle, in-cluding the most respected and influential, joined in the emotional stampede. The Washington Post commenced a news story on the drug with a report of a New York City youth who had stabbed his mother to death in a crack-induced frenzy. The prestigious paper gave no explanation of the details nor did it inquire into how many recent homicides were related to alcohol or handguns or the illegal drug trade. Reports were frequently made and repeated that fe-males, including young girls, would go into houses where crack was sold, find that they were unable to stop taking the stuff, and would sell their bodies to man after man in order to buy more and more crack. The stories were never balanced with an inquiry into the extent to which drugs, mainly alcohol, and sex were inter-twined in legal establishments known as bars.

Newsweek magazine seemed particularly hooked on the com-pulsion to run story after story on the drug, emphasizing the most sensational aspects of its impact on society and individuals. VVhile it might be argued that such stories served the public interest by scaring off potential users, that was not always the case. One young, though mature, college student, with some modest drug experience, told me much later that after reading a story on crack in a March issue of Newsweek, "I had never heard of it until then but when I read that it was better than sex and that it was cheaper than cocaine and that there was an epidemic, I wondered what I was missing. I questioned why I seemed to be the only one not doing the drug. The next day I asked some friends if they knew where to get some."

One of the most hysterical issues of a major American publi-cation in recent history was the June 16, 1986, Newsweek, which rivaled the sensationalism of Reefer Madness, the movie about pot in the Thirties. Editor-in-chief Richard Smith unburdened himself in a lead editorial entitled "The Plague Among Us," in which he compared the drug problem to medieval plagues and to the Jap-anese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Smith saw all addictive drugs but now especially crack—"the . . . most addictive commodity now on the market"—as creating a crisis that threatened the survival of the nation. The drugs themselves, mind you, not the govern-mental and social reaction to them.

A few days later, on June 19, in one of those sad and unpre-dictable events that change the course of history, Len Bias died suddenly in his room at the University of Maryland. Bias was 22, black, a star basketball player at the university, liked and admired by his friends and those fans in his region who knew him, a nice American kid, a model of clean living. The Boston Celtics, one of the most prestigious teams in all of American sports, had drafted him to play in the National Basketball Association and he had just signed a rich contract. The Idd even had a jersey number. Total strangers with no interest in basketball were elated for him. The young man from the other side of the tracks had his foot on the first step of the American glory trail.

Headlines in June suggested that crack might have killed Len Bias. Before the end of the month, another young black sports star, professional football player Don Rogers, died of a cocaine-- many people heard that as "crack"—overdose. Coming on top of all of the previous hysteria, the tragic deaths of these two young Americans pushed the governmental and social leadership of the most powerful nation on earth into frenzied action in all directions at once.

Bills were tossed into legislative hoppers all over the country as if they were sandbags heaved onto dikes hastily erected to control a rampaging flood. Measures were proposed on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to demand mass random urine tests of government officials, to deploy the military to control drug trafficking, to impose the death penalty for certain homicides connected with drug sales, to water down the exclusionary rule so that evidence seized without a warrant and in violation of the Fourth Amendment could be introduced in drug prosecutions so long as the officer had good faith, and dozens of other, more re-pressive recommendations. It was a scary time to sit here in the middle of the national capital and sense my own government com-ing apart, losing its guts, blowing its cool, prostituting itself.

On July 10, Dr. Donald Ian MacDonald, the top operational federal drug-abuse official—the administrator of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, or ADAMHA—held a major press conference on cocaine, which was reported in all the major media. The impression given by the television network an-chormen and by leading reporters on national newspapers was that Dr. MacDonald had produced shocldng new data proving that there had been an explosion in cocaine and crack deaths during recent months. In a typical front-page story in July, USA TODAY re-ported (in error, as it later turned out) that there had been 563 cocaine-related deaths during the first six months of 1986.

On July 15, it was dramatically revealed that armed American helicopter crews had arrived with their planes in Bolivia to trans-port local police on raids against cocaine laboratories in the jungles. Later, President Reagan said that the deaths of young Bias and Rogers had been important factors influencing his decision to send off other young Americans in uniform to get the drugs at the source. It was also revealed that our troops had already been secretly involved in such missions, in, for example, Colombia—and that more drug raids would be launched in other countries if the Bolivian attacks were successful. These overseas military dnig missions were disturbing firsts in the long American anti-drug crusade. They pushed us all across a chemical Rubicon from which it will not be easy to return.

What do we know about the drug that has caused all this furor? Not much, even today; I can come up with only rudimentary in-formation. What follows, therefore, are cautious observations.

Almost every major drug has been, at various times in our history, treated as a threat to the survival of the nation by some segments of society. Moreover, there seems nothing especially new about the type of chemical process that produced crack. Entre-preneurs have for eons sought to produce more potent forms of mind-altering drugs that could be transported more cheaply, be sold at a higher cost per unit, be appealing to different tastes, and produce more immediate effects. Fermented grapes and grains are effective for many millions of people. Distilling, however, produces spirits, sometimes called brandywine, that are more potent. Wine and beer create trouble for many people, but the greatest difficulty seems to come from the more concentrated distilled spirits of al-cohol. The less natural the drug the more trouble for humans.

The same for opium. Smoking the dried powder that comes from the opium-poppy sap is both calming and potentially addict-ing—not nearly so alluring or dangerous, however, as using mor-phine, the main active ingredient in opium. Neither is as thrilling or as dangerous as diacetylmorphine, which could, for convenience, be called the essence of morphine plus a bit of vinegar-like acid; this concentrated and refined drug is also known as heroin.

Chewing the leaves of the South American coca plant produces, along with numbness of the mouth and tongue, a mild sensation of stimulation and good feeling. When chemists managed to isolate what might be called the essence of coca, the most powerful in-gredient in the leaf, they produced a very potent white powder: cocaine hydrochloride. Largely ignored for years, cocaine, as it is usually called, suddenly became very popular to millions of Amer-icans who now like to snort it through their noses.

For many thrill-seekers (and that is what is involved here), both the stimulation and the risks of the cocaine powder were enough. Then some bored souls decided to refme the powder fur-ther for smoldng, which is the most rapid way to get drugs to the brain, being even quicker than injection. Thus, freebasing was born.

Traditional freebasing involves heating the powder with vola-tile chemicals, such as ether, which sometimes results in explosions and fires. This, apparently, is what injured comedian Richard Pryor several years ago. The preparation of crack is easier and safer. Cocaine powder is mixed with water and baldng soda or ammonia. The result is a highly concentrated chemical that looks like bits of coagulated soap powder, often slightly off-white, about the size of large green peas. It is frequently smoked in a pipe and makes a crackling sound when lit. In some cities, it is known as rock or cooked cocaine.

A gram of cocaine, less than a teaspoonful, costs at least $100 in many communities. Crack pellets are sometimes sold for as little as $10 each in the same neighborhoods.

That this form of the drug is more addicting than powdered cocaine should come as no surprise. Any drug that is more refined and then smoked will be more potent than its less concentrated relatives.

However, it is premature and perhaps misleading to call it the most addictive drug now known. While I believe that anybody who tries this relatively unknown compound is a fool, my guess is that it is no more addicting than smoked tobacco or smoked heroin. I also believe, in passing, that anyone who uses either of those latter substances in any form is a fool. As with those dangerous drugs, however, some foolish people use crack and do not get hooked.

It is also misleading to view this as a plot to hook our children with a cheap drug, as many alleged experts and commentators have been doing. Those people susceptible to the allure of crack will often spend roughly as much as those who use cocaine powder. While the high of crack is immediate, it is also of short duration, perhaps a few minutes, necessitating repeated purchases for those at risk. Many adults with money and curiosity are users.

We do not know how many addicted customers there are out there. One is too many in my book, but if there is truly a national epidemic, I have yet to see the hard proof.

That hard proof would exist, in my eyes, in the records of federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) of the Department of Justice or the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the Department of Health and Human Services. When I heard and read the major news stories during July on the crack epidemic and related deaths, I was confused because they were inconsistent with my reading of the available federal data. My calls to °facials in NIDA and DEA brought honest humility and responses like: We really don't know very much about crack but what we read in the newspapers. There is not even a separate listing for crack, they told me, in NIDA's authoritative Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which collects data on drug-abuse deaths and injuries. Crack injuries and deaths are listed under cocaine.

When I finally obtained a copy of the materials passed out at that sensational July 10 news conference, I discovered that Dr. MacDonald had made a disclaimer from the start to the effect that the federal experts had no new data on cocaine and crack. The disclaimer was not reported by the media. Why, then, call this a major news conference? Dr. MacDonald explained that he wanted "to underscore the great potential risk we know is involved in cocaine use." In the demagogic atmosphere of Washington at that time, this could have been interpreted as follows: we, the leading national medical scientists, have nothing new to tell you about the dangers of cocaine, but everyone else is getting press attention from crack, and we deserve some, too.

All during the public hysteria of the summer of 1986, the only complete annual DAWN data available was that for 1984, which showed 604 mentions of cocaine in reports by medical examiners. (A "mention" signifies that a medical examiner or coroner found indications of the drug in the body of a person who died suddenly from drug abuse, normally from an overdose. Coroners reporting to DAWN may provide mentions of up to three drugs for each sudden drug abuse death.) That was a significant rise above the 195 mentions of 1981, an increase that was heralded from one end of the country to the other. Even if each of those 604 mentions involved a death caused by cocaine, which is not the case, and as tragic as each death was, it is difficult to see the destruction of a nation of 240 million in 604 cocaine deaths when so many more of our people are being killed by other drugs, especially the legal ones.

Totally ignored in the cries to save our children from crack were the NIDA data which showed that the total number of chil-dren who died from cocaine in 1984 was eight. Yes, eight, from all forms of cocaine, including crack—and these at the time of the greatest hysteria were the latest complete data from the federal government, which also showed 14 mentions of cocaine for ages 18 and 19, and 273 for young people in their twenties, or a total of 295 mentions for all Americans under age 30. No data are available as of this writing, the fall of 1986, for this year. Thus all of the claims about the great rise in crack deaths for the first months of 1986, such as that reported by USATODAY and other major media voices, were false. Even more significant, none of the leading gov-ernment drug-abuse officials, who knew the claims for 1986 to be false, felt any responsibility to tell the public the truth during the scared summer of '86.

During that summer, preliminary information was available for 1985 on all cocaine deaths. The significance of this information was either ignored or reported in a misleading fashion by the govern-ment and the media. While the end of America from drugs was being declared, the number of known cocaine deaths in those preliminary figures had actually declined from 1984 to 1985. Because there had been a slight rise in recorded cocaine, including crack, use in those years, a fair headline might have been "Cocaine and crack use rise while deaths decline!" I would have settled for no headlines at all on the matter.

Now, in the fall of 1986, we have a full annual DAWN report for 1985. Final figures do show a continued rise in cocaine death mentions during 1985—to 643. That final toll represents a rise of only 6.5 percent over 1984. The total number of known mentions of cocaine in drug-abuse deaths of children (aged 10-17) remained tiny; during 1985, it dropped to seven for the entire country. Total mentions of cocaine in drug-abuse deaths for all young people up through the age of 29 was 285, a drop of 10 mentions since 1984. No press conference has been held to herald that drop.

In the great majority of all of the cocaine mentions, death ap-parently was caused by use with other drugs. The most common fatal chemical companion to cocaine was alcohol, which was cited in 224 episodes. More than likely, this is how the death of Len Bias will be listed by DAWN when 1986 reports are issued—be-cause it turns out that the poor young fellow may not have died from crack at all, but perhaps from a combination of massive amounts of powdered cocaine and alcohol during an all-night celebration with his friends.

How many reported cocaine deaths have been laid at the door of crack, alone or in combination with other drugs? I have searched. My assistants have searched. We have gone through many gov-ernment reports. We have quizzed government statistical experts. We have yet to discover one death in which the presence of crack was a confirmed factor. In time, I am sure that we will because it is such a potent and addicting drug, but up to now, we have not.

Thus, behind all of the public hysteria about the cocaine and crack epidemic destroying our nation, especially our young, during the summer of 1986, there was no evidence of an epidemic either in terms of rising use or rising deaths. Nor was there objective evidence of an epidemic of other illicit drug use in any of the surveys being issued by the very government leading the hysterical for-ward charge in the new great drug war. The significant NIDA survey of drug abuse among a randomly selected group of 8,038 household residents in 1985 showed, for example, that current marijuana use (at least once during the previous month) among youth aged 12-17 dropped from 16.7 percent in 1979 to 12.2 percent in 1985, while among young adults aged 18-25, it dropped even more sharply, from 35.4 percent to 21.6 percent. For cocaine, in-cluding freebase and crack, the figures for current use for youth aged 12-17 rose from 1.4 percent in 1979 to 1.7 percent in 1985. Young adults aged 18-25, those allegedly with too much money and few moral restraints, actually reduced current cocaine use from 9.3 percent in 1979 to 7.7 percent in 1985.

Such reports document serious problems of drug use, and per-haps abuse, which are, on the whole, either stable or declining. They do not document an escalating epidemic.

When reporters from major publications and networks called me for interviews, I kept pleading with them to look at such reports and not to put out more misleading stories that would feed into the hype and cause more hysteria in the country. (Some reporters, like Randi Henderson, needed no pleading, of course.) When they interviewed me, I would say, often on camera, "You people are taking an obscure drug, crack, and selling it to the kids of the country." My interviewers would wince when I said that. Some took it to heart.

Most did not. Drug stories were surefire moneymakers. For example, CBS put on a news program on September 2, "48 Hours on Crack Street," which hooked 15 million viewers, and, according to the Nielsen surveys, achieved the highest rating of any news documentary on any network in over five and one-half years. Net-work corporate officers and politicians knew the power of those ratings.

Despite the dominance of hysteria and negative drug-policy developments, the year 1986 was also witness to a few encouraging events. For the first time in the 14 years I have been involved in drug-policy studies, I observed the beginnings of a small but sturdy wave of open doubting about the simple common sense of the drug war. I sensed this critical movement in the worried questions of a few journalists like Randi Henderson and also in the constant requests from print and electronic media reporters to hear my point of view, even from those who went on to ignore it. I sensed it also in the number of newspapers that printed my columns, which I started to write several times a month in the summer of 1986, so outraged was'I by the deceptions being foisted on the American public, and in the number of editorial writers who started to ex-press similar thoughts. When, during August, the President, the Vice President, and approximately 70 White House staffers showed their devotion to the drug war by taldng "voluntary" urine tests, the power of critical humor was brought to bear. The press corps began having great fun with reports on "jar wars." One veteran Washington journalist told me that he fully expected them to de-mand photo opportunities. Art Buchwald saw that the drug war-riors were so extreme that they were funny and soon he was tearing them down with humor in his columns. Garry Trudeau's Doones-bury was even more caustic in its comic strip humor.

Pieces of what I would term honest reporting about the drug problem came recently from other seemingly surprising sources. DEA is the top drug-law enforcement agency in the United States, indeed, in the world. It is not known for its liberal views. At the end of the scared sutnmer, DEA issued a special report, "The Crack Situation in the United States." This was a balanced and honest report, the type I would have expected from the physicians and academic drug-abuse experts at NIDA or other federal agencies, or even from major news organizations. Instead, the most objective report issued by the government on the subject of all the hysteria during 1986 came from the federal drug police. I must confess I was not terribly surprised that it had been written within the DEA because I have encountered a good deal of honesty and openness in my contacts with federal police agents and intelligence analysts. I was surprised that the report, once written, had been released by the Reagan administration.

Prepared by the Strategic Intelligence Section of DEA, the report concluded that the excessive media attention had created a "distortion of . . . the extent of crack use as compared to the use of other drugs." With massive amounts of powdered cocaine avail-able, snorting was "the primary route of cocaine administration." Thus, crack was "a secondary rather than a primary problem in most areas." Indeed, in many areas, such as New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia, it was barely a problem at all. In others, such as New York City, Detroit, and Boston, crack was usually pro-duced locally and sold by small-time dealers in poor, minority group neighborhoods, with seizures almost always of tiny quantities.

At the time of the release of the report, Robert Feldkamp, director of public information at the DEA, observed, "There are 20,000 to 30,000 crack dealers in the greater New York area, all dealing in gram to ounce quantities, not the kind of dealers that DEA would normally target."

This honest reporting from inside the government was largely ignored by the government official most responsible for drug en-forcement, Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Shortly after the DEA report was released, he urged the formation of 24 federal-state-local police crack task forces in major cities across the nation to deal with "a crisis of epidemic proportions in some areas." This idea of diverting the time and efforts of federal agents to pursue small-time street dealers and the talk of a crack crisis must have mystified the career, nonpolitical analysts in DEA who had just prepared the intelligence report.


Further honest reporting on a related aspect of the drug problem came a few weeks later from, of all things, a Washington reporter. In its own way, the story by Adam Paul Weisman was even more surprising than the DEA report. Journalists rarely admit that they have abused the public trust and have irresponsibly hyped stories simply to enjoy the power of notoriety, the rush of fame, or as Mr. Weisman wrote, to feel "a journalistic orgasm in my brain." After the summer was over, Weisman confessed that as "a reporter at a national news organization" (which, I later found, was U.S. News & World Report) "I Was A Drug-Hype Junkie." This was the title of his article in The New Republic of October 6. The subtitle was "48 Hours on Crock Street."

The repentant journalist admitted that during the summer of 1986, he and his colleagues were guilty of "cooking figures and using alarmist headlines and prose . . . to convince readers that practically everyone they know is addicted to crack, and that they too are likely to be addicted soon." For national reporters in 1986, "the drug crisis in America is more than a story, it's an addiction—and a dangerous one. . . . We know the rush that comes from supporting these claims with a variety of questionable figures, graphs, and charts, and often we enjoy it. Blatant sensationalism is a high."

Weisman then went on to explain how his subsequent reflective review of the NIDA data along with a growing sense of guilt made him take the cure and come clean. His review of the facts brought him to the same conclusions that I reached: there is no epidemic of illicit drug abuse destroying the country. He also found evidence that the greatest drug threat in America today is alcohol. No sur-prise, no journalistic orgasm, no headlines.

Adam Paul Weisman, the recovering journalistic addict, fin-ished his confession with some advice--"I'm clean now but I've seen the depths of drug journalism depravity. A little education has helped me Id& the habit that once threatened to ruin my career. Now I hope that I can help others avoid making the same mistake I did. So if someone offers you drugs or the opportunity to write a cover story about them, take a tip from Nancy Reagan: just say no."


Another piece of critical reporting reached my desk as the awful summer was almost over. This one came directly to me from a federal official with many years of experience in the related fields of criminal justice and drug abuse. It is nothing new for me to receive dissenting reports from federal and state drug-abuse offi-cials. Indeed, over the years in my role as a member of the loyal opposition to the drug war, I have been given a good deal of en-couragement by drug-abuse officials at all levels of government.

One night in November 1983, for example, I was relaxing at a party in a Capitol Hill townhouse, just across the street from the Supreme Court. Earlier in the day, I had given a speech critical of govenunent drug policy at a Washington conference. At the party, I was startled by a stranger who approached and opened the conversation by saying, "You are right, you know." When I inquired about what, he went on, "The government does lie about the scientific basis for its tough drug-control policies. It emphasizes only negative scientific findings about illicit drugs and ignores be-nign evidence." At that point I suddenly remembered that the man had been sitting in the audience when I had made such statements in my speech.

The fellow then motioned me into a corner and told me quietly that he was a federal drug police official and identified his agency. He was disgusted, he continued, because his superiors ignored him when he tried to do his job honestly: to weigh conflicting pieces of information and to suggest the possible results of alternative paths of action. In almost every case, when his analysis suggested that new information about a drug and its potential use by human beings might call for a relatively gentle governmental response, leading officials would call instead for more rigid legal controls and for tougher police action. He pleaded with me to keep telling all sides of the truth, with all of its subtleties.

The communication from the official during the summer of 1986 was unique in my experience since it was in writing. It is a sad commentary on the repressive chill imposed by the orthodox na-tional drug ideology that dissenting officials almost never put their doubts in writing. To protect himself somewhat, the official con-tinued to remain anonymous and listed himself as "X." X sent his brief report—"The New Front in the War on Drugs: You"—to about 20 people whom he trusted. I had known X for years and observed that, while he believed most current drug laws made little sense, he attempted to work loyally within the current sys-tem, bringing a sense of reason and restraint to the field. Never had I known him to despair about eventually fashioning sensible compromises on national drug policy. He believed, as do I, that there must be laws that control drugs. The challenge is to design new, more humane, and more effective drug laws, not simply to throw out all of the existing ones without replacements. Now, this reasonable and responsible official was in a state of despair.

His despair arose from the fact that amidst all of the propaganda in the bills thrown in the congressional hopper during the summer, X saw in them for the first time in his experience the real prob-ability of dramatic legal changes in the drug-war strategy of the national government. X explained, "For decades the prevailing view has been that our enforcement effort should target the highest level drug trafficker. The change is that now the government is going to go after the users--particularly you pot smokers." The reasons for this change:

The traditional enforcement approaches (suppressing the supply) on which the federal government is spending at least $2 billion per year obviously have not succeeded. The alternative to suppressing the supply is sup-pressing the demand. The traditional demand reduction approaches [treatment and education] have also failed and it is doubtful that they will ever succeed. The current demand for a solution to the drug problem, if it is sustained, is going to force the opening of a "new front" in the war on drugs to "come down hard" on the users, what an Assistant Attorney General calls a "scorched earth" policy. That new front is you, whether you use drugs or not, because in the inspection of everyone's brain, no brain is above suspicion. This new front in the war on drugs will be intolerable to any person who values his or her freedom.

X was aware of the good intentions of the First Lady and of the sympathy she evoked, as when she appeared on nationwide television Sunday evening, September 14, with President Reagan, appealing for a reduction in drug use. At the same time, he saw chilling invasions of traditional values being proposed by the Reagan White House, by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, by Assistant Attorney General Stephen S. Trott (he of the scorched-earth policy), and by leading Reagan supporters in Congress. The startling new position that X saw and heard directly from this group of powerful national leaders, never before expressed so harshly in American history, certainly not during alcohol prohibition, was, "Demand will be reduced when a substantial onus is placed on the user—a real threat of criminal prosecution or the loss of one's job. They are giving voice to the view that it is the user who is the ultimate villain." While there is some simplistic support for this notion, the practical implications, X concluded, were simply un-acceptable in a democratic society.

Because marijuana is the most popular illicit drug and because it stays in the system longer than most drugs, X observed, millions of occasional marijuana smokers, many of whom hold responsible jobs that they perform well, will be caught in the vast new uri-nalysis dragnet. They will then be given a choice--"treatment for drug abuse you don't need or losing your job." X predicted, more-over, that "It won't be long before the Rehnquist court is asked whether a positive urine test is probable cause to sustain a search for possession of illegal drugs." In the likely event that such searches are upheld by that conservative court, occasional pot smokers will then find themselves, in addition to being unemployed and un-employable, subject to the mandatory criminal sentences for pos-session of drugs now being proposed by the Reagan administration. If the war on drugs continues its present course, then, "it is likely that millions of successful, responsible, capable, patriotic American adults are about to become like the villages of 1960s Vietnam—destroyed in order to be saved."


Another critical report during the summer of 1986 brought out new facts about a particularly ugly aspect of the drug war: the insti-tutionalization of American children on false claims of drug and alcohol abuse. I was already aware of the excesses of one prominent group of anti-drug zealots in the treatment organization known as Straight, Inc. I had seen how Straight often locked up children who used pot and beer occasionally—or who were afflicted only with the normal though disturbing condition known as adolescence and who did not use any drugs. Straight, however, does not operate traditional psychiatric hospitals or professional drug-treatment fa-cilities.

On May 20, 1985, the CBS network had revealed that a major drug-abuse treatment conglomerate, CompCare, had agreed to institutionalize some children who had no drug-abuse problems-- simply to pick up a few new customers. Its facilities were directed and staffed by professionals, by physicians, psychologists, nurses, and social workers. The medical director of CompCare was Dr. Joseph Pursch, one of the most respected drug-abuse experts in the country.

On August 21, 1986, the ABC network show "20/20," hosted by Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, demonstrated in greater detail than ever before how CompCare had institutionalized large numbers of children, simply in order to make money, by claiming that they were drug abusers. Such charges suggest that some of the leading drug-abuse experts in the country either do not un-derstand the condition they are supposedly treating or do not care to know because in the present hysterical climate, these medical doctors are prepared to lock up virtually anyone brought to their doors if the relatives or the insurance companies have the price. They are enjoying the monetary benefits of a boom market because of the current fears about drug abuse and do not give a damn that they are taking away the liberty of multitudes of free Americans.

The ABC investigative reporters focused on hospitals operated by CompCare known as CareUnits. Television ads promote the services of CareUnits in many parts of the country by appealing to the natural concerns and fears of parents in today's emotional chemical climate. The main target of the investigation was the CareUnit in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to which two local moth-ers had brought their teenaged daughters. Correspondent John Stossel explained, "The mothers say CareUnit willingly accepted them both. CareUnit said, 'Yes, we can help, we care.' " The tran-script of that "20/20" investigative report continued:

CAREUNIT COUNSELOR: They care about the insurance, they care about the money. That's what they care about.
STOSSEL (voice-over): This woman's identity is concealed because she still works here as a counselor. She is one of several CareUnit employees who told us that CareUnit will take just about anyone, that ldds as young as 10 are locked up and treated for being drug addicts and alcoholics, even if they're not.
CAREUNIT COUNSELOR: The vast majority of our kids are teenagers just experimenting with drugs, having a little bit of pot now and then, a drink now and then, a beer now and then, but they're not drunkies, they're not drug addicts, they're not anywhere near that, and they shouldn't be there.
CAROL JAMES, former counselor: I think in all the ldds I saw, I saw one that I would term an addict . . .
STOSSEL: . . . Why are the parents then locldng them up in a drug center?
ms. JAMES: Because I think that most of them are scared. We hear so
much about this alcohol abuse, drug abuse. They're not seeing the
ldds' real problems.
STOSSEL (voice-over): Dr. Rob Pandina is a nationally known expert on drug and alcohol problems of adolescents. He says hospitals like CareUnit regularly misdiagnose the ldds.
DR. ROB PANDINA, substance-abuse expert: They are prepared to treat the child for what it says over the door. If it says over the door, "This is an alcoholism and drug clinic," they are prepared to treat the child for that problem . . . whether that's the problem or not. . . .
CAREUNIT COUNSELOR: CareUnit is about getting anybody in there that has good insurance, whether they have a drug problem or not, keeping them in there as long as their insurance is good for and then discharg-ing them when their insurance is done.
STOSSEL: Could they get out before their insurance expired?
ms. JAMES: I didn't know of any cases that did. I didn't know one that did.
STOSSEL (voice-over): Now, I should point out that even critics say that some kids are helped at CareUnit. But they also say that money is what comes first.
(On-camera) Employees tell us they hold meetings here every morning that they call pep rallies. The boss's cheer is "Get the census up. We've got to fill more beds."
(Voice-over) Vacant beds are a problem facing lots of hospitals today. Cost-control measures have meant fewer medical and surgical pa-tients, so many hospitals were losing money until companies like CompCare came along and said, "We can fill those beds." And they are filling them. Psychiatric and drug hospitals are a booming busi-ness. Five big for-profit chains control the field. CompCare alone has 160 CareUnits across the country, a quarter of them strictly for kids.

CompCare corporate executives refused to be interviewed by ABC so as to refute these serious indictments. In making that refusal, Mr. Stossel explained, "They told us we should be doing a story on drug trafficking. They said that's a more important issue than how they treat kids." Yet, as Stossel observed on the tele-vision program, "The experts warn, don't fix what's not broken. For example, simple drug use does not mean that your child needs hospitalization. Most kids experiment with drugs or alcohol. Only a minority become abusers. And while that is serious, treatment abuse is serious too. Only a few people want to talk about that. Certainly not hospitals like CompCare. They're riding high, en-joying national prestige."

Then, on the screens in millions of American homes during that hot August in the scared summer of 1986 appeared the image of the First Lady at a ceremony, with a man at the podium. The CompCare corporate executive declared: "It's an honor and a plea-sure today to dedicate this Nancy Reagan CareUnit."

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Our valuable member Arnold Trebach has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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