Commentary

A Clear Head on Drugs

This article appeared in the Washington Times on October 24, 1999.
Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey penned a bizarre attack on a Cato Institute conference that I organized [on October 5, 1999]. Let me respond to his various criticisms so readers can decide for themselves who is speaking honestly and forthrightly about drug policy and who is engaging in double talk.

Gen. McCaffrey gave a very misleading impression to readers when he suggested our conference proceedings were held behind some sort of “smokescreen.”

Gen. McCaffrey tried to portray himself as a super sleuth for supposedly exposing our “real agenda,” which is drug legalization. Readers should know that our conference was entitled “Beyond Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.” It is hardly a secret that Cato analysts have been calling for drug legalization for more than 20 years. No one needed the investigative assistance of the drug czar’s office to discover that information. A simple phone call or visit to our web site would have satisfied anyone’s curiosity about our work on the drug war.

Next, Gen. McCaffrey says proponents of drug legalization “go to extremes to confuse the public about America’s efforts to fight drug use.” Contrary to popular belief, he makes the startling claim that the federal government is not waging a war on drugs. The mission of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gen. McCaffrey tells us, is essentially to “educate young people.” This is double talk. The American military is actively engaged in drug law enforcement — both here at home and abroad. An innocent young man by the name of Esequiel Hernandez was shot and killed by a Marine Corps anti-drug patrol in Texas in 1997. In August, U.S. Army Capt. Jennifer Odom and four other American soldiers were killed on a drug surveillance mission in Colombia. Gen. McCaffrey ignores all this and apparently hopes the public has forgotten all about the circumstances of his own appointment as drug czar. Recall that when President Clinton was criticized by congressional Republicans for being “A.W.O.L.” (Absent Without Leave) in the war on drugs, Clinton muted that criticism by tapping Gen. McCaffrey, previously a four-star general who commanded the operations center for narcotics interdiction in Latin America.

Gen. McCaffrey tries to put a smiley face on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s aggressive attempts to enforce federal drug laws. He says drug users are not the “enemy”; they just require the government’s “help.” By “help,” Gen. McCaffrey means drug users need to be handcuffed, strip-searched, and put in jail cells. After all, jail is where opponents of drug legalization believe drug consumers belong. Indeed, Gen. McCaffrey has even threatened to “help” sick people who wish to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. He promised to brand them as felons and send them to Leavenworth.

The drug czar claims that drug legalization would “make drugs more available on our nation’s streets.” It strains credulity to believe drugs could be more readily available than they are right now. Despite wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on ridiculous interdiction programs, few schools in America can credibly claim to be “drug-free.” The fact of the matter is that it is more difficult for young people to get their hands on a bottle of beer than it is to get a marijuana cigarette.

One problem that was addressed at our conference, but that was not considered by Gen. McCaffrey, is the dilution of our constitutional liberties. Police officers are now seizing cash, cars, boats and homes from people who have not been convicted of any crime. No-knock and warrantless searches have become routine. And citizens who report for jury service must now be carefully screened for anyone who does not support the drug war. The toll that this war has taken on our Bill of Rights is significant.

For too many years the debate over drug policy has been framed in terms of how we should escalate the war on drugs. How much more money should we spend? Where should we put the money? By sponsoring a conference on drug policy, our hope was to expand the parameters of the debate so that alternatives to prohibition would be considered. No one at our conference suggested that drug legalization would be a panacea. Drug abuse is certainly a problem for those involved in it — and for their friends and family. The point that was made by Gov. Gary Johnson (and others) was simply that drug prohibition is counterproductive. Like alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition creates many more problems than it solves.

There is a widening credibility gap between the drug czar and the American public. A growing number of Americans are concluding that the drug war has been given a chance to work, but that it has failed. Gen. McCaffrey may enjoy support on Capitol Hill, but his double talk is increasingly seen for what it is outside the Beltway.

Timothy Lynch is the Director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.