A Puff of Smoke

Bob Dole's war on drugs has about as much chance as the previous ones


Cynthia Joyce
September 16, 1996 1:33PM (UTC)

Seeking to dent President Clinton's lead in the opinion polls, Bob Dole has attempted to make drugs a central campaign issue in recent weeks. The GOP candidate said in a radio address Saturday that he would "renew our commitment to a drug-free America -- a commitment that has been lost during the Clinton administration." Pointing to a recent University
of Michigan study, Dole added, "Drug use among our youth has more than doubled since President Clinton took office. And since drugs lead to violence, it's no surprise that youth violence is also on the rise."

Is President Clinton vulnerable to such charges? And could Bob Dole really do any better? We spoke to
Dan Baum, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, and author of
the recently-published "Smoke And Mirrors: The War On Drugs And The Politics Of Failure" (Little,
Brown).

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Recent reports show that drug use among children aged 12 to 17 has nearly doubled since 1992.
Dole blames Clinton for it and says the war on drugs was being won until Clinton came into office.
Is there any validity to that?

No, it's absurd. Clinton has spent more money on the drug war in four years than Ronald Reagan spent
in eight years. He spends way more than Bush, and his spending is more heavily weighted in favor of
the rough stuff -- prisons, police, military -- than Bush's
or Reagan's drug budgets were.

But has it worked?

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No, and that's the problem. We have been trying for so long to use the military and the police to
keep drugs away from kids, but it hasn't worked. More than 85 percent of kids now say drugs are
easy to get. That was true 10 years ago, and that was true 20 years ago. The availability of drugs,

as kids perceive it, never changes. So all of these efforts to make drugs unavailable to kids are

useless. But we also need to point out that drug use by kids is half of where it was in

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979. So while it is up from a few years ago, it's no where near the historic high.

But drug use did come down in the '80s.

That is true. But fat consumption was also coming down in the '80s. So were tobacco and alcohol
consumption, and people were exercising a lot more. The baby boomers, who were the big drug users,
are getting older. There may be a lot of reasons. I think it's also probably true that a lot of them
were really afraid of going to prison and losing their houses.

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So, maybe the hardline approach does work.

We could eliminate jaywalking if we allowed police officers to summarily execute jaywalkers. I suppose
we could reduce drug abuse by putting millions and millions of people in prison and so terrifying
the public that they will turn in their children to the police rather than risk having their houses
confiscated -- which happens. But that's not the America in which I want to live, and I don't think
that's the America the founding fathers envisioned.

Still, Dole promises to launch a "real war" on drugs, and says he'll bring in military power,
including the CIA and the National Guard, if necessary.

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The military doesn't want the drug war. It sets up expectations that the Pentagon knows it can't
meet, and it's been saddled with enough unwinnable wars already. In 1986 we sent combat troops to
Bolivia, we've actually gone into the source countries and run combat missions there. It can't be
done. The other day, Gen. (Barry) McCaffrey, the drug czar, and Donna Shalala (Secretary
of Health and Human Services) gave this presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee, with all
these maps and all about how we're going to choke off this route and that route. Total bullshit,
and they know it. But it looks so good on TV in an election year.

Of course, there are people in the Pentagon who like the money that would flow in with a "real" drug
war, but by and large, the generals and colonels and admirals know that they can't stop drugs at the
border. They don't want the mission because all they can do is fail.

McCaffrey has also said that interdiction is not the key to drug control, that 75 percent of drug
control should be education and treatment.

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He talks a good game, but look at his budget -- three-quarters of his budget is military and police
and prison. It's actually a bigger percentage than what it was under George Bush. It gets a little
bigger every year. So he talks about how this isn't a war, but I tell him, General, we didn't call
Korea a war either, but 60,000 Americans died there.

So, how do we solve the drug abuse problem?

Solutions are not for democracies -- solutions are for dictatorships. I think we need to accept
that the drugs are here to stay, we're stuck with them. Cocaine and heroin and marijuana have been
around a long time, and they're going to be around a long time. There'll be other drugs that come in
and out. I think it's really a worthwhile endeavor to try and ameliorate the harm that drug abuse
causes. I think addicts are a real problem that we need to address.I also think trying to get kids
to use drugs less is really important. But I've heard the argument convincingly made that all of
this drug education and propaganda makes the problem worse..

So we should give up on that approach as well?

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The Partnership for a Drug-Free America was spending about a million dollars a day in 1987 to talk
kids out of using drugs, and drug abuse has doubled. I argue in the book that our message to kids
about drugs is totally fucked up. For example, we have equated marijuana -- which is overwhelmingly
the drug of choice for kids -- in all our literature with crack cocaine. We lie to kids -- we say
it's addictive, we say it will kill you, we say it will lead to harder drugs. Some government
pamphlets I've seen say it will make teenage boys grow breasts, that it causes brain damage,
irreversible lung damage, heart disease, and all this stuff that kids know is not true. We lie to
them, and then we send them to school and expect drug education to work.

What effect would the passage of California's medical marijuana initiative have?

In terms of legalization, not much, because marijuana will still be federally banned. If the
initiative passes, clinics will open and the DEA, mark my words, will come and bust them just to make
the point that California is not allowed to make this decision. But it will be a big blow to the
"drug war." It will be saying that the biggest state in the union, with a ninth of the population,
wants terminally ill people and sick people to get marijuana. That'd be great. So I always recommend
to people, give money to that campaign, stuff envelopes, knock on doors for that campaign, because
it's a chance to really put a dent in the drug war.

In other words, forget about a drug war altogether?

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Whether to legalize or decriminalize drugs is a political decision that we're not nearly ready to make.
The public needs to have an honest, open dialogue about what our real drug problems are. Since the
Jimmy Carter regime, there's been this deliberate attempt to close the debate, to clamp down on the
way people can think and talk about drugs -- so that we can no longer make the distinction between
drug use and drug abuse. We don't call every time you drink a beer "alcohol abuse."

Should there be more of an emphasis on alcohol and tobacco control?

We're actually doing a pretty good job of reducing tobacco use in certain segments of the population,
and we're not putting anybody in prison, we're not busting the budget, we're not creating violence,
and we're not inspiring people to make stronger types of tobacco, the way we did with cocaine. But
four million teenagers drink to incapacitation once a month. That's way more than the number of kids
who smoke marijuana once a month. Eleven percent of kids used drugs in the past month, probably pot.
Twenty percent smoked cigarettes every day. You don't see Bob Dole talking about that.

In the context of all this political brouhaha about teens and drugs, something else needs to be said.
The Republican Party -- and God knows the Democrats have a lot to answer for -- has gone out of its
way in the last 20 years to make the lives of teenagers as miserable as possible. There have been
huge cuts in education funding, so that we now have a Republican-led property tax revolution where
we now have 30 kids in class instead of 20. The first programs to go in schools are art and music --
the two types of classes that are most likely to reach out to the kind of creative, experimental,
artistic kids who are also most likely to use drugs. After school programs? Gone. Intramural
sports? Gone. Summer job programs? Gone.

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We've really dissed teenagers in the last 20 years, and what we're doing now is saying their whole
problem is they smoke pot once a month? It's the most craven kind of scapegoating, and for the
Republicans to suddenly be beating their breasts over these poor teenagers, when they have done so
much to make the lives of teenagers hard, just boils my blood.


Quote of the day

Generation $

"Those stereotypes have made me a wealthy man. If anyone thinks they have no buying power, they have no idea of this generation.They are savvy at a younger age, they drive about 30 percent of computer sales, they have had some of the most major impact on book superstores and they single-handedly destroyed the mall-based music stores."

-- Steven Grasse, 31, head of Gyro Worldwide, a Philadelphia ad agency that focuses on the so-called Generation X. (From "Ad Agency Prides Itself on Understanding Generation X," in Monday's

New York Times.
)


Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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