Battles in the Drug War

views updated

Chapter 5
Battles in the Drug War

The war against illegal drugs is ongoing. For more than a century, America has taken up the banner opposing the use of drugs that are considered dangerous. Joined by like-minded citizens of other nations, Americans are working on multiple fronts to address the problems that drive people to use illegal drugs, help those who are already victim to them, and above all, eliminate drug sources.

The use of opiates and other illegal drugs became problematic during the late 1800s when opium dens emerged. By 1900 the popularity of opium dens had spread through the entire country. Many cities attempted to eradicate them by creating local ordinances that banned opium smoking.

On a national level, few laws protected citizens from dangerous drugs. One of the first was the Pure Food and Drug Act which was passed by Congress in 1906. This law required that the medicine industry post the ingredients of their formulations on the bottles so that consumers would know what they were buying. The Pure Food and Drug Act was necessary because most citizens had no idea that commonly used elixirs and remedies contained opium, morphine, and heroin.

However, at that time the U.S. government had never outlawed the sale or use of any drugs. The federal government, which believed in state control of issues, was reluctant to step forward and take charge of the growing drug problem. States were left on their own to handle drug issues. Several had placed restrictions on drug use, but these varied from state to state. Many contended that laws passed at the state level were not solving growing drug problems.

Reformers pressed the need for such laws, arguing that the national government was better equipped to handle drug problems than the individual states. Also, they felt that, as a nation, the United States needed to take a formal position against the nonmedical use of narcotics. In response, Congress passed the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 which prohibited the importation of opium that had been processed or prepared for smoking.

It was not local reformers who finally goaded the government into making more comprehensive national drug laws. Rather, progress against the use of narcotics on the international level forced the United States to act. In 1910 the United States and other countries helped China close the opium industry in that country. One year later, forty-six countries attended the First International Conference on Opium at the Hague. Most diplomats, including those from the United States, agreed to discourage the use of narcotics in their own countries. In a document called the Opium Convention, each nation promised to control narcotics in its own country through domestic laws. As a key player in the conference, the United States felt that it must hold up its end of the bargain.

The Federal Government Steps Forward

In 1914 the federal government took a critical step toward limiting the use of narcotics by passing the Harrison Narcotics Act. This act stated that only doctors and pharmacists could buy, sell, or dispense opiates, and those who did must first register with the federal government, then pay a tax to the Internal Revenue Service. Additionally all transactions relating to heroin had to be recorded. The punishment for not doing so was a fine and a prison sentence. The need for a tax-collecting agency to assess penalties on those who disobeyed this new law led to the development of the Bureau of Narcotics.

The Harrison Narcotics Act had a tremendous impact on two groups of people, the addicts and the medical community who had been working with them. The addicts were in a bad position for several reasons. Once the Harrison Act went into effect, it became very difficult to get opiates. At the same time, the status of addicts fell in the public's opinion; they were no longer viewed as victims of faulty medical treatment but as social outcasts. One young heroin user, Leroy Street of New York, said that because of the act, he was now "one of a band set apart by the will of society, too, and harried for our nonconformity. At least it seemed to me that we were being persecuted only because we were different, not because we were dangerous."47

Addicts looked for treatment programs, but there were very few available. Thousands of addicts who turned to the medical community found an unexpected cold shoulder there. Large numbers of doctors decided to avoid them because the Harrison Act made it cumbersome and complicated to treat them.

Taking the Cure

In his 1998 history of drugs in America, Drug Crazy, Mike Gray explained that when Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, it did not intend to make the lives of narcotic users more difficult. Most congressmen believed that they were helping the addicts, who could be easily cured. Part of their misperception arose from the release in 1909 of a so-called miracle cure that was supposed to end any type of drug addiction within just a few days.

The perpetuator of this medical hoax was not a doctor, but a former insurance salesman from Georgia named Charles Towns. His secret formula was a strong laxative. To test its effectiveness, Towns kidnapped a homeless heroin addict and locked him in a hotel room. After the first dose of gut-wrenching "cure," the unwilling subject tried to commit suicide. Forty-eight hours into the "treatment," the addict was offered a syringe of his drug. To Towns's delight, he declined it and Towns rewarded him with his freedom.

Armed with his wonder product, Towns went to the country's leading researchers in drug abuse and addiction. One of these, Alexander Lambert of Cornell University, agreed to let Towns demonstrate his product on some hospitalized addicts. After just one week of treatment, addicts left the hospital claiming to be new men. None returned for their follow-up treatments—apparently because they were cured.

Lambert, also the personal physician of President Theodore Roosevelt, was impressed with the results. In short order, the doctor told everyone in Washington about the miracle cure. Lawmakers were so delighted to have a cure available that no one asked questions about its reliability.

Ten years later, Lambert checked on some of Towns's former patients. Fully 95 percent of the patients who had sought treatment at the hospital had returned to drug use. Lambert's investigation revealed that the drug cure and Towns were frauds. However, by then, the U.S. government had adopted an unforgiving attitude toward addicts that persisted for decades.

The few doctors willing to treat addicts found themselves in an awkward situation. Under the Harrison Act, doctors and pharmacists assumed that they could care for drug addicts in the way they saw fit as long as they completed all the required paperwork. Therefore, many of those who treated addicts continued writing prescriptions for maintenance doses of opiates. But the Treasury Department frowned on this practice because it wanted to end the use of drugs. Consequently, it required that doctors write prescriptions for increasingly smaller doses with the goal of weaning addicts off their drugs. The logic was based on a long-held, but erroneous, belief that addiction could be easily cured under a doctor's care. No one realized that even if a doctor could help a patient stop using drugs, the rate of relapse was extremely high.

Many doctors and druggists who found it impossible to wean addicts off of their drug habits continued to write prescriptions for maintenance doses. As a result, they were arrested and fined. John Hoffman, a historian, describes the doctors' plight.

The Act was intended to prohibit recreational use of opiates and to only allow doctors to prescribe them in "good faith" as part of a legitimate medical practice. Although the term "good faith" may have originally been ambiguous, the zealous nature of U.S. Treasury agents . . . soon made this term quite clear. The overall effect of the Harrison Act was to prohibit most medical use of opiates. Treasury agents responsible for enforcement of the Act were quick to investigate and to prosecute opiate-prescribing physicians. In fact, between 1915 and 1938, over 25,000 doctors were reported to the authorities for violating the Harrison Act. It is not surprising that the medical community began to shun the use of the opiates not only for treating the addicted but also for treating the organically ill.48

A New Market Niche

Once drugs were outlawed, addicts who bought them had to do so on the illegal black market. The scarcity of morphine and heroin caused the prices to skyrocket. The cost of an ounce of heroin rose dramatically from $6.50 to about $100. Many addicts found themselves without enough money to buy drugs at their newly inflated prices. As a result, they turned to crime to secure the funds they needed.

New York City saw a rapid increase in crime following the passage of the Harrison Act and tried to combat the problem by opening the Worth Street Clinic in 1919. There, addicts received the drugs they craved and used them under medical supervision. In the early months, about 1,000 addicts a day filed through. Eventually, the clinic began to push the Treasury Department's goal to wean addicts off drugs. Each week, the clinicians handed out smaller and smaller doses. Many addicts were not interested in the government's ideas to reduce their drug consumption, so when government reduced its doses, they bought supplements of narcotics on the street. Only 2,000 of the clients agreed to enroll in the drug recovery program at the clinic. Of those, 150 stayed with the program. The program offered at Worth Street Clinic was so ineffective that even the few people who were able to stop using drugs under medical treatment suffered a 90 percent relapse rate. Fifty other cities opened similar clinics, but none were very successful in helping addicts give up their drugs.

The Harrison Act unintentionally provided a lucrative business opportunity for others. With so few places for addicts to buy drugs, a new market appeared; a market of thousands who desperately wanted to purchase heroin. Arnold Rothstein was one of the many crime bosses who took advantage of this market in the 1920s.

Rothstein, an innovator of sorts, created a system of smuggling illegal drugs into the United States. Rothstein knew that drug pushers in the New York area had very little stock to sell. What they did have was either smuggled in from China, stolen from drug-manufacturing companies, or ordered from manufacturers by fake companies that set up temporary addresses in Mexico. None of these sources could supply the large amounts of opiates that Rothstein needed for the market.

Rothstein sent his representatives to legitimate drug manufacturers in Europe. There, they bought hundreds of pounds of narcotics with no questions asked by the sellers. These purchases were crated, labeled as plumbing supplies, engine parts, or some other bogus item, then shipped to the United States. Rothstein's stateside men picked up the shipments at the ports and distributed their contents to sellers in the major cities. In no time, other criminals were copying Rothstein's techniques and illegal drugs poured into America's harbors. However, by 1930, authorities had figured out Rothstein's ruse and seized the drugs as fast as they arrived on American soil. As a result, many illegal drug entrepreneurs went out of business.

By the time World War II began, illegal drugs became scarce again. Most illegal sources, like Rothstein's operation, had been closed down, and the war front required all the legal pharmaceuticals that could be manufactured. For a short time, it seemed as if the epidemic of drug use had ended. By the end of the war, public health officials estimated that the number of addicts was only one in every three thousand people, down by tenfold since 1900. This slowing of narcotic sales marked the end of a period that some call America's First Drug Epidemic.

The Second Attack, 1950–1970

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the number of heroin users rose once again. Most of the heroin sold in the United States was smuggled in from Asia. One region in particular, the Golden Triangle, had a long history as a source of opium. In the highlands of Southeast Asia, sections of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, opium is still grown in remote areas by poor farmers. These Asian farmers sold their raw opium to middlemen in Marseille, France, a group known as the "French Connection." French buyers processed the crude product into heroin. Sicilian and Corsican Mafias, criminal organizations who had dealt in drugs before, delivered the finished products to crime bosses in the United States.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Mafias ran extensive networks to distribute their illegal goods. As the numbers of users swelled through the 1970s, government officials worried that the American way of life might be in danger. By the time Nixon came into office, drug use was up in the United States, with estimates of 750,000 heroin addicts. Nixon was concerned about drug use by soldiers in Vietnam and demanded that they be tested. For the first time, the army found out that it had a sizable drug problem. Fearing that heroin abuse would compromise U.S. effectiveness in Vietnam, and alarmed by the growing number of addicts at home, Nixon launched a full-fledged war on drugs and First Lady Patricia Nixon led a "Just Say No" campaign that targeted children.

Nixon Promises Help for Vietnam Vets

The availability of heroin in Vietnam caused unexpected problems for U.S. forces and eventually led Nixon to declare a war on drugs. Many servicemen tried heroin, an attractive deterrent to concerns about combat, for the first time. Recorded in The Consumer's Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports magazine, 1972, one soldier explained how he was introduced to heroin. "I had my all-expense-paid vacation in sunny SE Asia in 1970–71. I still remember stepping off base onto Highway 1 at Phu Bai Combat Base south of Hue one mid-morning and being approached by a kid about ten years old who had jumped off the back of a cyclo to offer me a small vial of heroin ('skag') for only two dollars."

During 1971, the media reported that addiction among soldiers ran as high as 10 to 15 percent, a figure that many found unbelievable. However, among 930 returnees passing through the Oakland, California, army terminal who voluntarily filled out anonymous questions, 16 percent confirmed that they had indeed used heroin within the last thirty days.

News coverage of the heroin "epidemic" among servicemen spurred the White House into action. In 1971 President Richard Nixon's message to Congress called for extra funding to help soldiers returning from Vietnam beat their narcotic addiction. Nixon's request for financial help, recorded in The Consumer's Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, struck the hearts of Americans: "The Department of Defense will provide rehabilitation programs to all servicemen being returned for discharge who want this help, and we will be requesting legislation to permit the military services to retain for treatment any individual due for discharge who is a narcotic addict."

Making a Drug Illegal

One front of the drug war centered on reducing the availability of dangerous drugs. In 1970 Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act in an effort to control the use of drugs by U.S. citizens. Title II of the act, a section referred to as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), laid out the guidelines for restricting the use of drugs. Congress did not use the chemical characteristics of drugs as a measure of their menace. Instead, they classified the drugs that were most likely to be abused as the most dangerous. Schedule I drugs are those with the greatest potential for abuse and no approved medical use. From a legal point of view, abuse refers to use of a drug or other substance in a manner that is not approved by the government. Heroin is a Schedule I drug. Schedule II includes all the drugs with a high potential for abuse that have a medical use. Morphine, codeine, and most of the synthetic opiates fall in this category.

Strategies to Win the Drug War

The drug war had many fronts; another focus was on eliminating drug sources at an international level. The United States helped the Turkish government make all poppy growing illegal. At the same time, it supported the French government's efforts to eliminate the Corsican syndicate's heroin lab in Paris. Within a few years, some short-term successes were obvious. By the end of the Vietnam War, the amount of heroin flowing into America had slowed.

However, like any article of trade, loss in one area spurred growth in another. Without the Asian connection, buyers sought new markets and quickly turned to sources in Mexico, South America, and the Golden Crescent, an area that includes sections of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

With each change in White House administration, the U.S. drug war strategy fluctuated. Source elimination aimed to stop the flow of drugs into this country by eliminating their sources in other countries. To replace the income of impoverished opium growers, the United States helped teach farmers how to raise other crops that had high market value. Interdiction focused on stopping smugglers who carried drugs into the United States. Education centered on teaching young people the dangers of drug use.

Worldwide Attack

In a special meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1998, representatives emphasized the need to not just reduce the global supply of drugs, but also the demand. In a document called the Political Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction, member countries of the United Nations made commitments to lower the supply as well as the demand for drugs by 2008. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs supports several programs, all of which are aimed at reducing illegal narcotic use and sales.

The commission provides assistance to participating countries in many ways. It recommends the implementation of programs that support people whose lives are jeopardized by narcotic use. It also endorses the establishment of more drug treatment facilities and is active in plans to slow the spread of HIV by intravenous drug users.

Progress is difficult to assess because each signing nation chooses its own methods for reducing supplies of narcotics and for educating and treating its citizens. However, some strides are clear. The greatest achievement of the commission may be its success in getting countries to help one another do away with opium crops. Currently, it is working closely with central Asian countries to wipe out sources of opiates there. It also concentrates much of its energy on assisting the Afghan government in eliminating narcotics in that country. This help is especially valuable in a time when opium crops have been plentiful and sales for illicit growers are promising. According to the commission's executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, "the annual Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2002, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has confirmed earlier indications of the considerable level of opium production in the country this year."49 He called for greater international assistance in helping Afghanistan eliminate opium, a step that will also help the rest of the world reduce opium availability.

The Opium Crop

In the July 2001 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Emilie Astell helps the reader understand some of the complex issues involved in eliminating opium farms.

Astell profiles Robert Bouvier, a member of the UN International Drug Control Program. He is visiting the farmers who live in a region now known as Myanmar, formerly Burma, to assess the impact of opium on individual lives, the community, the ecology, and the economy. When he has completed this assessment, he hopes to make some recommendations to help the local farmers find a new strategy for earning money.

About twenty-five thousand people live in the Wa zone of Myanmar. Many of them grow poppies on their small farms, producing about seven pounds of opium per half acre. Each pound can be sold for about $40, providing the families with a mere $140 each year. Many families prefer to trade their opium than to sell it, swapping their year's crop for fourteen hundred pounds of rice. Opium farmers save a portion of their opium for personal use, primarily to treat painful conditions like toothache, because most cannot afford to spend several days traveling to a health care facility.

Bouvier knows that governmental changes are on the way. Authorities may ban opium farming in Myanmar. Without their income from opium, some will have to cut down the trees around the villages so they can plant large fields of less profitable crops. Many families who are just getting by may be pushed to the brink of starvation. Despite his concerns and efforts to quickly help these farmers find a better way to earn a living, Bouvier knows that finding a solution to this complex problem may take a while.

The Challenges

While both the United Nations and the United States assist the Afghan government's efforts to eliminate opium, the eyes of the world track their progress. In a country where poverty and warlords control life, getting rid of opium is a challenge. Reporter Maureen Orth reveals how poverty drives some people to raise opium poppies and sell their products, despite huge personal risks:

The entire population is engaged in smuggling the only cash crop that Afghanistan grows, the opium poppy. You have to smuggle or die of starvation—it is the only means to live. There is nothing else for them (the local people) economically. Even in the middle of winter, villagers . . . jump barefoot into the icy water to float kilos of heroin across the river inside animals skins tacked on old inner tubes or rubber rafts. . . . A billion-dollar industry depends on a guy pushing an animal skin across a freezing river.50

However, the destruction of the Afghan opium business is well underway. In Colombia, UN officials know that loss of opium supplies in one part of the world will only drive up sales in another, so they wait for the backlash. Even though Colombian opium farms are small in comparison to the Asian suppliers, Colombian growers will try to fill the market niche created by the loss of Afghan products. An international drug-control official explains his prediction simply: "So it makes sense that there should be more opium poppy grown in Colombia than before."51

As in any business, demand drives the market. As long as the world's addicts desire narcotics, someone will supply opium products to them.

Narcotics: For Better or Worse

Clearly, global disapproval of illegal drugs is growing. Under the leadership of the United Nations, countries work closely together to reduce supplies of drugs all over the world. Yet, even in the United States, opinions about progress and success in the drug war range widely. Critics point out that, despite decades of governmental laws and restrictions, narcotic use in this country persists and that the war on drugs is a total failure.

David Boaz, reporting in the Freedom Daily, expresses the frustration felt by many over this "war": "More than $30 billion is being spent annually on the drug war. One and a half million people are being arrested every year. But 78 million people say they have tried drugs, and 80 percent of teenagers say drugs are easy to obtain. Things are obviously going in the wrong direction."52

Supporters of the drug war praise the government's efforts to protect Americans from drugs. Many feel that campaigns to prevent drug use have influenced a large number of people to decide against using drugs. Asa Hutchinson, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in June 2002, "Overall drug use in the United States is down 50%; since the late 1970s. . . . And we've reduced the number of chronic heroin users over the last decades."53 Others suggest that government efforts have significantly reduced the consequences of drug use in society such as crime and poverty among users.

Clearly, no one knows the best solution, but several organizations are determined to find it. The United Nations, currently working with 168 countries, is expanding its strategies to both slow the production of opiates and reduce the number of people who want them. Perhaps the answers to the world's drug problem will soon be within grasp.