Former Drug Czars Believe Their War Has Been Won
by John C . Burnham, (30 Jun 2006) Columbus Dispatch Ohio
The United States has won the war against illegal drugs. That was the conclusion of a unique gathering on June 17, which marked the 35th anniversary of the war's beginning in 1971 with the appointment of Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, a psychiatrist, as the first White House drug czar.
Jaffe was joined at the the anniversary gatheing in by six other former czars, Dr. Robert L. Du Pont, Dr. Peter G. Bourne, Lee I. Dogoloff, Dr. Donald Ian Mac-Donald, Lee Brown and retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. Also attending were 20 former staff members and a handful of experts, including me, a specialist historian.
The meeting, sponsored and hosted by the University of Maryland, was held for the purpose of making a historical record.
The seven former czars and former staff members held remarkably unanimous views, though they come from a variety of backgrounds and included Democrats and Republicans who worked for five very different presidents. And what they had to say was often surprising.
The main conclusion that we won the war on drugs was the biggest surprise, because advocates of illegal drugs have in recent years filled the media with rhetoric about "the failed war on drugs." The czars' straightforward conclusion may come as a shock, but, as they outlined what the war was about, what they had to say made a lot of sense.
Thirty-five years ago, the big worry was the veterans who were returning from Vietnam who had been using illegal drugs. And the drug causing overwhelming concern was heroin. A hard-headed public-health approach showed an alarming number of deaths directly related to heroin, not to mention crimes committed by addicts. As the veterans showed that their use did not continue after their return to the United States, and as methadone-maintenance programs came into place, along with enforcement and education, heroin use declined, and even more dramatic was the decline in heroin-related deaths. This was the great victory of the war on drugs. A recent small uptick in illegal drug use is remarkably insignificant compared with the original problem.
Only in the 1980s, when the price of cocaine, in the form of crack, went down did that drug become a significant public-health problem. But what about marijuana? At that time, the serious effects of pot smoking were largely unknown. But in the late 1970s, the parents movement developed parents who had seen what happened when their kids got addicted to marijuana and their young brains got fried. This was a huge group of very angry people, and they were political dynamite.
The main tension in the office of drug czar was between enforcement and treatment. Congress would fund enforcement but did not like treatment, although one czar told of taking a couple of reluctant members of Congress to view a treatment center and see how much money treatment was saving the public as addicts, often under court coercion, were enabled to work productively.
For historians like me, the collective experience of the former czars provides two lessons. The first is unwelcome to extremists of the right and left and their shady commercial allies: Prohibitory laws can work. Historians have established that the 1920s experiment in alcohol prohibition was successful and was repealed in 1933 only because of a massive, well-financed propaganda campaign. The leadership of the drug czars in reducing supply and demand of illegal drugs is reflected not only in the public-health statistics. They can also cite public opinion polls. Thirty-five years ago, illegal drugs were usually first or second and no lower than fourth as public concerns. Now the drugs issue trails many other problems.
Everyone at the conference knew that the problem is going to continue for American society, but at a much lower level than 35 years before. That is what laws do: They attempt to control problems, not bring perfection. Laws against murder provide hope to control the problem, not abolish murder.
The second lesson is more subtle. The title czar was ironic, because the appointees had no direct, executive power. Instead, they coordinated the many federal and local agencies dealing with aspects of the drug problem and drug-law enforcement. The czars used persuasion. They got a drug detection and treatment system into the armed services, where the programs served as models for private businesses and other units. When new substances of abuse came along, often the czar was able to get officials and private businesses, especially pharmaceutical companies, to get one substance or another restricted before it became a major problem.
So what if the amusingly designated czars had no real power? They proved that in American government, there can be impressive leadership beyond formal power.