Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bust: How the Republicans Lost the War on Drugs 1/5

by Nomad

Starting with President Nixon, the War on Drugs has been a series of costly mistakes. Sadly, most of the misjudgements might have been avoided if only officials had listened to the experts and to the people most affected.

Part 1. Nixon, Drugs and the Hippie Removal Scheme

Nixon and the Mandate of the Silent Majority 
To understand what went wrong with America's War on Drugs, we have to go back to the days of President Nixon and the time before Watergate. In this turbulent moment in US history, there was a fundamental difference of opinions about the causes of the upheaval in the 60s.
Taking a look at the nation in turmoil at colleges and universities, President Richard Nixon not long after taking office, said:
It's not too strong a statement to declare that this is the way civilizations begin to die... The process is altogether to familiar to those who would survey the wreckage of history. assault and counterassault, one extreme leading to the opposite extreme; the voices of reason and calm discredited.
(As it turned out, it was a oddly accurate assessment and it is even more true today than then.) 
At the time many people, especially conservatives, considered the liberal policies of the 1960s, particularly, domestic programs of the Great Society, to be a failure. The Supreme Court decisions, on abortion and civil rights, combined with liberal idealism had opened a Pandora's box. That was what a lot of middle class people across the country genuinely believed.   

The rebellious counter-culture, which included the hippies, the yippies, the anti-war protesters, the bra burners, the liberationists, the anarchists, the Communists,  was fueled not by resentment or by anger at injustice. Drugs had to be behind it all. What else could make kids from well-off backgrounds, drop out of society, throw away all of the material advantages and live like gypsies? What else could make them so wild and violent?
That view was both widespread and often propagated by the mainstream news media. The conventional wisdom said that the widespread use of illegal drugs was just another example of the general breakdown of law and order.  

How the national drug abuse crisis was viewed depended very much on which side of the political spectrum you called home.

Liberals tended to see the problem in terms of a health crisis in need of a thoughtful and expensive approach. It also was a symptom of a larger dissatisfaction with how things were run in the country.

As far as law enforcement, it meant going after the dealers and the traffickers and international crime organizations and cutting off the suppliers abroad was, generally speaking, the solution from the left. 

Conservative Republicans had once been considered a fringe element within the party.  Moderates had held sway in the party for decades. But  by the 1968 election, that had changed. Conservative now held a much stronger hand. As a 1995 article in The Atlantic reminds us:
In 1960 Nixon had wooed those on his left; eight years later he employed the conservative speechwriter Pat Buchanan, chose the fiery Spiro Agnew as his running mate, and trumpeted his anti-Communist credentials and his opposition to busing to win southern delegates. Nixon was not an ideological conservative, but to gain the nomination he had to appeal to the party's new conservative majority.
The Far Right considered the drug problem mostly a failure of will, both of individuals and of the government. If only, they said, the government asserted its authority, clamped down and punished these hoodlums and bums, then the country could return to normalcy.

In Nixon's home state of California, in 1967, one conservative Republican candidate for governor was running on a law and order platform. The actor turned politician had once been generally considered a right wing extremist but much to the surprise of the moderate Republican establishment, Ronald Reagan's tough message was music to the ears of the middle class voters of California. He had promised to use force against the "demonstrations, drugs, sex, long hair and rock music" at universities, like Berkeley

A few years later, in 1969, Governor Reagan was as good as his word. He and his Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III sent 791 police officers from various jurisdictions to scatter peace activists in the so-called the People's Park. The police in full riot gear (helmets, shields, and gas masks) were reportedly permitted to use whatever methods they chose against the 6,000-person crowd.
One man, James Rector, died of gunshot wounds as squads of police opened fire in the streets and at least 128 of the demonstrators were treated at local hospitals for serious injuries. Governor Reagan defended the actions of the police.
(Surprisingly perhaps, this get tough attitude was not as unpopular a move as you might expect with some voters.)

In the election year of 1968, at the beginning of this term as governor, Reagan led a "Stop Nixon" movement at the Republican convention in Miami. He also tried to woo Southern voters with a strong conservative message. In the end, Nixon prevailed. Reagan was not able to secure the nomination and would under no circumstances, take the vice-president position.
What this upstart did do was to push the moderate Nixon much further to the right in order to maintain both middle of the road and far right vote. It was successful but it came at a political cost.
And it wasn't over yet. 

Below the Mason-Dixon line, in the general election, Republican nominee Nixon had had to contend with an even more conservative George Wallace of Alabama who ran as the American Independent Party candidate. This presented a threat to Nixon's campaign who feared that Wallace would split the Republican vote and allow Hubert Humphrey to waltz into the White House.
For these reasons, the moderate Nixon had again been forced into a much more conservative position. 

After the election, Nixon's campaign promises became his presidential mandate. The so-called Silent Majority, "bewildered by irrational protests," now demanded the newly-elected president get tough on dissent, on crime, especially on drugs.
The message was simple: Take this country back. It was time to punish the lawbreakers and show the disloyal protesters the full force of the law,
That left little room for a light touch when it came to dealing with illegal drugs.

The Hess Report
One of the more enlightened steps that President Nixon took was to appoint  Stephen Hess to the position of National Chairman of the White House Conference for Children and Youth. Hess was given the task of  listening to the the voices of young Americans "in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners" and attempt to learn what they were thinking. Allow them not merely to protest but to participate. 

Some people sneered that it was just an Establishment attempt to placate the anger of the younger generation. Others were appalled that the president would think about kowtowing to these wild radicals and anarchists.

After two years of planning, Hess and 1,486 delegates from across the country met in Estes Park, Colorado and discussed ten of the most pressing problems. One of those problems was drug abuse and a special task force made up of 8 young people and eight adults, was set up to present recommendations. 

What emerged was surprising. The group advised therapy for addicts rather than incarceration or punishment. It should be treated as a health problem or as a social problem with deep roots and not just a criminal act.
We acknowledge that drug abuse is largely a symptom of the individual's inability to cope with his immediate personal environment. However, it must be understood that deep societal ills increase the individual's sense of personal alienation. Specifically, our society has permitted the perpetuation of the Indochina War, of institutional and personal racism, of the pollution of our environment, and of the urban crises.... If the administration is sincere in its concern with drug abuse, it must deal aggressively with the root causes as well as implement the recommendations contained herein."
This was definitely not the answer the President or middle class Americans wanted to hear.  It amounted to an indictment of the whole society.
To claim that it was society's fault was not a popular position to take. Reagan had publicly ridiculed that very idea.

As one writer from The Atlantic pointed out, it was far easier to paint the drug users as "criminals attacking the moral fiber of the nation, people who deserved only incarceration and punishment."  

Public Enemy Number One
Some of the recommendations found in the Hess report- at least a few bits- could be incorporated into the Nixon's plan.
However, there was no possible way that Nixon would ever have adopted in full the recommendations. It went against his own ideas and things he had already said.  His core supporters-  the very people who put him in office- would be outraged.
As a writer pointed out:
After all, this was the same man who argued in "What Happened to America?" (published in Reader's Digest in 1967) that, when it came to punishing rioters in Detroit and Newark, "our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when the law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame."
On the night June 18, 1971, three months after the report and two years after calling for the creation of a national drug policy, President Nixon formally declared the War on Drugs. He announced the issuance of Executive Order [11599] which established within the Executive Office of the President a Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention.

Despite the passage of The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, there had actually been very little progress on the issue.  Critics of the administration wondered whether it was just a lot of hot air.
The executive order demonstrated that the president was serious. Nixon had urged Congress to act but he would not rely solely on the legislative branch.

According to Nixon, the problem was too severe to delay even for a moment. At a press conference, the president said that America's drug problem in the US had become "public enemy number one."

His initiative, outlined in a message to Congress, was comprehensive. More federal resources were to be spend on the "prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those who are addicted." There was a important distinction between the victims of drugs and the people who profited.

Coupled with this was the law enforcement reform for illegal drug offenses. Nixon urged the implementation of "credible and proper penalties against violators of the drug law" targeting drug pushers with more lenient and flexible sanctions for the users. Judges were to have greater flexibility in sentencing, restoring, as the president said,"credibility to drug control laws."

It  would involve creating a lot of bureaucracy (325 additional positions within the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe) And it would require a lot of funding. For example, funding would be required for research and to develop equipment for  "for the detection of illegal drugs and drug traffic" and "to research new herbicides which can be used "to destroy growths of narcotics-producing plants without adverse ecological effects."

The last statement produced visions of planes spraying Agent Orange to destroy the Vietnamese jungles, tied in to both fears of environmentalists and anger of peace activists. 

In fact, the war on drugs had an annoying tendency to connect to seemingly unrelated subjects- besides the hippie counterculture- much to Nixon's dismay. Most notably, the war in Vietnam. 
LIFE magazine in March 1971 (at the moment the war on drugs was declared) wrote about the swelling problem of Vietnam vets returning from war as heroin addicts. The phrase used was "addicted in action."
"The number of addicts is still not confirmed- Congressmen Robert Steele and many returning veterans estimate that 18% of the men in Vietnam are hooked on heroin. The military claims the figure is 2%. Dr. Jerome Jaffe... suspects it is close to 5%, No matter who is right, thousands of Vietnam veterans now at home- and thousand more to come- are heroin addicts.."
As the administration would soon come to find out, the war on drugs was much more than a war on hippies and the counterculture revolution.. It was a war on the present state of the nation.

Marijuana: The Weakest Link
Marijuana proved to be the weakest link in America's battle against illegal drug use.

Strangely enough, it needn't have been. Marijuana had been temporarily placed on the Schedule One group, the most restrictive category of drugs.
According to the administration, that controversial decision was to be reviewed by experts in various fields with an aim at uncovering the truth about cannabis. Since the days of "Reefer Madness," there had long been a great deal of hysteria about marijuana, its use and its effects. It was time to sort facts from fiction. But, that's not how it turned out.

Just what actually happened when the government attempted to hammer out an intelligent, fact-based approach to the devil weed reveals the basic problem with the Republican approach.
In March 1972, a review by an independent commission led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer sent a report to Congress entitled "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,"

That report unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. It also called for adopting other methods to discourage use, namely education.

Not only did the president ignore the findings, while the panel was drafting the report, the president reportedly attempted to exert his influence over its conclusions. In a tape of the meeting, the president told Shafer:
"You're enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we're planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell."
Nixon advised Shafer to avoid seeking opinions from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He suggested that the agency's position would be a little "soft."  The Nixon Tapes also offer us this gem quote, in which, Nixon was asking the head of an independent commission to lie.
The things is so terribly important here is that it not appear that the Commission's frankly just a bunch of do-goods.. [if[ they say they a bunch of old men who don't understand, that's fine, I wouldn't mind that, but if they get the idea that your're ust a bunch of do-gooders that are going to come out with a quote "soft on marijuana" report, that'll destroy it, right off the bat.
Nixon also conclusively proves in the following statement that he himself was aware that cannabis was an exception and a low-risk drug.
I think there's a need to come out with a report that is totally oblivious to some obvious difference between marijuana and other drugs, other dangerous drugs.
It was clear that the president did not want "a bunch of muddle-headed psychiatrists" to confuse the issue. He invoked the name of Edgar J, Hoover, the head of the FBI, in the Shafer meeting underlining the fact that Nixon could only view the problem as a failure of law enforcement.
But anyway, the thing to do now is to alert the country to the problem and say now, this far, no farther, and I think that's what you want to do, take a strong line."
Nixon wasn't asking for an unbiased and informative report on the problem. He was asking for corroboration of his beliefs, and support for his position whether it was right or wrong or even practical. That policy was already decided rendering the accuracy of the report's findings meaningless.
A strong line was a popular line, even if it wasn't intelligent or practical policy. 

Ever the political animal, President Nixon realized that a soft line on drugs wouldn't be a winning position in the upcoming 1972 election. 

The liberal George McGovern  had been running a grassroots campaign pledging, among other things, to decriminalize marijuana. The last thing the administration was a reported- commissioned by the president- supporting his challenger's position. 
A report on drugs  advocating a strong across the board approach on all illegal drugs would be an essential support against McGovern's position. Nixon's campaign strategy was to paint the Democratic nominee as weak, weak on national defense, national security, weak on law and order and weak on drugs. Repeat it often enough and it becomes a fact. 

Painting Democrats as weak has been a campaign theme that Republicans have successfully used ever since 1968. It's not a coincidence. Roger Ailes, today head of Fox News, was a media consultant for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Back in 1972, Ailes wrote in the Washington Post: 
“If you come out and say that a guy’s a commie, fag bastard, the public turns you off, not him.”
 But labeling him as "weak"? That covered all those things and a lot more. 

When Truth Prevailed
In the end, much to its credit, the Shafer Commission stuck to its guns and, like the Hess report, told the president and Congress exactly what they did not want to hear. It surely must have sent the president fuming to read their conclusions. 

According to the report, while 48% of the public believed that some people have died from cannabis, in fact, "a careful search of the literature and testimony of the nation's health officials has not revealed a single human fatality in the United States proven to have resulted solely from ingestion of marihuana."

The report is, in many ways, a remarkable document for its bluntness and honesty.

The official report said that emotionally-charged issues, like the "anti-war demonstrations, campus riots, hippie life styles, the rising incidence of crime and delinquency and the increased usage of all illicit drugs" had together created a lot of confusion about the effects by young people smoking cannabis on the "dominant social order."  

Furthermore, the report said, misleading information from the government had only created undue hysteria.  Alarmism about the hazards of cannabis based on misinterpreted data  had made any sensible discussion that much harder.
Viewed against the background of the profound changes of recent years in the fields of economics, politics, religion, family life, housing patterns, civil rights, employment and recreation, the use of marihuana by the nation's youth must be seen as a relatively minor change in social patterns of conduct and as more of a consequence of than a contributor to these major changes.
It was the very moment when a common sense re-evaluation of marijuana laws might have begun. Unfortunately that opportunity never had a chance. In Nixon's eyes, the war on drugs could not be bogged down with deciding what drug was more or less dangerous.  Americans looked to the president for answers, Nixon believed, not more unanswered question and blurred lines.
Besides, it was not only a question of illegality or of health but of morality.

Nixon's remarks in his 1971 speech- the opening shots in the drug war- had clearly been aimed at the soul of America, rather than the brain. When Nixon declared the war on drugs, it was framed as a moral struggle:
We have the moral resources to do the job. Now we need the authority and the funds to match our moral resources.
There were still nagging questions that nobody bothered to answer. In the war on drugs, or any moral war, for that matter, what did victory actually look like? Was it realistic to assume that America could ever be totally drug-free? If not, then where to draw the line? Where were the benchmarks? More importantly, where was the end-point?

In truth, Nixon's logic was cut and pasted together like a bad montage. Illegal drugs were illegal because they were dangerous. Except some dangerous drugs -like prescription drugs- were legal and so regulated but not outlawed. Except for some unregulated and legal ones, like cigarettes and alcohol- which were also dangerous.  But...wait...
Even a child could see it was rather confused. If Mommy while smoking her Salem, gave you your daily little yellow pill to make you calm, how could you believe her when she warned you against people offering you drugs?

If it didn't make much sense, then it was better not to think too deeply. Republicans have long held that all wars are better fought without much debate. 
To outside observers it was clear that the war on drugs- whatever its merits- had already been compromised by ideological prejudices. 
*   *   *
Exactly one year (to the day) after Nixon's declaration of war on drugs, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington led to a scandal which was to cripple the rest of Nixon's time in office.   The Watergate Affair had begun, suddenly casting all question of higher morality out of the Oval Office window. 
Nixon had won the election, only to lose the respect of the people.

The president had clearly lost the moral authority to tell the people what was right and what was wrong. A decisive plurality in polls during the Watergate investigation said that Nixon had set the lowest moral standards of all presidents.
Who was this man to dictate to the nation's young people about morality?

DEA: Early Warnings in Collinsville
Through an Executive Order on July 1, 1973, the president had established a single federal agency to enforce the federal drug laws as well as consolidate and coordinate the government's drug control activities. It was known as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). From now on, the various agencies would come under one centralized federal control. 

The Attorney General would be authorized to coordinated all agency activities related to law enforcement and could "utilize the services of any other agencies, federal and state, as may be available and appropriate."  As innocuous as it might have sounded at the time, it put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of one person with very little oversight. (That detail will later play a crucial factor in our story.)

From the beginning there were concerns that the DEA itself was given too much power. 
In the very year of its inception, an incident in Collinsville, Ill. raised Congressional concerns about the gung-ho attitude of the agents. 
A team of federal narcotics agents illegally entered the home of a Illinois couple who were mistakenly identified. On August 24, 1973, a Federal Grand Jury indicted the narcotic officers involved and charged them with deprivIng those raided of their constitutional rights.

The head of the DEA, John R. Bartels, Jr. spoke later about the incident a month later. Following the incident, new guidelines were supposedly drawn up and the agents were suspended. However in an interview, Bartel revealed where his true priorities lay: 
" .. Actually this isn't the problem that concerns me now> what does concern me is that more and more of our agents are being shot at .. .it seems to me that the war between the law enforcement officials and narcotics violators is really heating up. .. While I am concerned about repetition of the Collinsville incident,.. what really has us worried is the very violent escalation of the narcotics war.
The trial of the agents concluded on April 2, 1974, and all six of the officers were acquitted of civil rights vIolations. Subsequently, the agents involved were re- instated as a result of their acquittal. 

On June 9 1975 Bartels submitted his resignation to the President Gerald Ford. Reportedly that resignation came at the request of the White House. A Wikileaks memo noted that throughout ıts two-year exıstence, DEA had been "beset by disputes among ıts employees and allegatıons of abuses and mısmanagement."

A Permanent Subcommıttee on Investıgatıons, headed by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash) had been investigating allegations that "under Bartels, DEA frequently has faıled to ınvestıgate and act on allegatıons of unprofessıonal conduct agaınst ıts offıcıals and agents."

Meanwhile the war on drugs was plodding along. As the memo points out, between July, 1973, and December, 1974, DEA agents joıned wıth foreıgn and US polıce in makıng more than 25,000 unclassified drug arrests and seızıng 7,235 pounds of heroın, 2510 pounds of cocaıne, 36.6 mıllıon dosage unıts of other dangerous drugs and 687 tons of marıjuana. 
However, says the memo, DEA also acknowledged that the flow of cocaıne marıjuana and hashısh into this country appeared to be at record levels and that heroın also may agaın be on the upsurge.

Altogether, it was hardly an auspicious start. It was going to take a whole lot more money to make a difference.

At its outset, DEA had about 2200 Special Agents around the country and in stations outside the US, and a budget of less than $75 million. (Today, according to its website, the DEA has nearly 5,000 Special Agents and a budget of $2.02 billion.)  
This fiscal rathole was Richard Nixon's drug war legacy left to the American people. 
As the essay by Joseph D, McNamara, America's Misguided War on Drugs, points out that in the year that Nixon declared war on drugs, the federal budget for that effort was roughly $101 million. 
However, thirty-three years later, it has increased to around $20 billion a year.
By comparison, the average monthly Social Security retirement check in 1972 was $177. If Social Security benefits had increased at the same rate as drug war spending, today's check would be around $30,000 a month, instead of approximately $900. When state and local costs are added to the federal costs, the annual costs of the drug war exceeds $30 billion a year.
Notably, the Nixon administration was one of the last to spend more on prevention and treatment than law enforcement. (There was only one exception). That increasing imbalance between the two schools of thought has become the hallmark of America's war on drugs.

From 1972 to 1974, the nation watched and listened in disgust to tales of widespread wiretaps on American citizens, secret slush funds, burglaries and cover-ups, of political dirty-tricks. It all took its toll on the administration's credibility. 

Then in April 1974, transcripts of secret recordings of the president were released (albeit in redacted form). Allegation were one thing, but hearing the president, (in fairly vulgar language) was more than a little than the Silent Majority could tolerate. According to one Congressman, the recordings revealed the "deplorable, disgusting, shabby, and immoral" side of the President and his former aides.

By August 1974, Nixon himself reluctantly agreed to step down, on condition of a complete pardon for any crimes that the president may or may not have committed. 
The moralistic crusade against illegal drugs had survived its shamed leader.