Exasperated by pessimism about the "war on drugs," John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says: Washington is awash with lobbyists hired by businesses worried that government may, intentionally or inadvertently, make them unprofitable. So why assume that trade in illicit drugs is the one business that government, try as it might, cannot seriously injure?
Here is why: When Pat Moynihan was an adviser to President Richard Nixon, he persuaded the French government to break the "French connection" by which heroin came to America. Moynihan explained his achievement to Labor Secretary George Shultz, who said laconically: "Good."
Moynihan: "No, really, this is a big event."
Shultz, unfazed: "Good."
Moynihan: "I suppose that you think that so long as there is a demand for drugs, there will continue to be a supply."
Shultz: "You know, there's hope for you yet."
Walters understands that when there is a $65 billion annual American demand for an easily smuggled commodity produced in poor countries, and when the price of cocaine and heroin on U.S. streets is 100 times the production costs, much will evade even sophisticated interdiction methods. And, Walters says, huge quantities of marijuana are grown domestically, for example, in California, Kentucky and West Virginia -- often on public lands because the government can seize private land used for marijuana cultivation. And particularly potent strains of the drug are grown indoors. Marijuana possession, not trafficking, accounts for most of the surge in drug arrests since 1990. Critics suggest an armistice on this front in the $35 billion-a-year drug war.
Marijuana's price has fallen and its potency has doubled in the past eight years. So say David Boyum and Peter Reuter in their new book, "An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy," from the American Enterprise Institute. They say that although the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses on any given day has increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 450,000 in 2003, the inflation-adjusted prices for cocaine and heroin are half of what they were 25 years ago.
So, should there be an armistice on this front, too? Walters responds that the bulk of the demand for illegal drugs is from addictive users. Of the 19 million users, 7 million are drug-dependent. Marijuana use is a "pediatric onset" problem: If people get past their teens without starting, Walters says, the probability of use is "very small" and the likelihood of dependence "much less."
Use of marijuana by youths peaked in 1979, hit a low in 1992 and then doubled by the mid-'90s. The age of first use of marijuana has been declining to the early teens and lower. Often, Walters says, the "triggers" for use are "cultural messages" -- today, for example, from rap music. Nevertheless, teen marijuana use has declined 18 percent in the past three years.
Because marijuana is, unlike heroin and cocaine, not toxic -- because marijuana users do not die from overdoses -- its reputation is too benign. The 5 million users in the 12-to-17 age cohort are, Walters believes, storing up future family, school and work problems and putting their brain functions at risk with increasingly potent strains of marijuana. Many of these strains -- and perhaps one-third of the total U.S. marijuana supply -- come from Canada. A few years ago police estimated that there were 10,000 growers in the Toronto metropolitan area.
Last year 400 metric tons of cocaine were seized worldwide, but at least 200 entered the United States. However, some seizures, by causing abrupt shortages in some metropolitan areas, cause addicts to seek detoxification. Walters says that breaking the French connection did that in New York in 1972. Even Prohibition, he says, for all its bad effects, changed behavior: After repeal, per capita alcohol use did not return to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1960s.
Walters says the data do not support the theory that society has a "latent level of substance abuse" -- that if one problem declines, another rises commensurately. And he thinks indifference to drug abuse, which debilitates the individual's capacity to flourish in freedom, mocks the nation's premises.
Having studied political philosophy at the University of Toronto with the late Allan Bloom, Walters describes the drug war in Lincolnian language: "There are certain requirements of civilization -- to keep the better angels of our nature in preponderance over the lesser angels."
Fighting terrorists, he says, is necessary even though it is like seeking a needle in a haystack. Illicit drugs -- millions of pounds marketed to millions of Americans -- are at least not a needle-in-a-haystack problem.