Winning the War on Drugs One Life at a Time

This is the third report in a five-part series.

Darryl Boyce, a community worker with an anti-drug group.

Darryl Boyce, a former middle-school drug dealer, is now a community worker for San Antonio Fighting Back, a grassroots anti-drug group. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR

Reporter's Notebook

NPR's series on the drug war began in a tiny Miskito Indian fishing village, on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, that relies on cocaine for its livelihood. Such dependence, John Burnett writes, is a visceral reminder that nothing the U.S. does abroad will shut down the drug trade.

Willie Mitchell, chairman of San Antonio Fighting Back, a community anti-drug group.

Willie Mitchell is chairman of San Antonio Fighting Back, a coalition that has helped reduce drug-related crime and alcohol-related fatal crashes, and increase the number of residents seeking substance-abuse treatment. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR
Jeffrey Pergament, a recovering cocaine addict.

Jeffrey Pergament, recovering cocaine addict, says the drug war can only be won one person at a time. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR

Darryl Boyce says he's proof that the war on drugs can only be won one life at a time.

A one-time middle-school dope dealer and gang-banger, today Boyce is a 28-year-old community organizer for an anti-drug organization. Boyce wrote this poem to his father, a former crack dealer now serving time in a New York state prison.

"I once had a dad who would pick me up, put me on his shoulders, and I was his pride and joy. One day he put me down and found a new joy, a new toy: It was called crack. But wait, dad, I'm your boy."

Boyce was on track to end up like his father — until he met a woman at his school one day who worked for a group called San Antonio Fighting Back.

He describes that meeting:

"She came to me. She said, 'I know who you are and I know what you're doing. I want you to come volunteer for my program.' And I was like, 'Lady, get out of my face. Please, I'm out here making $2,000 a day basically selling drugs, so why would I go anywhere and volunteer for free?' Well, Linda came to me and she said, 'You can do better for yourself.'"

That was Linda Tippins, who is still with San Antonio Fighting Back; she's now the group's executive vice president. She believes there is potential in every child to be the kind of leader Darryl Boyce has become.

"When Darryl found out that he could be a leader, when Darryl found out there was something positive other than what he was doing, Darryl [said], 'I want to be on the other side; I don't want to be on this side, where I eventually may go to jail,'" says Tippins.

A Holistic Approach

Now 17 years old, San Antonio Fighting Back is one of the best-known of some 700 community anti-drug coalitions around the nation. Located in a working-class section of East San Antonio lined with clapboard houses and mom and pop stores, the group works at the grassroots level to reduce demand for illegal drugs.

The coalition has helped reduce drug-related crime and alcohol-related fatal crashes, and increase the number of residents seeking substance-abuse treatment. The improvements are not particularly dramatic — few are in drug-prevention programs — but they're tangible.

Chairman Willie Mitchell explains, "I see that people are starting to take over their neighborhoods, they're starting to come to neighborhood association meetings. They're starting to report drug use in their neighborhood. That's what I see, where they wouldn't do it before."

A construction company owner and former professional football player, Mitchell is now sought out by other cities as an expert in building community anti-drug programs.

"The only thing I've learned that works is that it has to be a holistic approach," he says. "You have no one program that's going to do it. It takes a multitude of programs. And you have to get grassroots people involved in making change."

The approach which the group has learned works includes a little bit of everything: parent anti-drug education, peer-to-peer counseling, drug courts, a halfway house.

Boyce's activities include a recent presentation on methamphetamine to a gathering of clergy who were interested in warning their congregations. His group also produces public service announcements and works in local schools, giving presentations to children as early as kindergarten.

For San Antonio and other communities, treatment is another critical component of reducing demand. It also brings down the social costs of drug addiction, such as crime and hospitalization.

Peter Reuter, a longtime drug policy researcher at the University of Maryland, says studies show that treatment — even "not very good" treatment — is cost effective.

"Just getting people to cut down from using heroin three times a day to just twice a week, which is what you get while people are in treatment, will cut down on their criminality a lot," he says. "That reduction in crime has huge value, and the cost of providing treatment — particularly not very good treatment — isn't very high. Locking people up is very expensive."

Prevention or Law Enforcement?

For years, Latin Americans have been asking the United States to fight drug abuse at home as aggressively as it fights smuggling abroad.

After Mexican President Felipe Calderon brought the issue up again last month, President Bush agreed it is important. "The United States has a responsibility in the fight against drugs," Mr. Bush said, "and one major responsibility is to encourage people to use less drugs. When there's demand there is supply."

Yet for most of the 38-year war on drugs, the United States has put more federal resources into foreign operations and law enforcement than into demand reduction at home. According to experts, only a combination of strategies will work.

Community anti-drug activists know they can't do it alone. The threat of a jail cell is often necessary to get an addict into treatment. And neighborhoods can't turn around without police targeting crack houses, open-air drug markets and violent dealers.

Willie Mitchell is passionate on this question.

"If you don't have the demand, the supply is no good," he says, adding, "If the demand is going to be there, the drug is still going to get here, because there's money generated. That's the whole key."

'It's the American Consumer Fueling the Situation'

Mitchell has never met Jim Shedd. They've both fought the drug war in their own way, thousands of miles apart. And they've both reached the same conclusion. Shedd served as a Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent in the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia, in the late 1990s.

"I went there thinking it's us versus them. They're the bad guys. They're the ones who are polluting our country," Shedd says. "And I came back with, I think, a more realistic understanding. I came back with the view that it's the American consumer that's fueling the situation. If people don't like Cadillacs, then General Motors wouldn't put it out there."

The White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asserts that it attempts to strike a balance between controlling the supply of dangerous drugs, and reducing demand. A spokesman points out that their current proposed budget includes large requests for coalitions like San Antonio Fighting Back, and for a national anti-drug media campaign — as well as money to fight the opium trade in Afghanistan, and for more federal agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.

David Murray, a top policy adviser, insists this administration aggressively supports prevention efforts.

"The U.S. makes an unfortunate contribution to the world of drug use," Murray says. "We are the largest consumer. Demand reduction in the U.S. is a primary vehicle for cutting off the value, the profits and proceeds, the violence, the damage that drugs do."

Case for Prevention Harder to Make

The numbers tell a different story. Even as the overall commitment to the drug war has shrunk (because of the demands of the war on terrorism), the Bush administration continues a decades-old trend that favors supply control.

Over the past six years, total federal resources dedicated to prevention and treatment have shrunk from 45 percent to 36 percent, while interdiction and foreign operations have grown correspondingly. That's according to an analysis published by John Carnevale, a former drug-budget official who served under three presidents and four drug czars.

"Under this drug czar, demand reduction has been deemphasized heavily," Carnevale says, "and I think that's done great harm to our ability to respond to drug problems."

Cops can go before a congressional appropriations subcommittee and brag about tons of cocaine seized and traffickers convicted. Prevention has a harder time making its case.

It's difficult even for a success story like San Antonio Fighting Back to prove its accomplishments. And the program has a unique set of circumstances — such as strong leadership and 17 years of experience — that might not make it replicable elsewhere.

A Message of Life and Death

University of Michigan scientist Lloyd Johnston directs the ongoing Monitoring the Future survey. For three decades, the study has tried to understand youth values and behavior -– and how to keep kids off drugs.

You can't accomplish much with supply reduction," Johnson says, adding, "I don't think it's easy to reduce demand, either — so it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of creativity. But at least I think there's the potential there."

Johnston says the most potent anti-drug message, sadly, is life and death. In 1986, top NBA draft pick Len Bias fatally overdosed on cocaine. Johnston says he watched in astonishment as cocaine use among youth dropped off 75 percent over the next several years.

"That's the trick," he says. "Can you get that information convincingly to young people — without their having to have their own epidemic and find out the hard way?"

Climbing Out of Addiction

Jeffrey Pergament was 15 when he began a drug habit that continued every day for 34 years.

"I never wanted to sleep," he says. "I loved life. I just wanted to be up all the time. Let me live a Hugh Heffner/Salvador Dali/hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle until the bills were due — and then I'd disappear. And that's how I lived."

These days, Pergament is an arts educator in Philadelphia and a recovering cocaine addict. Now 56, with gray, hippie-length hair and a subversive twinkle in his eyes, he says he's been drug-free for more than six years.

After going to jail for a hot-check charge in 2000, Pergament attended his first Cocaine Anonymous 12-step meeting. Today, he sponsors other recovering addicts.

"I make them put a note on the bathroom mirror," he says. "And the note says, 'You're looking at the problem.' When they call me up and complain about something, I say, 'Well, did you look at that note? If not, go back and read that note, and then call me back.'"

Pergament has given much thought to the war on drugs — from spraying coca in Colombia to arresting addicts in Philly.

"To ultimately win the war," he says, "we must deal with recovery and spiritual growth and development, and hold people accountable for their actions — and stop incarcerating people and making them more professional at being unlawful."

The United States will soon surpass a mile marker in the war on drugs—nearly a half-million drug prisoners are now locked up in local, state and federal jails, according to Peter Reuter. That's 10 times as many as in 1980 — and more people than Western Europe locks up for all criminal offenses combined.

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