War on Drugs Hasn't Stemmed Flow Into U.S. Despite decades of U.S. interdiction efforts, cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs still stream into the country. Critics say America would improve its chances of "winning" the war on drugs if it revamped anti-drug policy to focus more on stamping out demand.
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War on Drugs Hasn't Stemmed Flow Into U.S.

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War on Drugs Hasn't Stemmed Flow Into U.S.

War on Drugs Hasn't Stemmed Flow Into U.S.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

In 1969, President Nixon first declared dangerous drugs to be America's public enemy number one.

(Soundbite of recording)

President RICHARD NIXON: Winning the battle against drug abuse is one of the most important, the most urgent national priorities confronting the United States today.

BLOCK: Thirty-eight years later, where are we? In 2004, the last year for which the Centers for Disease Control has numbers, nearly 31,000 people died from drug abuse.

Today, we begin a five-part series, The Forgotten War. NPR's John Burnett spent months taking stock of the war on drugs. He talked to former drug czars, retired DEA agents, experts in drug prevention and addicts, more than 100 people in all.

And John, among those people whom you talk to, did you find any consensus of where we are in the war on drugs?

JOHN BURNETT: Well, the current drug czar's office says that we're winning the war on drugs but few of the others that I spoke with agreed with this rosy scenario. At best, they say, it's a draw. And most of them were very alarmed that no one's paying attention anymore, that the drug war has fallen into obscurity.

The hopeful news is that after nearly four decades, drug abuse among American youth is in a decade-long decline among most illicit drugs. And there is less cultural acceptance of drugs - no more Cheech and Chong. Among the disappointing news, illegal drugs are still very easy to obtain, despite the massive incarceration of drug dealers.

Methamphetamine abuse is epidemic in some areas, particularly the rural Midwest. Prescription drug abuse is on the rise, and the cost of this thing is enormous - estimated at $40 billion a year between local, state and federal expenses.

BLOCK: So, what would need to change to turn things around?

BURNETT: Melissa, a lot of people think it's time for a fundamental shift in U.S. drug policy, more federal resources to prevent drug use at home and smarter law enforcement.

For instance today, the two most popular drugs among youth, marijuana, much of which is homegrown and prescription drugs which are also acquired here at home too and yet we're spending more energy still fighting cocaine and heroin, which are both in decline. So in some ways, we're still fighting the drug war we did 20 years ago but the enemy has changed.

(Soundbite of airplane engine)

And that's where our story starts on the front lines of the drug world.

Federal agents in tan flight suits buckle themselves into a Lockheed Martin P-3 turboprop. The big silver airplane lumbers into the air from its base in Corpus Christi, Texas, clears a bank of thunderclouds and heads south over the shimmering Caribbean. When they spot something suspicious on the water, they swoop down as low as 500 feet for a closer look, then radio in the boat's location.

Three years ago, a crew spotted this Colombian go-fast boat streaking through the waves off the coast of Honduras hauling a ton and a half of cocaine. Five smugglers were busted.

Unidentified Male #1: May(ph) one to May two, Go-fast one is at full speed, it's probably 35 knots...

Unidentified Male #2: Warning shots are being fired right now.

Unidentified Male #1: ...warning shots in the water right now. Starboard side.

Detective SCOTT(ph): Detective Scott here, they're trying to surrender. We're going to hold off. They start again, we're going to continue back with disabling fire.

Unidentified Male #3: Roger.

The P-3 air interdiction force, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has been successful, by its own definition. In 2005, they seized a record 105 tons of dope. Dan Williams, a senior detection systems specialist, sits at an instrument panel watching a radar screen. He's asked whether he thinks they're making a difference in the drug war.

Mr. DAN WILLIAMS (Senior Detection Systems Specialist, U.S. Customs and Border Protection): It's a tough question. We're catching people, but there's still stuff getting through. I think if we weren't here it'd just be Katie bar the door. We're hurting them, but I don't know that it's causing, you know, massive stoppage.

BURNETT: Do you ever think about the fact that no matter what you do up here in this spotter plane that they'll figure out another way to get the drugs through?

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're keeping up, I think. It's constant. It's too - you know, like I said, the money involved is too great. If we could stop all the demand in the States, I'd be out of a job. Now, that's the biggest thing that drives it. If we didn't want to buy it, it wouldn't be coming.

BURNETT: For years, we've known the limits of sea, air and land interdiction. The Rand National Defense Research Institute and the Government Accountability Office both concluded in studies more than a decade ago that interdiction does not lead to a reduction in the flow of cocaine onto American streets. Interdiction does, however, accomplish some important things, says Donnie Marshall, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mr. DONNIE MARSHALL (Former DEA Administrator): If you keep the traffickers off balance, you make it very, very difficult and expensive for them to do business, both in terms of money and in terms of the risk of incarceration.

BURNETT: Mainly what it does, however, is push the problem around the hemisphere like a bubble. Today, much of the savage drug violence in Mexico, where last year drug gangs killed an estimated 2,000 people and the growing lawlessness in Guatemala, which is turning into a narco-republic. These are the unintended consequences of an earlier enforcement surge, says John Carnevale, he served as top budget official under four drug czars.

Mr. JOHN CARNEVALE (President, Carnevale Associates): We were very successful in the '80s in stopping trafficking in southern Florida, and around the Gulf and the islands, in terms of cocaine especially and marijuana, we shut it down. But we opened up the whole Southwest border because we simply moved the problem from one location to another. And so, what have you accomplished at the end of the day? Probably not very much.

BURNETT: Carnevale says the strategy now being used in Mexico, decapitating the cartels and extraditing drug lords, is an echo of what the United States did in the late '80s in Colombia with drug lords like Carlos Lehder, head of the Medellin Cartel.

Mr. CARNEVALE: We captured or killed, basically, the head of every one of these organizations, only to discover years later that the organizations just got fragmented. And they continued to thrive, because as long as there's a demand for this product, people are going to figure out a way to bring it to market, especially with the profits that can be made.

BURNETT: Just ask a smuggler.

Mr. JIM BARNARD (Former Drag Racer; Convicted Cocaine Smuggler): There's always a way to get it into this country, one way or another.

BURNETT: Jim Barnard - Barney to his friends - is a former drag racer and a convicted cocaine smuggler. He did his time in federal prison and is now, at 63, living quietly in Portland, Oregon.

One of the thrills of the old days, he remembers, was to think up new ways to outfox the feds.

Mr. BARNARD: Everybody's got a new method or a new way to be able to bring cocaine or illegal drugs into this country. That can be inside of a piece of equipment, that can be inside of a container, that can be in a vehicle comes across the border, airplanes coming across the border, boats going around the border.

People themselves would be body-packing it. A 40-kilo load might be broke up three or four different ways. There's so many avenues, it's almost next to impossible to block every avenue.

BURNETT: The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy believes that we're winning the drug war. David Murray, a top policy adviser to drug czar John Walters, points to lowered drug use among teenagers; record seizures of cocaine in the transit zones; the disruption of domestic methamphetamine production.

Mr. DAVID MURRAY (Top Policy Adviser to Drug Czar John Walters): Are we winning the war against forest fires, against crime? Well, we're saving a lot of people, and we're minimizing the harm and the impact. People still die of AIDS, cancer is still a problem, we still have problems with literacy, but if you take the magnitude of a problem that was burning high and hot and spreading, and you constrain it, you choke it down, you push back against it, you make it smaller - that is, I believe, victory.

BURNETT: The federal government is prolific in publicizing its victories in the drug war with frequent press releases and press conferences like this one in February. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in San Diego to announce a major DEA operation against a Mexican drug lord that led to 200 arrests and netted 18 tons of narcotics.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): Today's operation is a serious blow for one of the largest and most significant trafficking organizations and shows how high a priority this is for the Department of Justice.

Mr. KEN BAUMAN (Federal Prosecutor): You hear about seizures. Is that a indication of victory? My answer to that is no, it's not an indication of victory.

BURNETT: Ken Bauman has heard it all before. He recently retired after 37 years as a federal prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, with 800 drug cases under his belt.

Mr. BAUMAN: You judge victory when the last person using illegal drugs stops.

BURNETT: It's an icy day in the nation's capital. Sergeant John Brennan, in street clothes with bifocals around his neck, sits in squad car of the Washington D.C. police department. He squints at a familiar scene: a cluster of suspicious men in overcoats, loitering outside a seedy convenience store.

Sergeant JOHN BRENNAN (Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, DC): We're looking through the front of the car here, I mean, we're looking down the street, on North Capitol Street, Northwest Washington, and it's an open-air market for pharmaceutical pills, crack cocaine, heroin. There's probably about 10, 15 people standing near the stores.

BURNETT: How many blocks away are we from the Capitol?

Sgt. BRENNAN: I guess we're about four, four blocks away. And like I said, we're looking directly south on North Capitol Street, looking at the dome - in session.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURNETT: Brennan is no drug-war dove. He thinks what the country needs is stricter judges and more jail cells. But nearing the end of his 27-year career as a narcotics officer, he's frustrated.

Sgt. BRENNAN: Cocaine used to be a very expensive drug, and it was sold as the powder form, the hydrochloride, where they used to freebase it or snort it. Nowadays, it's crack cocaine. It's sold for $10 a bag, and it's more - you know, it gets you a better high.

BURNETT: And how long has it been $10 a bag?

Sgt. BRENNAN: Since about '87 on till now. Now, heroin, you'd pay $20, $25 a bag, and you'd get a lot more heroin, but the percentage was lower. Now you can buy a bag of heroin and the percentage is higher, and it's only $10 a bag.

BURNETT: Drugs are cheap, drugs are plentiful - four blocks from the command center of the war on drugs. Many of the anti-drug professionals interviewed for this series, even career cops, believe that U.S. counter-drug policy has relied too much on enforcement. Steve Casteel spent 32 years with the DEA, retiring as chief of worldwide intelligence.

Mr. STEVE CASTEEL (Former Chief of Worldwide Intelligence, Drug Enforcement Administration): I believe the balance of the past, where the majority of the money went into the law enforcement, the sexy, five-o'clock-news type of stuff - should be reduced and balanced with prevention and treatment. There needs to be a legitimate balance.

BURNETT: Peter Reuter and Jonathan Caulkins, former co-directors of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, co-wrote a paper last year for the National Academy of Sciences that was titled "Reorienting U.S. Drug Policy." They make the argument that the drug problem has fundamentally changed, that today we're dealing with an older, less violent, more stable population of drug abusers. Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland.

Mr. PETER REUTER (University of Maryland): If we're stuck with the War on Drugs metaphor, then like any war, it has to adapt to changes in the enemy. We now have the problem, basically, of endemic rather than epidemic drug use, and we need a strategy that reflects that.

Mr. JONATHAN CAULKINS (Carnegie Mellon University): Smart drug control is hard work. There are no silver bullets. The best we can do is try to improve the mix of interventions we're doing.

BURNETT: Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University.

Mr. CAULKINS: We've allowed a set of policies that might have made sense in the 1980s to become locked in. A thorough, top-to-bottom review of what we're doing in drug policy is long overdue.

BURNETT: Today, drug policy must accomplish as much with fewer resources. Because of demands of the war on terror, under the current budget proposal for the first time in 20 years, spending for federal anti-drug programs would decline across the board, from policing to prevention. After 38 years, we've learned what works and what doesn't. Anti-drug professionals say now it's time for a smarter war on drugs. John Burnett, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow, we'll report on the mixed results of Plan Colombia, and at our Web site, npr.org, you can see a timeline of America's drug war and hear from the addicts, dealers and law enforcement officials swept up in the battle.

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