Winning the War on Drugs One Life at a Time In America's war on drugs, more federal resources have gone into foreign operations and law enforcement than into demand reduction at home. But policy experts, community activists and recovering addicts say only a combination of strategies will work.
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Winning the War on Drugs One Life at a Time

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Winning the War on Drugs One Life at a Time

Winning the War on Drugs One Life at a Time

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week we are focusing on the forgotten war, the war on drugs. For years, Latin Americans have been asking the United States to fight drug abuse at home as aggressively as it fights drug smuggling abroad. Mexican President Felipe Calderon brought the issue up again last month, and President Bush agreed it is important.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I made it very clear to the president that I recognize the United States has a responsibility in the fight against drugs. And one major responsibility is to encourage people to use less drugs. When there is demand, there is supply.

BLOCK: But for most of the 38 years of the war on drugs, the U.S. has put more federal resources into foreign operations and law enforcement than into cutting demand at home.

NPR's John Burnett has today's story about what the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs is doing to curb its appetite.

JOHN BURNETT: Darryl Boyce says he's proof the war on drugs can only be won a 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.

Mr. DARRYL BOYCE (Community Organizer): 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. I once had a dad who would iron and press, but when crack moved in, I became second best. But look, dad, I'm your boy.

BURNETT: Darryl 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.

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

BURNETT: That was Linda Tippins, who is still with San Antonio Fighting Back, today as the group's executive vice president.

Ms. LINDA TIPPINS: So when Darryl found out that he could be a leader, that 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. But yes, there is potential for every child to be a Darryl Boyce.

BURNETT: After 17 years, San Antonio Fighting Back is one of the best known of some 700 community anti-drug coalitions around the nation. They work at the grassroots level to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. In a working-class section of East San Antonio, the coalition has been able to 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.

Mr. WILLIE MITCHELL (San Antonio Fighting Back): 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.

BURNETT: Willie Mitchell, chairman of San Antonio Fighting Back, drives his shiny green pickup along the streets where he grew up, lined with clabbered houses and mom and pop stores. 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.

Mr. MITCHELL: The only thing that I've learned that works is that it has to be a holistic approach. 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 changes.

BURNETT: The approach they've learned that works includes a little bit of everything: parent anti-drug education, peer-to-peer counseling, drug courts, a halfway house. On this day there's a lunchtime meeting of clergy learning about a common threat so they can warn their congregations.

Darryl Boyce gave the presentation.

Mr. BOYCE: Meth can be snorted, injected or administered orally. Some of the street names are meth, ice, glass, crank, crystal, snot, tweak, chalk and uppers.

BURNETT: Public service announcements are broadcast all day on local radio stations.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Unidentified Woman: Before I started having seizures, I went to jail. Before I went to jail, I lost my kids. Before I lost my kids, I stole money from my family. Before I stole money from my family, I tried meth.

BURNETT: Counselor Fidel Ramirez gives after-school programs to children as young as kindergarteners at a public school called Gate's Academy.

Mr. FIDEL RAMIREZ (Counselor, Gates Academy): Today we're going to discuss up something. Have you ever heard of marijuana?

Unidentified Child #1: When it goes to your brain, it makes everything that you think about, it makes it all go away.

Unidentified Child #2: It makes you get crazy.

Unidentified Child #1: Crazy.

Mr. RAMIREZ: Crazy.

Unidentified Child #2: It makes you laugh too much.

Mr. RAMIREZ: It makes you laugh too much?

BURNETT: For the program in East San Antonio and other communities, treatment is a 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 drug treatment - even not very good treatment - is cost effective.

Mr. PETER REUTER (University of Maryland): 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, and 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.

BURNETT: So what's the right approach? Prevention or law enforcement? It has to be a combination of both. 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 the police targeting crack houses, open-air drug markets and violent dealers.

But in terms of the big picture, should you expend more effort trying to lock up all the dealers or trying to prevent people from abusing drugs? Willie Mitchell is passionate.

Mr. MITCHELL: If you don't have the demand, the supply is no good. So if you don't work to go to demand, there's no point in talking about the supply because 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.

BURNETT: Willie Mitchell 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 DEA supervisory special agent in the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia in the late 1990s.

Mr. JIM SHEDD (Former Drug Enforcement Agency Agent): I went there thinking, you know, it's us versus them. They're the bad guys. They're the ones who are polluting our country. 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.

BURNETT: 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 on the U.S.-Mexico border. David Murray, a top policy adviser, insists this administration aggressively supports prevention efforts.

Mr. DAVID MURRAY (Policy Adviser): The United States makes an unfortunate contribution to the world of drug use. 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.

BURNETT: 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 terror, 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 declined from 45 percent to 36 percent, while interdiction and foreign operations have grown correspondingly. This comes from an analysis published by John Carnevale, a former drug-budget official who served under three presidents and four drug czars.

Mr. JOHN CARNEVALE (Former Drug Budget Official): Under this drug czar, demand reduction has been deemphasized heavily, and I think that's done great harm to our ability to respond to drug problems.

BURNETT: So what is it about ships and helicopters and task forces and herbicides that the White House and Congress find so irresistible? Maybe it's that drug education just isn't as sexy as cocaine cowboys and super cops.

(Soundbite of movie, "Scarface")

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (As Tony Montana) Okay. Do you want to play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

(Soundbite of TV show, "Miami Vice")

Mr. DON JOHNSON (Actor): (As Sonny Crocket) That ain't the plan, remember? Eddie here flashes the cash and we take my boat and pick up the Colombian stash.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Hey, what Colombian? Forget him, man. I got a whole new supplier.

(Soundbite of theme to "Miami Vice")

BURNETT: Cops can go before a congressional appropriations subcommittee and brag about tons of cocaine seized, the numbers of 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 work elsewhere.

As director of the Monitoring the Future Survey, University of Michigan scientist Lloyd Johnston has been trying for three decades to understand what the government can do to keep kids off of drugs.

Mr. LLOYD JOHNSTON (Director, Monitoring the Future): You can't accomplish much with supply reduction. Now there are a lot of people who would argue, vocally, against my point of view, but it's fraught with peril. 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.

BURNETT: Johnston says the most potent anti-drug message, sadly, is life and death.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, that's the trick. The question is, can you get that information and that convincingly to young people without their having to have their own epidemic and find out the hard way?

BURNETT: In 1986, top NBA draft pick Len Bias fatally overdosed on cocaine and Johnston watched in astonishment as cocaine use among youth dropped off 75 percent over the next several years.

Everyone quits for their own reasons. Jeffrey Pergament was 15 when he began a drug habit that continued, he says, every day for 34 years.

Mr. JEFFREY PERGAMENT (Former Addict): I never wanted to sleep. I loved life. I just wanted to be up all the time. Let me live a Hugh Hefner, Salvador Dali, hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle until the bills were due, and then I'd disappear. And that's how I lived.

BURNETT: Pergament is an arts educator from Philadelphia and a recovering cocaine addict. Now 56, with grey, 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, he attended his first Cocaine Anonymous 12-step meeting. Today he's doing for others what someone did for him.

Mr. PERGAMENT: I sponsor men and I make them put a note on their bathroom mirror. And the note says: You're looking at the problem. Okay, when they call me up and complain about something, I say, well, did you look at that note? And if not, go back and read that note and then call me back.

BURNETT: Pergament has given a lot of thought to the war on drugs. The whole thing: from spraying coca in Colombia to arresting addicts in Philly.

Mr. PERGAMENT: There is a solution, and it's a one person at a time solution. And in order for us to win the battle, to ultimately win the war, 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.

BURNETT: Regarding incarceration, the United States will soon surpass a mile marker in the war on drugs. Nearly half a 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. That's more than Western Europe locks up for all criminal offenses combined.

John Burnett, NPR News.

BLOCK: Our series on the Forgotten War continues tomorrow with a story about what happens when all of those drug offenders in prison start being released. That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

In the meantime, you can read about what inspired this series in a Reporter's Notebook from John Burnett. That's at

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Pollen is causing allergy attacks in Atlanta and angry bees are on the attack in Kenya. Those stories coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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