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America's Drug War
by Deborah Amos
America's war on drugs is almost 30 years old nowa war that cost U.S. taxpayers $40 billion dollars a year, with no victory in sight. Those who fight the war on drugs point to successes: drug cartels busted, tons of drugs confiscated, drug dealers jailed. Yet today, the price of cocaine is at an all-time low, the purity of heroin is at an all-time high, and new designer drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamines, are everywhere. Illegal drugs are part of the fabric of American life.
The Latest Battleground
A Web site said there would be a rave there tonight.
Aladio Paez read that Web site. He's an undercover officer with the Miami police department. His specialty is the drug ecstasy.
"One weekend doesn't go by where someone does not end up in the hospital," says Paez. "Sometimes they don't make it out of the hospital. I have seen kids die on ecstasy overdoses. I have seen kids die trying to come down from ecstasy and overdosing on a bunch of other drugs."
Once an underground urban drug, ecstasy is now part of mainstream middle-class America. Once again, big seizures are big news. Again, laws setting mandatory minimum sentences are moving through Congress. Again, dogs are trained to sniff out a new drug.
While teenage drug use gets the headlines, it is hardcore adult users who drive up the social cost.
The Instant Fix of Sentencing Guidelines
"Fourteen to life," says one woman about her husband's sentence. "It's been turned upside downit's really hard ... my life has been turned upside down. It's not very easy."
Close to 2 million people are now behind bars in this country. More than 60 percent of all federal prisoners are drug offenders; 23 percent in state and local jail.
One of the legacies of the Drug Wars is tough drug laws passed by Congress in the 1980s. The laws set out mandatory minimum sentences. For example, possessing more than five grams of crack cocaine, about the size of five sugar packs, means five years in prison. The laws were rushed through Congress at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic.
"They tried the instant fix of sentencing guidelines," says Jack Lawn, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration then. "Certainly we believed, the law enforcement community, that more attention should have been paid to the crack phenomenon, but truly there was a rush to judgment in establishing those guidelines."
It was the death of a basketball star that set off the rush.
In June of 1986, the Boston Celtics drafted Len Bias, an All-American. The day after the announcement, Bias was dead. Cardiac arrest, police reportedBias had been using cocaine. In the following days and weeks, the news media talked about little else.
At the time, Eric Sterling was a legal assistant to the House judiciary committee. The House speaker, Tip O'Neal had just returned from Boston.
"We learned that the speaker, Tip O'Neal had convened the democratic leadership," says Sterling. "They decided that there would be an anti-drug bill, and it was going to have to be written in four weeks."
There was no time for expert witness testimony, the time-honored way to winnow out seemingly good ideas that can lead to bad legislation. And there was a new legal concept to deal with.
"We had not addressed at all the issue of mandatory minimum sentences before.," says Sterling. [Writing legislation in four weeks] was a horrifying prospect. We knew that mistakes were going to be made, and we were operating with a lot of ignorance and a lot of emotionality."
Laws designed to cut drug supply by cutting the number of big-time dealers has failed. The punishment goes mostly to small-time offenders, a disproportionate number of them African American.
These laws have been so controversial that some federal judges now refuse to even hear drug cases. In the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums have done nothing to reduce drug demandand the profits from supplying that demand are enormous.
Money is Heavy
"It is really one-stop shopping. You can purchase minutes on a cellular phone. You could buy a beeper," says Chris Amnirati, a customs agent with the El-Dorado task force, a joint operation of customs, the IRS, and 16 other agencies working to take the profits out of the drug trade. Roosevelt Avenue is his beat.
"You could walk in here and make international phone calls and set up your drug deal and get instructions from the cartel leader in South America who will then tell you what to do with the money. … Wire transfer it. He will tell you who to drop off the money to, what code, where to take it. Like I say, this is the hub."
The task force has seized millions of dollars, made hundreds of arrests on Roosevelt Avenue over the past eight yearsbut for major drug cartels, it is just the price of doing business, says Raymond Baker, who studies patterns of laundering drug money.
"There is no indication that their profit margins have been hurt," says Baker. "The price of drugs seems to have gone down on the street, so apparently they are able to absorb that and at the same time lower their prices. That comes pretty close to the definition of not working."
In the end, the drug business is really about money. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates drug sales in the United States top $57 billion dollars a year. U.S. law enforcement only seizes about 1 percent of that. The rest is deposited in well disguised bank accounts, and that is what is called money laundering. It has taken 20 years to put this sophisticated system in place. In the early days of the drug war, the drug business was strictly cash.
"It became more of a problem to count the money and stack it," says George Jung, who smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 80s. "It took hours upon hours and hours to recount it and go over and over it again. It was tedious as hell. You know, it started to take the fun out of the whole thing, believe it or not."
Money is heavy. You need a full-size Samsonite suitcase to stash a half a million dollars in 20-dollar bills. John Hensley tracked drug money for the U.S. Customs service in the early 1980s.
"The biggest seizure I've ever participated in directly, here in Miami, it was $22 million in cash and it weighed a ton," says Hensley. "And that becomes problematic for drug organizationswhat do you do with 22 million that's over a ton and fills probably twenty good-sized dining room tables?"
Small bills are a problem. Mike MacDonald, a former IRS agent recalls an undercover operation and a crack dealer.
"The guy calls my undercover agent and says, 'I got a question. I got a problem. I've got $1 million in one-dollar bills. What do you suggest?' And my agent calmly said, 'I would suggest you put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.' What are you going to do? Nobody wants a million in ones."
The War Against Drug Profits
MacDonald was on his first assignment for the Internal Revenue Service when he noticed something unusual about the teller lines.
"Well it's dramatic when you see people standing in line with boxes of money in dollies and a deposit slip in their teeth. And people joke about that, but it is real. We had people walking in with rope-handled shopping bags and deposit slips going into the banks. We had twelve individuals in Miami who were depositing $250 million or more annually into non-interest-bearing checking accounts. And no reports were being filledor very few reports were being filled."
By law, banks are required to file currency transaction reports on deposits over $10,000. But the requirement was being ignored by more than 40 banks in Miami as the cocaine trade flourished. Money from all over the country was being transferred to Miami accounts.
"It certainly didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what it might be when you had machine gunning on the streets and you have chain saw murders on Hallandale in Ft. Lauderdale," explains MacDonald.
By 1981, the War on Drugs also became the war against drug profits. For the first time, Federal Agents targeted banks, bank accounts and bulk cash. But every time the U.S. Treasury closed one route for profits, drug lords would create another way, says Jim Butler, who was chief of the Coral Gables Police Department.
"They are very innovative. They run their narcotics and money laundering business like a Fortune 500 company," says Butler. They realized two things: They were exposing themselves to the scrutiny of U.S. law enforcement if they were hands-on directly involved, plus the exposure was critical to them because they were losing $20 million to $30 million stateside from seizures from warehouses from California and Miami."
Their change in strategy is still in place today. One simple method to avoid U.S. banking laws, the $10,000 filing requirement, was to recruit an army of workers. At the lowest level were the "smurfs."
"These are couriers whose job is to move significant amounts of cash from financial institution to financial institution," says Frank Figuroa, a special agent in charge for the Miami Office of Customs Service.
"The so-called smurfs went around with a lot of cash usually 100,000 to 200,000 in a day and make 15 to 20 stops at different banks and actually deposit below the $10,000 threshold."
Getting the drug money into U.S. banks is a first step. The money can then be moved around to other U.S. banks by using wire transfers and money orders. That is called layering. It makes the money harder to trace.
This system is now one of the most successful in history called the "black market peso exchange."
Here's how it works.
In Colombia, a drug lord uses pesos to pay his workers and pay for the load of drugs. He then gets the drugs to the United States.
The drugs are sold in the U.S. for cashU.S. dollars. The dollars are then deposited in many bank accounts. It's the drug dealer's money, but it's deposited by the smurfs.
"We followed a husband-and-wife team one day," explains Mike MacDonald, "Seventy-two thousand dollars of money orders in one day. The largest denomination was $300."
Back in Colombia, the drug dealers make a deal with what is known as a money broker. There are thousands of money brokers in Colombia, and they make the system work.
"So the brokers, who have been in business for years, go to the drug traffickers and say, 'I'll buy your dollars from you,' or 'I'll buy a bunch of dollars,' " says McDonald. " 'You give me a million dollars and I'll give you X number of pesos.' "
It's important to understand the U.S. dollars never leave the country; the pesos stay in Colombia. But with this system, any Colombian with pesos who needs dollars in the United States can get those dollars through the Colombian money broker.
These brokers offer an exchange rate substantially cheaper than the legal exchange rate at any Colombian bank. Businessmen use the system, and ordinary Colombain citizens use it, too, says McDonald.
"We've had people using them to pay college tuition. You name it. I can name the university. If there is a business and demand for it and you need to pay something off, and you want to pay a debt off in the U.S., all the cash you need is right in the U.S."
It is small businesses, also big businesses, Fortune 500 companies, intentionally or not, have been involved in laundering drug money, says Raymond Baker of the Brookings Institute.
"I don't think we have a very effective anti-money-laundering strategy. Ninety-nine point nine percent failure rates become pretty close to a definition of complete failure in curtailing the laundering of the drug dealers profits," says Baker.
Failures at the Border
The front lines of the War on Drugs are right next door. Mexico now supplies 60 percent of the cocaine to the American market. Ironically, it was a U.S. law enforcement success that pushed Mexico into the major leagues of drug smuggling. In the 1980s, when an all-out effort moved Colombian traffickers out of South Florida, they set up routes in Mexico and looked for Mexican partners.
In the 1990s when the Medellin and Cali cartels were smashed in Colombia, Mexicans took majority control of the trade.
The battlegrounds are now the towns along the Mexico-U.S. border. It is a losing battle, as the constant demand in the United States spurs new generations of smugglers to supply more cocaine, heroin, and marijuana at the lowest prices in years.
The San Ysidro port of entry, south of San Diego, is the country's busiest border. Across 16 lanes of traffic, thousands of cars line up every day to go from Mexico to the United States.
Supply and Demand
Selling to Americans has meant millions to the drug traffickers and enormous corruption in Tijuana. In 1997, the DEA reported that 90 percent of police, prosecutors, and judges in Tijuana were in the pay of the drug cartels.
In a sixth-floor walk-up near the mayor's office in Tijuana, there is another kind of music playingAmerican jazz. It is a favorite of Victor Alfaro, a college professor and the head of a human rights organization in Tijuana.
"I really want to change my country," he says. "I want to see how it works to denounce vice and corruption as a citizen. But it is impossible to denounce as a citizen, because you don't have guarantees."
Guarantees of safety are what Alfaro is worried about. His office is filled with documents: One is a copy of a land sale, signed by a Tijuana city official to a known drug trafficker to construct a shopping mall. Local police have walked through Alfaro's door to tell of the corruption that surrounds them. And for a while, despite the death threats and the phone taps, Alfaro and his group published what they could prove.
"Since one of our informants was murdered three years ago, we have stopped denouncing drug traffickers," says Alfaro. "Because they kill you."
Perhaps it was this kind of frustration that prompted an unusual cooperation between the DEA and the American television crime show America's Most Wanted.
Vince Rice, an agent in San Diego helped with the production.
"We thought it was a good move to let the world know, including Central and South Americans that we are going to hunt these individuals for as long as it Takes," says Rice.
And there has been a dramatic break in the hunt, delivered by the Mexican Federal Police. The result was renewed resolve to hit the Arellanos hard. In March of this year, Jesus Chewy Labara, the financial officer of the Arrellano organization was arrested in Tijuana. He was watching his son play soccer when three well armed police vans took him to a Mexico City jail. Labara was the highest member of the cartel ever arrested.
But within weeks, the Mexican investigator who headed the case, Jose Patino Moreno, was found brutally tortured and murdered.
Speaking of his frustration the day the body was found, the FBI's Bill Gore said, "I'm sure that, with significant amounts of torture that was implemented here, that whatever he knew, the Arrellanos now know. You get close to them, and they feel threatened, and they reach out and find out how this happened to them."
Last summer, the stunning election victory of Vicente Fox raised hope again for U.S. law enforcement. Not only had Fox beaten the party in power for 71 years, he had said publicly that Mexico's leaders had been corrupted by drug money. He promised change.
How much change?
Jorge Castenas is Mexico's foreign minister. "Despite the worrisome outbreaks of drugs on the border, there is not a mass social issue," he says. "The U.S. understands this. It wants the Mexican government to do as much of the dirty work as possible. And this is a reasonable proposition. Everyone wants someone to do the dirty work. And the Mexicans respond in a perfectly reasonable way, saying yes, but not saying when, doing it half-heartedly, because there is no support for a war on drugs. "
De la Montaigne agrees with him. "That's part of the process," he says. "It's not Mexico's problem. It's our problem. The problem is in the United States. We're the ones who are consuming it. These drugs are coming up for U.S. citizens, 250 million of us, that's the problem."
Meanwhile, at the San Ysidro crossing, a well trained U.S. Customs dog sniffs out eight wrapped bricks of marijuana under the hood of a gold Mazda with California plates. But Steve, the narco junior, knows this is just the price of doing business. He could always make a profit, even when he lost 50 percent of his load.
"Sometimes I would use a pair of American kids, sometimes I'd use some older folks. My ex-wife would run her loads for her dad in a bikini," he says.
The DEA's Lawn says it will never stop. " Everybody gets a peace of the action," he says. "In an ideal world, if we could use the military to stand shoulder to shoulder around the borders of the U.S. We would still have a drug problem. We have labs in the U.S. where chemicals are used to create illicit drugs, marijuana is grown, even if there were a miracle to keep drugs from entering the country, we can keep the product on the streets by our own internal production."
Marijuana is now the largest cash crop in the country. Methamphetamine is produced in the middle of Iowa with chemicals available on most farms. Cocaine and heroin still come from abroad. A DEA study found that the average drug traffickers can afford to lose 90 percent of his product and still make a profit.
"As long as there is demand, there is going to be someone to furnish the product to satisfy that demand," says Lawn.
Jail or Treatment?
The methadone clinic on Manhattan's Upper West Side doesn't have a sign on the door. The men and women who line up at 8:00 in the morning are here to get a powerfully addictive drug. It is methadone, the only substance proven to stop the cravings and withdrawal pains of heroin.
When methadone clinics first opened in New York in the 1970s treatment was readily available. In the early days of the drug war, heroin addiction was considered a public health problem; a national network of treatment programs proved successful in curbing demand. But today, with more than 250,000 heroin addicts in New York, there are only enough treatment dollars for 35,000 of them.
Heroin addicts are more likely to go to jail than get into treatment. A study in Iowa found $1 spent on treatment saves $4 in prison costs. A Rand Corporation study found treatment dollars are 21 times more effective than law enforcement in reducing drug demand. Methadone maintenance programs cost about $3,900 a year per patient. Jailing a drug addict costs $25,000 a year.
The methadone at the clinic is in a locked clear glass case. The red colored liquid snakes from the bottle through a long tube and squirts into a plastic cup. One gulp is all there is.
That drug addiction is a disease, a serious brain altering disease, is now well documented and accepted by the medical and scientific community. Still, methadone maintenance programs are so unpopular with the public and politicians that new clinics are rarely approved. So the National Institute of Drug Abuse took a new approach. For the first time, a small number of patients can get methadone prescribed by a private physician.
One of these patients says he used heroin for the first time as a college freshman and became addicted on a trip to Asia. "I'm very fortunate, this is still an experimental program," he says.
He's been on methadone maintenance for more than five years, with a full-time job and regular counseling he qualified for the program.
"I do not crave the use of heroin. I don't dream about heroin; I don't have these overwhelming feelings that I need to use heroin. Besides not going into withdrawal, I'm not aware that I've taken any drug at all, except for the fact that I'm free from heroin."
This is the first new approach to heroin addiction since the 1970s. It was the Nixon administration that legalized the treatment in the early days of the drug war. At the time, federal treatment dollars were rising, from $43 million at the end of the 1960s to more than $420 million by 1973.
The primary drug of concern was heroin, even though there were less than a million addicts. Nixon was convinced that methadone treatment could reduce crime.
As a candidate, Nixon had called Washington, D.C., the crime capital of the nation. When he came to town as president, he became convinced drug treatment could be useful weapon in his war on crime.
At the time, the biggest federal drug treatment program was in Lexington, Kentucky. Opened in 1935, it housed some volunteer patients and more federal prisoners, but research showed that 90 percent of those treated at the Lexington facility relapsed in one year.
There was promising treatment research coming out of new programs in Chicago and Washingtonprograms would become the models for the first national strategy. But it would be unforeseen events that would drive the Nixon administration to be the first to support and fund voluntary drug treatment programs, as Michael Massing recounts in his book, The Fix.
"At the same time that the Nixon administration was looking for ways to bring down the crime rate in this country, they became concerned about heroin addiction in Vietnam," says Massing. "And so there was great fear that these G.I.s who were addicted to heroin were going to come back without any type of services for them, and they would know how to use weapons, and there were literally fears that they were going to go wild in the streets of our cities looking for heroin if nothing were done to stop them."
"Today, people don't even connect Vietnam with the evolution of American drug policy, " says Dr. Robert Dupont, who headed the Special Office for Drug Abuse and Prevention, created by the Nixon administration. "When Nixon declared war on drugs on January 1971 and started the first White House office, named the first White House drug czar, within 24 hours that czar was on a plane to Saigon. There was no mistaking what his priority was from the president."
The U.S. military welcomed the involvement. What they didn't entirely embrace was the requirement of Dr. Jerome Jaffey, head of the White House drug office: a drug test for returning vets.
"Of course, they were not into urine collection. That's not what they had in mind," Jaffey says. "They dubbed it "Operation Golden Flow." It was a brilliant idea."
"The rule was you had to have clean urine to go home. And everyone who had positive had to go to detox for a week, " explains Lee Robbins, a researcher at Washington University, who was hired to study the addiction rates among returning vets. It was the most extensive research on heroin addiction ever done, and the results were stunning.
Her research countered the accepted theory that once you start using heroin it was nearly impossible to stop. Three years after the war only 12 percent of the returning vets who said they were addicted were still using heroin. The vast majority were no longer users.
"We asked them 'Why not?' " adds Lee. "One said heroin in the United States was terrible. The heroin in Vietnam was 95 percent pure, and in the U.S., not more than 8 to 10 percent. And they said it was much too expensive. In Vietnam you could be an addict on $6 a day. And finally, they said their girlfriends and their parents didn't like it, so they quit. "
Robbins' findings went against the stereotype that bad character explains addiction. "I think it's a disease for some people," she says. "Some people can take it without much trouble, and a few people can'tand it's those people we need to protect."
It would be years before more extensive research showed addiction is a complex disorder influenced by genetics, gender, age, and social class. Users start taking drugs by choice, but some users need help to stop.
By the 1970s drug use was at an all-time high across the country. The war on drugs was a culture war as Robert Dupont was named drug czar in the Ford administration.
"As illegal drug use became more widespread, it jumped the boundary of bad character and became part of the youth culture. It became part of the youth rebellion; it became part of the scene in the United States, and not only did the stereotype change but the reality changed. "
Heroin use had almost disappeared. Cocaine wasn't yet the monster it would become. The network of treatment centers opened by the Nixon administration was funded through the Ford and Carter years. But when Ronald Reagan was election, there was a new focus on the War on Drugs.
In an unusual address to the nation, the President and Nancy Reagan unveiled a national campaign.
"Winning the crusade against drugs will not be achieved by just throwing money at the problem. Nothing would be more effective than for Americans to simply quit using illegal drugs. It's time, as Nancy said, for Americans to just say no to drugs."
"It was really with the election of Ronald Reagan that the treatment budget was gutted, " says author Michael Massing. "There was, within one year, a 25 percent cut across the board in federal dollars for treatment. And the whole administration was antagonistic to providing taxpayers' dollars to addicts who, in their view, brought on their own condition, were guilty of bad moral character."
As Ronald Reagan was cutting treatment programs, there was growing concern about a new drug that began with a glut of cocaine in the Bahamas. People there had starting to smoke a cooked cocaine paste. It was called rock, it was called growl, and the substance would eventually become known everywhere as crack.
When the first reports from the Bahamas reached Jim Hall, head of a Miami drug policy center, he was alarmed. He knew crack would come to Miami. "Crack smoking was cheap, and it was a much better deal for the dealer. They got twice as much product from cocaine, and they had customers who would rush back to buy again and again and again. So it was the dealer's dream and the user's nightmare."
Law enforcement was completely unprepared, says Izzy Gonzales, who was a Miami street cop in 1984.
"I'd stopped the guy right in Little Havana," he says, "and he had a Marlboro box of cigarettes. I picked this up, and it was full of these rocks, and I spilled the rocks on my hand, and I couldn't figure out what they were. And a manhole sewer, I tossed them in there. Of course, the guy started to cry. I had no idea. I had no clue."
As the crack epidemic swept the country, emergency rooms were overwhelmed because there was really no place else to go, says Massing.
"The whole treatment industry was in a state of virtual collapse. And suddenly, with crack, you had a new generation of addicts created overnight or within a year. You had a huge increase in the U.S. addict population. I remember going up to a facility in the early 1990s. There were people in the lobby, they had the shakes, they were withdrawing from crack, and there was no place to put them."
The War on Drugs had abandoned treatment for punishment. By the late 1990s, the prison population had tripled.
A Radical Reform
Gold ran a hot line for cocaine addiction in the 1980s, 1-800-COCAINE. A hotline that still answers today. Gold is a professor at the University of Florida who studies addiction and the brain.
"What isn't in great dispute: For drugs to cause addiction, they change you're brain. 'Can you change it back?' is another question. If you think of it as a brain diseasethis particular brain disease doesn't recover as previously thought. It definitely doesn't recover just because of detox. And it definitely doesn't recover because of 10, 20, 30 days of absence. It may require much more treatment than previously thought."
There is a revolution under way in an office in Arizona, the most radical reform in the War on Drugs in a quarter centuryan approach to treatment unlike any other state.
In 1996 the predominatly Republican voters of Arizona, stopped the imprisonment of first- or second-time non-violent drug possessors if they chose treatment instead.
Barbara Zugger heads the treatment program. "We can either, as a society, put them in jail or prison, or try to put them on the straight and narrow and get them productive and happy in the community," she says. "I will give you the latter part of that one any day."
Clients pay for their own drug treatment here based on income. The average cost is about $1,200, paid in installments, for one year of mandatory treatment. The clients are given the choice the day they are arrested.
"It's the fear factor in the beginning, but so what?" says Zugger. "The criminal justice system, if used appropriately, it's a great carrot stick approach. You can't do it with just the carrot."
But there is a big carrot. "They can forget drug courts; they can forget attorneys; forget probation officers, fines, jails, forfeitures...," she says. They can forget the criminal justice system if they choose treatment.
"And you have to understand, everyone making these choices, one thing we want is to get out of jail," says one participant named Rodello. "So that sounds real good, even if it's for a day, you know."
If he makes it through the program, his record will be clean for a first-time arrest. "I'd been using for 32 years," he says. "I don't know why, to be honest, why I turned around. I knew that I would get out of jail if I did this."
So far, Rodello, in his mid 40s with shoulder-length brown hair, has stuck with it. He's here to give a urine samplea requirement each week, along with one three-hour treatment session on Saturdays and two self-help meetings a week.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."
It's a choice that benefits Arizona. After two years, only eight percent of those who choose treatment were arrested again. In contrast, 23 percent of those who went through the criminal justice system were rearrested within two years.
In the last election, California voters passed Proposition 36, modeled on Arizona's treatment plan. California incarcerates more people for drug possession than any place else in the world36,000 a year. Under the new law, first- and second-time offenders will be treated rather than jailed.
Most of California's political establishment lobbied against Proposition 36, but it passed with a comfortable majority. Twenty-four other states have an initiative process in the state constitutions. Plans are already underway to put the treatment model to a vote in the next elections.