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Excerpts from Smoke and Mirrors

by Dan Baum, 1996

Dan Baum has written what may be the best modern history of the political doings behind the War on Drugs over the last 30 years. You can find a copy through your local bookstore, or visit Dan Baum's Website:

William Bennett

When William Bennett moved across town from the Department of Education to be "czar" at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, he brought his people with him. All white, all male, none with law enforcement or social-service experience, some had been with Bennett the entire eight years since his debut at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bennett's men held themselves above the mere budget-cutters, tax-slashers, regulation-busters, and states-rightsers that comprised the broader executive branch. John Walters, Bennett's chief of staff at Education and author of the punitive Schools Without Drugs, had been to meetings of Ed Meese's Drug Policy Board and had been appalled at their inanity. Everybody was so busy jockeying for position that nobody ever ventured an honest opinion or original idea. Bennett's office, on the other hand, prided itself on being one continuous philosophy forum, with great questions of political theory and national purpose the stuff of daily conversation. Envisioning themselves a kind of ideological Bennettista cavalry to the Republican infantry, Bennett's crew saw their mission at the drug office as fundamentally identical to that at Education or the Endowment: To reform America's character, by force if necessary.

It would have been okay with them to be assigned teen pregnancy, abortion, welfare -- any platform from which to harangue the public about values and exact punishment for transgression. "Drugs are the hill we're fighting over at the moment, but the war is much bigger than that," Bruce Carnes, Bennett's budget director, would say. "Our fight is any issue that has a shade on character."

The "hill" they'd just been given to fight over, though, wasn't just any piece of political turf, but was the hottest hot-button issue of the decade. More than half the country believed drugs to be the America's worst problem. Majorities favored mandatory drug tests for all citizens, warrantless police searches of suspected dealers' homes, and roadblocks to search cars randomly. This wasn't mere naked paintings or politically correct social studies textbooks. This was a chance to preach and kick ass on the nation's brightly lit center stage.

Even before Bennett's Senate confirmation, his men began plotting their course. The same 1988 law that created the drug czar's office also required it to produce a drug-control strategy by September, and there was no time to waste. Bennett himself wasn't around much. He'd checked himself into a $700-a-week therapeutic resort to kick his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

But in the lofty and freewheeling style to which they'd become accustomed, Bennett's core group of advisors began laying out the assumptions on which national drug policy would hereafter be based.

At this point, the United States had been fighting its War on Drugs for twenty years. Despite the billions spent, the millions imprisoned, and the loss of liberties to both drug user and non-user alike, drugs were cheaper, more potent, and used by younger children than when Nixon started the War. The drug cartels were wealthier and more sophisticated than ever. The number of cocaine dependents had grown. Drug violence, unheard of at the start of the Drug War, now terrorized poor neighborhoods. Drug combatants died daily; just the number of slain innocent bystanders had tripled in the two years prior to Bush's inauguration. Rather than evaluate the efficacy of the War on Drugs and the wisdom of pursuing it, Bennett and his men merely shuffled the deck one more time.

Under Nixon, heroin was the big bad drug. Halfway through Carter's reign, marijuana nudged it aside. As the public's passion to fight marijuana waned, cocaine was thrust forward to draw fire. Then crack. The Drug War front shifted endlessly too, from the border to the streets to Bolivia to the money-laundering banks to the suburbs and back to the border again.

Now it was the Bennettistas' turn, and they achieved the most radical recasting of the country's "drug problem" yet: Drugs would no longer be discussed as a health problem.

The physical dangers of illegal drugs had always been the Drug War's causa belli. Even the "zero tolerance" policy of the late Reagan years was couched in the rhetoric of "instantaneous addiction" and "the poisoning of our children": health terminology.

That had to stop. Because if the drug issue was going to serve the Bennettistas' decade-long crusade to police the nation's character, drug abuse needed to be placed in the same category as offensive art, multicultural teaching, and ethical relativism: a matter of morality.

"The simple fact is that drug use is wrong," Bennett decreed. "And the moral argument, in the end, is the most compelling argument." Terence Pell, Bennett's personal lawyer from Education and now the drug office's chief counsel, put it this way: "We have to believe. If you think drugs are bad, that they make people bad neighbors, horrible parents, dangerous drivers and what have you, then you think drugs are bad. There's a moral dimension."

If drugs are a health problem then addicts are "sick," and that cast them in a sympathetic light the Bennettistas felt addicts didn't deserve. The decision to take drugs that first time, after all, is voluntary. Walters directly attacked the old approach. "The health people say 'no stigma,'" he would say, "and I'm for stigma."

The medical model of drug abuse was to Bennett's men a philosophic and practical morass. If you base prohibition on drugs' health effects, what do you say to the millions of occasional users who convincingly claim to be uninjured by the drugs they took? If you acknowledge that heavy drug users are sick, you create an expectation that the government will treat them.

The biggest problem with basing a prohibitive drug policy on the health risks, though, was the invitation to comparisons. The year the chain-smoking Bennett became drug czar, tobacco killed some 395,000 Americans -- more than died in both world wars. Alcohol directly killed 23,000 and another 22,400 on the highways. The Natural Resources Defense Council in March published a report, widely praised by medical authorities, estimating that as many as 5,500 Americans would develop cancer from the pesticides they ate during their preschool years. The incidence of breast cancer in American women had more than doubled since World War II, owing largely to dioxin and other pollutants. Cocaine, on the other hand, killed 3,308 people that year, slightly less than died from anterior horn cell disease. Heroin and other opiates killed 2,743. And no death from marijuana has ever been recorded.

Drugs damage without killing, of course, but even here other preventable health problems put illegal drugs in deep shade. The General Accounting Office, Congress's non-partisan investigative agency, estimated that some 350,000 people were using cocaine daily in 1989. While that's a big number, 15 times that many children were going to bed hungry at least once a month that year, 50 times that many Americans were sleeping on the streets, and 100 times that many had no health insurance.

Discussing drugs as a moral problem obviated such comparisons. If the case could be made that drug use is simply wrong, then it wouldn't matter that some people use drugs safely, that alcohol and tobacco kill more people than reefer and smack, that more American than European children know hunger.

The Bennettistas worked hard to address the inconsistencies of their approach. Their most glaring problem was the new drug czar himself. By any medical definition, Bennett was a drug addict, so dependent on nicotine after giving up the drug in its smokable form that he now carried everywhere a pack of nicotine chewing gum and was up to 40 milligrams of nicotine a day -- about as much as in two packs of cigarettes.

Alcohol was another problem. Bennett's drug office had no Congressional mandate to address it, his mainstream constituency enjoyed it, and the alcohol industry's mulitmillion-dollar lobby wouldn't stand for further restrictions on booze. So the drug office needed somehow to place alcohol on the "moral" side of the line. No small trick. Aside from the cirrhosis and highway deaths, booze was implicated in violent crime to a much greater degree than any illegal drug. The Justice Department found that half of those convicted of homicide in 1989 were using alcohol at the time of the killing, while fewer than six percent said they were on drugs alone.

Bennett's men tiptoed through the minefield of alcohol and tobacco. John Walters took the position that marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, "enslave people" and "prevent them from being free citizens" in a way that alcohol and tobacco do not. Bruce Carnes decided that drug taking was "life-denying," and "inward," but that alcohol and tobacco were not. Illegal drugs, Bennett said in a speech that May, "obliterate morals, value, character, our relations with each other and our relation to God." None of these conclusions was based on science, but collectively they had the effect of royal fiat.

The Bennettistas also relied on a neat bit of tautology: marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are immoral because they are illegal. Why are they illegal? Because they are immoral. Compliance, not health, was the real issue. "Now that the government has spoken to the subject that drugs are unlawful," said Paul McNulty, a Bennettista soul-mate directing communications at the Justice Department, "a person who disobeys the law has made a moral choice and should be dealt with appropriately." Bennett freely admitted drug enforcement was but an instrument of a wider agenda, calling for "the reconstitution of legal and social authority through the imposition of appropriate consequences for drug dealing and drug use." "The drug crisis," he told the Washington Hebrew congregation, "is a crisis of authority, in every sense of the term, 'authority."

Consequently, "a massive wave of arrests is a top priority for the War on Drugs," Bennett announced. Washington, D.C. had arrested 45,000 of its citizens for drugs in the two years prior to Bennett's appointment, "without making an appreciable dent in either the drug trade or the murder rate," Newsweek noted. But Bennett wanted more of the same. On the day he was sworn in, he declared the city a "high intensity drug trafficking area" and unveiled a massive plan to fight drugs in the nation's capital. More than eighty federal agents would bolster the city's drug squad. A curfew would sweep the streets of minors after 11 p.m. A judge ruled the curfew unconstitutional, but the mood was infectious. Some members of Congress suggested declaring de facto martial law -- placing the D.C. police under federal control and sending in the Army and National Guard. Of the $100 million Bennett wanted spent in D.C., 95 percent was for law enforcement. Of that, more than half would go to a new prison, and until that could be built, Bennett proposed converting abandoned military buildings into makeshift drug prisons. As for the purpose of all this new incarceration, Bennett was characteristically blunt: "I'm not a person who says that the first purpose of punishment is rehabilitation," he told Congress. "The first purpose is moral, to exact a price for transgressing the rights of others."

Elvis Presley

The year ended on an odd note for the War on Drugs. Four days before Christmas 1971, Egil Krogh's phone rang. It was Dwight Chapin, from Bob Haldeman's staff.

"The King is here," Chapin said.

"King who?" Krogh asked. "No kings on the president's schedule today."

"Not just any two-bit king," Chapin answered. "The King. Elvis. The King of Rock."

Elvis Presley had appeared that morning at the Northwest Gate of the White House and handed the guard a nearly illegible six-page letter on American Airlines stationery. He was an admirer of the president, Presley wrote, and he wanted to help spread Nixon's anti-drug message. He was well positioned, too:. "The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment." To dispel any doubts as to his own loyalty, Presley added in bold underline, "I call it America and I love it!"

Then Presley made his pitch. "I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large. . . . All I need is the Federal credentials."

Presley was registered at a nearby hotel under the name Jon Burrows. "I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent," Presley wrote. "I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good."

Though he didn't mention it in the note to Nixon, Presley was a collector of police badges. And he was a dopehound of legendary excess. But in the squareball Nixon White House, Presley found perhaps the only people in the United States who didn't know that. Krogh certainly didn't. He took the letter at face value.

At 12:30, the King was relieved of his present for the chief executive - a nickel-plated .45 automatic, complete with ammunition -- and ushered into the office of the president.

Nixon was dressed like Nixon: blue suit, white shirt, tie. Elvis was dressed like Elvis: black velvet jacket, chest hair, gold medallions, sunglasses and a belt buckle big as a dinner plate. He pulled up a sleeve to exhibit cufflinks the size of hamsters. As Nixon bent close to examine them, Elvis launched into a tirade against the Beatles, who he accused of being anti-American.

"You know," Nixon said. "Those who use the drugs are the protesters. You know, the ones who get caught up in dissent and violence. They're the same group of young people."

"Mr. President," Elvis said, "I'm on your side. I want to be helpful. And I want to help get people to respect the flag because that's getting lost."

Then Elvis got to the point. "Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Narcotics Bureau?"

Krogh was afraid of this. He'd already called the number-two man at BNDD who earlier that day had thrown Elvis out. Elvis had gone there before stopping at the Northwest gate, and offered a $5,000 "donation" to BNDD in return for a badge.

Nixon, not knowing any of that, looked uncertainly at Krogh. "Bud, can we get him a badge?"

"If you want to give him a badge, I think we can get him one."

"I'd like to do that. See that he gets one."

Elvis then did something nobody had ever done in the Nixon Oval Office; he gathered the president up in his arms and gave him a big bear hug. The staff was stunned; the photographer didn't even get a picture. Nixon endured it stiffly, handed out presidential tie clasps, and dismissed the King with a hearty pat on the shoulder.

And so it came to pass that on the day Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose in 1977, he was a credentialed Special Assistant in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

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