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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Policy Letter spring 1995
Written by Max Frankel   
Saturday, 22 April 1995 00:00

Frankel's original article ignited a debate. A sampling of the response.

THE MAIL ABOUT the lost "war on drugs" has been formidable. It has brought tomes and treatises, the thoughts of prisoners and preachers, and much evidence of anxiety across the land. Although most of the government warriors, from the commander-in-chief down, prefer to avoid the subject, people seem desperate for more discussion of alternatives to the failed policies of prohibition and interdiction.

The media have carried the news of the nation's defeat, but they do not dwell, as they would in a conventional war, on the daily cost and humiliation. Still, the letters from readers imply widespread support for the conclusion that there is no way to win the war so long as small, easily smuggled bundles of addictive cocaine or heroin can finance a large and aggressive criminal sales organization. Prohibition is what makes drugs so profitable, yet the thought of legalizing their distribution, even with rigid controls and treatment programs, arouses the fear of infecting millions of new addicts.

That fear, if valid, explains a central dilemma that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan dug out of his writings of two years ago. The nation's choice of policy—legalization or prohibition—offers a choice of outcomes, he wrote: "An enormous public health problem on the one hand, an enormous crime problem [concentrated among minorities] on the other." Since he disliked the choice, he ducked, wishing instead that medical researchers would more vigorously pursue a chemical "blocking or neutralizing agent" to move drug users "as near to abstinence as possible."

One researcher, Dr. Pietr Hitzig of Timonium, Maryland, actually foresees such a possibility in experiments with a fenfluramine-phentermine combination. But the protocols for controlled studies of its effectiveness are still under review, he writes.

From a different perspective, Professor Avram Goldstein of Stanford's Medical School also argues for recognizing drugs as a health problem: "We do not need to legalize the drugs, we need to decriminalize the users and offer universal treatment, while seriously enforcing the prohibitions on sale and distribution."

What that might mean was suggested by Daniel W. Weil, a former director of corrections for Cook County, Illinois, who observes that a nation unable to control its eating, drinking or smoking habits nonetheless expects, indeed demands, that drug addicts kick the habit — or become sellers or commit crimes to finance it. He favors dispensing drugs at minimal or no charge "to registered addicts" under close supervision at government clinics. Any "possession or sale" of narcotic drugs outside the premises would remain illegal.

The Open Society Institute created by George Soros, the financier, sponsors the Lindesmith Center to challenge "conventional" thinking about drugs. Its director, Ethan Nadelmann, argues from historical experience that in a legal market consumers prefer less potent drugs. Both the health and crime problem could be reduced, he contends, if drug "use" were distinguished from the drug "abuse" fostered by profit-seeking criminals.

But to Joseph Califano Jr., the founding president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, any "stamp of legality" on snorting cocaine or smoking crackwould bring drugs a "new social acceptability," lead to a huge increase in the number of addicts and "light a new flame beneath health care spending." In a new book, Radical Surgery, about health care policy, the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare pleads for a better balance of spending between enforcement of the drug laws and research, prevention and treatment.

BY FAR THE MOST POTENT package in the mail response, however, brought the galleys of a book by a freelance writer, William Adler, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in April. He calls it Land of Opportunity: One Family's Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack, and without the help of any illegal substance, it will blow your mind.

His tale was inspired by Isabel Wilkerson's front-page article in the New York Times of December 18, 1988, recounting the trial of four brothers who moved to Detroit from rural Arkansas and turned an upstart marijuana business into a giant crack conglomerate "run like a Fortune 500 company."

The Wilkerson report was startling enough. She found a vast organization of kids "not using drugs as consumers but as capitalists," many lured from the cotton fields to be given a rigorous discipline, salaries up to $100 a day and an impressive work ethic: "If you are planning on getting rich," the gang's crude policy read, "You must forget about your girlfriends and family. You will not have too much time for parties and concerts. With hard work and dedication, we will all be rich within 12 months."

Understandably, Mr. Adler perceived a rare chance to illuminate the dynamics of the crack trade, from the coca paste production in Peru and Bolivia, to jungle refineries in Colombia, to wholesalers in Florida, then through "weight dealers" to street retailers like the Chambers brothers. Like any successful entrepreneurs, he writes, they "learned how to buy wholesale, mass-produce and market their product and track inventory.... They implemented strict quality control measures, devised employee rules and regulations, benefit plans, performance bonuses, a customer incentive program.... At the height of their power, they grossed, conservatively, 55 million tax-free dollars a year."

Most commendably, Mr. Adler also explores the crushing poverty and prejudice into which the Chambers boys were born in Marianna, Arkansas, and the collapsed Detroit economy in which they found their customers. As he observes, "There is a reasonable explanation for the crack whirlwind: the head-on collision during the 1980s of the cultures of greed and need."

Mr. Adler lingers with his story after the Chambers boys are arrested and put away to note that smaller dealers were soon jostling to replace them. Of the 1,015 people sent to overcrowded prisons in the first three months of Detroit's major "crackdown on crack," nearly 80 percent were soon freed to find that drug selling remained a "rational" career choice. Many of the youngest Chambers employees returned to tiny Marianna, some to straighten out and go back to Lee Senior High, others to ply the retail and marketing techniques they had learned up north. Within just six months after the trial, the town's police chief reported, "I got a helluva crack problem down here."

So does all America so long as prohibition makes drug-dealing the most profitable — often the only profitable — ghetto career, turning customers into pushers to replenish an unconquerable guerrilla army. •


Our valuable member Max Frankel has been with us since Wednesday, 22 February 2012.

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