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3.2. Urban Neighborhoods and the War on Drugs PDF Print E-mail
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Grey Literature - DPF: The Great Issues of Drug Policy 1990
Written by Lois Lovelace Duke   


The ghetto neighborhoods and the underclass have typically been ignored by mainstream America. Over years of neglect, this segment of U.S. society is faced with numerous social ills — not the least of which are those caused by the current drug problem in this country. The Bush administration plan to fight this "war on drugs" is analyzed and is found to be generally lacking in specific proposals to deal with this problem, particularly as relates to the inner-city youth of our society. The plan generally is deemed to be symbolic in nature as opposed to a substantive plan with specific goals and programs aimed at the underclass.


Probably no one domestic public policy problem has been on the U.S. agenda more in late 1989 and early 1990 than the drug issue. Yet urban neighborhoods and inner cities have been coping with the social ills brought on by the presence and use of illegal drugs for years. However, this problem has basically been ignored by American mainstream society and governments which have severed these neighborhoods from the larger, social, cultural, economic, and political process.

It was only when widespread drug use and the corresponding crime moved from the ghettos and urban communities to the middle-class suburbs that elected public officials and the governmental process in general took note. For example, a state task force in California analyzing the problem of gangs and drugs in California concluded that gang drug trafficking and its attendant violence are no longer confined to particular communities, but have spread statewide because of gang mobility and the expanding gang network. (California State Task Force Gangs and Drugs: Final Report 1989: 1-129). On August 3, 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh released a report about the drug problem and trade based on input from 93 U.S. attorneys throughout the nation. This report found that traffic in illegal drugs is no longer confined to the large urban areas. In a cover letter to the president, Thornburgh remarked that before he asked for reports from these U.S. attorneys, he knew the country had a drug problem, especially with cocaine and crack. But, as he wrote, "we did not expect to find significant cocaine organizations in Wyoming, heroin trafficking in Iowa, LSD consumption in rural Georgia, or methamphetamine spreading to South Carolina." (Kilpatrick 1989: 11A)

Thus, a problem which had largely been associated with the lower socio-economic class and basically downplayed by government and policy-makers suddenly became an issue on the national agenda. Even though every president since Kennedy has declared a "war on drugs," the drug problem in America has not only remained a problem, but has, in fact, increased in severity and latitude.

This research will explore the Bush plan to eliminate the drug problem in American society, particularly looking at how this program has affected the poor and the so-called "underclass." The "underclass" for purposes of this paper will be defined as those who reside in segregated, deprived neighborhoods where social problems such as drugs and "crack" houses, illegitimate births, welfare dependency, and school dropouts permeate. In particular, this paper will argue that the war on drugs has, in effect, been targeted at this segment of society (with emphasis on increased law enforcement, police surveillance, etc.) while the preventative-corrective benefits of the program/plan as outlined by the President and the Congress set forth only symbolic benefits which have been generalized to n entire population. Thus, the poor in American ghettos have, in essence, further "slipped through the crack" as U.S. public policy fails to deal sufficiently with the economic, social, and cultural problems created by drugs and drug trafficking in underclass American cities.

Finally, the U.S. drug public policy will be categorized using a modification of Pennock's typology. (Pennock 1979) Pennock argues that public policy can be explained by looking at Who Pays? and Who Benefits? and, in either case, is it a particular group or is it (the cost or the benefit) spread generally throughout the citizenry? Pennock makes the basic distinctions in his typology between generalized and particularized benefits and between generalized and particularized cost-bearers.

Pennock explains that the class of perceived generalized costs and perceived generalized benefits is quite large. It includes the realms of national security and security of person and property from domestic infringement. In principle, these subjects are basically consensual. As Pennock points out, nearly everyone believes in personal and national security and in the need for forces, organized by law, to provide these goods. But conflict steps in when it comes to implementation, as to the amounts to be spent and the means to be used.

The case of generalized costs and particularized benefits is also large. It includes most if not all subsidies, at least those that go to an identifiable group, whether it be veterans, farmers, college students, etc. Pennock places most regulations and progressive taxes in the category of generalized benefits and particularized costs. The final category is that for which both costs and benefits are particularized. Pennock categories toll roads and user fees (such as in national parks) as falling within this framework. But, before we proceed further, it is necessary to identify and categorize the substances we are referring to when we use the term "drugs."

Overview of Drugs

Americans make up a drug-oriented nation. The FDA distinguishes drug use, misuse, and abuse as follows. Drug use is the taking of a drug for its intended purpose and in an appropriate amount, frequency, strength, and manner. Drug misuse is the taking of a substance for a purpose, but not in the appropriate amount, frequency, strength, or manner. Drug abuse is the deliberate use of a substance for other than its intended purpose, in a manner that can damage health or ability to function. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 5) Schlaadt and Shannon categorize drugs as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, stimulants and sedatives, marijuana, hallucinogens, opiates, volatile substances, over-the-counter drugs, and prescriptions and other drugs of interest. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 1-15)

Caffeine: The American coffee break has become a way of life. However, recently, the U.S. has paid greater attention to the adverse effects caffeine may have. Caffeine, a stimulant found in tea, coffee, cola drinks, chocolate, and aspirin, may have detrimental effects such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 5)

Alcohol: Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the United States today, often used to relieve anxiety and tension. Roughly $20 billion are spent each year on alcohol — it is a substantial element of the economy. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 5-6)

Nicotine: Even though the numbers of adults using tobacco products have declined in recent years, statistics still reveal high usage especially among the young and in particular teenage girls. The use of chewing tobacco has recently increased. Tobacco is the second leading drug problem in the United States. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 6)

Stimulants and Sedatives: According to Schlaadt and Shannon, the use of stimulants and sedatives, both legal and illegal, is widespread in American society. Stimulants: Cocaine is a potent and rapid-acting stimulant, a derivative from the coca plant. Cocaine was the most popular illegal stimulant of the 1980s. A recent medical journal report estimated that over 25 million Americans had tried the drug and that every day another 5,000 take their first dose. (Washton and Stone 1984) Crack is cocaine mixed with baking soda and water over a hot flame. The substance (which is 90 percent pure co caine) is then dried. The "soapy-looking substance" that results can be broken up into rocks and smoked. (Tsiabtar 1987: A3) Crack gets its name from the popping noises it makes when it is smoked. Because crack is such a pure drug, it takes much less time to achieve the desired high. One puff of a pebble-sized rock produces an intense high that lasts about 20 minutes. Many Americans use other stimulants such as amphetamines and caffeine to remain alert, alleviate fatigue, and create a sense of euphoria. Prescription stimulants are used for dieting, hyperactivity, and the sleeping disorder narcolepsy. Over-the-counter stimulants are available from drugstores and supermarkets, and the sale of illicit stimulants to students, those working graveyard or swing shifts, and long-haul truck drivers is common. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 7 and 96- 96)

Sedatives: Physicians frequently prescribe sedatives for relaxation and for the relief of anxiety. Valium and Librium have replaced many of the barbiturate-based sedatives. Currently, middle-aged women rely on sedatives for relief of anxiety and insomnia more than their male counterparts do. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 7)

Marijuana: The use of marijuana has become commonplace in recent years because of its ready availability and relative inexpensiveness. Also, results of medical studies have shown that some of its previous alleged dangers have been exaggerated. The early 1970s brought a growing movement toward the decriminalization of marijuana. In 1973, Oregon passed a law making possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor resulting in a maximum fine of $100. Eleven other states, including New York, California, Ohio, and Michigan, also passed similar legislation. (Dye 1988: 228-229)

 Hallucinogens: Hallucinogenic, or psychedelic, drugs such as LSD were widely used in the U.S. among middle-class youth in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hallucinogenic drugs alter and frequently enhance a person's sense of well-being and awareness of body functions. If the dosage is too great, LSD may bring about distortions of the environment, causing anxiety or, in more severe forms, psychological crisis and trauma. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 8)

Opiates: Heroin is the most widely used of the opiate drugs. Heroin-dependent individuals are found in all professions, socioeconomic strata, and communities. Most are under 35 years of age. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 8)

Volatile Substances: The use of volatile inhalants, such as gasoline, glue, and typewriter correction fluid, is usually limited to elementary and junior high students. However, despite the user's age, the misuse of such substances can be fatal. When death occurs, however, it is difficult to determine if it has been caused by inhalation of the fumes or suffocation from placing an inhaling aid, such as a plastic bag, over the nostrils and mouth. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 8-9)

Over-the-counter drugs: Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are easily obtained and are believed by consumers to be safe as well as helpful in the treatment of a disease or in the alleviation of some of its symptoms. OTC drugs include cold and cough medications, vitamins, laxatives, analgesics, and an assortment of potions, ointments, and antihistamines. The advertising industry promotes hundreds of thousands of drugs that can be purchased without prescription. As many as 300,000 medicines have been estimated to be available for over-the counter purchase for Americans who have a tradition of "treating one's self." (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 270)

Prescriptions and other drugs: These include such drugs as placebos, antibiotics, antidepressants, Lithium, oral contraceptives, and food additives. The increase in average life expectancy is at least partially attributable to the rapid increase in prescription drugs and a growing trend among the general population to visit a physician regularly. (Schlaadt and Shannon 1990: 9 and 295-325)

Bush's "War on Drugs"

Even though the mass media attribute the current drug policy to the Bush administration, it was, in fact, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed by Congress which contains a comprehensive strategy to fight the war on drugs. The Act also created the position of director of the new Office of National Drug Control Policy — more commonly referred to in the mass media as the "Drug Czar." On March 9, 1989, William J. Bennett was appointed by the Senate to fill this role. At the time, the agency identified two main priorities: (1) to reduce and eliminate the supply of drugs and (2) to curtail and eventually eliminate the demand for drugs. (Heflin 1989)

President Bush subsequently announced his plans to fight drugs in his first nationally televised speech September 5, 1989. Bush, at the time, proposed a $7.9 billion anti-drug offensive concentrating on four main areas: law enforcement, interdiction, education, and treatment. (Schauer 1989: 1) On January 25, 1990, the President proposed increasing spending on the anti-drug campaign by $1.1 billion in the next fiscal year, called for an expanded military role, wider use of the death penalty in drug cases, and the creation of a new center to coordinate intelligence gathering on drug trafficking operations. (Rosenthal 1990: All)

In addition, other proposals contained in the National Drug Control Strategy issued by The White House in January 1990 are increased state and local law enforcement activities and added incentives to local communities to organize comprehensive programs against drug use. The Bush administration plans to do this by awarding grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance totalling $492 million in Fiscal Year 1991 to help state and local law enforcement officials secure their streets and neighborhoods from the drug trade and its attendant violence. This amount represents a 228 percent increase in just the last two years. Communities will also be given an added incentive to develop their own drug programs by the award of grants to select communities through the Department of Health and Human Services. The Bush plan also calls for integrating more treatment facilities into State jails and prisons, where the number of inmates with a history of drug use is high.

Additionally, the establishment of the National Drug Intelligence Center, will be under the auspices of the Department of Justice, which will provide all enforcement agencies with the information about drug trafficking. The plan also calls for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, along with the Justice Department and other agencies, to help make the disruption of drug money laundering operations a priority for the National Strategy.

A recurring theme in the plan is the increased emphasis on the role that State and local governments will play. The Strategy acknowledges that drugs have placed an "unprecedented burden" on schools, hospitals, criminal justice systems, and the citizens of the various states and local communities. Despite the $2.6 billion which will be sent to the States for law enforcement, treatment, and drug prevention activities, the plan cautions that the focal problems created by drugs are still "chiefly a State and local responsibility." (Bush 1990)

Section 1005 of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 also authorized the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to designate certain localities in the U.S. as "high intensity drug trafficking areas." These were identified as (1) New York City (and a surrounding area that could include Nassau County, New York, and all its municipalities; and Union County, Hudson County, and Essex County, New Jersey, and all the municipalities in these counties. (2) Los Angeles (and a surrounding area that could include Los Angeles County and Orange County, and all municipalities in these two counties); (3) Miami (and the surrounding area that could include Broward County, Dade County, and Monroe County and all municipalities therein); (4) Houston (and a surrounding area that could include Harris County, Galveston County, and all municipalities within these counties); and (5) the Southwest Border with designated adjacent areas. These five areas are to receive Federal assistance through a variety of programs and Federal, State, and local cooperative efforts.

Evaluation and Results of the Bush Plan

What effects and results can one find from the drug public policy thus far? As scholars who have studied public policy point out, (Abadinsky 1989: 287-290) a major problem with instituting changes in any public policy is measuring the results. That is, increases or decreases in the number of persons using illegal drugs cannot be measured with any degree of certainty. The statistics that are often presented as "data" are usually meaningless. As Abadinsky points out, there are no direct measures of the incidence of drug use in the general population; all estimates are derivative. They are "measures which infer such incidence of prevalence from various data gathered by law enforcement or medical sources." (Lidz and Walker 1980: 49)

Biernacki further argues,"it cannot be determined with any degree of certainty, what effect U.S. drug policy has had on the addict population. What we do know is that the indicators used to estimate the size of the addict population at any one time are unreliable. For example, if the number of hospital emergency room admissions for heroin overdoses drops, does this indicate the effectiveness of police control methods, or the successful treatment of addicts? Or can the drop in admissions be attributed to a change in drug preference? Or to an increase in the number of natural recoveries? (Biernacki 1986: 189)

To the extent that we have been able to measure the effect of our drug policy, the results generally have been negative. A University of Michigan study in 1987 indicated a decline in cocaine use among high school and college students. However, this same survey also noted that there was no decline in the use of crack. (Leary 1988: 1 and 17) Also, despite the funding allocated for the "war on drugs" by the Bush administration, the program has been described as merely "lip service on drugs." (Morgenthau 1989: 23) As an editorial in the Wall Street Journal stated, "Unfortunately the talk coming out of the White House lately has been very much in tune with the failed siren songs of drug wars past." (Wall Street Journal

If we look at only the underclass population and the ghettos, we find what has been described as the "contagion effect" of behavioral characteristics that conflict with what Americans have defined as mainstream values. As one source notes, "One doesn't require a deep sociological imagination to sense the attitudinal and behavioral consequences of growing up in an impoverished household where there is no activity associated with the world of work, and a household that, in turn, is located in a commercially abandoned community where pimps, drug pushers, and unemployed street people have replaced working fathers as the predominant socializing agents." (Kasanda and Williams 1989: 16-25)

Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist on fieldwork leave from San Francisco State University, lived in a tenement apartment in East Harlem with his family for about five years. He did this in order to research, as a participant-observer, the street culture in an underground economy. Among his findings, he concluded that many of the young in this underground economy see the drug dealer and pusher as role models. He describes: "The ultimate expression of success is opulence without visible means of support. There is plenty of proof of this on the street as teen-age crack dealers drive by in white Suzuki jeeps and middle-aged cocaine tycoons speed around in well-waxed Lincoln Continentals or Mercedes-Benzes. Anyone can aspire to be one of the ubiquitous sellers, perched on mountain bikes with beepers on their belts. In fact, many youths not particularly active in the drug trade wear beepers, just pretending to be big time.

"The feeling of self-worth that the street-level dealer's life style offers cannot be underestimated. A former manager of a coke-shooting gallery who had employed a network of a half-dozen sellers, lookouts and security guards before he was jailed, explained to me that the best memories of his drug-dealing days were of the respect he received from people on the street, After his release, he became a clerk in a Wall Street brokerage concern, determined, he said, not to return to street life. But he recalled that, as a dealer, how when he drove up in one of his cars to pick up the day's receipts, a bevy of attentive men and women would run to open the door for him and engage him in polite small talk. Others would offer to clean his car. He would invite a half-dozen friends and acquaintances out to dinner in expensive restaurants almost every night. Jokingly, he also noted that his shooting gallery had enabled his wife and two children to get off welfare." (Bourgois 1989: 94)

Problems Inherent in any National Drug Control Policy

As with any complex social and cultural public policy problem, there are inherent problems built within our governmental structure which tend to negate positive action on the part of the federal government in solving these complex issues. These may be categorized as (1) funding (2) federalism (3) lack of public-private sector approach to the problem.

1. Funding: Even as President Bush makes plans to seek additional funding for the war on drugs, Democratic leaders and experts in the field contended that the national strategy to combat drugs has had little effect thus far. (Berke 1990: Al2) Representative Charles B. Rangel, the Manhattan Democrat who heads the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, has sharply criticized provisions of the Bush plan. "I do not believe we should sidetrack a real war on drugs with an emotional issue that has very little impact on the problem," Rangel said. (Rosenthal: 1990 All) Another example of the problem brought about by funding restrictions is the Mabon facility in New York City. Odyssey House, an international organization operating drug programs for a variety of populations, runs Mabon, the only drug treatment program in New York City where mothers and small children can live together. Mabon (which means Mothers and Babies Off Narcotics) was begun in 1971 with generous Federal funding. The Federal contribution to Mabon stopped long ago, the facility is kept afloat today through private donations and operates with a 75 percent loss on every mother and child. (Martin 1990)

As Abadinsky has pointed out, "A comprehensive policy on drug abuse that would be acceptable to mainstream America does not take a great deal of imagination to devise. It would take a great deal of money to carry out. In fact, the level of funding that would be required to institute most of the needed recommendations makes them unrealistic, given the present economic-political climate in the United States." (Abadinsky 1989: 288)

2. The problems inherent in our fragmented governmental structure filter over into solving complex social and cultural problems in our environment. For example, the nation's mayors have charged that the states were shortchanging the cities in allocating Federal money to combat drugs. Recently, the United States Conference of Mayors reported that in the last fiscal year (which ended September 30, 1989), city governments received only 12 percent, or $14.4 million of the $118 million in anti-drug money channeled through the states. The remainder allegedly went to state agencies, counties and combined efforts. (Tolchin 1990: Al2)

Also, in an interview with the Associate Director in the Office, National Drug Control Policy in Washington on January 25, 1990, the Director mentioned that the only way we could carry out the concerted effort to fight the drug issue was through utilization of resources of all levels — Federal, sate, community, churches, etc. Yet when he was asked about specifics as to how law enforcement officials would respond to the national policy/plan, he commented, "You'll have to ask the state about that." (Interview with Judge Reggie B. Walton, February 5, 1990) Additionally, the different levels of governments have varying ideas on spending to solve problems within our society. For example, since Mr. Bush outlined his antidrug strategy, state and local officials are said to have agreed on one thing: that the President and Congress must allocate more money. Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York has specifically accused the President of declaring a war on drugs, but asking the states to pay for the bullets." (Schmidt 1989: Y-25)

3. Analysis of the Bush drug plan fails to reveal evidence of a comprehensive utilization of public and private resources, though these initiatives appear to be working and have worked in the past to solve internal domestic issues. For example, the business community has not only contributed funds to up-grade secondary public education in the State of South Carolina in support of the then Governor Richard W. Riley's Comprehensive Educational Reform Program, these businesses followed up to measure the effectiveness of how their dollars were spent.

The drug crisis has also created problems which have been and are being solved by private institutions, for example, the DeLaSalle Education Center, an alternative high school in Kansas City, Missouri, describes itself as a last-chance rescue mission for losers. One of its recent students is a teen-age drop-out from high school who had a lucrative business selling crack. But the 18-year old was caught by the police carrying a concealed weapon and was arrested. He ended up at DeLaSalle, a private institution that focuses on students who represent the worst of the public schools' problems — young people with learning disabilities, behavior problems, family problems and drug and alcohol problems. The success of the school is attributed to its eclectic program which offers individual programs tailored to each student's needs and the fact that the school is also free, financed by grants and contributions from corporations and foundations. (Robbins 1990: 7)

Other foundations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of Princeton, N.J., are sponsoring programs geared to combatting substance abuse. This foundation has identified fifteen localities in the United States for a new initiative to curb alcohol and drug abuse. The foundation will spend $27 million over five years to develop successful models that can be copied elsewhere. (Teltsch 1990: A-10)


There is in effect a huge social and cultural cost as we have failed to cope with the problems of the underclass and predominantly minority segment of our society. The inner city, already burdened with problems of joblessness and other social ills, is thus faced with a drug problem which has not been adequately dealt with in our national drug control strategy. There is a need for a comprehensive public policy which gives not only symbolic resources and sets forth symbolic action, but a firm resolve and generalized material and resource funding. These funds should be expended to be a particular segment of our society in order that all of society may ultimately benefit. As one law enforcement official recently noted, "This may sound strange coming from a Drug Enforcement Administration representative, but the drug problem will never be solved through law enforcement — we will only get at this problem through education, prevention, and through such special initiatives as alternative programs offered to our inner-city youth. We have to come up with ways to keep these kids in school, to keep them drug-free, and to provide new role models for these youngsters. Only then can we expect to see positive change in coping with this problem." (Interview with Anthony M. Wilson, March 26, 1990.) Why is our public policy usually so resistant to targeting specific groups and minorities within our society? It seems that one could justifiably argue that the military represents a particular segment and/or special interest of our society, but the armed forces have been generously funded for years using the guise of the national defense and the need for national security which was generalized to an entire society. Why is it not possible to use the same strategy to eliminate the waste in our own human resources brought about by the drug problem in America? Perhaps if the Federal government could be as generous in directing funds targeted toward the ghetto underclass and the lower socio-economic levels in our society to fight the drug problem, the private sector may respond by establishing an equivalent to the military-industrial complex. With the use of both public and private resources and monies, it is perceived that then and only then, will America ever successfully come to grips with the drug crisis.

Lois Lovelace Duke is an assistant professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, A.L. 35487-0213. (205) 348-5980.


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Our valuable member Lois Lovelace Duke has been with us since Monday, 20 February 2012.

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