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The War on Drugs Redux

Opium is in the news again. Afghanistan is producing bumper crops of opium poppies, funding Taliban attacks and simultaneously enriching some of the Afghani government’s warlord allies. Low heroin prices worldwide suggest that the marketplace is saturated, and American policy abroad is aimed narrowly at crop eradification while at home we are incarcerating drug users at a maddening pace. In other words, we are committing the same policy mistakes as in the past.


American drug policy focuses primarily on controlling supply, even though it is demand that organizes the marketplace. The result is that even if we are successful in limiting poppy cultivation in Afghanistan—no guarantees there—production will merely shift to another part of the globe. Opium poppies are relatively easy to grow and require only cheap labor, which most developing countries possess in abundance, to harvest. Opium offers an unrivaled opportunity to participate in a global economy and the combination of weak states, political instability, and economic marginality ensures that market demand will be met somewhere.

We have an example of how rapidly production can shift from one region to another in the recent past. Poppies from the “Golden Crescent” (Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan) have always been prized for their high opium content and dominated the post-World War Two heroin marketplace. Turkey, where opium poppies could be grown legally as long as they were sold to the government opium monopoly, served as the world’s leading producer of both licit and illicit opium. Then, in 1972, the Nixon Administration, appalled by the growing population of domestic heroin users and a surging wave of both property and violent crime, declared a war on drugs.

Among other measures, Nixon negotiated a treaty with Turkey that effectively removed that country from the heroin supply chain. The U.S. agreed to pay Turkish peasants to grow substitute crops and the Turkish government agreed to crack down on illicit poppy growing. Simultaneously, French police raided heroin laboratories in the Marseilles area, disrupting the “French connection” that had smuggled heroin through the port of New York for a generation. The result, a perfect storm of supply disruption, caused a heroin panic in the United States.

Fortunately there was a legal alternative to illicit heroin. The Nixon Administration had also allowed methadone maintenance experiments to see if reports of dramatic declines in criminal activity could be sustained. The Administration was particularly concerned that Vietnam veterans, returning home addicted to the heroin they found in Southeast Asia, would further fuel the nation’s crime wave. Washington, D.C., where the federal government had a free hand to experiment, initiated the most extensive methadone maintenance program, and heartened by reports the city’s crime rate had fallen while those in other cities had continued to climb, Nixon authorized an expansion of methadone and other treatment options. In the face of very expensive, weak, and hard-to-find heroin, hard-core users flocked to the methadone clinics.

But the panic and the nation’s flirtation with methadone were short-lived. Other countries stepped up to fill the void in the market and methadone proved less promising than its early supporters thought. Heroin from Mexican opium poppies—traditionally shunned in the U.S. (except among Mexican Americans in the Southwest) because of its brown color and lower opiate content—moved northward to take over the U.S. market. The Drug Enforcement Administration identified a “Mexican Connection,” organized by the Herrera brothers of Durango, that shipped heroin (along with illegal immigrants) to Chicago. Other connections soon appeared. High-quality heroin from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia literally followed American servicemen back from Vietnam as Harlem gangster Frank Lucas smuggled heroin in the coffins of U.S. soldiers. And Puerto Rican and Cuban entrepreneurs opened new supply lines through Latin America.

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At the same time the methadone experiment was failing. The screening of patients, the job training and educational programming, and the psychological counseling of the early programs that produced high remission rates were not reproduced in the expanded methadone program. Reports that methadone was harder to “kick” than heroin, that methadone did not form a “blockade” against the effects of heroin, that methadone users abused alcohol and cocaine, and that a black market in methadone had developed soured the American public on methadone maintenance. Harsher penalties for drug dealing, usually catching only small time user-peddlers, followed.

The Nixon drug war’s principal achievement was not to eliminate heroin from the American marketplace, but to break New York’s monopoly over the heroin trade. Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles all became important heroin smuggling centers, and with ethnic succession in organized crime, gangsters other than Italians and Jews established international connections to heroin suppliers. Since many of these suppliers were in Latin America, they also began to ship increasing quantities of cocaine, which eventually glutted the market and produced a new drug craze in the form of crack.

The Nixon Administration’s ambitious war on drugs succeeded for a brief time because it dealt simultaneously with supply and demand. This suggests the obvious failings of our current war on drugs. Clearly there is a place for supply reduction, as the Nixon treaty with Turkey shows. Land reform, crop substitution, even subsidies to allow peasant farmers to enter the world market hold long term promise, but these efforts cannot be limited to a single country, and we will need a time horizon of a half century or more to see success. A domestic policy that ignores demand and only incarcerates users will continue to fail also. The population in state and federal prisons has tripled since the 1970s, but this mass incarceration has not succeeded in curtailing the demand for drugs. Replacing incarceration with drug treatment, including maintenance, is essential to any demand reduction, but treatment has to be accompanied by the training, counseling and skills development of the pioneer methadone programs.

Treatment does not deal with the sources of drug abuse. What can be done about prevention? Here there is also a worthwhile example from the past. The overwhelming majority of heroin-using Vietnam veterans stopped using the drug upon their return to the United States. A change in their “social setting”—leaving Vietnam behind—produced abstinence rates that no treatment program, counseling service, detoxification, or medical intervention has ever matched. Addressing the social setting of current drug users holds the key to curtailing drug abuse.

Hard drug use in the U.S. has been highly spatialized, occurring largely among inner-city populations who are socially and economically marginal. It is here that the drug economy has taken hold—the free market’s answer to deindustrialization—and it is here that a policy of federal job creation, real work solving real problems of housing, infrastructure and public transportation, offers us the best opportunity to confront the sources of drug abuse.

Changing the social setting of America’s drug users will be a daunting task, but it is no longer as radical as it seemed even a year ago. With job creation and infrastructure improvement on everyone’s agenda, we finally have the chance to address the demand side of the drug equation.

Eric Schneider

Mr. Schneider is Associate Director of Academic Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches in the Urban Studies Program.

Republished with permission from The History News Network, where it first appeared.