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.


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.


  1. says

    I agree that the “blockade” does not work in the way Naltrexone (a true blockade drug) does. Nevertheless, at doses of around 80mgs (varies a bit from person to person) it becomes impossible to feel the euphoric effects from other opiates unless they are taken in VAST quantities. I just wanted to clarify that it does actually provide this effect at certain dosages, regardless of what we call it or how exactly it does so.

  2. says

    Debaters debate the two wars as if the civil war on drugs against Woodstock Nation did not yet run amok. Continuing the vendetta against all present at the peaceful public assembly of Woodstock Nation in August 1969, and their legions, cannot be good for the United States. We lead the world in percentile behind bars. If we are all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance our credibility.

    The negative numbers that will have to be used to bottom-line our legacy to the next generation can be less ginormous. The witch-hunt doctor’s Rx is for every bust to numerate a bigger tax-load over a smaller denominator of payers. Spend more on prisons than on schools. My second witch’s opinion is homegrown herbal remedy. More consumer discretionary funds will flow to the rest of the economy when they are no longer depleted by an unnatural seller’s market in psychoactive substances.

    A clause about interstate commerce provides a pretext of constitutionality. Any excuse is better than none. So, how is that interstate commerce going? The mantra is eradicate, do not tax, the country’s number-one cash crop. Native flowers become as dear as gold. Gifted with margin to frustrate interdiction, peddlers’ bags do not carry coals to Newcastle. The founders’ purpose to authorize federal meddling in interstate commerce was not to divert tax revenue to outlaws. In 1933, America decided against substance prohibition in the case of the substance alcohol. Prohibitionists knew not to try to prohibit drugs by amendment. You don’t need any stinking amendment when you have a swat team.

    Old England coerced conformity on the puritan nonconformists, so they came to New England, rather than submit. The coercion of Quakers started in England in 1650 and raged for 39 years in Massachusetts. The Toleration Act of 1689 granted freedom of worship to Quaker nonconformists. Not much is new, as the war on drugs coerces conformity on a double-digit-demographic of defiant nonconformists.

    The 1641 Massachusetts Liberties [item 94.2] echoes the Mosaic Law that witches having or consulting a familiar spirit shall be put to death. In 1692, teenage girls caused 19 people, who their parents disliked, to hang. In 1693, the court stopped accepting invisible evidence. Gaols emptied. Fourteen years later, the leader of the accusers confided, “It was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, where I justly fear I may have brought upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.”

    The scheduled substances have never had their day in court. Nixon promised to supply supporting evidence later. Later, the Commission evidence wasn’t supporting. No matter, civil war against Woodstock Nation had its charter. No amendments can assure due-process under an arbitrary law that never had any due-process itself. Marijuana has no medical use, period. Open and shut cases clog the kangaroo courts. Juries exclude peers. Lives are flushed down expensive tubes.

    The Controlled Substances Act is anti-science. Redundantly, there is no accepted use, nor will there ever be, when all use is not accepted. For example, LSD was hailed as a breakthrough for shining light into the subconscious, until the CSA halted research. America’s drug policy should seek light from the Beckley Foundation.

    The Religious Freedom Restoration Act restores choice of sacrament for the Native American Church to eat peyote. All Americans, without distinction of church, should be extended the same freedom, to select scheduled sacraments to mediate communion in the rituals even of single-member sects.

    To speak freely, one must first think freely. To create, one must be in a receptive mood. How could a bum such as I hope to achieve a great work such as ending a war? What was I smoking? The Constitution, as amended, does not enumerate any power to impede outside-the-box thinking or arbitrate states of consciousness. How and when did government acquire this power? Politicians who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 preempts free speech, such as these addled words of mine.

    Common Law must hold that the people are the legal owners of their own bodies, including corporal components such as the various receptor sites. The people should have the same liberty to move about in their spiritual abodes as they have in their material apartments.

    The people have a right to get drunk in their apartments, be it folly or otherwise. Some may self-medicate to comply with the dictum of Socrates to know thy self. Those who appreciate their own free choice of personal path in life should not deny the same to others. Live and let live. The Declaration of Independence gets right to the point. The pursuit of happiness is a self-evident, God-given, inalienable, right of man. The war on drugs is a war on the pursuit of happiness.

    The books have ample law on them, without the CSA. The usual caveats, against injury to others, or their estates, remain in effect. Stronger medicines require a doctor’s prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. People should be held responsible for damage caused by their screw-ups. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either.

    The annual dollar cost of the war on drugs at federal, state and local levels totals what, only 50 or 100B USD? If anybody is counting, please share. There is no lower-hanging, riper, or higher-yielding budgetary fruit than to kick the addiction to the third war, cold turkey. Repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

  3. Eric Schneider says

    Thanks for your comment on my essay. You are right that it is the most effective treatment available; where I disagree is that it was oversold as a treatment: the original review studies claimed over 80% success rate because of problematic statistical methods when the actual figure was around 60% (which itself was extraordinary), and the blockade argument originally made by Dole was inaccurate (as Dole later admitted). The first patients were extremely motivated, knowing that the protocol was experimental and that Dole and Nyswander were being harassed by federal narcotics agents, and had more social capital than average heroin users, making this group more successful. You are right that low dose programs were much more problematical. In other words, it is not a simple, black and white, “methadone was good” or “methadone was bad.”

  4. says

    I have to disagree that the methadone experiemnt prved less promising than expected, or that it was “failing”. In fact MMT is the MOST successful treatment method for opioid addiction available today. One of the primary reasons that later methadone clinics were less successful than Dole’s earlier ones was that Dole was careful to ensure the patients were adequately dosed, whereas later clinics, anxious to appear strict and punitive, lowered doses to the point that they were virtually ineffective for most patients. The average required dose is 80-120 mgs, yet in the 1980’s, average dose dropped to around 40-50mgs for most patients. Not only did this not provide the narcotic blockade (which usually kicks in at around 80mgs)that keeps patients from feeling any effects from other opiates, but it also leaves them feeling extremely sick for half the day, rendering them unable to work and far more vulnerable to relapse. Properly dosed patients do much better overall, as studies have consistently shown,

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