From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

How America Lost the War on Drugs
After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and
Plentiful as Ever: An Anatomy of a Failure
by BEN WALLACE-WELLS  /  Nov 27, 2007

For an interview with Rolling Stone contributing editor Ben Wallace-
Wells on the reporting of this feature, click here.

On the day of his death, December 2nd, 1993, the Colombian billionaire
drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was on the run and living in a small, tiled-
roof house in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellín, close to the
soccer stadium. He died, theatrically, ridiculously, gunned down by a
Colombian police manhunt squad while he tried to flee across the
barrio’s rooftops, a fat, bearded man who had kicked off his flip-
flops to try to outrun the bullets. The first thing the American drug
agents who arrived on the scene wanted to do was to make sure that the
corpse was actually Escobar’s. The second thing was to check his

The last time Escobar had hastily fled one of his residences – la
Catedral, the luxurious private prison he built for himself to avoid
extradition to the United States – he had left behind bizarre,
enchanting detritus, the raw stuff of what would -become his own myth:
the photos of himself dressed up as a Capone-era gangster with a Tommy
gun, the odd collection of novels ranging from Graham Greene to the
Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig. Agents from the Drug Enforcement
Administration, arriving after the kingpin had fled, found neat
shelves lined with loose-leaf binders, carefully organized by content.
They were, says John Coleman, then the DEA’s assistant administrator
for operations, “filled with DEA reports” – internal documents that
laid out, in extraordinary detail, the agency’s repeated attempts to
capture Escobar.

“He had shelves and shelves and shelves of these things,” Coleman
tells me. “It was stunning. A lot of the informants we had, he’d
figured out who they were. All the agents we had chasing him – who we
trusted in the Colombian police – it was right there. He knew so much
more about what we were doing than we knew about what he was doing.”

Coleman and other agents began to work deductively, backward. “We had
always wondered why his guys, when we caught them, would always go to
trial and risk lots of jail time, even when they would have saved
themselves a lot of time if they’d just plead guilty,” he says. “What
we realized when we saw those binders was that they were doing a job.
Their job was to stay on trial and have their lawyers use discovery to
get all the information on DEA operations they could. Then they’d send
copies back to Medellín, and Escobar would put it all together and
figure out who we had tracking him.”

The loose-leaf binders crammed in Escobar’s office on the ground floor
gave Coleman and his agents a sense of triumph: The whole mysterious
drug trade had an organization, a structure and a brain, and they’d
just removed it. In the thrill of the moment, clinking champagne
glasses with officials from the Colombian police and taking
congratulatory calls from Washington, the agents in Medellín believed
the War on Drugs could finally be won. “We had an endgame,” Coleman
says. “We were literally making the greatest plans.”

At the headquarters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in
Washington, staffers tacked up a poster with photographs of sixteen of
its most wanted men, cartel leaders from across the Andes. Solemnly,
ceremoniously, a staffer took a red magic marker and drew an X over
Escobar’s portrait. “We felt like it was one down, fifteen to go,”
recalls John Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-
control office. “There was this feeling that if we got all sixteen,
it’s not like the whole thing would be over, but that was a big part
of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

Man by man, sixteen red X’s eventually went up over the faces of the
cartel leaders: KILLED. EXTRADITED. KILLED. José Santacruz Londoño, a
leading drug trafficker, was gunned down by Colombian police in a
shootout. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the heads of the Cali
cartel, were extradited after they got greedy and tried to keep
running their organization from prison. Some U.S. drug warriors
believed that the busts were largely public-relations events, a showy
way for the Colombian government to look tough on the drug trade, but
most were less cynical. The crack epidemic was over. Drug-related
murders were in decline. Winning the War on Drugs didn’t seem such a
quixotic and open-ended mission, like the War on Poverty, but rather
something tangible, a fat guy with a big organization and binders full
of internal DEA reports, sixteen faces on a poster, a piñata you could
reach out and smack. Richard Cañas, a veteran DEA official who headed
counternarcotics efforts on the National Security Council under both
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, can still recall the euphoria of
those days. “We were moving,” he says, “from success to success.”

This is the story of how that momentary success turned into one of the
most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered.
It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a
piñata, swung to hit it and missed.


For Cañas and other drug warriors, the death of Escobar had the feel
of a real pivot, the end of one kind of battle against drugs and the
beginning of another. The war itself had begun during the Nixon
administration, when the White House began to get reports that a
generation of soldiers was about to come back from Vietnam stoned,
with habits weaned on the cheap marijuana and heroin of Southeast Asia
and hothoused in the twitchy-fingered freakout of a jungle guerrilla
war. For those in Washington, the problem of drugs was still so
strange and new in the early Seventies that Nixon officials grappled
with ideas that, by the standards of the later debate among
politicians, were unthinkably radical: They appointed a panel that
recommended the decriminalization of casual marijuana use and even
considered buying up the world’s entire supply of opium to prevent it
from being converted into heroin. But Nixon was a law-and-order
politician, an operator who understood very well the panic many
Americans felt about the cities, the hippies and crime. Calling
narcotics “public enemy number one in the United States,” he used the
issue to escalate the culture war that pitted Middle Americans against
the radicals and the hippies, strengthening penalties for drug dealers
and devoting federal funds to bolster prosecutions. In 1973, Nixon
gave the job of policing these get-tough laws to the newly formed Drug
Enforcement Administration.

By the mid-1980s, as crack leeched out from New York, Miami and Los
Angeles into the American interior, the devastations inflicted by the
drug were becoming more vivid and frightening. The Reagan White House
seemed to capture the current of the moment: Nancy Reagan’s plaintive
urging to “just say no,” and her husband’s decision to hand police and
prosecutors even greater powers to lock up street dealers, and to
devote more resources to stop cocaine’s production at the source, in
the Andes. In 1986, trying to cope with crack’s corrosive effects,
Congress adopted mandatory-minimum laws, which hit inner-city crack
users with penalties as severe as those levied on Wall Street brokers
possessing 100 times more powder cocaine. Over the next two decades,
hundreds of thousands of Americans would be locked up for drug

The War on Drugs became an actual war during the first Bush
administration, when the bombastic conservative intellectual Bill
Bennett was appointed drug czar. “Two words sum up my entire
approach,” Bennett declared, “consequences and confrontation.” Bush
and Bennett doubled annual spending on the drug war to $12 billion,
devoting much of the money to expensive weaponry: fighter jets to take
on the Colombian trafficking cartels, Navy submarines to chase cocaine-
smuggling boats in the Caribbean. If narcotics were the enemy, America
would vanquish its foe with torpedoes and F-16s – and throw an entire
generation of drug users in jail.

Though many on the left suspected that things had gone seriously awry,
drug policy under Reagan and Bush was largely conducted in a fog of
ignorance. The kinds of long-term studies that policy-makers needed –
those that would show what measures would actually reduce drug use and
dampen its consequences – did not yet exist. When it came to research,
there was “absolutely nothing” that examined “how each program was or
wasn’t working,” says Peter Reuter, a drug scholar who founded the
Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp.

But after Escobar was killed in 1993 – and after U.S. drug agents
began systematically busting up the Colombian cartels – doubt was
replaced with hard data. Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers
knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The
tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded.
We continue to treat marijuana as a major threat to public health,
even though we know it isn’t. We continue to lock up generations of
teenage drug dealers, even though we know imprisonment does little to
reduce the amount of drugs sold on the street. And we continue to
spend billions to fight drugs abroad, even though we know that
military efforts are an ineffective way to cut the supply of narcotics
in America or raise the price.

All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to
fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap
as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine,
barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and
may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind
bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no
discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the
government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who
smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal
prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this
war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in
Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own
ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of
human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are
now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.

“What we learned was that in drug work, nothing ever stands still,”
says Coleman, the former DEA official and current president of Drug
Watch International, a law-and-order advocacy group. For every move
the drug warriors made, the traffickers adapted. “The other guys were
learning just as we were learning,” Coleman says. “We had this


“At the beginning of the Clinton administration,” Cañas tells me, “the
War on Drugs was like the War on Terror is now.” It was, he means, an
orienting fight, the next in a sequence of abstract, generational
struggles that the country launched itself into after finding no one
willing to actually square up and face it on a battlefield. After the
Cold War, in the flush and optimism of victory, it felt to drug
warriors and the American public that abstractions could be beaten.
“It was really a pivot point,” recalls Rand Beers, who served on the
National Security Council for four different presidents. “We started
to look carefully at our drug policies and ask if everything we were
doing really made sense.” The man Clinton appointed to manage this new
era was Lee Brown.

Brown had been a cop for almost thirty years when Clinton tapped him
to be the nation’s drug czar in 1993. He had started out working
narcotics in San Jose, California, just as the Sixties began to swell,
and ended up leading the New York Police Department when the city was
the symbolic center of the crack epidemic, with kids being killed by
stray bullets that barreled through locked doors. A big, shy man in
his fifties, Brown had made his reputation with a simple insight: Cops
can’t do much without the trust of people in their communities, who
are needed to turn in offenders and serve as witnesses at trial. Being
a good cop meant understanding the everyday act of police work not as
chasing crooks but as meeting people and making allies.

“When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the
life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers,”
Brown tells me. “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly
that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and
over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to
prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I
stepped back and asked myself, ‘What impact is all of this having on
the drug problem? There has to be a better way.'”

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, this philosophy – known
as community policing – had made Brown a national phenomenon. The
Clinton administration asked him to take the drug-czar post, and
though Brown was skeptical, he agreed on the condition that the White
House make it a Cabinet-level position. Brown stacked his small office
with liberals who had spent the long Democratic exile doing drug-
policy work for Congress and swearing they would improve things when
they retook power. “There were basic assumptions that Republicans had
been making for fifteen years that had never been challenged,” says
Carol Bergman, a congressional staffer who became Brown’s legislative
liaison. “The way Lee Brown looked at it, the drug war was focused on
locking kids up for increasing amounts of time, and there wasn’t
enough emphasis on treatment. He really wanted to take a different

Brown’s staff became intrigued by a new study on drug policy from the
RAND Corp., the Strangelove-esque think tank that during the Cold War
had employed mathematicians to crank out analyses for the Pentagon.
Like Lockheed Martin, the jet manufacturer that had turned to managing
welfare reform after the Cold War ended, RAND was scouting for other
government projects that might need its brains. It found the drug war.
The think tank assigned Susan Everingham, a young expert in
mathematical modeling, to help run the group’s signature project:
dividing up the federal government’s annual drug budget of $13 billion
into its component parts and deciding what worked and what didn’t when
it came to fighting cocaine.

Everingham and her team sorted the drug war into two categories. There
were supply-side programs, like the radar and ships in the Caribbean
and the efforts to arrest traffickers in Colombia and Mexico, which
were designed to make it more expensive for traffickers to bring their
product to market. There were also demand-side programs, like drug
treatment, which were designed to reduce the market for drugs in the
United States. To evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each approach,
the mathematicians set up a series of formulas to calculate precisely
how much additional money would have to be spent on supply programs
and demand programs to reduce cocaine consumption by one percent

“If you had asked me at the outset,” Everingham says, “my guess would
have been that the best use of taxpayer money was in the source
countries in South America” – that it would be possible to stop
cocaine before it reached the U.S. But what the study found surprised
her. Overseas military efforts were the least effective way to
decrease drug use, and imprisoning addicts was prohibitively
expensive. The only cost-effective way to put a dent in the market, it
turned out, was drug treatment. “It’s not a magic bullet,” says
Reuter, the RAND scholar who helped supervise the study, “but it
works.” The study ultimately ushered RAND, this vaguely creepy Cold
War relic, into a position as the permanent, pragmatic left wing of
American drug policy, the most consistent force for innovating and
reinventing our national conception of the War on Drugs.

When Everingham’s team looked more closely at drug treatment, they
found that thirteen percent of hardcore cocaine users who receive help
substantially reduced their use or kicked the habit completely. They
also found that a larger and larger portion of illegal drugs in the
U.S. were being used by a comparatively small group of hardcore
addicts. There was, the study concluded, a fundamental imbalance: The
crack epidemic was basically a domestic problem, but we had been
fighting it more aggressively overseas. “What we began to realize,”
says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who
studied drug policy for RAND, “was that even if you only get a
percentage of this small group of heavy drug users to abstain forever,
it’s still a really great deal.”

Thirteen years later, the study remains the gold standard on drug
policy. “It’s still the consensus recommendation supplied by the
scholarship,” says Reuter. “Yet as well as it’s stood up, it’s never
really been tried.”

To Brown, RAND’s conclusions seemed exactly right. “I saw how little
we were doing to help addicts, and I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he
recalls. ” ‘This is how we should be breaking the cycle of addiction
and crime, and we’re just doing nothing.’ ”

The federal budget that Brown’s office submitted in 1994 remains a
kind of fetish object for certain liberals in the field, the moment
when their own ideas came close to making it into law. The budget
sought to cut overseas interdiction, beef up community policing,
funnel low-level drug criminals into treatment programs instead of
prison, and devote $355 million to treating hardcore addicts, the drug
users responsible for much of the illegal-drug market and most of the
crime associated with it. White House political handlers, wary of
appearing soft on crime, were skeptical of even this limited
commitment, but Brown persuaded the president to offer his support,
and the plan stayed.

Still, the politics of the issue were difficult. Convincing Congress
to dramatically alter the direction of America’s drug war required a
brilliant sales job. “And Lee Brown,” says Bergman, his former
legislative liaison, “was not an effective salesman.” With a kind of
loving earnestness, the drug czar arranged tours of treatment centers
for congressmen to show them the kinds of programs whose funding his
bill would increase. Few legislators came. Most politicians were
skeptical about such a radical departure from the mainstream consensus
on crime. Congress rewrote the budget, slashing the $355 million for
treatment programs by more than eighty percent. “There were too many
of us who had a strong law-and-order focus,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley,
a Republican who opposed the reform bill and serves as co-chair of the
Senate’s drug-policy caucus.

For some veteran drug warriors, Brown’s tenure as drug czar still
lingers as the last moment when federal drug policy really made sense.
“Lee Brown came the closest of anyone to really getting it,” says
Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office.
“But the bottom line was, the drug issue and Lee Brown were largely
ignored by the Clinton administration.” When Brown tried to repeat his
treatment-centered initiative in 1995, it was poorly timed: Newt
Gingrich and the Republicans had seized control of the House after
portraying Clinton as soft on crime. The authority to oversee the War
on Drugs passed from Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit liberal, to a
retired wrestling coach from Illinois who was tired of drugs in the
schools – a rising Republican star named Dennis Hastert. Reeling from
the defeat at the polls, Clinton decided to give up on drug reform and
get tough on crime. “The feeling was that the drug czar’s office was
one of the weak areas when it came to the administration’s efforts to
confront crime,” recalls Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff.


The administration was not doing much better in its efforts to stop
the flow of drugs at the source. Before Clinton had even taken office,
Cañas – who headed drug policy at the National Security Council – had
been summoned to brief the new president’s choice for national
security adviser, Anthony Lake, on the nation’s narcotics policy in
Latin America. “I figured, what the hell, I’m going back to DEA
anyway, I’ll tell him what I really think,” Cañas recalls.

The Bush administration, he told Lake, had been sending the military
after the wrong target. In the 1970s, drugs were run up to the United
States through the Caribbean by a bunch of “swashbuckling
entrepreneurs” with small planes – “guys who wouldn’t have looked out
of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.” In 1989, in the nationwide panic
over crack, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had managed to secure a
budget of $450 million to chase these Caribbean smugglers. (Years
later, when a longtime drug official asked Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld why Cheney had pushed the program, Rumsfeld grinned and said,
“Cheney thought he was running for president.”) The U.S. military
loved the new mission, because it gave them a reason to ask for more
equipment in the wake of the Cold War. And the Bush White House loved
the idea of sending the military after the drug traffickers for its
symbolism and swagger and the way it proved that the administration
was taking drugs seriously.

The problem, Cañas told Lake, was that the cocaine traffic had
professionalized and was now moving its product through Mexico. With
Caribbean smugglers out of the game, the military program no longer
made sense. The new national security adviser grinned at Cañas,
pleased. “That’s what we think as well,” Lake said. “How would you
like to stay on and help make that happen?”

Taking a new approach, the Clinton administration shifted most
military assets out of the Caribbean and into the Andes, where the
coca leaf was being grown and processed. “Our idea was, Stop messing
around in the transit countries and go to the source,” Cañas tells me.
The administration spent millions of extra dollars to equip police in
Bolivia and Colombia to bust the crop’s growers and processors. The
cops were not polite – Human Rights Watch condemned the murders of
Bolivian farmers, blaming “the heavy hand of U.S. drug enforcement” –
but they were effective, and by 1996, coca production in Bolivia had
begun a dramatic decline.

After Escobar fell, the American drug agents who had been chasing him
did not expect the cocaine industry to dry up overnight – they had
girded for the fallout from the drug lord’s death. What they had not
expected was the ways in which the unintended consequences of his
downfall would permanently change the drug traffic. “What ended up
happening – and maybe we should have predicted this would happen – was
that the whole structure shattered into these smaller groups,” says
Coleman, the veteran DEA agent. “You suddenly had all these new guys
controlling a small aspect of the traffic.”

Among them was a hired gun known as Don Berna, who had served as a
bodyguard for Escobar. Double-crossed by his boss, Berna broke with
the Medellín cartel and struck out on his own. For him, the disruption
caused by the new front in America’s drug war presented a business
opportunity. But with the DEA’s shift from the Caribbean into Bolivia
and Colombia, Berna and other new traffickers had a production
problem. So some of the “microcartels,” as they became known, decided
to move their operations someplace where they could control it: They
opened negotiations with the FARC, a down-at-the-heels rebel army
based in the jungles of Colombia. In return for cash, the FARC agreed
to put coca production under its protection and keep the Colombian
army away from the coca crop.

Berna and the younger kingpins also had a transportation problem:
Mexican traffickers, who had been paid a set fee by the cartels to
smuggle product across the U.S. border, wanted a larger piece of the
business. The Mexican upstarts had a certain economic logic on their
side. A kilo of cocaine produced in Colombia is worth about $2,500. In
Mexico, a kilo gets $5,000. But smuggle that kilo across the border
and the price goes up to $17,500. “What the Mexican groups started
saying was, ‘Why are we working for these guys? Why don’t we just buy
it from the Colombians directly and keep the profits ourselves?’ ”
says Tony Ayala, a retired DEA agent and former Mexico country

The remaining leaders of the weakened Cali cartel, DEA agents say,
traveled up to Guadalajara for a series of meetings with Mexican
traffickers. By 1996, the Colombians had decided to hand over more
control of the cocaine trade to the Mexicans. The Cali cartel would
now ship cocaine to Guadalajara, sell the drugs to the Mexican groups
and then be done with it. “This wasn’t just happenstance,” says Jerome
McArdle, then a DEA assistant agent for special operations. “This was
the Colombians saying they were willing to reduce their profits in
exchange for reducing their risk and exposure, and handing it over to
the Mexicans. The whole nature of the supply chain changed.”

Around the same time, DEA agents found themselves picking up Mexican
distributors, rather than Colombians, on the streets of New York.
Immigration and customs officials on the border were meanwhile
overwhelmed by the sheer number of tractor-trailers – many of them
loaded with drugs – suddenly pouring across the Mexican border as a
consequence of NAFTA, which had been enacted in 1994. “A thousand
trucks coming across in a four-hour period,” says Steve Robertson, a
DEA special agent assigned to southern Texas at the time. “There’s no
way we’re going to catch everything.”

Power followed the money, and Mexican traffickers soon had a style,
and reach, that had previously belonged only to the Colombians. In the
border town of Ciudad Juárez, the cocaine trafficker Amado Carrillo
Fuentes developed a new kind of smuggling operation. “He brought in
middle-class people for the first time – lawyers, accountants – and he
developed a transportation division, an acquisitions division, even a
human-resources operation, just like a modern corporation,” says Tony
Payan, a political scientist at the University of Texas-El Paso who
has studied the drug trade on the border. Before long, Carrillo
Fuentes had a fleet of Boeing 727s, which he used to fly cocaine, up
to fifteen tons at a time, up from Colombia to Mexico. The newspapers
called him El Señor de los Cielos, the Lord of the Skies.

The Mexican cartels were also getting more imaginative. “Think of it
like a business, which is how these guys thought of it,” says Guy
Hargreaves, a top DEA agent during the 1990s. “Why pay for the widgets
when you can make the widgets yourselves?” Since the climate and
geography of Mexico aren’t right for making cocaine, the cartels did
the logical thing: They introduced a new product. As Hargreaves
recalls, the Mexicans slipped the new drug into their cocaine
shipments in Southern California and told coke dealers, “Here, try
some of this stuff – it’s a similar effect.”

The product the Mexican cartels came up with, the new widget they
could make themselves, was methamphetamine. The man who mastered the
market was a midlevel cocaine trafficker, then in his late twenties,
named Jesús Amezcua. In 1994, when U.S. Customs officials at the
Dallas airport seized an airplane filled with barrels of ephedrine, a
chemical precursor for meth, and traced it back to Amezcua, the
startling new shift in the drug traffic became clear to a handful of
insiders. “Cartels were no longer production organizations, whose
business is wrapped up in a single drug,” says Tony Ayala, the senior
DEA agent in Mexico at the time. “They became trafficking
organizations – and they will smuggle whatever they can make the most
profit from.”


It is only in retrospect that these moments – the barrels of ephedrine
seized in Dallas, the quiet suggestion that meth had worked its way
into the cocaine supply chain – take on a looming character, the
historic weight of a change made manifest. Up until methamphetamine,
the War on Drugs had targeted three enemies. First there were the
hippie drugs – marijuana, LSD – that posed little threat to the
general public. Then there was heroin, a horrible drug but one that
was largely concentrated in New York City. And, finally, there was
crack. What meth proved was that even if the DEA could wipe out every
last millionaire cocaine goon in Colombia, burn every coca field in
Bolivia and Peru, and build an impenetrable wall along the entire
length of the Mexican border – even then, we wouldn’t have won the War
on Drugs, because there would still be methamphetamine, and after
that, something else.

Gene Haislip, who served for years as one of the DEA’s top-ranking
administrators, believes there was a moment when meth could have been
shut down, long before it spiraled into a nationwide epidemic.
Haislip, who spent nearly two decades leading a small group at the
agency dedicated to chemical control, is his own kind of legend; he is
still known around the DEA as the man who beat quaaludes, perhaps the
only drug that the U.S. has ever been able to declare total victory
over. He did it with gumshoe methodicalness: by identifying every
country in the world that produced the drug’s active ingredient, a
prescription medication called methaqualone, and convincing them to
tighten regulations. Haislip believes he was present the moment when
the United States lost the war on methamphetamine, way back in 1986,
when meth was still a crude biker drug confined to a few valleys in
Northern California – a decade before the Mexican drug lords turned it
into the most problematic drug in America. “The thing is,
methamphetamine should never have gotten to that point,” Haislip says.
And it never would have, he believes, if it hadn’t been for the

Haislip was known around the DEA as precise-minded and verbal. His
impulse, in combatting meth, was the same one that had pushed the drug
warriors after Escobar: the quixotic faith that if you could just stop
the stuff at the source, you could get rid of all the social problems
at once. Assembling a coalition of legislators, Haislip convinced them
that the small, growing population of speed freaks in Northern
California was enough of a concern that Congress should pass a law to
regulate the drug’s precursor chemicals, ephedrine and
pseudoephedrine, legal drugs that were used in cold medicine and
produced in fewer than a dozen factories in the world. “We were
starting to get reports of hijacking of ephedrine, armed robbery of
ephedrine, things that had never happened before,” Haislip tells me.
“You could see we were on the verge of something if we didn’t get a
handle on it.”

All that was left was to convince the Reagan administration. One day
in late 1986, Haislip went to meet with top officials in the Indian
Treaty Room, a vast, imposing space in the Eisenhower Executive Office
Building: arches, tiled floors, the kind of room designed to house
history being made. Haislip noticed several men in suits sitting
quietly in the back of the room. They were lobbyists from the
pharmaceutical industry, but Haislip didn’t pay them much attention.
“I wasn’t concerned with them,” he recalls.

When Haislip launched into his presentation, an official from the
Commerce Department cut him off. “Look, you’re way ahead of us,” the
official said. “We don’t have anything to suggest or add.” Haislip
left the meeting thinking he had won: The bill he proposed was
submitted to Congress, requiring companies to keep records on the
import and sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

But what Haislip didn’t know was that the men in suits had already
gone to work to rig the bill in their favor. “Quite frankly,” Allan
Rexinger, one of the lobbyists present at the meeting later told
reporters, “we appealed to a higher authority.” The pharmaceutical
industry needed pseudoephedrine to make profitable cold medications.
The result, to Haislip’s dismay, was a new law that monitored sales of
ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in bulk powder but created an exemption
for selling the chemicals in tablet form – a loophole that protected
the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.

The law, drug agents say, sparked two changes in the market for
illegal meth. First, the supply of ephedrine simply moved overseas:
The Mexican cartels, quick to recognize an emerging market, evaded the
restrictions by importing powder from China, India and Europe and then
smuggling it across the border to the biker groups that had
traditionally distributed the drug. “We actually had meetings where we
planned for a turf war between the Mexicans and the Hells Angels over
methamphetamine,” says retired DEA agent Mike Heald, who headed the
San Francisco meth task force, “but it turned out they realized they’d
make more money by working together.” Second, responding to a dramatic
uptick in demand from the illegal market, chemical-supply companies
began moving huge amounts of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine out to the
West Coast in the form of pills, which were then converted into meth.
Rather than stemming the tide of meth before it started, the Reagan
administration had unwittingly helped accelerate a new epidemic:
Between 1992 and 1994, the number of meth addicts entering rehab
facilities doubled, and the drug’s purity on the street rose by twenty-
seven percent.

Haislip resolved to have another go at Congress, but the issue ended
up in a dispiriting cycle. The resistance, he says bitterly, “was
always coming from the same lobbying group.” In 1993, when he
persuaded lawmakers to regulate the sale of ephedrine in tablet form,
the pharmaceutical industry won an exception for pseudoephedrine. Drug
agents began to intercept shipments of pseudoephedrine pills in
barrels. Three years later, when lawmakers finally regulated tablets
of pseudoephedrine, they created an exception for pills sold in
blister packs. “Congress thought there was no way that meth freaks
would buy this stuff and pop the pills out of blister packs, one by
one,” says Heald. “But we’re not dealing with normal people – we’re
dealing with meth freaks. They’ll stay up all night picking their

By the time Haislip retired, in 1997, the methamphetamine problem was
really two problems. There were the mom-and-pop cooks, who were
punching pills out of blister packs and making small batches of drugs
for themselves. Then there were the industrial-scale Mexican cartels,
which were responsible for eighty percent of the meth in the United
States. It took until 2005 for Congress to finally regulate over-the-
counter blister packs, which caused the number of labs to plummet. But
once again, the Mexican groups were a step ahead of the law. In
October 2006, police in Guadalajara arrested an American chemist named
Frederick Wells, who had moved to Mexico after losing his job at Idaho
State University. An academic troublemaker who drove around campus
with signs on the back of his pickup truck raging at the college
administration, Wells had allegedly used his university lab to
investigate new ways that Mexican traffickers could use completely
legal reagents to engineer meth precursors from scratch. “Very
complicated numerical modeling,” says his academic colleague Jeff
Rosentreter. By the time Wells was arrested, the State Department had
only just succeeded at pressuring Mexico to restrict the flow of
pseudoephedrine, even though Wells had apparently been hard at work
for years creating alternatives to that chemical. The lobbying by the
pharmaceutical industry, Haislip says, “cost us eight or nine years.”

For some in the drug war, it was a lesson that even the most promising
efforts to restrict the supply of drugs at the source – those that
rely on legal methods to regulate legally produced drugs – remained
nearly impossible, outflanked by both drug traffickers and industry
lobbyists. The tragedy of the fight against methamphetamine is that it
repeated the ways in which the government tried to fight the cocaine
problem, and failed – racing from source to source, trying to
eliminate a coca field or an ephedrine manufacturer and then racing to
the next one. “We used to call it the Pillsbury Doughboy – stick your
finger in one part of the problem, and the Doughboy’s stomach just
pops out somewhere else,” says Rand Beers. “The lesson of U.S. drug
policy is that this world runs on unintended consequences. No matter
how noble your intentions, there’s a good chance that in solving one
problem, you’ll screw something else up.”


Within the Clinton White House, the reform effort spearheaded by Lee
Brown had created a political dilemma. Republicans, having taken
control of Congress in 1994, were attacking the administration for
being soft on drugs, and the White House decided that it was time to
look tougher. “A lot of people didn’t think Brown was a strong
leader,” Panetta tells me. As senior figures within the administration
cast about for a replacement, they started by thinking about who would
be the opposite of Brown. “We wanted to get someone who was much
stronger, much tougher, and could come across that way symbolically,”
Panetta says.

During the planning for a possible invasion of Haiti, Panetta and
others had discovered a rising star at the Pentagon, a charismatic,
bullying four-star general named Barry McCaffrey, who had annoyed many
in the Pentagon’s establishment. In 1996, halfway into his State of
the Union address, Clinton looked up at McCaffrey, a lean, stern-
seeming military man in the balcony, and informed the nation that the
general would be his next drug czar. “To succeed, he needs a force far
larger than he has ever commanded before,” Clinton said. “He needs all
of us. Every one of us has a role to play on this team.” McCaffrey,
the bars on his epaulets shimmering, saluted. It was one of the
president’s biggest applause lines of the night.

For the drug warriors in McCaffrey’s office, “the General” was
everything the languid, considered, academic Lee Brown had not been.
“It was clear from the outset that here was a guy who would take
advantage of the bully pulpit and who, unlike Brown, would probably be
able to get things done,” says Bergman, Brown’s former liaison. “One
thing that surprised us all was how thoughtful he was – he wasn’t a
knee-jerk, law-enforcement guy. He understood there needed to be money
for treatment. He prided himself on being very sensitive to the racial
issues, and he was sensitive to the impact of sentencing laws on
African-American men.” McCaffrey imported his own staff from the
Southern Command – mostly men, all military. They lent the White
House’s drug operation – previously a slow place – the kinetic energy
of a forward operating base. “We went to a twenty-four-hour clock, so
we’d schedule meetings for 1500,” one longtime staffer recalls. “His
people sat down with senior staff and told us what size paper the
General wanted his memos on, this kind of report would have green
tabs, this would have blue tabs.”

The General’s genius was for publicity. “He was great at getting
visibility,” Carnevale says. McCaffrey held grandstanding events
everywhere from Mexico to Maine, telling reporters that the decades-
long narrative of impending doom around the drug war was out of date –
and that if Congress would really dedicate itself to the mission, the
country had a winnable fight on its hands. Drug-use numbers were
edging downward; even cocaine seemed to be declining in popularity.
“We are in an optimistic situation,” McCaffrey declared.

For the first time ever, McCaffrey had the drug czar’s office develop
a strategy for an endgame to the drug war, a plan for finishing the
whole thing. The federal government needed to reduce the amount of
money it was spending on law enforcement and interdiction. But
McCaffrey believed this was only possible once it could guarantee that
drug use would continue to decline. “The data suggested very strongly
that those who never tried any drugs before they were eighteen were
very likely to remain abstinent for their whole lives, but that those
who even smoked marijuana when they were teenagers had much worse
outcomes,” says McCaffrey’s deputy Don Vereen. So the General decided
to focus the government’s attention on keeping kids from trying pot.

The “gateway theory,” as it became known, had a natural appeal.
Because most people who used hard drugs had also smoked marijuana, and
because kids often tried marijuana several years before they started
trying harder drugs, it seemed that keeping them off pot might prevent
them from ever getting to cocaine and heroin. The only trouble is, the
theory is wrong. When McCaffrey’s office commissioned the Institute of
Medicine to study the idea, researchers concluded that marijuana “does
not appear to be a gateway drug.” RAND, after examining a decade of
data, also found that the gateway theory is “not the best explanation”
of the link between marijuana use and hard drugs. But McCaffrey
continued to devote more and more of the government’s resources to
going after kids. “We have already clearly committed ourselves,” he
declared, “to a number-one focus on youth.”

“That decision,” Bergman says, “was where you could see McCaffrey
begin to lose credibility.”

In 1996, less than a year into his term, the new drug czar met Jim
Burke, a smooth-talking, silver-haired executive who chaired the
Partnership for a Drug-Free America – the advertising organization
best known for the slogan “This is your brain on drugs.” “Burke
personally was very hard to resist,” one of his former colleagues
tells me. “I’ve seen him sell many conservative members of Congress
and also liberals like Mario Cuomo.”

Burke told McCaffrey a simple story. In the late 1980s, he said, the
major television networks had voluntarily given airtime to the
Partnership to run anti-drug ads aimed at teenagers. The number of
teenagers who used drugs – especially marijuana – declined during that
period. But in the early 1990s, Burke said, the rise of cable TV cut
into the profits of the networks, which became stingier with the time
they dedicated to anti-drug advertising. The result, the adman told
the General, was that the number of teenagers who used drugs was
climbing sharply – to the outrage of Dennis Hastert and other
conservative members of Congress. As a clincher, Burke handed
McCaffrey a graph that showed the declining amount of airtime
dedicated to anti-drug advertising on one axis and the declining
perception among teenagers of the risks associated with drugs on the
other. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure,” one staffer at the Partnership
tells me, “that it was that conversation that sold McCaffrey.”

The General mobilized his office, lobbying Congress to allocate enough
money to put anti-drug advertising on the air whenever teenagers
watched television. His staff was skeptical. For all of McCaffrey’s
conviction and charisma, he didn’t have much in the way of facts.
“That was all we had – no data, just this one chart – and we had to go
and sell Congress,” Carnevale recalls. But Congress proved to be a
pushover. Conservatives, who held a majority, were thrilled that soft-
on-pot liberals in the Clinton administration finally wanted to do
something about the drug problem. “At some point, you have to draw a
line and say that some things are right and some things are wrong,”
says Sen. Grassley, explaining his support of the measure. “And using
any drugs is just flat-out wrong.” To the Partnership’s delight,
Congress allocated $1 billion to buy network time for anti-drug spots
aimed at teenagers.

The General was also starting to make friends beyond the Clinton
administration. The drug czar had found a natural ally in Hastert, who
had become the GOP’s de facto leader on drug policy. The former
wrestling coach struck few as charismatic – his joyless and drudging
style, his form like settled gelatin – but his experiences in high
schools had left him with the feeling that the drug issue, in the
words of his longtime aide Bobby Charles, “had become extremely
poignant.” Hastert wasn’t quite Lee Brown; he believed that the prime
focus of the drug war should be to increase funding for military
operations in Colombia. But he and his staff had grown frustrated with
the exclusively punitive character of drug policy and wanted the
Republicans to take a more compassionate stance. His staff had studied
the RAND reports and largely agreed with their conclusions. “We felt
if you didn’t get at the nub of the problem, which was prevention and
treatment, you weren’t going to do any good,” says John Bridgeland, a
congressional aide who helped coordinate Republican drug policy.
Hastert eventually won $450 million to be used, in part, to expand a
faith-based program discovered by Bridgeland: Developed by a former
evangelical minister, it brought together preachers, parents and drug
counselors to fight the problem of “apathy” through “parent training”
and “messages from the pulpit.”

But with McCaffrey’s emphasis on kids came another, almost fanatical
focus: going after citizens who used pot for medical purposes. If he
was fighting marijuana, the General was going to fight it everywhere,
in all its forms. He threatened to have doctors who prescribed pot
brought up on federal charges, and dismissed the science behind
medical marijuana as a “Cheech and Chong show.” In 1997, voters in
Oregon introduced an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the
state. “I’ll never forget the senior-staff meeting the morning after
the Oregon initiative was announced,” Bergman says. “McCaffrey was
furious. It was like this personal affront to him. He couldn’t believe
they’d gotten away with it. He wanted to have this research done on
the groups behind it and completely trash them in the press.” As the
General traveled to the initiative states, stumping against medical
marijuana, his aides sneered that the initiatives were “all being
mostly bankrolled by one man, George Soros,” the billionaire investor
who favored decriminalizing drugs.

Even for those who shared McCaffrey’s philosophy, the theatrics seemed
strange: There he was, on evening newscasts, effectively insisting
that grandmothers dying of cancer were corrupting America’s youth. His
office pushed arguments that, at best, stretched the available
research: Marijuana is a gateway drug that leads inexorably to the
abuse of harder drugs; marijuana is thirty times more potent now than
it was a generation ago. “It didn’t track with the conclusions our
researchers came to,” says Bergman. “It felt like he was trying to
manipulate the data.”

McCaffrey had taken the drug war in a new direction, one that had
little obvious connection with preventing drug abuse. For the first
time, the full force of the federal government was being brought to
bear on patients dying from terminal diseases. Even the General’s
allies in Congress were appalled. “I can’t tell you how many times I
went to the Hill with him and sat in on closed-doors meetings,”
Bergman recalls. “Members said to him, ‘What in the world are you
doing? We have real drug problems in the country with meth and
cocaine. What the hell are you doing with medical marijuana? We get no
calls from our constituents about that. Nobody cares about that.’
McCaffrey was just mystified by their response, because he truly
believed marijuana was a gateway drug. He truly believed in what he
was doing.”


For the cops on the front lines of the War on Drugs, the federal
government’s fixation with marijuana was deeply perplexing. As they
saw it, the problem wasn’t pot but the drug-related violence that
accompanied cocaine and other hard drugs. After the crack epidemic in
the late 1980s, police commissioners around the country, like Lee
Brown in Houston, began adding more officers and developing computer
mapping to target neighborhoods where crime was on the rise. The crime
rate dropped. But by the mid-1990s, police in some cities were
beginning to realize there was a certain level that they couldn’t get
crime below. Mass jailings weren’t doing the trick: Only fifteen
percent of those convicted of federal drug crimes were actual
traffickers; the rest were nothing but street-level dealers and mules,
who could always be replaced.

Police in Boston, concerned about violence between youth drug gangs,
turned for assistance to a group of academics. Among them was a
Harvard criminologist named David Kennedy. Working together, the
academics and members of the department’s anti-gang unit came up with
what Kennedy calls a “quirky” strategy and convinced senior police
commanders to give it a try. The result, which began in 1995, was the
Boston Gun Project, a collaborative effort among ministers and
community leaders and the police to try to break the link between the
drug trade and violent crime. First, the project tracked a particular
drug-dealing gang, mapping out its membership and operations in
detail. Then, in an effort called Operation Ceasefire, the dealers
were called into a meeting with preachers and parents and social-
service providers, and offered a deal: Stop the violence, or the
police will crack down with a vengeance. “We know the seventeen guys
you run with,” the gangbangers were told. “If anyone in your group
shoots somebody, we’ll arrest every last one of you.” The project also
extended drug treatment and other assistance to anyone who wanted it.

The effort worked: The rates of homicide and violence among young men
in Boston dropped by two-thirds. Drug dealing didn’t stop – “people
continued what they were doing,” Kennedy concedes, “but they put their
guns down.”

As Kennedy reflected on the success of the Boston project, which ran
for five years, he wondered if he had discovered a deeper truth about
drug-related violence. If the murders weren’t a necessary component of
the drug trade – if it was possible to separate the two – perhaps
cities could find a way to reduce the violence, even if they could do
nothing about the drugs.

In 2001, Kennedy got a call from the mayor of San Francisco that gave
him a chance to examine his theories in a new setting. The city had
experienced a recent spike in its murder rate, much of it caused by an
ongoing feud between two drug-dealing gangs – Big Block and West Mob –
that had resulted in dozens of murders over the years. Could Kennedy,
the mayor asked, help police figure out how to stop the killings?

Kennedy flew out to San Francisco and met with police. But as he
researched the history of the violence, it seemed to confirm his
findings in Boston. Though both Big Block and West Mob were involved
in dealing drugs, the shootings were not really drug-related – the two
groups occupied different territories and were not battling over turf.
“The feud had started over who would perform next at a neighborhood
rap event,” says Kennedy, now a professor at John Jay College of
Criminal Justice. “They had been killing each other ever since.”

Such evidence suggested that drug enforcement needed to focus more
narrowly on those responsible for the violence. “Seventy percent of
the violence in these hot neighborhoods comes back to drugs,” Kennedy
says. “But one of the profound myths is that these homicides are about
the drug trade. The violence is driven by these crews – but they’re
not killing each other over business.” The real spark igniting the
murders, he realized, was peer pressure, a kind of primordial male
goad that drove young gang members to kill each other even in
instances when they weren’t sure they wanted to.

Given that police departments had already locked up every drug dealer
in sight and were still having problems with violence, Kennedy thought
a new approach was worth a try. “There’s a difference between saying,
‘I’m watching this, and you should stop,’ and putting someone in
federal lockup,” he says. “The violence is not about the drug business
– but that’s a very hard thing for people to understand.”

But in the early days of the Bush administration, police departments
were in no hurry to experiment with an approach that focused on drug-
related murders and mostly ignored users who weren’t committing
violence. Kennedy’s efforts proved to be yet another missed
opportunity in the War on Drugs – an experience that made clear how
difficult it is for science to influence the nation’s drug policy.

“If ten years ago the medical community had figured out a way to
reduce the deaths from breast cancer by two-thirds, every cancer
clinic in the country would have been using those techniques a year
later,” Kennedy says. “But when it comes to drugs and violence,
there’s been nothing like that.”


Instead of pursuing the Boston Gun Project and other innovative
approaches to fighting drug violence, the federal government decided
to escalate its military response in Colombia. For the past decade and
a half, cooperation from officials in Bogotá had been halfhearted,
sporadic and deeply corrupt. But by 1999, the country, it seemed, was
on the verge of collapsing into civil war. The drug money that had
flowed into Colombia had found its way into the hands of the rebel
militia – the FARC – which had been laying siege to the Colombian
government. The Clinton foreign-policy team, having spent the previous
few years dealing with the consequences of failed states in Somalia
and the Balkans, was deeply concerned about the possibility of a
failed narco state in America’s own back yard.

One afternoon in June 1999, a dozen senior Clinton officials filed
into the National Security Council’s situation room, summoned by Sandy
Berger, the president’s national security adviser. Even though Bogotá
had ceded control of vast swaths of the country to the left-wing
rebels, they were told, recent peace talks had collapsed. “The FARC
had basically always been jungle campesinos – they were a pretty
austere bunch,” says Brian Sheridan, who was in charge of the
Pentagon’s counternarcotics effort at the time and attended the
meeting. “All of a sudden, they were leveling these attacks that had
gotten more and more audacious.” When FARC rebels had emerged from the
jungle for a round of peace talks the previous fall, they had
brandished brand-new AK-47s and Dragunovs, as if on military parade.
One U.S. official observed at the time that the weaponry was “far
beyond” what the Colombian army had – in a pitched battle, the Clinton
administration worried, the Colombian government could plausibly

The White House advisers weren’t the only officials in Washington
concerned about Colombia. Earlier that day, two men who attended the
briefing – Rand Beers of the State Department and Charlie Wilhelm of
the Defense Department – had gotten a call from the Republican caucus
on the Hill. Dennis Hastert, who had been elevated to Speaker of the
House six months earlier, wanted to see them right away. “It was kind
of unusual,” Beers recalls – but when Hastert called, you came.

When Beers and Wilhelm arrived, Rep. Porter Goss, then the chairman of
the House Intelligence Committee, handed them a piece of paper. It was
a copy of a supplemental spending authorization that the Republicans
planned to offer immediately. Crafted by Bobby Charles, Hastert’s
longtime aide, the bill would have more than doubled military aid to
Colombia to take on the rebels and narcotraffickers -to a staggering
$1.2 billion a year. But it was the politics of the situation that
worried Beers as much as the money. “It occurred to me that if the
administration was going to do anything on Colombia, it better do it
soon,” he says now, “or the Republicans would once again outflank what
they perceived as the I-never-inhaled Clinton administration.” Beers
told the Republicans he would take a look, and then hurried to
Berger’s meeting.

Throughout much of the Clinton administration, the hope had been that
the United States would be able to reduce its military aid to the
Andes as the cocaine epidemic waned. Now, as Berger’s group heard from
intelligence agents, that hope seemed to be fading. Narcotraffickers
were paying off the FARC so they could grow coca in the jungles of
Colombia. The FARC were then turning around and using the money to buy
weapons to stage attacks on the Colombian government.

Berger decided to act. Rather than oppose the Republican plan, he
agreed to negotiate on an assistance package to bail out the Colombian
government. The result was Plan Colombia – nearly $1.6 billion to
escalate the War on Drugs in the Andes. The new program would arm the
military and police in their fight against the FARC, launch an
ambitious effort to spray herbicide on coca crops from the air and
provide economic assistance to poor farmers in rural villages. The
initial aid, officials decided, would be heavily concentrated in
Putumayo, a rebel-run province in the jungle.

No one is sure what convinced President Clinton to approve such an
ambitious escalation in the War on Drugs. But some observers at the
time speculated that the critical factor was a conversation with Sen.
Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, whose state is home to the
helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft. In early 2000, Clinton
unveiled Plan Colombia – and Sikorksy promptly received an order for
eighteen of its Blackhawk helicopters at a cost of $15 million each.
“Much has been made of the notion that this was Dodd looking to sell
Blackhawks to Colombia,” Beers tells me. He pauses before adding, “I
am not in a position to tell you it didn’t happen.”

Plan Colombia would be the Clinton administration’s primary and most
costly contribution to the War on Drugs, the major counternarcotics
program it bequeathed to the Bush administration. But as with so many
other aspects of American drug policy, the plan had an unintended
consequence: As it evolved, the emphasis on supplying arms to the
Colombian government ended up having less to do with drugs and more to
do with helping Bogotá fight its enemies. Colombia used the military
aid to target the left-wing FARC – even though many believed that
right-wing paramilitaries, who were allies of the government, were
more directly involved in narcotrafficking. “It wasn’t really first
and foremost a counternarcotics program at all,” says a senior
Pentagon official involved in the creation of Plan Colombia. “It was
mostly a political stabilization program.”


In July of 1999, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas traveled to Cincinnati
to visit Hope Temple, a former crack house that had been turned into a
church. It was an almost unbearably hot day. Bush was on a tour
through the Midwest during which he was testing out his philosophy of
compassionate conservatism, trying to see if its rhetoric and
principles could sustain a winning presidential run. “The American
dream is vivid,” Bush told audiences, “but too many feel, ‘This dream
is not meant for me.’ ” John Bridgeland, the congres sional aide who
had helped steer federal funding to Hope Temple, says Bush was
“overwhelmed” by his visit to the church that day, and stayed the
whole afternoon. That evening, Bush spoke about the fervent
religiosity of the place and the rough joys of the addict’s
redemptions. “These,” he said, “are the armies of compassion.”

This was a strange moment in the politics of the drug war: Just as the
Clinton administration was toughening its rhetoric, influential
Republicans were going all soft and gentle. John DiIulio, a political
scientist from the University of Pennsylvania who would become a key
Bush adviser, was disgusted by the “perverse consequences” of harsh
sentencing laws that had put millions of young Americans in prison,
disbelieved the “sweeping scientific claims” made about the dangers of
medical marijuana and wanted to expand “meaningful drug-treatment
opportunities in urban areas.” DiIulio and his contemporaries were
troubled, too, by the racial imbalances of the War on Drugs: Blacks,
who comprised only fourteen percent of drug users, made up seventy-
four percent of those in prison for drug possession. It was not as if
the Republican Party had suddenly taken up a position on the far left
of the drug war. But it did seem, for a moment during the 2000
campaign, as if some moderation were possible.

Three months later, when the Bush campaign released its drug policy,
even the most experienced drug warriors were impressed. The platform
balanced spending between demand- and supply-side programs, stressed
treatment and doubled the number of community anti-drug coalitions.
When Bush won the White House and DiIulio became the director of the
Office of Faith-Based Programs, they raided the team of compassionate
conservatives surrounding Hastert: Bridgeland became director of the
White House Domestic Policy Council, and Charles became assistant
secretary of state for narcotics control. The new administration,
DiIulio believed, would take the lead in “reforming drug-related
sentencing policies that -research had shown were having perverse

“If you look back at that campaign document, it really is pretty
impressive,” says Carnevale, who ended up heading the drug office’s
transition team for the Bush administration. “Which is kind of
remarkable, given what happened next. They’ve appointed a drug czar
who ran like hell from a very sensible policy.”

It took Bush nearly a year to pick his drug czar, and almost no one
felt encouraged by his choice: John Walters, a laconic Midwesterner
who had served as Bill Bennett’s chief of staff during the
administration of George H.W. Bush. “We all knew who Walters was,” one
longtime drug warrior tells me, “but he wasn’t what you would call an
inspiring figure, even to conservatives.” When Walters submitted his
first National Drug Control Strategy to Bush in February 2002, it
became clear that the administration’s focus had narrowed: Walters was
devoted to Plan Colombia and to a prevention campaign that would keep
kids from trying drugs for the first time, aimed particularly at
marijuana – even though the number of first-time pot smokers had been
flat for half a decade. Longtime drug warriors like Carnevale were
stunned. “We were going back to an Eighties-style drug policy,” he
says – one that emphasized the kind of military and law-and-order
programs that had been proven not to work, while ignoring programs,
particularly treatment, that did.

Walters also had a complaint with the ads that the Partnership for a
Drug-Free America had created for the drug czar’s office under
McCaffrey. They were, he said, too soft. He had a point. The ads,
which ran under the slogan “The Anti-Drug,” had been designed by a
committee of academics who apparently believed that kids needed to be
shown that not doing drugs could be fun too. In one characteristic
spot, a pen draws an animated landscape, with a cartoon boy avoiding
the advances of cartoon dealers before driving off into the distance
with a cartoon dragon on a cartoon motorcycle. “My name is Brandon,
and drawing is my anti-drug,” the narrator says sweetly. The
commercials made abstinence seem so lame they could have been designed
by the cartels. “A lot of the ads that were produced were really
boring,” admits Philip Palmgreen, a University of Kentucky
communications professor who served on the ad committee. Walters not
only wanted harder-hitting messages – he also wanted the focus “to
narrow around marijuana,” according to one staffer at the Partnership
who asked not to be identified. “Very candidly, the Partnership pushed
back against that because the problems associated with marijuana are
not very dire.” But Walters disagreed, the staffer adds, “and we

Walters refused to be interviewed for this story, but his office did
make available one of his top advisers, David Murray. I asked him why
his boss had narrowed the focus to marijuana, even though studies had
disproved the causal link between marijuana and hard drugs. “If you’re
going to have a national office of drug-control policy, you look at
the most prevalent drug in the society that’s readily available – you
don’t go after meth first thing,” he says. “You think about it like an
epidemiologist, and you go for the vector that’s most likely to
spread, and that’s teen marijuana users.”

The new ads took a counterintuitive approach. “We wanted to make sure
we were getting through to the thrill-seekers – those teenagers who
are much more likely to use drugs – and convince them that it was more
exciting not to do drugs,” says Palmgreen. In a heralded spot called
“Pete’s Couch,” the teenage narrator says, “I smoked weed and nobody
died. I didn’t get into a car accident. I didn’t OD on heroin the next
day. Nothing happened. We sat on Pete’s couch for eleven hours.” Then
the camera shifts to show other teenagers, presumably those who
haven’t smoked weed, doing fun things – biking, playing basketball,
flirting with girls. “You have a better shot at dying out in the real
world,” the narrator says, “but I’ll take my chances out there.” The
advertising community was impressed with the spot: “Finally, an
admission that smoking pot isn’t calamitous,” cheered Slate’s
advertising columnist, Seth Stevenson. Said Palmgreen: “Really good
spots. The focus groups of thrill-seekers gave them great grades.”

But the reality is that such ads – no matter how persuasive – do
little if anything to prevent teens from trying pot. In 2005, a
government-commissioned study designed to evaluate the prevention
campaign over five years delivered its conclusions: Kids who had been
exposed to the campaign ended up with rates of drug use that were
roughly the same as those of the control group, who had not seen the
ads. Murray loudly challenged the study’s methodology, but when
Congress asked federal analysts at the Government Accountability
Office to assess the findings, the GAO upheld the report. The anti-
drug campaign had not worked at all.

There was another problem with the Walters approach: Just as the
federal government asserted the dangers of smoking pot, the states –
first California, then three others – were permitting doctors to
legally prescribe marijuana to relieve the chronic pain that came with
cancer, polio and other debilitating long-term diseases. Attorney
General John Ashcroft dispatched federal agents to begin raiding the
suppliers and purchasers of medical marijuana in California – people
who were operating completely within state law. The raids were even
more surreal in their theatrics than the ones that had been launched
by McCaffrey: In one particularly ludicrous incident, a forty-four-
year-old post-polio sufferer named Suzanne Pfeil, who smoked
prescription marijuana to relieve her pain, was hauled off to jail by
DEA agents who pointed automatic rifles at her head and handcuffed her
to her wheelchair. The rhetoric reached the level of crusade: Walters
called citizens who plant and tend marijuana gardens “terrorists who
wouldn’t hesitate to help other terrorists get into the country with
the aim of causing mass casualties.”

What was striking to many veteran drug warriors was how fully the drug
czar’s office had bet on the youth marijuana initiative. For all
Ashcroft’s bluff talk about wanting to “escalate the War on Drugs,”
only a very small portion of it was being escalated. Funding for drug
courts, which channel nonviolent drug offenders through treatment
programs rather than prison, was zeroed out, and funding for local
police was gutted. Carnevale, who quit his job after overseeing the
transition in 2000, began to feel he was in a time warp. “This White
House is walking away from prevention funding and treatment,” he says
now. “They haven’t supported the community anti-drug coalitions, which
actually work pretty well, and domestic law enforcement is flat or
declining. To have a successful drug policy, you need all these
elements, and what this administration has done is go crazy on exactly
the element that doesn’t work.”

By the summer of 2005, the drug czar’s failures were beginning to
spill out into the open. For four years, while he focused obsessively
on pot, Walters had done virtually nothing about meth, which was
rapidly devastating the red states that had elected his boss. Walters
struck a strangely discordant note on the growing epidemic, insisting
that even as methamphetamine spread from the West Coast to the East,
it remained a regional problem, not a national one, and therefore did
not place high on his list of priorities. That September, the House’s
meth caucus asked Walters to come in for a meeting, to see if they
could restore some element of dialogue and begin to rebalance the
budget. The drug czar, once again downplaying the issue, sent Murray
in his place. The congressmen, who had excluded the press to prevent
grandstanding, went through the budget in detail and told the drug
deputy what they wanted restored to fight meth. But, according to one
staffer, Murray just sat there: “He didn’t even bother to ask a

Incensed, Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who chairs the House
Subcommittee on Drug Policy, walked out of the room and held an angry
press conference. Murray’s testimony, he said, had been “pathetic” and
“an embarrassment,” and Walters was not doing his job: “If he does not
lead, we need a change of the drug czar.” Sen. Grassley, the Iowa
Republican, echoed Souder a few days later. “What I’ve never
understood,” he said, “is why they took marijuana so much more
seriously than methamphetamine, when methamphetamine is a much more
serious drug.”

By virtually every objective measure, the White House had lost the War
on Drugs. Last year, Walters boasted that drug use among teenagers has
fallen since 2002 – ignoring the fact that overall drug use remains
unchanged. The deeper problem is that the drug czar has stopped
measuring anything other than drug use. During the 1990s, at the
direction of Gen. McCaffrey, Carnevale had created a comprehensive
system to measure whether we were winning the drug war. The system
took into account drug price and availability in the United States,
how difficult it was for drug smugglers to get their product into the
country and the consequences of drug use on public health and crime.
But Walters simply tossed out that system of evaluation – as well as
the unflattering facts it highlighted. “Had we kept it,” Carnevale
tells me, “we would see that the Bush administration has not made a
positive impact on any of the measures.”

Most unexpectedly of all, crime – a problem that seemed to have been
licked a decade ago – is beginning to creep back up. In October 2006,
the Police Executive Research Forum released a report declaring that
violent crime in the country was “accelerating at an alarming pace.”
Murders were up twenty-seven percent in Boston over the previous year,
sixty percent in San Antonio and more than 300 percent in Orlando.
Even in the cloistered world of policing, complaints began to build
about the numbers and about the cuts in federal funding. “The reality
is a lot of police officers are politically conservative folks,” says
Ron Brooks, the president of the National Narcotics Officers’
Association. “But there’s been a lack of leadership in this
administration on this issue.”


While the drug czar was cracking down on medical marijuana, the Bush
administration was also overseeing a dramatic escalation in its
overseas front of the War on Drugs. From the start, the White House
had trumpeted Plan Colombia as an essential weapon in its anti-drug
arsenal, eliminating inconvenient rules that had gotten in the way of
a full military commitment to the project. For “those in the drug
business,” Walters declared in January 2002, “now is the time to get
out.” But despite the billions the administration spent on the
program, and the new impunity given to the Colombian military, nobody
really knew whether it was working. In July 2006, Adam Isacson decided
to see for himself.

Isacson, a scholar who runs the Colombia program at the Center for
International Policy, flew down to the Andes to construct his own
assessment of Plan Colombia. He decided to make two stops – in
Medellín, to determine how much the country’s security situation had
improved, and in Putumayo, to determine the success of the plan to
eradicate the drug traffic. Regular assessments compiled by the White
House drug office suggested that the crop-eradication program had
reduced the acreage under coca cultivation in Colombia, but Isacson
was skeptical: The price of cocaine on the American street had not
risen, and separate estimates by the United Nations undercut the Bush
administration’s findings.

The modern Medellín he found looked more like Miami than a front in
the drug war. The government and its paramilitary allies had secured
the city, and U.S. officials went out of their way to praise the
cooperation they were getting from Colombian police and military units
– which had been cleansed, they said, of corruption. When Isacson
pressed people about why the violence had decreased so dramatically,
he was told repeatedly that “the paramilitaries won” – that government-
supported forces had simply driven off the left-wing guerrillas and
ended civil war in the city.

The paradox for Americans was that paramilitary commanders, such as
Don Berna, had also taken control of the cocaine trade and retained
enough political clout, according to a study by a Colombian think
tank, to alter the composition of the Colombian Senate. When Don Berna
was arrested two years ago, the entire bus transportation system of
Medellín shut down for a day. “The command came down from the prison
phone,” says Aldo Civico, a professor of international relations at
Columbia University who has done extensive research on drug smugglers
and the paramilitaries. Don Berna is now in a jail cell south of
Medellín, from which he continues to control his trafficking
organization. “It is a signal to everyone that Don Berna is the one
who is in power in Medellín,” Civico says.

In Putumayo, Isacson found tent cities buried in the thick jungle,
migrants living underneath sheets of plastic. Though tens of millions
of American dollars had been spent on trying to improve the local
economy, the main road that farmers were supposed to use to ferry
their legitimate products to market was still unpaved, and a factory
American money had built in 2003 was already shut down. Putumayo had
been the first target of Plan Colombia’s spray-eradication efforts and
the site of its initial success: Coca cultivation had been cut by
ninety-three percent from 2000 to 2004. But the place Isacson saw only
two years later was “depressed.” With no real financial incentive to
switch to legitimate crops, farmers in the region had once again begun
planting coca: Cultivation doubled in 2005. “We didn’t see anything to
suggest the improvement was sustainable,” Isacson tells me.

The problem was that coca had simply moved next door, to the rural
province of Nariño, along the country’s Pacific Coast. Traffickers
were planting strains of coca that could grow from seed to harvest in
just six months. “The spray planes eradicated Putumayo,” Isacson says,
“and then all of a sudden coca cultivation starts in Nariño, and you
see the same pattern – coca money means all these nightclubs and
stores go up in these nothing towns, the police start reporting a
sharp increase in murders, and eventually the provincial government is
overwhelmed.” The traffickers hopscotched across the country –
Putumayo to Nariño, Nariño to Antioquia – always one step ahead of the
drug agents and soldiers.

“As a drug-control policy,” Isacson says, “it’s hard to come to any
conclusion other than that Plan Colombia has failed.” In June of this
year, the CIA released an assessment that confirmed Isacson’s
conclusion. Admitting that it had previously been undercounting the
coca crop, the agency issued revised numbers showing that six years of
Plan Colombia, at nearly $1 billion a year, had not cut coca
cultivation at all. The effort to stop cocaine at its source had not
made a dent.

“We’ve been working in Colombia for thirty years, and we don’t have a
hell of a lot to show for it,” says Myles Frechette, the American
ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration. “This is
like a cancer. Every year the lesion, if you took a snapshot, would be


At night, the population of el Paso, Texas, is 700,000, and that of
Ciudad Juárez, just across the border, is 1.4 million. During the day,
those numbers shift, as Mexicans stream across the cobblestone bridge
over the Rio Grande for legal work in the United States. Every twelve
hours, the two cities pass 100,000 people back and forth, squeezing
them from end to end like the contents of a water balloon. “Among
them,” says Tony Payan, the political scientist at the University of
Texas-El Paso and an expert in the dynamics of the local drug trade,
“you see the spotters, the lingerers, mostly young men who are just
standing there, watching out for when the coast is clear or when an
American border agent who’s been paid off by the cartel comes on duty.
Then they tell the people that need to know, so they can make their
drug runs across the border into Texas.” With the failure of Plan
Colombia, a handful of bridges along the Mexican border have become
the main front in the War on Drugs.

Cocaine trafficking in Mexico has its own prehistory. For generations,
family networks of smugglers had moved marijuana and cheap, black-tar
heroin across the border -veteran DEA agents were accustomed to
arresting the grandsons of men they had arrested years earlier – and
the whole drug traffic in Mexico was small enough, by the mid-1980s,
that it was effectively controlled by one man, Miguel Angel Felix
Gallardo, who ran a violent trafficking organization out of Tijuana.
As Colombian groups, chased from the Caribbean by American
interdiction efforts, began to look to the southwest border in the
early 1990s, Felix Gallardo discovered he could no longer control the
traffic himself from prison. “He had a meeting with his lieutenants
and divided the Mexican border crossings up among them, creating the
modern cartels,” Payan says. “His nephews kept Tijuana, and one group
got the Sinaloa-Arizona crossing, another got Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, and
Amado Carrillo Fuentes got El Paso-Juárez.”

Mexican officials along the border, whose PRI party had kept a lock on
national power for seventy years, allowed traffickers to move their
product in exchange for reduced violence. “In order to coexist, the
government looked the other way as long as the cartels didn’t wreak
havoc in the country,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the
Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It became somewhat of a safety valve in terms of dealing with
organized crime, as a way of mitigating the political instability.”
Though the U.S. government pushed Mexican officials to crack down on
corruption, its pleas and threats went largely unheeded. By 1997,
Carrillo Fuentes – the Lord of the Skies – was moving tons of cocaine
across the border every year and had amassed a fortune worth $25
billion. But that same year, Carrillo Fuentes died on an operating
table in Mexico City, where he had been undergoing plastic surgery to
change his appearance and avoid detection: In the ghoulish post-mortem
photographs, his face is speckled like a snake’s skin, two shades of
brown and one of pink. Juárez fell into a testy, three-way competition
for control of the drug trade, and the murders took on a symbolic
vocabulary of their own: Tortured victims piled in oil barrels filled
with concrete and buried alive, members of opposing cartels murdered
and left to rot in car trunks in their own neighborhoods, snitches
killed and left on the side of the road. The violence between cartels
is so pervasive, Payan says, “if you move into a home in Juárez, you
will never know whether there’s a body underneath the floor in your
dining room.”

At the beginning of the Bush administration, it looked like Mexico
might actually begin to bust corrupt cops who did business with drug
smugglers. In 2000, when Vicente Fox, the reforming, conservative
rancher and friend of George W. Bush, took power, he began prosecuting
dirty police officers, throwing tens of thousands of them off the
force. “There were unintended consequences,” says Peter Andreas, a
Brown University professor who has studied drug trafficking along the
border. “Many of the corrupt cops went to work in the drug trade” – a
shift in power that had the effect of professionalizing the violence.
In addition, an estimated 90,000 Mexican soldiers deserted during the
Fox administration, many of them signing up with the cartels.

In Juárez, the effect was devastating. Free to operate as they
pleased, the cartels began to split, with capos challenging one
another openly for control of the drug corridors. Local and state
police killed each other over the right to protect the traffic. A new
gang called the Zetas, made up of Mexican soldiers who had quit their
day jobs to take over the drug trade, waged war in Juárez and killed
100 people in the corridor around Nuevo Laredo in the summer of 2005.
The gaudy theatrics of the murders have only intensified as drug gangs
seek to guarantee that their killings send a message by getting media
attention: Last year, gunslingers wearing military uniforms walked
into a popular nightclub in Uruapan and dumped the severed heads of
five rivals on the dance floor, like soccer balls. Over the past year,
drug-related murders in Mexico’s border states have doubled, driven
primarily by the booming trade. “What we’re seeing is the
Colombianization of Mexico,” says Andreas.

For those who have studied American drug policy, the catastrophe along
the border looks like a final reckoning for overseas interdiction.
“It’s like a balloon effect – we’ve never succeeded in cutting off the
traffic, we’ve just pushed it around,” says Payan. “We cut off supply
in the Caribbean, and it came here. We cracked down on the Colombian
traffickers, and it just meant the Mexicans traffickers got wealthier,
and the violence came here.” Like many DEA agents and border experts,
Payan was consumed last summer by the story of Zhenli Ye Gon, a
Chinese pharmaceutical executive whose house Mexican police raided,
suspecting him of diverting meth components from China for illegal
use. Inside they found $206 million in cash -final evidence of just
how far the meth epidemic has spiraled out of control since
pharmaceutical lobbyists prevented Gene Haislip from forestalling it
with a simple federal regulation. Payan believes, as do many in the
DEA, that Ye Gon is a harbinger of the next frontier in the War on

“Even if somehow we could manage to get the drug trade away from the
Mexican border, it will come through Asia next,” he says. “Instead of
fighting a border war, we’ll be fighting it in containers. But unless
we can reduce demand, it’s a zero-sum game.”


Even by conservative estimates, the War on Drugs now costs the United
States $50 billion each year and has overcrowded prisons to the
breaking point – all with little discernible impact on the drug trade.
A report by the Government Accountability Office released at the end
of September estimated that ninety percent of the cocaine moving into
the United States now arrives through Mexico, up from sixty-six
percent in 2000. Even Walters acknowledges that for all of the efforts
the Bush administration has devoted to overseas drug enforcement, the
price of cocaine has dropped while its purity has risen. More than
forty percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, yet the
government continues to target pot smokers. In October, the
administration announced it was planning a new military offensive,
dubbed Plan Mexico, with a price tag of $1.4 billion. Things look so
bleak that Walters was recently moved to describe a momentary upward
blip in drug prices as “historic progress.”

There are a handful of battles in the War on Drugs that have actually
been won, times when fresh thinking prevailed over politics – but they
are not the kind of victories that the Bush administration is eager to
trumpet. In the summer of 2003, the police department in High Point,
North Carolina, held its annual command-staff retreat in a small
conference center themed to look like the log cabins of the pioneers
who settled the region. One topic dominated the conversation: an
increase in violent crime that was concentrated in three drug-dealing
neighborhoods in the city. “The place we were at was that all the
traditional enforcement was making no difference,” says the
department’s deputy chief, Marty Sumner. “We agreed we weren’t going
to be able to eliminate drug use. We weren’t even going to try to go
after drug use. We wanted to change the marketing of the drug.”

Sumner’s department called in the Harvard criminologist David Kennedy.
The High Point police had worked with Kennedy before, adopting the
Boston Gun Project’s policy of trying to break the link between drugs
and crime. Now the criminologist told them that he had a new kind of
project to propose, one that went beyond the Boston experiment.
Kennedy’s pitch was simple: The trick, he said, wasn’t to focus on
eliminating drugs but rather to shut down the most “overt” drug
markets, the ones operating so openly that they attracted prostitution
and violent crime. “Instead of looking at it as a drug problem, we
decided to think of it as a drug-market problem,” Sumner says. “What
the public really couldn’t stand was the violence associated with
public drug markets.” Dealers operating in the open are targets for
stickup men and other would-be robbers, and the public swagger and
turf consciousness of street slingers can cradle violent, simmering

High Point police began in the West End neighborhood, one of the
city’s three overt drug markets. A team of officers staked out the
site, videotaping hundreds of hand-to-hand sales and mapping out a
complete anthropology of the West End drug market. They found it was
strikingly small: Sumner had expected as many as fifty dealers working
there, but it turned out there were only sixteen. Before long, the
officers had enough evidence to put away each of the sixteen dealers
for good. But they didn’t. Instead, Sumner and Kennedy called them in
for a meeting. They showed each of them the portfolio of evidence
against them and said that unless they stopped dealing drugs, the
whole file would be handed over to the prosecutors and they’d be in
jail for years. Family members were brought in to urge the dealers to
stop, and social-service providers pledged assistance with food,
housing and job training.

“We didn’t think it would work,” Sumner tells me, “but the drug
markets have disappeared.”

For five years before the program went into effect, the number of drug-
related murders in High Point had stayed steady, around fifteen a
year. In 2007, in the program’s fourth year, it has plummeted to two.
Violent crime in the West End has declined by thirty-five percent.
“The use of drugs isn’t something we could affect,” says Kennedy. “But
the violence was.” His logic has an appealing clarity for overworked
police departments: There are now more than sixty cities in the United
States that use some version of Kennedy’s program, edging away from
thirty-five years of punitive measures that have turned the United
States into the world’s leading jailer to a social-work model that
encourages communities and cops to engage the problem on a more human
level. The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization
advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats –
the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing
acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing
those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of

In 2000, voters in California, whose prisons now hold nearly twice as
many inmates as they were designed to incarcerate, passed a referendum
called Proposition 36, which has since sent more than 150,000
nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. The program
is not perfect: Though the outcomes for those who make it through
treatment are surprisingly strong, many convicts simply skip the
sessions, and there are few enforcement mechanisms to compel them to
attend. But the program, according to a study conducted by researchers
at UCLA, still saves tax payers $2.50 for every dollar put in. And a
pilot program in Honolulu which requires near-constant drug tests of
those on probation and provides incremental punishments for each extra
failed test – suggests an effective model for treating hardcore
addicts, says Angela Hawken of UCLA and Pepperdine University. “It
offers the promise that we might really be able to solve this

In recent years, there have been flickers of political progress that
suggest America’s drug policy is ready for a historic shift. Democrats
in both the House and Senate have voted to cut proposed funding for
Plan Colombia and have pushed for hearings on sentencing reform. As
the politics of crime and drugs have lost their power to move votes,
some conservatives, including Republican senators Jeff Sessions and
Sam Brownback, have begun to question the logic of mandatory-minimum
sentences. “There is a more promising environment for drug-policy
reform than at any time since the Carter administration,” says Ethan
Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of
the country’s foremost critics of the drug war.

But despite their evident success, the most forward-looking programs
remain buried at the fringes of drug policy, featured not in the
president’s budgets but in academic journals and water-cooler talk in
cities like High Point. Experimentation at the community level is more
imaginative than programs that are federally sanctioned. “We haven’t
had the kind of national leadership that blesses this and encourages
it,” says Caulkins, the RAND researcher from Carnegie Mellon. “So this
kind of innovation stays below the radar.” Thirty-five years after
Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the most promising programs
continue to be shunted aside by Washington’s unswerving emphasis on
law and order.

The drug war, in the end, has been undone in no small part by the
sweeping and inflexible nature of its own metaphor. At the beginning,
in the days of Escobar, the campaign was a war as seen from the
situation room, a complicated assault that spanned multiple fronts,
but one which had identifiable enemies and a goal. Today, the
government’s anti-drug effort resembles a war as seen from the
trenches, an eternal slog, where victory seems not only unattainable
but somehow beside the point. For the drug agents and veterans who
busted Escobar, the last decade and a half have been a slow, agonizing
history of defeat after defeat, the enemy shifting but never
retreating. “You get frustrated,” Joe Toft, a former DEA country
attache in Colombia, tells me. “We’ve never had a true effort where
the U.S. as a whole says, ‘We’re never going to crack this problem
without a real demand-reduction program.’ That’s something that’s just
never happened.”

Toft, now a private security consultant, thinks back to the heady days
after the fall of Escobar, the days when winning the War on Drugs
seemed only a matter of dispatching more American helicopters to the
Andes. “The first couple years, I had this very naive idea that I was
really going to make a huge impact,” he says. “But after a while, you
start realizing that without a concerted effort to reduce demand, it’s
not going to happen. Over the years, I came to see my job as basically
keeping the lid on the garbage can trying to sit on that lid and
prevent that garbage can from overflowing. If you talk to a hundred
agents, that’s what almost all of them would say. We’re just being

Inside the War on Drugs: Interview With Rolling Stone Contributing
Editor Ben Wallace-Wells
by MICHELLE DUBERT  /  Dec 05, 2007

Rolling Stone contributing editor Ben Wallace-Wells lives in
Philadelphia, where he writes about politics and culture for the
magazine. just called his feature on how America lost the
war on drugs the “smartest drug story of the year.”

Where did the idea for this piece come from?

There were a couple of prompts. There used to be a huge amount of
attention paid to what was going on in drug traffic and how it was
evolving, and a minute point-by-point journalism that tried to account
for all these shifts. And since the middle of the 1990s that has kind
of dropped off the map. So part of the importance for this was simply
that issues had been reported to Rolling Stone’s readers and there
hasn’t been an update accounting for what had happened since. The
other was this creeping suspicion that things had frustratingly not
gotten better. There are 335,000 men and women in prison for drug
crimes, and that level of incarceration hasn’t made any perceptible
dent in the amount of drugs being sold on the street. The mainstream
media has let this issue fall off the table. It’s one that still has a
lot of great stories in it and it’s ruining a lot of lives.

How long did it take to put this piece together?

I spent about 3 or 4 months reporting it. During that time it was all
that I was doing. I probably interviewed close to a hundred people.
What you’re trying to do schematically is construct a history. It’s a
hugely complex topic and you want to account for how drug trafficking
has evolved; for how policy has evolved in Washington; and for the
very earnest but sometimes misguided attempts to keep kids from trying
drugs. You also want to account for the critically important, real
innovations that are taking place: by cops or by treatment
professionals who are trying to figure out in a very pragmatic way not
how do we stop drug use in this country, but how do we separate out
the really damaging drug use, and treat the kind that creates

Did you channel the past season of Entourage for your portrayal of
Pablo Escobar? There are images from the piece that mirror the show,
and vice versa.

I was definitely aware that this was a sexy character. He was a man
that was at once enormously problematic and enormously honest about
what he did. I think the reason to start with Escobar was that he had
these guys who have been doing this stuff for 25 years. What we wanted
to do with that beginning was go back to a moment in time when these
huge Colombian cartel leaders are sitting up in their weird mountain
retreats and our job is to get them. To illustrate the ways in which
drug traffic and drug policy have changed, you have to start at the
moment when it seemed like this was winnable and everything was
possible — if there was just this one bad guy who had figured it all
out?if you could just put your hands around his neck — which we did —
then you could end the whole thing.

Was it hard to get people to talk to you?

As crass and politically motivated as some law-and-order drug warriors
seem from the outside, these are people who really believe in what
they are doing. People were really eager to make their case. Having
spent half a trillion dollars on this stuff, what have we actually
gotten? I think that opens people up.

Also, these guys have been fighting this for decades; these are their
war stories. So it’s not like you have to twist arms to get people to
tell you cool stories about the parties the Cali cartel threw in
Guadalajara. People sit around and when they get drunk, they tell
anyone in sight about it. There are all these amazing stories just
waiting to be told.

How has your thinking about the drug war changed since you started the

When I got into it I was conscious that it was hard to write about
this subject and not sound either like a ridiculous DEA flack who
freaks out about candy flavored meth or something, or on the other
hand some crazy, lusty loon screaming at the gates that the whole
system’s fucked.

What was fascinating to me was the degree to which how smart and
sensibly reported middle ground exists on this stuff. Even if you’re
completely skeptical about any kind of decriminalization of anything
harder than marijuana, there are still many ways in which drug policy
could be made better.

Are you optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction?

I’m optimistic. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is a kind
of growing sensitivity to the fact that what we’ve tried hasn’t
worked. That’s something you see from Republicans and Democrats. I
don’t know exactly how that’ll play out, but any political feelings
that lead to the broadening of the possible ways in which we could
deal with drugs in this country are productive.

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