About Cocaine And Bananas

Asa Hutchinson cannot be accused of skating across the pond of life in search of easy jobs. While a congressman from Arkansas, he was a manager of the House impeachment case against a popular president from Arkansas. Now Hutchinson is head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and when he leaves that position many people will say, "Well, that didn't work."

No matter what this wise and experienced man does--no matter how imaginative his mixture of measures to dampen demand for drugs and disrupt the supply of them--a decade from now there will be complaints that drug policy has not "worked" because the "war" on drugs has not been "won." (The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 promised "a drug-free America by 1995.") Then, as now, many will say that legalization would do less harm than current policies do.

We do need some new policies--but we also need a more sensible notion of what constitutes "working." Here success comes only in shades of gray, but is not for that reason derisory.

The problem is an estimated $60 billion American market for commodities cheaply made from agricultural extracts (from poppies and coca leaves) or chemical compounds (Dutch chemists make much of the world's supply of ecstasy; methamphetamines are cooked in simple labs, often in rural America). A kilo of opium that will become heroin earns a Pakistani grower $90; it retails on American streets at 40 percent purity for $290,000.

The number of source countries is not fixed; suppressing production in one (e.g., Bolivia) can displace production to, and destabilize, another (e.g., Colombia). Some source countries (Afghanistan, Iran) are hostile to the United States. Some governments of source countries (Thailand, Burma, Colombia) are too weak to suppress production even if they want to.

Interdiction sometimes seems like bailing an ocean with a thimble--no, a sieve. In May the capture off California's coast of 13 metric tons of cocaine, the largest seizure ever, closely followed one of eight tons. The 21 tons could have supplied 21 million street sales. But there was no noticeable effect on the street price of the commodity. James Kitfield of National Journal reports that maritime seizures as a percentage of drugs in the supply pipeline are declining.

In 1997 about a million trucks and railroad cars entering the country from Mexico were searched. Drugs were found in six. A few hundred dealers handle most of the 500 tons of cocaine entering the country, but arrest all of them today, and tomorrow there will be a few hundred others.

But legalizers who say, correctly, that the social costs of drugs are less than those of alcohol and tobacco must explain why we should treat other dangerous substances the way we treat alcohol and tobacco. Smoking is a "regressive" problem, increasingly concentrated down the social scale, among persons impervious to public-health information. Legalization of drugs would decrease the "transaction costs" of drug use--there would be lower prices, improved confidence in quality, easier access. This would increase the number of users, probably in the regressive pattern of tobacco use.

The Economist magazine, which favors legalization, notes that every country that can produce bananas does so, but not every country that could produce heroin or cocaine does. However, legalization, which would entail legitimation in the world's biggest market, the United States, would surely increase the number of source countries.

Hutchinson speaks of the DEA as an enforcement agency "with a demand-reduction segment," and of new options within "the confines of the criminalized-conduct approach" and "the incarceration model for users." But he is not just being sensitive about the "discouragement" of his 9,000 employees when he insists that interdiction of supply and other enforcement measures are not futile. He says drug use surged between 1992 and 1997, after some interdiction assets were diverted to the Gulf War, and after President Clinton concentrated on the drug office in fulfilling his pledge to shrink the White House staff.

Hutchinson admires California's "drug courts," which administer heavily monitored treatment regimes, and he says: "Why did Robert Downey Jr. go to treatment? Because he was arrested." And just as demand elicits supply, supply stimulates demand: "Access to drugs has something to do with a teenager making the decision" to use drugs. And drug use is like smoking: Almost no one starts after age 21. And the social cues communicated by law matter: Many people avoid drugs because they avoid lawbreaking. And Hutchinson asks: If child abuse is not declining, should we stop trying to prevent or prosecute it?

As more becomes known about the biological mechanisms of addiction, neuroscience may contribute pharmacologies that block addicts' cravings. But even if there is such a thing as a genetic vulnerability to addiction, it is irrelevant until someone chooses to use drugs. So although drug use does produce cellular changes in the brain, beware of the modern proclivity for medicalizing moral failings. The notion that addiction is a "disease" suggests, falsely, that it is a constantly controlling condition. People can choose to recoil from the consequences of self-destructive choices.

Legalizers who say the 13 years of alcohol Prohibition "didn't work" must concede that consumption declined up to 50 percent and did not reach pre-Prohibition per capita levels until the 1970s. The number of heroin addicts has plateaued at 900,000, and the number of chronic cocaine users (3.3 million) is below the 1988 peak (3.8 million). And legalizers should ponder this warning from UCLA's Mark Kleiman: "Imagine Philip Morris and the Miller brewery with marijuana to play with."

Actually, the legalizers' logic would not restrict merchandisers to marijuana. So any assessment of whether the current cocktail of drug policies is "working" should start from this axiom: Things can always be made worse.