Cheer Up, Drug Warriors: Victory Is Just Around The Corner

"I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it, if you will." —Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, February 7, 2001

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2003—Celebrating the first anniversary of the successful conclusion of the war on drugs, President Bush and congressional leaders gathered yesterday in a Rose Garden ceremony to sign a bill designating June 1 "VD Day," for Victory over Drugs.

"The nattering kabobs of negativism said the war on drugs couldn't be won," Bush said, flanked by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, federal drug czar John P. Walters, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Speaker James A. Traficant Jr., D-R-D-R-D-R-Ohio. "Well, the naysayers were wrong. One year ago today, on June 1, 2002, America's dedicated law-enforcement officers interdicted the last shipment of drugs into the United States. Today, the dealers are in jail, the streets are safe, and America is drug-free at last."

Invoking Cold War themes, the President said that the war on drugs had been as momentous a national undertaking as the "long twilight struggle" with the Soviet Union. "This great anniversary will remind all future generations of Americans that no force on earth can stop the people of America from realizing their dreams, if only they keep the faith and stay the course," Bush said.

House Speaker Traficant, whose return to the Republican Party last month once again shifted the House to GOP control, stressed the importance of bipartisanship in ending the scourge of drugs. "I know about drugs," he said. "I picked out this outfit while I was on 'em. And I know about bipartisanship, too. I've been a Democrat, a Republican, a Democrat, a Republican, a Democrat, and a Republican, and—beam me up! Together, bipartisanly, we whipped the drug lords! Just like I whipped the FBI! Chomped their sorry derriere!"

Daschle, taking the podium after Traficant had succumbed to the effects of a tranquilizing dart, invoked similar themes, adding, "My good friend Jim Traficant will always be welcome back on our side of the aisle."

As recently as two years ago, many observers judged the drug war an expensive stalemate. A visit in June 2001 to the Web site run by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy would have given little reason for comfort. According to statistics displayed on the site, federal drug control spending had almost septupled since 1985. America's prisons were crowded with drug offenders, and federal drug seizures of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana had increased markedly since 1990.

Yet the overall use of illegal drugs had hardly changed since the mid-1980s and had risen somewhat among young adults ages 18-25. Meanwhile, between 1981 and 1998, the price of a pure gram of both heroin and cocaine fell dramatically, while average cocaine purity remained stable and average heroin purity more than doubled.

In May of 2001, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 13 tons of cocaine aboard the Svesda Maru, a Belize-flagged trawler, in the Pacific. That drug seizure, the largest in maritime history, proved to be a turning point, scholars say. Drug seizures rapidly shrank in size and frequency, and street prices skyrocketed. Perplexed at first, authorities soon realized that the world's drug supplies were running out. At a Florida airfield on June 1, 2002, federal agents seized the final shipment of illegal drugs. (The last six bricks of heroin in America are now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.)

A year later, economists remain puzzled about the exact reasons for the drug war's unexpectedly sudden and successful end. "We're still not sure, frankly," said Harvard University economist J. Lawrence Fishscale. "None of our models predicted this. As near as we can tell, it was a human-factor thing. The drug lords just got tired of the hassle and gave up."

Economists' conferences remain abuzz with efforts to revise core doctrines, such as the laws of supply and demand. Wanda Schmier, an economist at Wesleyan University, said: "Until last year, economics had taken as a given that the ordinary laws of economics applied to illegal drugs. For instance, we assumed that falling street prices meant that supplies of the drugs were increasing relative to demand, despite all the enforcement efforts. And we also thought that if enforcement did succeed in driving up prices, the result would be to make the industry more profitable and summon forth more production, plus substitution as users switched to cheaper or adulterated drugs."

Instead, the drug producers and distributors, realizing that the U.S. government was serious in its efforts to clamp down on the drug trade, threw in the towel. "That's what we're all grappling with," said Harvard's Fishscale. "At least a dozen research teams are preparing papers on this. For now, all we can say is that the laws of supply and demand appear to function everywhere except in the drug area, where they can be suspended by the pure exertion of political will."

Nowhere were the effects of the drug war's end more pronounced than in Colombia, where narco-guerrillas had taken over substantial portions of the countryside. In 2001, the U.S. government had allocated $1.3 billion for "Plan Colombia," an attempt to reduce coca cultivation and roll back the guerrillas' strongholds. With the exhaustion of drug supplies, however, the drug traffickers have had little choice but to disband. Instead of terrorizing peasants to extort cash, they and the right-wing paramilitaries that had sprung up to oppose them have taken to selling Girl Scout cookies.

In an interview with Colombia television in November 2002, Juan "Enchilada Grande" Nunez de Garza, who had been widely regarded as the most fearsome of the Colombian drug lords, said: "I used to laugh at the so-called war on drugs. I said, 'Every time they crack down in America, I get richer. Soon, at this rate, I will own Colombia.' But then I started to see how serious the Americans were. We kept growing coca, but they kept spraying, and frankly it made us cough. The truth is that I really always wanted to be in the hardware business, and that's what I'm doing now. I sold my Boeing 737 and my armored Mercedes fleet, and now I have four stores, and we're just doing great. This week, we have a special on masonry screws and immersion heaters."

Elsewhere, the elimination of drugs had equally dramatic effects. The government of Myanmar (formerly Burma), which had both condoned and profited from the Southeast Asian drug trade, turned instead to the mining and marketing of talc. In Mexico, endemic official corruption withered as drug money dried up. "Thank goodness the Americans stuck with it," said Mexican President Vicente Fox, as he toured a former drug compound that had been converted to a senior center. "If they had cut and run two or three years ago, before the back of the drug trade was finally broken, there would be a freebasing lab here instead of shuffleboard."

In America, the inner cities were transformed virtually overnight. "We used to have a situation where a 14-year-old kid could make $300, $400 a day distributing crack and smack," said the Rev. Winston Weatherford, a Boston minister and community activist. "With the drugs gone, they can't do that now. My teacher friends, they haven't heard a beeper go off in months."

According to law enforcement officials, a particularly significant event was the arrest, in Roxbury, Mass., of Cedric Grieg, the nation's last drug dealer. "We knew if we locked up enough of the dealers, eventually we had to get them all," a senior Administration official said in a White House briefing that preceded yesterday's Rose Garden event. "It's just basic arithmetic."

One concern, the official noted, is that eventually someone somewhere in the world may resume producing drugs and attempt to slip some into the United States. "We need to be as vigilant as ever," the official said, adding that, as a precaution, the Bush Administration will soon propose a ban on all powdery white substances. "Still," he said, "as long as all the distributors and dealers are in jail, the pipeline will stay plugged."

Speaking yesterday at the Rose Garden event, Attorney General Ashcroft sounded a philosophical note. "You know, there's a lesson here," he said. "Year after year, the doubters would look at the drug-use numbers staying put and the street prices declining and the revolving prison doors spinning, and they'd say we weren't getting anywhere. And some of us, just shouting into the wind, kept saying that if we could put men on the moon, we could win this thing—and the American people knew in their heart we could win it, and that's why they stuck with us when we redoubled our efforts. It just shows that sometimes our hearts see better than our eyes."