By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
It was November 6, just after last fall’s election, and John Walters was crowing. Three ballot initiatives seeking to legalize or decriminalize marijuana in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio all went down in defeat. “These failed initiatives represent the high-water mark of the drug-legalization movement. Common sense has prevailed,” he declared.
Unlike his predecessor Barry McCaffrey, Walters — director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — is not a military man. But this day, Walters sounded very much like a commander who seizes upon success in one skirmish to galvanize the troops: “From now on, the tide turns our way,” he said.
Walters’ enthusiasm was understandable. Until last November, most drug-decriminalization measures nationwide — 17 out of 19 — had passed by substantial margins. In 1996, the success of California’s medical-marijuana initiative took then-czar McCaffrey by surprise; while he wrote letters opposing the referendum, he kept his office out of direct campaigning. The collapse of this year’s ballot initiatives came after unprecedented intervention from Walters and DEA head Asa Hutchinson, who, with the support of the Bush White House, campaigned personally and poured advertising money into all three states. The campaign raised eyebrows from some election-law specialists — the decades-old Hatch Act forbids federal employees to campaign in state and municipal elections — but it had the desired result: pouring a bucket of cold water over drug-reform advocates who had been counting on a new decriminalization consensus emerging from those referendums.
But a turning of the tide in the war on drugs? In fact, recent developments suggest that Walters’ short-term victory rests on a very shaky foundation: In one arena after another, the drug war — and in particular the Bush administration’s strategy — seems both more bogged down in a quagmire and more unpopular than ever before.
Consider Texas, where, under former Governor Bush, a regional narcotics task-force system evolved into a $200 million arrest machine. In mid-December, the ACLU of Texas released a report documenting a grim pattern of racial profiling and large-scale corruption among the drug task forces. Nationally, journalists have covered a few of these scandals — most notoriously in the town of Tulia, where 10 percent of the community’s African-American residents were rounded up on the word of a corrupt informant. But the new ACLU report makes it clear that Tulia is far from an exception: African-Americans make up 12 percent of Texas’ population yet count for 70 percent of the nonviolent drug offenders in the state criminal-justice system. The ACLU report documents 24 major Texas drug scandals involving agents’ falsifying of evidence, lying under oath and other corrupt behavior. “People have lost their jobs, families have been broken up, and children have been virtually orphaned as a result of the massive racial profiling and corrupt practices of the task forces,” says Graham Boyd, director of the national ACLU’s drug-litigation project, who has given the Texas task forces relentless scrutiny.
Once upon a time, the ACLU’s Texas report would probably have fallen on deaf ears in a state long in love with a harsh law-and-order regime. But no more. Not only are cases of large-scale racial profiling like Tulia a national embarrassment but, equally compelling, Texas is facing a budget shortfall, and — as in states ranging from Connecticut to Oregon — legislators are taking a hard look at the cost of maintaining a prison system filled with low-level offenders, and creating limited amnesties to stem the hemorrhage of dollars.
If racial inequity and corruption are the drug war’s most evident long-term pathologies, there are also steadily ripening crises afflicting the Bush administration’s particular approach — an approach rooted not so much in law enforcement as in moralizing about declining culture. It’s a job to which drug czar Walters is particularly suited: He began as an aide to Bill Bennett, and in the mid-’80s co-authored a book with Bennett and political scientist John Dilulio that predicted — wrongly, it turned out — a coming “wolf pack” generation of amoral, crime-addicted youth. Walters brings the same fear of imminent social apocalypse to the drug office — one day urging baby-boom parents to lie to their children about their own adolescent marijuana use, the next mistreating doctors who prescribe marijuana for cancer or glaucoma, the next complaining that teenagers see the world as a “giant shopping mall.”
As a messenger, Walters is constantly caught in a whipsaw between alarmism and dubious claims of results. In September 2002, his office produced numbers showing teenage substance abuse up across the board. In December, another survey showed teen drug use down, which Walters claimed as a triumph for “when we work together and push back.” (Not coincidentally, Walters is fond of asserting that drug use went down in the ’80s and early ’90s but rose again in the Clinton years.)
It is, perhaps, this sense of America mired in ’60s relativism that explains the administration’s obsessive focus on marijuana, with Walters’ office producing reefer-madness scare ads describing marijuana as a gateway drug. But the trouble that Walters’ personal culture war — along with that of Attorney General Ashcroft — spells for sensible law enforcement is perhaps most visible in the administration’s campaign against raves. Beginning in New Orleans in 2001, federal drug agents set out to clamp down on the city’s rave scene by banning symbols of rave culture — glow sticks and the like. But in 2002, that strategy was brought to an abrupt halt by U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous, who ruled, “There is no conclusive evidence that eliminating the banned items has reduced the amount of Ecstasy use at raves.” Judge Porteous found that “the First Amendment right of Free Speech is violated by the Government in the name of the War on Drugs, and . . . that First Amendment violation is arguably not even helping in the War on Drugs.” Despite this rebuke, the federal DEA has since sent its agents to more than 30 cities to train local law enforcement in how to squeeze raves out of existence (a project urged not just by the White House but by Democratic Senator Joe Biden, outgoing majority leader of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on drugs, who has made shutting down raves a personal crusade).