Among readers of The Nation who follow the drug issue, it’s an article of faith that the war on drugs has failed miserably. The clogging of our prisons with low-level drug offenders, the widespread curtailment of civil liberties in the name of drug enforcement, the strained relations with drug-producing nations to our south, the whole puritanical mindset associated with Just Say No–all have contributed to a consensus on the urgent need for change.
As to what that change should be, there are some clear areas of agreement. Virtually all liberals, for instance, would like to see the police stop making so many drug arrests, which currently number more than 1.5 million a year. Everyone, too, would like to see an overhaul of the nation’s harsh and discriminatory drug-sentencing laws–a step that would, among other things, reverse the relentless flow of black and Latino men into prison.
Beyond that, though, the consensus breaks down. And this has helped stall the movement for reform. Despite growing dissatisfaction with the drug war among the general public, progress toward change has been minimal, and the inability of liberals to propose a persuasive alternative helps explain why.
On the left, three schools of drug reform prevail. Each has something to offer but, by itself, is an inadequate guide to change. The most sensational is the CIA-trafficking school. Actually, this is less a school than a tendency, limited to certain sectors of the left, but it has absorbed much intellectual energy over the years, beginning with Alfred McCoy’s 1972 study The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and extending through Senator John Kerry’s Congressional investigation in the eighties and, more recently, Gary Webb’s book Dark Alliance. According to this perspective, America’s drug problem cannot be fully understood without examining the CIA’s periodic alliances with drug-running groups abroad, from the Hmong tribesmen in Laos to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to the contras in Nicaragua. By teaming up with and providing cover to these forces, it is alleged, the CIA has facilitated the flow of drugs into the United States at critical moments. In the most eye-popping version of this theory, advanced by Gary Webb, traffickers linked to the CIA-backed contras are said to have supplied cocaine to major dealers in South Central Los Angeles, thus helping to set off the nation’s crack epidemic. Though well aware of this activity, the CIA did nothing to intervene. (This theory was seized upon by some leaders of the black community, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who wrote a glowing foreword to Webb’s book.)
With its chronicling of the CIA’s ties to drug-tainted groups, the CIA-trafficking school deserves credit for exposing the hypocrisy of the drug war. It also raises important questions about the types of alliances the United States sometimes makes abroad. As a guide to drug reform, though, it’s a dead end. However much the contras were involved in drug trafficking (and the evidence strongly suggests they were), they were clearly no more than bit players in the overall cocaine trade. If any one group was primarily responsible for the flow of cocaine into the United States, it was the Colombian traffickers, and no one has accused the CIA of abetting them. On the contrary, the US government has for the past fifteen years been waging all-out war on the Colombian narcos, with little to show for it.