Darkening Shades of the Drug War: Brown vs. Gray

On May 21, 1994, a host of experts assembled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School to debate and discuss the critical topic of drug policy. Crime, Drugs, Health & Prohibition II: The Great Harvard Drug Debate, featured U.S. Drug Czar Lee Brown, Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, Congressman Barney Frank, actor Michael Moriarty, and many others taking both sides of the legalization question.

In this issue, we spotlight Lee Brown's keynote address together with Judge James P. Gray's off-the-cuff, point-by-point reply. Future issues will include speeches by Judge Weinstein, Congressman Frank, and Professor Ethan Nadelmann.

Crime, Drugs, Health & Prohibition II was sponsored by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, the Criminal Justice Institute of the Harvard Law School and the Ethical Society of Boston, and is dedicated to Bruce Pollak, a victim of the Drug War.

For information on audio, videotapes and transcripts of these important presentations, contact

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Keynote Address of Dr. Lee Brown

Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, at the Crime, Drugs, Health & Prohibition II Conference, Harvard Law School, May 21, 1994

First of all, I want to express my appreciation to Ms. Lee for a very thoughtful introduction. She indeed is right. One of the reasons I'm here is because she was very persuasive. I told someone earlier this morning, she represents the ACLU very well in Washington, D.C., often to my chagrin. She's a very effective person at what she does and I have a great deal of respect for her ability to carry out the responsibilities of her position. I also want to express my appreciation for being able to speak behind the minister. I want to stay as close to our religious leadership as possible. That's extremely important because I need the help that they have to offer.

The question was asked: Do I mind being called the drug czar? I was in Baltimore recently at a town hall meeting, sponsored by the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. I took some answers and questions, after which I was called the drug kaiser. I guess I would prefer being called the drug czar over the drug kaiser. But I'm also very glad to be here in Cambridge. I had an affiliation with Harvard before taking my current job. I, for about five years, served as a research fellow at the Kennedy School Criminal Justice Program. I had the faculty even vote me in as a visiting professor. Then I got a call from President Clinton, so now I'm in Washington, D.C.

But let me, again, repeat the fact that I am very pleased to have been invited to talk to this conference on drug policy and drug policy reform and to have an audience whose members have serious questions about the direction of national policy, who are prepared to hear what we have to say about it. As I looked at those who are invited, I know that I'm speaking to many who sincerely believe that our country's drug policy must be radically changed. And to you, what I say here may not be convenient or particularly easy, but it must be said. I think that it's important that there be no misunderstanding about the direction of drug policy under the Clinton Administration.

I think we all can come to agreement on one thing, and that is the problem. And the problem is the use of drugs and the causes and consequences of drug use are serious, serious matters. They affect all of us. It's not a problem for big cities or small towns. It's not a problem for Democrats or Republicans. It's not a problem for blacks or whites. They are America's problems, they affect all of us. And to me and to the Clinton Administration, drug use is among the important domestic issues that our nation faces.

The use of illegal drugs is a very complex policy issue. It goes to the core of our behavior, our behavior as individuals, our behavior as families, as communities and indeed it goes to the core of our behavior as a nation. It has global implications. And those of us who grapple daily with the issue of illicit drug use and its consequences, who must see it in its many dimensions, know that if we are to be effective our responses must be thoughtful, they must be comprehensive, they must be balanced, they must be effective. And by comparison, some solutions that have been put forward to resolve the problem of drugs and crime and violence, seem remarkably simple and plausible. Until they are forced into the bright light of day. And that is what I want to talk about today: simple solutions, tough problems and difficult choices.

From time to time, one hears some remarkable, even bizarre assertions, by so-called drug experts, about the drug situation and what it is. The purported solutions then follow the mythology.

Let me outline for you, this afternoon, what I've come to call "The Eight Myths About Drugs." And these can be put in straightforward terms. The first myth is that everything is getting worse and nothing is getting better. It follows from that then that the so-called War on Drugs is a failure, that we should abandon it in favor of another approach. In fact, drug use data from the nation's households and secondary schools show substantial declines of overall drug use over the past decade. For example, in 1979, more than 22 million Americans used some illicit drug. By 1992, the number had dropped to 11.4 million. For example, past month cocaine use -- which peaked in 1985 at 8.6 million users, had dropped to 1.3 million users by 1992. And this was accompanied by a similarly dramatic decline in the use of cocaine by adolescents from the mid-1980's until 1992.

But make no mistake about it. Our country has a severe, troubling, continuing problem with the chronic, hard-core addicted drug user. We readily acknowledge this. Indeed, we want to make sure that this is broadly known. The nation's estimated 2.7 million chronic hard-core drug users are one of our most serious concerns. They cause the most damage to themselves, to their families and to their communities. Along with the problem of drug use by our nation's use, they are the most single important focus of our national drug control strategy.

Most troubling is the fact of recent indications that the use of drugs by secondary school children is increasing. Overall, the country -- not the government, not a particular administration -- but the country has experienced major declines in non-addictive casual use of illicit drugs. The number of users of any illicit drugs is today at the same level as it was in the early 1970's. Let us reason about this. Can this really be called "a failure?"

Now it's sometimes alleged that we can't trust what the government says. Two points. I have no reason to defend the policies of a past administration. In fact, the government does not collect the data. The Research Triangle Institute, an independent non-governmental organization, conducts the household survey. The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research conducts the survey of drug use in the nation's secondary schools.

The second myth is that current drug policy -- and one suspects any current drug policy -- is making things worse. This myth says that current drug policy does not address the real problems which are violence and HIV transmission. In fact, violence, accidents, loss of productivity, loss of employment, family breakdown and the degeneration of communities or others, all directly flow from drug use itself. As the number of users increases, these problems will multiply. Current drug policy directly addresses these issues through specific strategies to prevent new use, to effectively treat chronic hard-core drug users and to bring overwhelming force against the straight markets. Other domestic policies -- health, crime, for example, or our policies toward the homeless, economic or job development, education reform -- include important elements that address drugs. Drug policy is not constructed in this Administration in isolation from the broad stream of domestic policy making in general.

The third myth is that enforcement just adds to the problem. Drug enforcement and the application of the criminal justice should be given up in favor of harm reduction approaches. In fact, effective enforcement serves to reduce drug supply, drive up prices, reduce the number of users and decrease the effects of chronic hard-core drug use. And there is ample evidence to show an inverse relationship between the price of cocaine and the number of individuals seeking emergency room treatment. The criminal justice system, moreover, provides means to remand drug offenders to effective treatment.

A fourth myth is that there is massive support for policy change by social thinkers, policy level officials and the public at large. This includes broad support for legalization or the decriminalization of drug use. In fact, there is no massive support for legalization. A 1990 Gallup Poll showed that 80 percent of the American public thought that legalizing drugs was a bad idea. Only 14 percent thought that it was a good idea. Among American 12th graders surveyed, in the 1992-93 school year, 84 percent said that their friends would disapprove of their smoking marijuana regularly. 94 percent said that their friends would disapprove of their taking cocaine occasionally. Reflecting the views of the American public, there is no meaningful support, within Congress, for the legalization of illicit drugs. And, in fact, policy level officials who are directly responsible for the drug issue, beginning with the president, oppose legalization. I do too.

A fifth myth is that legalizing drugs or decriminalizing drug use would eliminate the illegal drug markets and the violence in our streets. I do not dispute that drug markets do, in fact, generate violence. But the way to deal with the markets and the associated violence is to dry up the pool of drug users through effective prevention and treatment and through the use of street enforcement as many communities throughout the country are struggling to do.

A sixth myth is that legalizing drugs will be free of costs. As this myth goes, there's nothing to suggest that legalizing drugs will increase drug use or its consequences. In fact, the suggestion that legalizing drugs will not increase drug use is a fantastic myth. Our own national experience with prohibition is indicative of what would happen if drug laws and drug enforcement were eliminated. Alcohol use data from the 1930's shows clearly that the repeal of The Volstead Act resulted in an immediate, sustained rise in the use of alcohol to levels higher than those that existed prior to prohibition. We believe that the repeal of drug control laws would likewise result in an immediate, sustained rise in the use of drugs and a concomitant rise in the casualties of the use of drugs.

Another, seventh myth, is that there are excellent foreign models to show that decriminalization works: The Netherlands and the U.K. are two. This is another fantastic myth. One need only read the international press to realize the degree to which the Dutch have visited upon themselves misery from drug abuse by enacting drug laws that go unenforced and policies that encourage responsible use rather than discourage any use at all. The Dutch are pleased to say that they remain mostly unscathed by drug use by their own citizens. They could not say the same of the many thousands of foreign visitors who arrive to buy drugs, steal or panhandle to keep themselves using drugs and then ask the Dutch to treat them for addiction. And one only need to recall the disastrous experience of Great Britain when it permitted heroin to be distributed freely by physicians. According to the British Medical Journal, the number of heroin addicts in the U.K. doubled -- doubled every 16 months in the years between 1959 and 1968, when the experiment was terminated. The British law was changed to require supervision of the distribution by the clinics. At the same time, no one mentions Italy whic>

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