drug wars

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interview: robert stutman


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Stutman is a retired special agent for the DEA. He became Special Agent in Charge for the New York City office in 1985. A leading advocate for drug prevention and education, Mr. Stuttman left the DEA in 1990 to found Employee Information Services, Inc., the nation's largest management consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of substance abuse prevention programs for all industries. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
When did you first hear about crack?

It was sometime in October, 1985. The guy . . . who ran our joint task force walked in and said, "Boss, we're finding this shit all over Harlem. We have no idea what it is, but it's got to be bad, because there's lots of stuff going around there." He showed me this little vial. I had no idea what it was. I said, "What do they call it." He said, "Crack." And then I asked him where the name "crack" came from. Allegedly, the name actually comes from the fact that crack looks like little pieces of plaster that fall out of the cracks in the ceiling in the Harlem tenement houses. And I said, "What do they do with it?" He said, "They smoke it. It's some kind of cocaine."

I called up DEA headquarters. I asked, "What do people know about this?" They said, "It's some kind of freebase. It doesn't amount to much. It's been around for years." That was the answer I got. I called up one of our chemists, and I gave her this stuff. I said, "Do me an complete analysis of this." She came back and she said, "It's basically cocaine, but in smoking form. There's nothing really magic about it, but it will probably cause a real addiction problem." I asked her why, and that's when she explained to me how much more potent the drug was when you smoked it, rather than inhaling it.


Cocaine certainly developed to be the drug of choice amongst the yuppie culture. One of the things we forget about culture, about cocaine, is that we believed that cocaine was a fairly benign substance until 1986. Peter Bourne said that. He said, "Cocaine is one of the most benign substances available on the streets of America today. And we should seriously think about legalizing it." Not marijuana, but cocaine. The problem with cocaine--and I don't want this to sound like it's an advertisement for its use--is that it feels great in the beginning. It feels great in the beginning.

A user gave me the best description ever given to me about beginning cocaine, and really summed it up well. "The problem is, that by the time you realize it's a problem, it's a problem." It's a very deleterious drug. So we had whole huge amounts of people using this crap, saying it feels great. Everybody is telling you there is nothing wrong with it. And someone would think, "Hell, I'm a bright guy making two million bucks a year. I can control this." And it became the drug of choice that way. We didn't believe it was bad stuff until--literally, the earliest--was 1985.

And people always say to me, "How did cocaine take over in the United States?" Two reasons--very simple. It felt great, and everybody said, "It's okay, so why not?" And that's exactly what happened. That all sort of came together, and that was the mentality of the country, until two things happened at the same time: Len Bias dying, and crack.

How bad did it get?

Crack literally changed the entire face of the city. I know of no other drug, except maybe LSD in its heyday, that caused such a social change. I know of no other drug that caused the social change that crack caused. You can't name another drug that came close. Street violence had grown. Child abuse had grown hugely. Spousal abuse. I had a special crack violence file that I kept to convince the geniuses in Washington who kept telling me it wasn't a problem. We had a crack violence file made up of just clips. It got that thick--horror stories that you couldn't believe.

Build a 12-foot wall around the U.S. The old joke is it takes dope peddlers 60 seconds to realize a 13-foot ladder gets over a 12-foot wall.  Then what?  Build a 13-foot wall?   Jack Lawn called me up one day and said that William Friedkin, the guy who did "The French Connection," wanted to come to New York, and they wanted me take him out for a week and let him ride. Fine. He comes in and I meet him. We have a crack raid that is going to go down in a house in Washington Heights a day later. So I said, "Fine, he'll come with me." So we gather up for the raid and I say, "I am keeping you outside until the house gets secured." So we keep him outside.

The first mistake we made was that we underestimated the number of people in the house. We go in with eight agents. There are probably 15 bad guys and we, of course, want to outnumber them two-to-one, for psychological purposes. They go in and there is a bash going on. I think it is over, and like a dummy, I walked in with Friedkin, and there is still fighting going on. There was about a little six-year-old kid sitting on the couch in one of the rooms. There were literally fights going, and somebody blows off a shotgun by mistake. Now, it didn't hit anybody. It went off in the ceiling, but the noise was horrendous. This kid sat there reading a comic book. Didn't blink an eye. I will never ever forget him looking up, and I was literally on the floor, wrestling with somebody. And I am saying if this kid is used to this level of violence, what the hell is he going to be when he grows up? I'll never forget that scene until the day I die.

If crack wasn't pharmacologically any different than cocaine, why did it have such a profound effect on society?

Because even though pharmacologically it is not different, the method of ingestion, by smoking, means that more of the drug hits the brain faster. It is the only difference. If you inhale crack, you lose a lot of the cocaine in the process of getting to the brain. By smoking it, a far higher percentage of the drug gets to the brain, and it gets there immediately.

With cocaine, the high usually onsets in three to six minutes, depending on the person. Crack's high onsets in about ten to twenty seconds. It is also a far more intense high. The two basic physiological symptoms of cocaine use are, number one, the superman syndrome--"I am the toughest S.O.B. in this world. Nobody is as bad as I am." And number two, the ascent of paranoia. Now you don't have to be a psychiatrist to figure out that somebody who thinks they are extremely tough and thinks everybody else is picking on them is a very dangerous guy. And that is exactly what happened with cocaine and crack.

Who do people who are paranoid pick on first? They don't pick on strangers. They pick on family and friends, and that is really what began to happen in the crack community. The level of violence amongst families that we saw just exploded. Before the advent of crack, most drug addicts were men. Statistically, women didn't become drug addicts. What crack did was make women into drug addicts, which meant that a society which was dominantly matriarchal no longer had a natural head of the family, because the natural head of the family became a junkie. And that caused unbelievable social changes in the inner city. These kids no longer had a mother who was the head of the family, because mommy was a junkie. So who was taking over the family? The grandmothers.

And what we had in the Bushwicks and the Bed-Stuys and the South Bronxes of the city and other cities in the United States was that, all of a sudden, that generation of mothers disappeared, because they became crack addicts. Grandmothers were dealing with little kids, and a lot of times these grandmothers couldn't handle it. What it did to those families was horrible. So I always try to remind myself, most of these people are hard working, God-fearing, trying to do the right thing, and they got hit by a plague.

How did crack spread?

It was in October of 1985, and it just kept building. We started seeing it move downtown, and you could literally follow it block to block, going from 125th Street all the way down to Alphabet City, which is the other side of New York, the southern tip of Manhattan. From 1985 to 1987, maybe 1988, there were no real major organizations. We used to joke that we had 25,000 crack cottage industries in New York. Anybody could buy a pound of coke. They whacked it up, they made it into crack, they would add some chemicals, burn it down, put it out in vials.

And even if you bought coke at the retail level, you could triple your money in two days. Now you're making a $100,000 investment and you're walking away with a quarter of a million dollars in two or three days and you're nobody. You're some dope peddler on the street who buys cocaine retail and sells it retail. They're making huge amounts of money.

Crack brought on a new kind of organization, which was a straight-up organization. Remember, almost the other drug organizations were controlled from the top down. With either the Medellin or the Cali cartel, in order to be a mid-level member or above, even in New York, you had to have a relative in Colombia. That is how tight they had to know you, and if you played games you knew and they knew who your relative was in Colombia.

With the crack organization, it started street-up. I remember the street guys were the cowboys. These were the guys who traditionally went around shooting and carrying guns. These were the kids who, at age eight, nine and ten, were hawking for the drug traffic. So they grew up with this stuff. They were now 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22. They were starting to control their own little organization. So it grew from the cowboys up, as opposed from the businessmen down. The Colombian traffickers, even the Medellin people, were basically business people selling the commodity of drugs. But the crack traffickers were the violent arm of this.

It was literally like cowboys and Indians. I had one group that worked on middle-level cocaine cases. That's all they did. And these guys had guns drawn every night of the week. When they went in certain areas, they would wear flak jackets and helmets, because it was like a war zone. It was absolutely like a war zone.

New York was like a shooting gallery for a while. At the same time, the rest of the country said, "This can never happen here. It's only you crazy New Yorkers." It was absolutely accepted that crack would never spread beyond the borders. Three years later, it was the drug of choice in virtually every city in the United States. St. Louis was taken over by crack. Houston had crack houses all over the place.

You literally had thousands of these guys who were selling crack that way. And, of course, the question always used to be, "Fine. If I make a case on Joe Smith, who does that lead us to? Where does it go, how is he tied to Colombia, how is he tied to Mexico?" And the answer to all those questions, in honesty, in the beginning was that he isn't. And the answer back was, "Then forget about it."

In the 1990s, the issue of crack may have been overplayed and hyped, in that it was portrayed as a growing problem, when in fact it was a leveling off and a declining problem. We now say that it had declined fairly significantly. But that certainly wasn't true in the beginning. In the beginning, we didn't pay enough attention to it, and that is how it got where it was.

In the beginning, I believe, that one of the single biggest reasons that crack became a national drug of abuse in virtually every other city in the United States is that the politicians said, "It can't happen here, not us." The mayors said, "Not us." That is one of the reasons that they got hit with crack--they weren't prepared for it. The first battle was to get us to realize it was a national problem and not a localized problem.

Back when crack was just becoming a problem, was it difficult to get people to pay attention?

They said two things. Number one, crack is a local problem and it is clearly not DEA's mandate to play with a local problem. We will get our head handed to us. Number two, they said that crack has been around for a lot of years. It was called different things. It was called freebase or it was called rock. It had been around since 1972 in Miami, 1974, 1975 in Los Angeles.

They underestimated the marketing genius of the New York dope peddlers. What the New York traffickers did was take a drug that heretofore was out of reach of many people. Before the advent of crack, the least cocaine you could buy was a gram of coke, and it cost you, depending on who your connection was, between $80 and $100 a gram. They then whacked that up into crack and they sold them for $3-$5 a vial. So now, all of a sudden, you have got a product that is saleable to a mass new audience. And that is what the New York drug peddlers did. They mass-merchandized cocaine. My argument was this drug was so different, that the old rules can't apply. And some of the guys at headquarters said that the old rules do apply, because we have seen it before and it ain't too different.

How did New York law enforcement combat the crack epidemic?

Operation Pressure Point took place in Alphabet City, which is basically the little area north of the East Village, lower Manhattan. And the argument was that around that area, probably twenty square blocks, drugs were so open it was like a bazaar. You could walk down the street and people would hit on you: "Hey, man, you want to buy some crack, want to buy some crack?"

So Ben Ward, at that time the Commissioner of the NYPD, started Operation Pressure Point. He literally put a cop on every single corner in twenty square blocks, almost 24 hours a day. And the idea was to arrest street traffickers.

Well, it did two things, unfortunately. It brought up the real estate value in the lower East Side because all of a sudden we went from the dirtiest streets in the world to the cleanest streets in the world. And, of course, all we did was move the dope peddlers five blocks over, and so clogged the New York City criminal justice system that nobody ever got convicted of anything, because there was simply not enough judges and not enough bailiffs. We overwhelmed the system.

There weren't organizations to go after. Traditionally, when you have a problem in a neighborhood, you go after the organization that controls that neighborhood. And you take off the top three or four people, you clean up the neighborhood. There were no top three or four people. In that twenty square blocks, there were probably 5,000 "organizations," quote unquote. And the organization was a 20-year-old guy and three ten-year-old kids. That was the organization. Well, hell, you can take off a thousand of those and it makes no difference.

Was massive police action the correct response to the problem?

We, as a nation, should have learned the lesson a long time ago that you cannot depend on law enforcement to solve the problem. The problem is that generally the majority of dollars that the US government spends in dealing with the drug issue is interdicting the drug traffic. Even if you are wildly successful, you are not going to stop drug trafficking in the United States.

You build a 12-foot wall around the United States, and the old joke goes, it will take the dope peddlers 60 seconds to realize that a 13-foot ladder gets over a 12-foot wall. And then what do you do? Build a 13-foot wall?

One of the problems with what Bill Bennett did, and what a lot of people did, was we became a drug-specific war. The issue is that significant and growing number of kids in this country feel they have to leave reality on a regular basis. Now to me it is not a hell of a lot different if they leave reality sniffing hairspray or using cocaine. It is the issue of 12-, 13- or 14-year-olds who feel that they have to leave reality that we are not addressing. Instead we addressed the chemical. We addressed cocaine. Can you beat the cocaines? Of course you can, if you put enough time and effort and money. So what happens? The Medellin and the Cali cartels figure out that cocaine is on the decline, and they figure out that every nose in the United States that can be stuffed with cocaine is now stuffed with it.

You have a fantastic distribution system. You have got a product that is not as popular. What do you do? Dismantle the distribution system? Of course not. You switch products. And that is what we are living in the middle of right now. Five years from now, maybe three years from now, the Colombians will be the majority controller of heroin in the United States. Eight years ago, Colombians never heard of heroin, that is, they never grew opium in Colombia. I believe they will control the opium traffic or the heroin traffic in the United States in the near future.

What factors, then, caused the steady decline of crack use over the years?

In my opinion, law enforcement, although it had something to do with . . . the lessening of crack--not the demise--it had far less to do with it than the fact that the people who crack affected have simply said, "Enough." I think that it is the indigenous population that was integrated into the crack users who have said, "We've had enough of this crap. We've had enough of kids getting shot, beaten. We have enough spousal abuse." I think the biggest war against crack was won by the people that were affected by crack, not by law enforcement.

How did law enforcement measure success?

For years, we were measured by the number of arrests we made. Well, I'm head of the New York office. I would guarantee you that I could turn those 500 DEA agents and cops in New York loose and say, "Make 10,000 arrests," and we can make them in five days--absolutely meaningless arrests. So what we did as an agency was to come up with a new measurement, which is price/purity, meaning the price and purity of the drugs you seized, or the organizations that traffic in a certain drug. What price did you pay for a milligram of pure drugs?

In other words, say that organization A was selling cocaine and when you took all of the diluents out of it, you ended up paying a dollar for an ounce of cocaine. Say that, with organization B, after you took all of the diluents out, you were paying two dollars for an ounce of cocaine. Clearly organization A was more important, because they were selling more drugs cheaper. And that's how we measure price/purity. All of the drugs that were received, we would say, "This is 80 percent, we paid ten dollars. What is the price/purity of the drug?" And what we wanted to do was get to the organization that sold the purest drug at the cheapest price, because they were clearly responsible for more drugs.

That is how we measured our success. As the price purity went down, we declared success. I think it was a healthy change from the number of arrests. But in fact, we really didn't control the price/purity. Did you have a bad crop of opium in Southeast Asia that year? That had a far more important effect on price/purity than whether or not we arrested some Chinese dope peddler. There were so many things we couldn't control. We were lucky. When we started utilizing price/purity, the price/purity was going down. So we looked good.

Can you explain the difference between the drug war situation in Mexico and Colombia?

Both Colombia and Mexico are basically controlled by narcotics traffickers, and I think they may deny it. But anybody who knows it, knows it. They got there by very different means. And therefore I look at the countries very differently. I think basically, for years, the Colombian government and Colombian officials have tried to fight the cocaine war. They are simply out-gunned, and out-manned. We have had God knows how many Colombian cops killed. Nine Supreme Court justices were killed in Colombia.

I look at that country very differently than I look at Mexico, which has been bought off. To me there is a world of difference. In Mexico the issue is simply corruption. There are some exceptions, obviously. There are cops in Mexico who died fighting this, and I'm not denigrating those individual cops. The system never tried to fight cocaine in Mexico. In Colombia, they fought it, and they're basically losing. I won't go to Mexico. I have disdain for the system there. That doesn't mean individual Mexicans. It means the system that has allowed itself to become so corrupted. . . for the politicians to deny it. That's making politics more important than kids dying of drugs.

Virtually every administration has gone up there and testified that Mexico is cooperating with us. That is such crap, it's a joke, and every DEA agent knows it. But the argument that DEA agents would give you is--and it's a legitimate one--is that if we get up there and publicly say that, then the Mexicans will kick us out of the country, meaning kick out the DEA agents who are down there. Therefore, we would be worse off than we are now. That is absolutely a legitimate argument. But it means we perpetuate the myth that Mexico is really cooperating. The problem with Mexico is you don't know who the bad guys are.

There are cops who die. There are policemen who I know in Mexico who are incredibly honest and hard working, who risk their lives, but the system doesn't encourage that. That's the difference. The system encourages the corruption in Mexico, because nobody gives a damn.

There had been successful moments with Mexico, but there has never been more than a moment that has been successful. I think Mexico is probably the worst-case example of the drug problem. I don't mean all Mexicans, but the system doesn't care. All the system cares about is, "How much money can I get out this?" Politicians and law enforcement officers have become multi-millionaires from drugs in Mexico.

Explain the different strategies of the war on drugs.

The interdiction policy, the strategy, basically says, "Let's close the borders, let's keep drugs out of the United States." It's an absolutely foolhardy strategy. It doesn't happen in a constitutional democracy. It doesn't even happen in police states. So I think the interdiction strategies, of all of the strategies, is the most foolhardy, because it literally takes money and throws it against the wind. There is no way you close the borders.

The kingpin strategy makes a lot more sense. That's the strategy of going after the organizations that control major amounts of drugs, generally on an international scope. But kingpin strategy depends on extradition, because almost always the kingpins are overseas. We could indict a lot of cartel heads in the world, but we have no chance in the world of getting them here. So without extradition, the kingpin strategy fails.

When was the last time we saw major numbers of either one of those countries extraditing their major traffickers to us? I think you saw three Colombians in the early 1990s. I don't think you've ever seen a real Mexican trafficker extradited to the United States. It's a joke. Most major cartel figures, when they go to jail in foreign countries, they run their organization from jail without skipping a heartbeat. They have their own cooks there. They literally bring in their own cooks, their own girlfriends, their own everything.

What would be an effective way to wage the war on drugs?

I think the winning strategy hasn't changed. It hasn't changed for 15 years. We never have adopted it. You give every kid in the United States meaningful, mandatory substance abuse education, starting in kindergarten. And by the time they reach the tenth grade, there are studies that show that 15 percent less of them will experiment with drugs. Now, that doesn't win the ballgame, because you'll never stop everybody. But it makes a far greater dent in the ballgame than what we have done now.

The RAND Corporation has done two or three studies showing that dollars we spend on treatment and prevention give us a far greater return than dollars we spend on enforcement. The general point is that we have never adopted the strategy that a lot of people think is truly a winning strategy. No one has yet demonstrated that enforcement will ever win the war on drugs. Enforcement will make a difference. It will fight a holding action. But it will never win the war on drugs, meaning that we will do away with drug availability. That's the objective of enforcement, and it's an unobtainable objective.

Why don't we implement a "winning, treatment-oriented" strategy?

That's really the big question--why isn't it implemented? I would guess that it's pandering to the voters when you don't have to pander to the voters. I think most politicians at the local, state or federal levels think to themselves, "I can't say that I'm pulling money away from enforcement and giving it to treatment and prevention, because that is not what a bloc of our voters want. A bloc of our voters want us to go in and kick in doors and take names and arrest people."

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