drug wars

special reports
join the discussion: What thoughts or reactions do you have to this report on the 30-year history of the U.S. war on drugs? Should the strategies for fighting this war be re-evaluated?



Although I was not able to see yor special report on drugs, based on what I read on your site, I can only confirm the tremendous bias and blindness common to most US reports on drugs.

As Mexican president Zedillo once said, we agree that 30% of heroin enters the US from Mexico but 100% of heroin is consumed in the US. It is a mystery to me why a nation so well versed in market mechanisms and which is a world business powerhouse in all industrial, financial and service sectors, does not understand or wants to recognize that demand plays as big a role as supply does.

Many of Americas most prestigious economists and thinkers advocate legalization and blame lack of education and family desintegration for the rising drug abuse. Americans cannot appreciate the extent of destruction going on in our institutions thanks to that consumption.

Colombia is and Mexico will soon be on the path of civil war and public anarchy and as long as US teenagers indulge in drugs we foresee bigger problems. Why have Americans almost eliminated tobacco consumption and have made no inroads into drug abuse? Do you seriously believe corruption is exclusive to Mexico and that the US is a haven for virtuous individuals?

Please do some investigative work at INS and DEA practices when it comes to corruption and drugs. The truth about drugs is that no one is really interested in eliminating their use because it would end with huge income flows for everybody employed in their "control". The more money spent in affecting supply the higher the price and the prize for all involved, including the US companies supplying 1.5 billion dollars in helicopters to Colombia. Come on. Who is interested in stopping these fabulous deals?

Also, the longer it takes to legalize drugs, the more difficult it will get, for everybody will have an incentive against ending the war on drugs. Finally, to us non US citizens it appears as if the real purpose behind the war is to permit Oregon and Californian marihuana growers as well as US pharmaceuticals to monopolize mind bending drugs. As long as the drug mafia is inside US borders it's OK.

Joaquin Carral Cuevas
Mexico City, Mexico


Your "Drug Wars" was well done--as far as it went. Unfortunately, You only covered the videogenic aspects of this very large and disasterous American social policy. It was like the History Channel would cover alcohol prohibition: lots of footage of bullet-ridden bodies, stacks of cash, frustrated-but-dogged feds, leering kingpins, and no end in sight. Without some analysis of the economic and medical forces at play, a documentary of this sort never rises above the level of war porn. How about a follow-up companion to "Drug Wars" that delves into causes and possible solutions besides the obviously failed mayhem of DEA agents?

Robert Steffes
Crescent, PA


As a volunteer editor for the Media Awareness Project of DrugSense, I've surveyed the print media's coverage of drug policy issues over the past few years. By far the best journalism on America's war on drugs I've found is a recent thirteen-part series published in the Ottawa Citizen by Dan Gardner called "Losing the War on Drugs." This can be read at http://www.mapinc.org/authors/Dan+Gardner.

My basic criticism of Frontline's coverage is that it failed to question the basic premises of prohibition. The mythology of drug abuse, i.e. that cannabis is a seriously harmful drug of abuse like heroin, was largely taken for granted.

Any serious examination of the problem we're facing prohibition-related corruption and violence must trace the insanity back to the preposterous lies about drugs and drug users that were told to get drug laws passed in the first place. How can viewers fully understand modern racial profiling without knowing the racist arguments originally used to criminalize certain drugs in the 1920s and '30s?

Far more edifying is the Frontline symposium featuring Eric Sterling and Sam Dash.

Like our drug policy, Frontline could do with more science and fewer police.

Larry Stevens
Springfield, IL


The questions I would most like addressed after seeing your report is, "Why do we use drugs in the first place?" and, "What are the implications for our future?"

Drugs, both legal and illegal, are used routinely for many reasons including getting high, buzzed, stoned, as a social lubricant or to relax. Which of these uses are we as a society willing to condone? When does such usage become symptomatic of just another form of indulgent self-gratification?

Carl Bostek
Anchorage, AK


Although Drug Wars was a fresh look at the hopeless situation of the drug war,it should of offered some solutions to the unwinnable war.

It seemed clear to me that this war has been lost for sometime,and Barry Mcaffery's comment at the end seemed more ridicules than ever. More time could have been taken to analyze what other goverments are trying and their experience and results from these differing policies.

Joseph Zoretic
Lakewood, Ohio


Thank you for broadcasting such a lucid, balanced, and well researched investigative report about this important topic.

I believe that the supply side war against drugs is lost already, and is impossible to win as long as profits from drug trafficking remain so incredibly high. Of course, limiting supply only increase prices, profits, and ultimately step up the violence and societal decay that are associated with drug dealing.

Putting droves of people in jail for drug related offenses costs an insane amount of money, and in less tangible terms creates a police state that puts America's ideals of freedom in jeopardy. Moreover, money spent on jailing people is diverted away from worthwhile and much needed purposes such as improving schools and providing positive opportunities for young people. I must underscore that jailing a single prisoner for a year costs about the same as sending that prisoner to Harvard for a year. Our priorites are misguided.

The statistics speak for themselves. So many people use drugs on both chronic and casual basis, that it is clear that no matter what law enforcement does, a small group of people will always choose to risk their health by using drugs. Are drugs dangerous? I believe they are, but I think Alcohol and Tobbaco can be just as dangerous.

The above all have led me to believe that the most senseful way to deal with the drug problem is to follow the Netherland's lead and decriminalize most drugs. This does not mean that drug use would be accepted or be without repercussion- employers could be free to deal with this as they choose. This strategy places the problems squarely on the shoulders of the drug users- who could be offered medical supervision and rehabilitation. I believe drug violence will stop instantly and permanently when the insane profits of drug traficking are gone because it will not be profitable to sell drugs legally. The problems of individual drug users could then be dealt with much more effectively than they are today.

Aviv Hod
Iowa City, IA


As a parent of a teenager caught in this feeding frenzy, I shout "Thank you, PBS!"

It is a nightmare that no American, no human should be put through for the imbalanced ideologies of drug war profiteers law enforcement, courts, drug labs, and the hordes of businesses who have bankrolled into the prison industry.

I have experienced the impossibility of finding affordable treatment prior to the first "bust" and the vicious maelstrom which followed against my family and, particularly, my minor child. I now defend the rights of those warehoused in jails/prisons in Oklahoma which ranks #1 in the world for jailing its women and, consistently in the top 3 for incarcerations of both genders.

Thank you for showing this debacle of a "drug war" for the enslaving behemoth it really is!

Debi Bohannan
Oklahoma City, OK


When the DEA head under Reagan says 20 years of total waste, we had BETTER reevaluate.

Before PROHIBITION we had a small drug problem with heroin and cocaine that was growing smaller. These drugs were primarily medicines, they were not available to children, and they were occasionally abused. Prohibition created the drug lords whose profits depended on them making the drug problem worse, and they did that very well indeed. They converted medicines into killers, brought the drugs to children, who they also involved in sales, and turned a handful of addicts from ordinary people with a medical problem that was generally less severe than an alcohol addiction, into a societal plague. They became the most wealthy and powerful criminals in the world and spread crime, violence and corruption around the globe. Naturally this required a huge new law enforcement centered set of bureaucracies to deal with the drug lord problem we ourselves had created. The erosion of traditional rights and values and the abuses of power that followed was like the opening of Pandora's Box.

When we repeal modern prohibition, we will return to a small, adult, drug problem that will diminish as it is dealt with by appropriate public health and medical measures.

Jerry Epstein
Houston , TX


I enjoyed watching your "Drug Wars" presentation. The information you presented was valuable and timely. Unfortunately, there are a couple of concerns which cause me to question the depth of your analysis and reporting.

First, your report neglected to discuss the heroin warlords of Southeast Asia. The Golden Triangle region has for years been a major supplier of heroin to the US, and a significant source of corruption throughout SE Asian. Yet, instead your report focused on the stories that grabbed headlines for the DEA during the 1980s and 1990s, specifically Mexico and Colombia.

Second, rather than use an objective medical or scientific source to discuss the harms of crack and cocaine, you used former DEA agent Bob Stuttman and a former crack dealer. In so doing, you perpetuated the hype and hysteria around crack which you rather otherwise skewered during the program.

The reality is crack is cocaine, thus cocaine is just as dangerous as crack -- the difference is that one is smoked and powder is usually snorted or injected. Indeed, the main differences between the freebase cocaine of the 1970s and the crack cocaine of the 1980s and 1990s are the method of production and the fact that crack is broken up and sold in cheap, single-dose units. What makes smoking crack more dangerous than snorting powder is the fact that smoking a drug is a quicker, more intense high. The notion that crack was some sort of super-drug is a false notion that could lead to the perception that powder cocaine is benign by comparison. The fact that declining numbers of young people view cocaine as dangerous, as reported in the newest Household Survey, tends to support my contention.

I hope that sometime in the future Frontline will devote its resources to a fuller analysis of US drug policy. Though "Drug Wars" was interesting, it was ultimately the story of the DEA and a few of their foes. Interesting video, but not as substantive as I'd hoped, especially coming from Frontline.

Doug McVay
Falls Church, VA


As far as I am concerned, the program focused on everything but the real issue. Alcohol, like heroin, crack, pot and other such substances, is a drug. Earlier in this century we had Prohibition, which was legitimized by the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In so amending the Constitution there was, and is, a message: prohibiting alcohol, or any other so-called drug, for that matter, requires constitutional authority. In fact, any activity that government engages in requires constitutional authority. The Twenty-first Amendment repealed the authority where alcohol is concerned. The war on drugs, generally speaking, has never been constitutionally authorized, and politicians have no authority, individually, collectively and legislatively, to authorize the war on drugs. Only the People can do that, via a constitutional amendment.

In fact, the government-sponsored treatment for drugs also was never constitutionally authorized. No, legitimately the people may not pressure their congressmen/women to pass laws that have no constitutional authority, but they can alter the Constitution. At least, that is the way it is supposed to work.

The war on drugs is but one example of government gone awry. What about the banning and forced registration of guns? What about the income tax, as laid on an individual receiving funds from within the states of the Union? The Supreme Court has stated in numerous cases that the Sixteenth Amendment created no new taxing power. while these three are but the most obvious and flagrant examples I can think of, they constitute only the tip of the iceberg. ...

There is, it seems to me, another problem with the war on drugs, one that ought to be rather obvious. What happened when alcohol was banned? The criminal element moved right in. One might almost suspect it was designed that way. Is it any different with the war on drugs? Only the size of the playground has changed. Looked at in this light, it might almost seem that the war on drugs is a smashing success, for the criminal element.

Just how different are drugs generally from alcohol specifically? Are the drugs we are warring against any worse than alcohol? How many lives are destroyed by alcohol? And how many by tobacco? Why are alcohol and tobacco not included in the war?

The war on drugs, gun bans and registrations, the improper imposition of income tax, and other such laws create criminals for the justice system to fight, and the justice system becomes larger and more draconian by the year. Our rights are continually eroded, and more and more laws are passed that don't stand up to constitutional muster. We have arrived at the point where we need to stand guard over Congress, our supposed representatives, to make sure that legislation does not violate the Constitution. And that is no joke. In fact, could legislators who advocate anti-drug, anti-gun and other such laws that are absent constitutional authority be construed as traitors? Aren't they destroying the government by failing to protect the government from all enemies, foreign and domestic? Are they, in fact, domestic enemies?

Your program shows what appears, on the surface, to be a gallant fight, but it fails to hone in on the real problem, government. I wonder if you dare approach the above issues with the same integrity and thoroughness with which you covered the war itself.

Alan Painter
Los Gatos, California


I am writing to second the well-stated opinions from Eric Sterling of Washington, DC. Your "Drug Wars" presentation was a superb account of the history and tactics of the drug issue.

However, we are left hanging with regard to the philosophical justification for prohibition. Your documentation shows the abject failure of drug enforcement clearly enough. And coercive drug treatment far from being a panacea is a huge failure as well. But how can it all end? Only with the admission that drugs per se are not bad - but often useful, and that the people who want to use them are not evil - but much like everyone else. Nearly everyone certainly the vast majority in America uses psychoactive drugs of some kind. Most use "good" drugs which have been blessed by an MD like Prozac, Valium or been granted an historical "grandfather" exemption like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine - which are "drugs" in every way, save legal.

Those who choose "bad" drugs are now the victims of a modern-day witch-hunt, grown to vast, ominous proportions. Frontline should have interviewed someone who dares to challenge the very foundations of drug warfare - like the great heretic psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Szasz. True freedom is the only answer - and someday we'll wonder why that wasn't obvious all along.

L.T. Josserand
Charlotte, NC


Your show suggested a very simple but startling calculation to me. Best estimates are that worldwide cocaine production is about 1200 metric tons and that producer prices are roughly $1500/kilogram. For heroin, the numbers are 350mt and $2600/kg. Allowing administrative costs of $150/kg, the DEA could still purchase the entire world production of these two drugs for less then 3 billion dollars. That's less than 25% of the current federal budget for interdiction efforts which in 1998 succeeded, by the DEA's own figures, in seizing 70mt of cocaine and 0.6mt of heroin. Put another way, it costs roughly 100 times as much to interdict a kilo of these drugs as it would to purchase them.

We don't seem to be able to beat them. Perhaps we should join them.

Ian Morrison


I thought your viewers might be interested in how our government located the jungle cocaine processing lab which was raided by Columbian authorities and U.S. drug agents and which was featured in Frontline's Drug Wars 2 part investigative report.

The U.S. government had made it illegal for American companies to sell and ship one of the key chemical components that cocaine refiners needed in order to process cocoa leaf into cocaine paste.

Large amounts of ETHER are used during the refining process of cocaine production.

An American compnay was used to bait the Medelin cartel into purchasing a very large order of ether which was to be shipped to Columbia and then transported to a Medelin operated cocaine processing lab which was hidden deep inside Columbia's jungles.

A medelin representative completed the purchase of the ether and before it was shipped out of the United States, government agents placed a "pinger" inside one of the 55 gallon metal drums which were to be shipped out to the secret lab.

That "pinger" transmitted a signal which would be tracked by American satelites. It's position would be tracked as the 55 gallon metal container made it's way into the interior of Columbia's jungles along with the rest of the ether shipment.

American authorities used G.P.S. tracking Global Postioning Satelite. G.P.S. tracking is kind of like a high-tech version of the LoJack anti-theft device which can be found on automobiles as a theft deterent system. It transmits a signal when activated after a theft occurs and the police then triangulate on the signal as a means to locate and recover the stolen automobile.

In this case, U.S. drug agents located the 55 gallon drum of ether and went on to destroy the large cocaine processing complex which that ether had been shipped to.

The Medelin cartel took the bait and their lab ended up being burned to the ground. I don't know if that "pinger" was ever recovered.

Sincerely yours,

Rico Informant

Rico Informant
Ann Arbor, Michigan


You did an excellent job of demonstrating that the supply-side approach, focusing on interdiction and eradication can never work. So long as there is a demand for drugs there will be a market for them.

However, the solution you described only focused on half the solution. You suggested that making treatment more easily available was the best way to deal with the problems of drug abuse. No doubt, the research shows you are correct in this recommendation.

However, I am sure you recognize that even the most effective treatment-based demand reduction program will never eliminate demand for drugs. There will always be a significant demand for many of the currently illegal drugs. That means there will always be a drug market. Your show did not address the best way to deal with the drug market.

Perhaps a future edition of Frontline can examine the pros and cons of criminal prohibition vs. regulation, taxation and administrative law to control the market. Prohibition seems to put cartels, gangs and police in charge and provides very little control while encouraging violence, corruption and more potent drugs. Regulation seems to put the government, business and the consumer in charge and provides much greater control without the violence, loss of liberties and corruption of an illegal market.

All-in-all a good start, but more is needed. For the facts on drug policy your readers/viewers may want to visit http://www.drugwarfacts.org.

Kevin Zeese
Washington, DC


Your Drug Wars report was not only fascinating, but of critical importance given the recent passage of $1.7 billion in anti-narcotics funding to Colombia.

Blinded by 'war on drugs' fervor, America's politicians and a large part of its population have failed to address the deeper roots of the drug problem, on both the supply and demand sides, and instead decided to throw inordinate amounts of money and military power at the problem.

On the supply side, we've ignored the issues of poverty, inequality, and exclusion from the 'offical' society, which have driven the narcotraffic and guerilla conflicts in Colombia and elsewhere Peru, most notably. We continue to sidestep these issues in Plan Colombia by directing the funds to the shadowy Colombian army- instead of the more accountable national police, by waiving some of the human rights requirements tied to the funds, and by delegating a paltry amount of spending to crop substitution and other programs that help coca growers find alternate income sources.

On the demand side, as your series highlighted, US law enforcement has engaged in a biased and unjust crackdown on drug use, targeting lower income and minority users and providing suprising leniancy toward white, upper class users. Thus the amount of crack cocaine needed for prosecution and jail time is several times less than the amount of powder cocaine needed for similar punishment. The upper-middle and upper classes are the largest components of America's narcotics demand, and failure to curtail consumption at these levels, especially so-called 'casual or recreational' use, will only perpetuate the drug conflict. Where there is demand, there will be supply; and until the U.S. recognizes this fundamental pricipal, on a just and unprejudiced basis, it will never win the war on drugs.

sarah pearlman


As usual you have enlightened your viewers with a rational view of a controversial topic. Why can't our elected official see the problem and its set of solutions as clearly as I did? Probabably because they ARE elected officials. I offer three observations:

1. The "War on Drugs" is a complete failure with seemingly no financial accountability for the agencies involved. Although the amount of funding for drug enforcement programs has increased exponentially, the amount of illegal drugs coming into the country has increased proportionally. This is akin to attempting to extinguish a fire with gasoline. When the flames won't go out, use more gasoline.

2. The biggest winners in the war on drugs seem to be the fat-cat entrepreneurs in Colombia who shamelessly paraded in front of the camera from the sanctuary of their villas, the officials of the DEA who lobby and receive hefty budgets from Congress in order to justify their existances, and the suppliers of ancillary services such as prison construction contractors. The biggest casualties in this make-believe war are the street level purchasers who are subject to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws to fill the prison to justify the hefty DEA budgets to the elected officials.

3. With the scope of this problem looming as large as life, neither of the presidential candidates has the courage to tackle the issue. Better to pacify the masses with mindless rhetoric like prescription drug coverage, 'fuzzy math', school vouchers, 'tax credits for the 1%', Medicare and the social security fund-"the REAL issue Americans want to talk about".

Wesley West
Washington, DC

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