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?



Part of the demand-side equation is the absurdly
unanswered cultist following of authors like Carlos Castaneda, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, et alia, ad nauseam.

Far from censoring these works, an informed second opinion which does not play into the cult of altered states of consciousness might just do wonders for socializing young people.
I wish I had known, at 15, what a Ministry of Silly Walks twit Aldous Huxley really was -- but I worshiped his Doors of Perception at the time, in 1959.

David C. Oshel
Cedar Rapids, IA


We need to legalize drugs in order to take the money out of the whole mess.

Then we need to educate and fund drug treatment centers in order to stop its abuse. The crime and corruption would end with the legalization of drugs.

Eric Schmidt
Orleans, CA


Your show was timely and powerful. I understood that with only 4 hours to cover such a huge subject, certain aspects of the drug issue would have to be ignored. However, there are certain questions and points I would like to raise.

--Your working definition of "drug". Basically the show just took the Federal government's evolving definition of "bad" drugs. There were times that the show felt like a government propaganda film. ... the definition of "drug" has larger meaning than the one assigned to it by the DEA. There is a feeling of arbitrariness to whatis a "good" drug and what is a "bad" drug.

--In a country such as ours, corporate America advertises and sells all kinds of "good" drugs as the immediate cure-alls for what ails us. Drugs that are known to be dangerous liquor, tobacco are quite legal and the rest can be obtained easily by prescription or over the counter. What are the costs involved with abusive uses of legal drugs? What is the death rate for each category? That is: Alcohol, tobacco, o-t-c drugs, prescription drugs, and then illegal drugs broken down by category.
Though I assume that there are few or no deaths from marijuana use.
--Marijuana is illegal to all adults in this country because some parents wanted to protect children? I think we can all agree that kids must be protected from drugs including the "good" that is legal drugs but I don't believe that adults should be equally "protected" especialy when "protection" means jail.

--Why did the show end up dealing with heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana as though they were all of equal danger? There was not enough scientific evidence given.

--Last point: Can the Federal government be sued for its racist and classist imprisonment procedures? They make bad laws, can they be held accountable for their bad laws? By the way, your portrayal of law enforcement was supportive and sympathetic. Perhaps the show should have been named "The Drug Warriors".

Thank you for this opportunity to react to your wonderful and provocative broadcast.

Daphne Stern
Englewood, NJ


I have been working on national anti-drug policy since 1979, including nine years as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.

I was delighted to be asked to contribute to FRONTLINE'S latest report on the drug wars. However, I was frustrated when I was interviewed, because the producer wasn't interested in what I had learned after more than twenty years of in-depth, high-level work in the field. He had one idea for what I would contribute to the story: what happened in Congress in August 1986 in the making of the mandatory minimum sentences. The failure to have hearings and the hasty drafting of the mandatory minimums was an anomaly for the Crime Subcommittee.

But the fundamental political anti-drug routine in 1986 was standard operating procedure, if compressed. Making hysterical claims about an insidious, dangerous new drug, grandstanding about cracking down, acting with indifference to the consequences of more arrests and imprisonment, disregarding the economics of prohibition, ignoring the racially discriminatory enforcement practices of the war on drugs, and looking to score political points off the other party has been the bread and butter of Congressional anti-drug activity since 1910. My direct experience since 1979 is filled with these episodes: look-alike drugs in 1982, designer drugs in 1984, ice in 1988, etc. I was in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Jamaica early as 1983, and what we see now is NOTHING NEW.

I was dismayed with your producers' disregard of what I learned since 1979 about the role of prohibition in driving all of the dramatic and tragic failures of policy that your report so vividly documented.

I suspect that the story of the making of the documentary -- the story of the behind the scene politics -- would itself be a fascinating follow-up.

I'm sure the overall tone of the documentary reflected what your reporting led to. When you found riveting footage of the aerial interdiction team of the Mexican Federal Police being killed by a unit of the Mexican Army while protecting a planeload of cartel cocaine, that was going to be in the story. When you've got a top Mexican law enforcement official saying that the heads of Mexican anti-drug organizations along the U.S. border have to pay $200,000 per month to their superiors in Mexico City, that's going to be in the story.

The conclusion of the four hours is that leading drug "warriors" have come to conclude that the war on drugs is a failure, and that, they say, we need a "new approach." Unfortunately, the "new approach" is the old approach of 1970-72 of much more treatment.

Unstated throughout the four hours is that the shocking stuff that you document -- the unstoppable flow of drugs, the unstoppable production of drugs, the unstoppable corruption, the unstoppable violence, the unending imprisonment, and the unstoppable wealth -- all flow from the unexamined paradigm of prohibition.

At the end of the four hours I felt like I had gone to an interesting action adventure movie, but the last reel was missing I don't know that the hero gets home or how.

There is no question that hundreds of thousands of drug addicts are desperate for treatment they need but never get. But even if everyone in America who has a drug problem gets treatment, even if every kid gets the most effective anti-drug education, there will still be millions of drug users in the U.S. This will include millions of drug users who have no drug problem, and who like and want and will risk using drugs like marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine, and opiates.

The global drug trade, as long as it is illegal, is going to corrupt entire nations, and subvert global economic institutions. We can't enforce our way into a drug-free world, and we can't treat our way into a drug-free world. Of course we can't legislate ourselves into a corruption-free world or a crime-free world. But we sure can be a lot more effective when we abandon prohibition and the hallucination that we can keep people from using drugs by force.

FRONTLINE's producers are bright and public-spirited, and I am confident that you will continue to report about this problem in a good faith effort to help reduce its seriousness, and that soon you will analyze this problem from the standpoint of the prohibition policy that drives it.

Eric Sterling
Washington, DC


I agree with the people that congratulate your team for making a great program on this topic. However, as a Colombian who has witnessed how much the Colombian people has suffered as a result of this American War on Drugs, I think your reports are quite biased. You claim to be showing both sides of the problem, but only a handful of people from Colombia were asked to present its view on this. No country has spent more resources and lost more people in this war than Colombia, but the US people, media and government stills shows all the people in Colombia and Mexico, by the way as part of the enemy in this senseless war. Your program did show that this is mostly a problem that originated in the States and has become worse largely because of erroneus US policies. The people you interviewed were however part of organizations like the DEA that insist on treating this as a problem that lies "somewhere else", in places like Colombia and Mexico. It's understandable that they don't want to fight the drug war in this country, but it's devastating to the places where they do fight. It is devastating too for us Colombians, who are still perceived in this country as citizens of a brutal nation, one that does not know civility, legal commerce and the rule of law. Actually we do know about all that: it's the way our country was before this war on drugs started, and it's where we want to be again. It would have been great if your program would have shown some of that perspective.

Maria Rueda


As a former public defender in a county on the Mexican border I have seen my share of the war on drugs. Your program left out the vast breadth and profitability of domestic drug production eg. marijuana is now the largest cash crop grown in the US. I understand that this program was a history, but the population needs to know the implications. You showed Mexican troops killing Mexican police because they had been bribed to protect the traffickers. You showed American officials calling for the militarization of the war on drugs. Nobody seems to be asking if our military is any more immune to corruption than Mexico's, or for that matter the many American police, customs, and border patrol agents currently under indictment or imprisoned for participating in the drug trade. As a policy matter it would be wise to examine what prohibition is doing to our legal system and the rest of our society, and if the cure is becoming more harmful than the disease.

Guy Fimbres
Phoenix, Arizona


Thank you for a wonderful program!

One comparison hit me hard and I'm surprised I haven't heard this screamed from the rooftops for years. Two items from your broadcast:

1 Mexican law enforcement was being funded in part by drug money, and needed that money because police officers weren't being paid enough. This was just accepted as the way life is.

2 US law enforcement was being funded in part by drug money, and needed that money because the legitimate budgets weren't high enough. This was just accepted as the way life is.

In the former case it was called "bribe". In the latter case it was called "civil forfeiture". So, they differ in name.

They differ a little in procedure, as well. In the former case the kingpin stays in business, by paying off the police with money. In the latter case, the kingpin stays in business, by paying off the police with money and minor people, rather than just with assets. The minor people are put out of circulation, to be replaced by new minor people -- and, oh by the way, we get to pay for the prisons for those minor people.

Why do we keep forgetting that when there is war, there are war profiteers?

Carl Ellison
Portland, OR


Thank you frontline for such an informative look at the drug problem. Although I'm no expert I'd like to offer a different point of view. Everyone would agree that drugs are the end products of an industry. Well, why is the horse buggy industry not doing so well these days. Because there are not many customers, that's why! If we could somehow remove the customer the foundation of the drug business would be destroyed. Typical marketing methods could be used like: education, dealing with the despair or thrill that drives customers to use drugs in the first place, substitue products, etc. No customers, no profit motive, no violent thugs, no high level corruption, no drug enforcement bureacracy, no unfair laws or penial system, the works!

Steve B


I have sat fascinated by your reports on this topic. I see no reason that marijuana should not be legalized and taxed. The same laws used to regulate the consumption of alcohol could be used to keep children from using it. 21 years to use it, etc And it is totally ridiculous to me that tobacco companies are knowingly poisoning their goods, and are still being allowed to manufacture them.

Marie Martin


It was curious to see that our drug czar felt the need to bring his drug of choice into his meeting. A drug which was probably imported from Columbia, and the effect of which is so similar to cocaine.

Dave Cushman
Needham, Ma


The only solution for us as a society to end the illegal drug problem is to treat it as you would an infectious disease. Educate people about the dangers, and treat the users so that they can be cured of this disease.

I'm a 43 year old Hispanic, I grew up in the Ciudad Juarez/El Paso border region, I've witnessed the catastrophic change and devastattion that drug trafficking has brought to this region, and I can guess what similar effects it has had in other border cities. The flow of illegal drugs will end or diminish only if the U.S. starts treatment of drug abusers, education, and commits itself to this end-otherwise things will never change like they started to under president Nixon.

Jose Quezada


Proponents of the current prohibitionist regime
should answer a question or 2.

1 If interdiction suddenly became 2 or 3 or 10 or
even 50 times more effective and resulted in higher
prices for illicit drugs on the street, would this
be a good or bad thing? Why? Please fully explain
your answer in all its implications.

2 If law enforcement suddenly became 100%
effective and EVERY person currently in possession
of any amount of an illegal drug was put in prison
for the maximum sentence, would this be a good or
bad thing? Why? Again, explain your answer in all
its implications.

I'll be interested to see if anyone can say
that either of the above scenarios would be a good
thing for our country WITH convincing logic and

jim n


I was absolutely intrigued with the program, "Drug Wars." As a teacher and a mother, I sat spellbound while listening to the epidemic of drug abuse in our society. I was especially riveted by the former drug traffickers who told their stories and government attempts to stop them.

We used to have the D.A.R.E. program in our schools but it was cut because of lack of funding. Have there been any statistics reported on the effectiveness of this program in schools? Do any of the new candidates support any drug resistance education programs?

Sherral Kaiser


I agree with some of the comments posted here. It's time to decriminalize drugs, especially marijuana. It is hypocritical to allow alcohol and tobacco use, two of the nation's top killers, to be legal, while recreational use of drugs such as marijuana no known deaths to date remain illegal.

Take a look at some of the sentencing issues as well. There are rapists and murderers getting out of prison before some of the drug users/dealers due to mandatory sentencing and prison overcrowding. And think of the peripheral crimes due to the criminalization of drugs such as robberies and murders for a few dollars to support a crack habit.

I say make it legal, and therefore less profitable, and put more money into treatment programs. Our communities would be a safer place. It is appalling what is happening and has happened in Columbia and the US because of the US policies on drugs. More people need to come forward on this issue and not fear being stigmatized due to the nature of this topic.

E. Aloisi
Middleburgh, NY


As I watched your amazing show last night I realized while drugs are often used in this country for recreational purposes, that use has given a lot of power to some very dangerous people. While I understand that legalization may lessen these people's power there are dangers in legalization as well.

When I was 23 years old, the man I dated died of a heroin overdose. For a long time I felt tremendous guilt that this person I knew died and I was unaware that he even used drugs let alone heroin. This was my first wakeup call to drugs.

Then living in New York City throughout the 80s working in commercial photography production I soon saw cocaine use all around me. Having been through one death of a friend I wanted no part of it. The show was superb in showing all the dark undersides of this ancient battle with drugs. Thank you.

Kim Kelling Engstrom
Tallahassee, Florida

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