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  Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial

    Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas

        ©UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1996.
        Contents and Excerpt from the Preface.


List of Figures


1. The Drug War Syndrome
2. Three Fatal Flaws in the War on Drugs
3. The Collateral Damage of the War on Drugs


4. The Punitive Paradigm: The Early Struggles, 1900—1930
5. The Punitive Paradigm: Entrenchment and Challenge, 1930—1980
6. Presidential Drug Wars and the Narco-Enforcement Complex
7. Congress, the Electorate, and the Logic of Escalation
8. The Punitive Paradigm Revisited


9. Paradigm Shifts
10. Envisioning a Public-Health Paradigm
11. The Politics of Drug Reform

Appendix 1. Trends in Drug-Control Spending
Appendix 2. Trends in Drug Prices
Appendix 3. Trends in Drug Use and Its Consequences

Excerpt From the Preface:

We came to write this book out of a deep concern over how a politics of fear, insecurity, and intolerance can crowd out the possibility of a politics of reason, care, and collective responsibility. We were also troubled by a common pattern in public policy: the persistence of unworkable policies in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failure. We saw these two concerns as connected in certain cases: when policies seeking to address social problems through the exercise of fear, coercion, and force reaped failure and further problems, the response was often to "get tougher." It seemed to be conventional wisdom that the reason force had not worked was that not enough had been applied and that the logical response to failure, therefore, was escalation—not reevaluation.

For many years, similar concerns informed our work on U.S. foreign policy, and in the late I980S we turned our attention to the escalating U.S. drug war in Latin America. Longtime students of the region, we saw the danger that counternarcotics could become a prime driving force of U.S. intervention there, given the waning of anticommunism. Our initial research on the drug war in the Andes convinced us that this policy was senseless: it would never reduce significantly the supply of drugs coming into the United States; it was wasting billions of dollars; and it was undermining democracy and human rights in the region by strengthening the hands of repressive militaries and weakening already fragile civilian governments. Evidence of the drug war's failure and harm was widely available, not only in academic circles but also in government documents and media reports. Yet the reports of failure only reinforced the resolve of public officials to "try harder," to apply a little more funding, a little more firepower—and the deeper flaws and harms of the policy were rarely part of the official debate.

It soon became clear to us that the same kinds of flaws and policy-generated harms were built into the drug war at home. Rather than ameliorating the problems of drug abuse and addiction, current policies of tough law enforcement are deepening many serious health and crime problems related to drug use. Yet the drug-policy debate is extraordinarily stultifying. It does not distinguish the harms caused by drugs from the harms caused by the social conditions in which drugs are used. It does not distinguish between the injuries caused by taking these illicit substances and those brought about by the policy solutions. It does not address the deeper reasons Americans use and abuse drugs, but instead weighs the most effective means to suppress this use.

The debate is polarized and simplistic, often phrased in terms of good versus evil, prohibition versus a free market, individual blame versus social causation. Politicians look for quick-fix solutions; many seem addicted to the idea of the drug war itself. People who want to open or expand the debate are delegitimized: there is a tendency to shoot the messenger rather than to analyze the message carefully. At home and abroad, the official response to failure has commonly been one of more fear, with calls for more force and more punishment.

Faced with such a situation both beyond and within our borders, our initial interest in the drug war shifted. Convinced by our research that the drug war strategy was inherently flawed at home and abroad, that it would not alleviate the growing problems of drug abuse and addiction, and that the war itself was exacerbating these and other social problems, we wanted to figure out why this strategy had persisted for so long and why the repeated response to failure was simply to continue the same policies. Persevering in a "march of folly," "becoming our own worst enemy," "shooting ourselves in the foot"—these were the metaphors for a puzzle we wanted to solve.

So we sought not to write a book about drugs themselves or about the causes of drug abuse and addiction. Nor did we simply want to write another book about the failure of U.S. drug policy (though we will need to address the causes of failure and the harmful consequences of the drug war). Rather, this is a book about the politics of the drug war—a politics of denial—and the struggle for drug-policy reform.

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