Just say no more
Publication Date: Wednesday May 31, 1995

Just say no more

Taxpayers have shelled out some $150 billion in the last 10 years to fight the 'war on drugs'--a war we're losing badly. Is there a better way? Former San Jose police chief and Hoover scholar Joseph McNamara thinks so

interview by Steve Beitler and Jane Marcus

Joe McNamara's police career began when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and illegal drugs weren't on anyone's list of pressing social issues. He started out walking a beat in New York City's Harlem district in the late '50s, where he saw the effects of drug use--and the inability of police efforts to curb it--at close range. In 1969 Harvard Law School selected him to be a criminal justice fellow. At Harvard McNamara began his research into the history of America's drug policies. He soon discovered that some key assumptions he (and many other people) made about that history--most importantly, that police groups had led the turn-of-the-century battle to criminalize drugs--were wrong.

McNamara left Harvard and became police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and, eventually, San Jose. In his 15 years as San Jose's top cop, McNamara put many of his insights into practice and got results. San Jose had the lowest crime rate of any major city in the country, and the police department was named as a model in community relations by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This high-profile career has made McNamara no stranger to controversy. The National Rifle Association has attacked his views on drug policy and gun control for years. In the mid-'80s the group spent more than $100,000 on full-page ads in Time, Newsweek and USA Today to launch a hard-hitting attack on his views.

McNamara, a divorced father of three grown children, retired from the force in 1991. He lives in the Palo Alto area and is now a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He is continuing his study of America's war on drugs, writing his fourth police-procedural novel ("The First Directive," "Fatal Command" and "The Blue Mirage" were best-sellers) and working to open up a broad dialogue on the war on drugs. He recently convened a group of top American law enforcement officials as part of this effort to stimulate serious public discussion of drug policy.

In an interview with Steve Beitler and Jane Marcus of Palo Alto, McNamara explained why he believes an open, unemotional dialogue on drug policy is crucial.

Palo Alto Weekly: Last September you wrote an article for Stanford Magazine called "Drug War Follies." Could you summarize the message of that article?

McNamara: There were really a few points I wanted to make. First, the drug war has clearly failed to achieve the goals the government set. But instead of recognizing that failure, the government continues to do more of what hasn't worked. In addition, there are costs to the drug war--mainly increased violence and crime--that never seem to get discussed. The government doesn't hold itself accountable.

Another thing I pointed out is that you don't have to advocate the use, legalization or decriminalization of drugs to be a critic of the drug war. But at this point there's no possibility for an objective national discussion of this issue because of the emotions that surround it. The people who want to continue what we're doing seem to be terrified that we would stop and say, what are we really doing? They challenge any criticism of the drug war by asking, what's your alternative?

Before we decide on alternatives, I think it's imperative that we really study this issue. When we criminalized drugs in 1914 in this country, we didn't study the implications of what we were doing. And now, 80 years later, we still haven't looked at the effects of current policies.

My own background of research on drug policy is a good example of how people can get confused on this issue when they don't study history. I was a policeman for 14 years--10 of those years in Harlem, where I saw firsthand the terrible problems of drugs and the uselessness of arresting and imprisoning people for drug crimes. It was after those 14 years that I started any kind of detailed, academic study of drugs.

I have to say that the response to the Stanford article astounded me. It's not a publication like the Atlantic or the New York Times magazine, but I've gotten hundreds of letters and phone calls from people who said they very much agreed with me.

PAW: What's the link between the war on drugs and violent street crime?

McNamara: I don't think there's any dispute about the fact that the drug trade itself is creating the violence. I don't know of any criminologist who argues otherwise, even though they disagree on what the best approach to the drug problem might be. But the research shows pretty conclusively that the drug marketplace is creating extraordinary violence, especially in the inner cities.

One example: The juvenile homicide rate by firearms has more than doubled since 1985. This is astonishing, and it's not a little blip on the charts. During the same time, the adult homicide rate has stayed pretty flat, as has the juvenile rate by weapons other than firearms.

This increase in juvenile homicides is an unintended but direct consequence of the government's "get tough" policy on drugs, one feature of which is long, mandatory sentences for dealers. The drug distribution rings turned to teen-agers because they can only be charged with juvenile delinquency. And so we're getting a bunch of teen-age boys involved in the drug trade.

Now history shows that it's nothing new for young males from inner cities to be involved in violence. This went on even when these males were from immigrant groups in the 1800s and early 1900s. But what's different now is that the illegal drug trade is the only opportunity for many of these kids; the immigrant groups could move up within a thriving industrial economy. In addition, firearms weren't proliferating at nearly the rate they have been in the last 30 years in this country. So these factors make for a very volatile and violent mix.

The basic problem with drugs is that the profits are enormous because of the illegality. And it's a fact of life that Americans--probably about 26 million of us--are paying billions of dollars for these substances despite the fact that they're against the law. I mean, if we could pass a law and people would stop using drugs I'd say, great, let's do it. But when we look at the history of this issue it's quite clear that the huge profits lead to aggressive recruiting of new users.

PAW: Are we feeling the effects of drug traffic and the crime associated with it on the Peninsula?

McNamara: Sometimes I think we're so fortunate in this area that many people aren't very aware of what life is like in other areas. But we do have the reminder of East Palo Alto. Now, that community has made wonderful progress in terms of lowering the level of violence in recent years. I thought one of the more interesting and promising developments, by the way, was how the surrounding jurisdictions helped East Palo Alto out. They assigned police officers to help the community recover their streets and to reduce violence by arresting and taking guns away from thugs.

That was not only a nice gesture of idealism, it was also very pragmatic. And it should be reflected in our national policy, but it's not. The more affluent areas have to drop their complacency and come to understand that they can't just ignore the violence that's increasing in the inner cities. It spills over into where they live and work.

This touches on another unintended effect of our current drug policy--the impact on race relations. The stereotypes of racism are very much alive in relation to drugs. The large majority of drug crimes--probably about 80 percent or so--are committed by whites. But the arrest and incarceration rates for drug crimes is four to five times greater for non-whites than for whites. I think the daily confrontations of the police with inner-city youth are a terrible thing. We're giving these kids a criminal identity when we should be trying to find every possible way to keep them in school and get them into employment. Instead we're getting rhetoric about war from Washington. Who's the enemy in this war?

PAW: Last September Congress passed a $30 billion crime bill with great bipartisan fanfare. Will this money be spent on good public policy?

McNamara: The crime bill won't succeed in reducing crime any more than the government's other wars against poverty and drug abuses succeeded in reducing those problems. In fact, there's a good argument to be made that it will increase crime.

Now, I have to say at this point that I've seen way too much violence in my career, and I've seen some very dumb approaches by the courts and the correctional system. We were very loose and naive about violent offenders. Someone who hurts another human being belongs in jail for a very long time. And if they do it again when they get out--or even after the first time if their crime is so severe--they should never be allowed out.

The public is rightfully outraged by the fact that there are so many recidivist criminals, such as the person accused of killing Polly Klaas. That is a terrible case. Of course we should be outraged by these kinds of crimes.

But today, 60 percent of the people in federal prison are there for non-violent crimes. At a time when the public is rightfully concerned with violent crime, the government is filling prisons up with non-violent offenders. The police are making hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests every year, for example. Did the public really want to subsidize this kind of policing?

I said at the time, with my usual diplomacy and political acumen, that the "three strikes" provisions were garbage. In the end they'll cause more violence and will be unthinkably expensive. But people in politics didn't have the courage to tell the public what "three strikes" really means. They just went along with it.

Finally, there's the economic irrationality of the crime bill. One estimate is that the law will require us to build a new federal prison every month until the year 2000. It's totally mind-boggling, because the construction costs are only the start. The maintenance costs of these prisons are also huge.

In California, about 80 percent of the cases in the pipeline to put people in prison for life involved such crimes as stealing a bike, writing a bad check and so on. I'm not saying these crimes shouldn't be punished--they should be. But does anyone really want to lock someone up for life at a cost of $25,000 a year to taxpayers because that person wrote a bad check?

It's fascinating to hear the Republicans talk about the Contract with America, which calls for reduced spending, a lower deficit and smaller government. Then they support a crime bill that will do just the opposite, not only because of the new prisons but also because of the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, which are very expensive. But, to be fair, I should say that the madness of the crime bill was truly bipartisan.

PAW: In February Palo Alto decided not to accept funding that was provided for in the crime bill. The city rejected the money because future funding was uncertain and there were bureaucratic strings attached. Did the Palo Alto police department do the right thing in deciding not to accept certain kinds of federal funding provided in the crime bill?

McNamara: I called my friend (Palo Alto Police Chief) Chris Durkin and congratulated him on this decision. I was proud of him for helping to expose the falseness of the federal promise to hire more police officers. I hope he can stand his ground on this, because I think it's a very dubious kind of program. It's not clear, for example, how communities would pay for these additional officers after a couple of years, because there's no provision for federal funding after that time.

PAW: In your Stanford article you talked about your research on the history of U.S. drug policy. Could you describe what you found that surprised you?

McNamara: One thing I found that I think would surprise probably 99 percent of Americans is that drugs weren't always against the law in this country. I spent 14 years enforcing criminal laws against drugs before I learned that.

This really piqued my curiosity, and I ended up doing my dissertation on this topic. I went back to the turn of the century, before drugs were illegal, and I looked at the conditions that existed to the extent one can through historical research. I studied the police records of the time, and I went through congressional records, which showed how different groups lobbied to make drugs a crime.

Now, when I started this research in the late '60s, the academic work on drug abuse at that time more or less postulated that law enforcement people had led the effort to criminalize drugs. That seemed plausible enough, but I was astonished to find that it was simply untrue. The police were silent on the issue of drugs. Their records, which are very detailed, don't mention drugs, except alcohol. The police also aren't mentioned in congressional records of lobbying efforts to criminalize drugs.

The groups that were responsible were religious groups, like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. And this is crucial to understanding why it's so hard to have an objective debate on this issue even today. These groups and others like them had very deep convictions that the use of these substances was evil, and that a crusade against them was needed.

Now, I certainly support the right of people to argue or vote on whatever basis they want, religious or otherwise. But the use of words like "evil" and "crusade" introduced a moral and religious framework into this debate at the turn of the century, and this is a root cause of why it's so hard for us to discuss the drug issue as a social, medical and educational problem.

Interestingly enough, some research I did when I first came to Hoover uncovered another surprise related to this notion of "police silence." I polled about 450 people, most of whom were police chiefs and police officers. There were some judges, prosecutors and a few people from other professions. This group overwhelmingly felt that the drug war was being lost, and that drugs were not a problem that the police should have the main responsibility for addressing. The vast majority of these people--mostly police officers, remember--felt that medical approaches and education were very important.

A lot of my time these days is spent trying to encourage and enable law enforcement people to voice their dissatisfaction with the drug war safely. Remember, it was only when law enforcement groups began to band together and speak out in favor of gun control that we got even the modest progress we've seen so far.

PAW: How would you assess the economic impact of current drug policy?

McNamara: The Drug Policy Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information on this issue, estimates that the federal government spent about $150 billion in the last 10 years. They also estimate that, without policy reform, the feds will spend another $150 billion in the next three years. I was one of many signers of an ad in the New York Times that asked, what did we get for the first $150 billion, and what will we get for the next $150 billion?

As I said earlier, it's the huge profits that the drug trade generates that have corrupted everyone from police officers to airline personnel to military people, politicians and whole foreign governments. A hundred and fifty billion is a lot of money, but it's still a lot less than what was spent worldwide on drugs during the same period. And remember, money spent on illegal drugs is all untaxed money.

The economic impact isn't just in the amount we spend; it's also reflected in how we spend that money, and how we don't. A good recent example is the DARE program--Drug Abuse Resistance Education. This is the effort where police officers go into schools and tell youngsters about the dangers of drugs.

The federal government, which funds DARE, also commissioned research to study the impact of this effort. The study showed that kids who were exposed to DARE had higher rates of alcohol and marijuana use than kids who weren't. So what did the government do? They decided not to publish the research, claiming they were unhappy with the methodology used in the study.

Now, in real research, you publish the results, and other people would publish their critiques of the methods used. But when it comes to drugs, the government isn't interested in a real debate. The crime bill that passed last September contained funding for DARE. They wouldn't even allow the results of the study to be introduced in hearings on the bill.

In one way, it's kind of logical that DARE would have that impact. The kids aren't stupid. They see a cop in uniform in their classroom. He or she says they shouldn't use drugs. Well, what else is a cop going to say? There might be other reasons why we would want to have cops speak to kids in school. But why do we continue to deceive ourselves this way?

PAW: What alternative policies for addressing the drug question do you find promising?

McNamara: Well, I'd start by saying that if people look at this issue, and start to accept the facts as they are, it's quite clear that we need to study some alternative approaches. There are reams of research showing that police arrest and incarceration rates don't have any impact on the level of drug abuse.

I think the main thing we'd like to see is the movement toward harm reduction. This is an approach that says that the goal of drug policy should be to reduce the harm that these substances, the commerce in them and government policies themselves do to people and society.

The harm-reduction approach also says that the most effective way to reduce drug abuse is to lower the demand for drugs. This is where treatment and education can really help. I think we have some evidence that public-health campaigns can change people's behavior. Smoking, for example, has decreased radically, not because the government has been locking up tobacco sellers for 10 and 15 years but because we worked to educate people about the effects of smoking.

The harm-reduction approach is really sweeping the world. We're the only ones still talking the fantasy that we can somehow cure this problem by oppressive incarceration. Many countries in Europe, as well as some cities in the United States, have implemented this approach with very promising results.

One of the big arguments that people who oppose a change in policy make is that it would lead to more people using drugs. The harm-reduction model says, well, if there were more users--and we really don't know if that would happen--a rational policy would compare the harm of more users with the benefits of slowing the spread of AIDS or of drastically reducing homicides by perhaps 10,000 per year--the number that are attributable to drug trafficking. That conclusion, by the way, is based on work done by Milton Friedman, a colleague of mine here at Hoover and someone who has studied the effects of the drug war in depth.

But the government never makes those kinds of comparisons. Instead they promote slogans like a "Drug-Free America" and so on. Well, if you watch TV for 25 minutes it's pretty clear we'll never be a drug-free America. We've got drugs to make us thin, calm us down, help us get strong, make the pain go away and lots of other things.

Above all, the single biggest change that has to occur is that we have to stop viewing drug users as criminals. We have a real drug problem in America, but stereotyping users as "dope fiends" is an archaic view that was never true anyway. We need to view these people as human beings who need help.

But we'll never change our drug policy until we open up the public dialogue on this issue. That was really our goal with the resolution we drafted a couple of years ago.

PAW: Could you describe that effort and where it stands today?

McNamara: We drafted the resolution, pretty spontaneously I must say, at a conference on drug policy here at Hoover a couple of years ago. But it's not a "Hoover resolution," because Hoover doesn't take positions on issues. Word of what we drafted traveled pretty quickly, and thousands of people wound up signing it. This was remarkable to me because we had no staff, no budget, no organization. In fact, it just about ruined my life here for six months!

I took the resolution to mayors Frank Jordan in San Francisco, Elihu Harris in Oakland and Susan Hammer in San Jose. We had a press conference at which they signed it, as did their police chiefs. I thought it was good politics.

Then Jim Gray and I--he's a Superior Court judge in Orange County and one of the original movers behind the resolution--took all the signatures to Lee Brown in Washington. He's President Clinton's drug czar. I wish I could say we had some real impact, but I don't think that's the case at all. I think we touched a nerve, though.

PAW: What has to happen for the policies of the drug war to be reviewed?

McNamara: Well, the crime bill that was passed in September mandates the creation of a bipartisan task force to study our current drug policies. Our resolution had called for the creation of a commission to do this, so maybe we did accomplish something after all.

Now, it's interesting to note that task forces can affect public policy. Milton Friedman, another of the prime movers behind our resolution, points out that he was on a task force to study the military draft and to examine the feasibility of an all-volunteer army. Milton likes to remind us that when they started to look at an all-volunteer army, no one thought it was feasible. Yet we've had just such an army for quite some time now. So, task forces can and do make recommendations that surprise even the people who appoint them, and that can change policy. In the early '70s President Nixon set up a task force that said we should legalize marijuana. Of course, Nixon wanted nothing to do with that.

But the impact of task forces on policy can sometimes be very gradual, as they amass evidence that is so powerful that it gives politicians the room to take a different position.

My feeling is that any objective group that studies the war on drugs has to recognize that it's a disaster. It is not stopping the spread of drug abuse, it's causing a good deal more crime and violence than we'd otherwise have, and it's having severe negative effects on race relations in America.

I'm pretty confident that, regardless of where people on the task force start from--even if they're drug-war hawks--I think studying the issue for a year or two will lead to the inescapable conclusion that this has been a tragic mistake.

PAW: How can people encourage dialogue on this issue?

McNamara: I'm a staunch believer in democracy. And one of the facts of life is that before Congress will consider changing policy they have to hear from voters. What really changes public policy in America are phone calls to elected officials. And most groups don't do that. If politicians get four or five calls or letters on an issue, that's a lot. You know, we complain a lot about politicians, but you can't have a democracy without them. And I don't think the depth of dissatisfaction with the drug war has been made at all clear to them. Politicians have to come to understand that we can disapprove of the use of these substances without dehumanizing the people who use them.

Look at alcohol--clearly a very dangerous drug for some people. It probably causes 40,000 to 50,000 deaths a year in this country. But I have to say--maybe it's selfish--I don't feel I should have to give up my right to enjoy a beer on a hot day, or a glass of wine with dinner, because some people have problems with alcohol and shouldn't ever drink it. I think the same thing applies to other drugs. It's just that we've been conditioned to think that these molecules are more dangerous than alcohol when, in fact, the evidence shows that that's not true.

It's been said that the first casualty of any war is the truth. That's certainly the case in the drug war.

Steve Beitler and Jane Marcus are Palo Alto residents and parents. Beitler is a writer and editor and a former copy editor at the Palo Alto Weekly. Marcus, a staff member at Stanford, holds a Stanford doctorate in policy analysis with a specialization in education and communication. 

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