Drug War Politics"The Price of Denial"
Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe and Peter Andreas
Univ. of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles ISBN 0-0520-20598-7
A Review by Bill D'Amico
This book hit the drug policy section at Powell's the same week
as "Smoke and Mirrors". Both books depict the folly
of the War on Drugs. But where S&M outraged and incensed me
as I read it, DWP informed. It has a much less strident tone,
and hence should be more accessible to mainstreamers than S&M.
DWP is organized in three main sections, dealing with the state
of the current policy landscape (titled "Confronting Denial"),
How we got here ("Paradigms, Power, and the Politics of Denial")
and where to go from here ("Public Health and the Struggle
In the first section the authors point out how the strategies
presently are fatally flawed, then go on to look at collateral
damage done in the course of implementing these strategies. Here
is a sample snippet from a subsection entitled Deepening Race
and Class Divisions:
"Carrying out a war against supply in the inner city creates
a powerful vacuum pump that draws the poor and minority citizens
into the lucrative trade itselfand then into the criminal
justice system. The pattern is rooted in the deteriorating social
conditions.... "The economic attraction of drug dealing
for inner city residents is not surprising. The causal link between
decaying conditions in the inner cities and increased drug abuse,
however, is neither direct nor mechanistic. It is the product
of a complex relationship long observed by substance-abuse counselors
across lines of race and class: alcohol and drug abuse discriminate,
seeking out and settling in homes and communities already weakened
by family instability, financial insecurity and hopelessness."
The second section of the book begins with a wonderful quote from
"The war against drugs provides them [politicians] with something
to say that offends nobody, requires them to do nothing difficult,
and allows them to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the more urgent
and specific questions about the state of the nation's schools,
housing, employment opportunities for young black meni.e.,
the condition to which drug addiction is a symptom, not a cause.
They remain safe in the knowledge that they might as well be denouncing
Satan or the rain, and so they can direct the voices of prerecorded
blame at metaphors and apparitions... The war on drugs thus becomes
the perfect war for people who would rather not fight a war, a
war in which the politicians who stand so fearlessly on the side
of the good, the true and the beautiful need do nothing else but
strike noble poses as protectors of the people and defenders of
the public trust".
Chapters in this section examine "the Punitive Paradigm"
both from 1900-1930 and from 1930-1980. Then on to "Presidential
Drug Wars and the Narco-Enforcement Complex" and "Congress,
the Electorate and the Logic of Escalation". Finally they
end with "the Punitive Paradigm Revisited". Here's a
passage from the latter chapter:
"the willingness to deny harms caused by the strategy's answer
to addiction and crime is nothing new. In 1969 Dr. Stanley Yolles,
director of the National Institute of Mental Health, testified
against mandatory minimum sentences for addicts before a subcommittee
of the House Select Committee on Crime:
This type of law has no place in a system devised to control
an illness. It has no place being used for individuals who are
addicted to drugs.
This type of law angers us as doctors, because it should not apply
to people who are sick. It destroys hope on the part of the person
sentencedhope of help, hope for starting a fresh life. It's
totally contradictory to the whole concept of medicine. A prison
experience is often psychologically shattering...He may for the
first time in his life learn criminal ways. Such mandatory sentences
destroy the prospects for rehabilitation".
The response of Rep. Albert Watson (R-S Carolina) demonstrated
how such arguments are deflected and twisted by the paradigm's
drug-crime link: "Dr. Yolle's views are an affront to every
decent, law-abiding citizen in America. At a time when we are
on the verge of a narcotics crisis, a supposedly responsible Federal
official comes along with the incredibly ridiculous idea of dropping
mandatory jail sentences for those who push dope".
The final section of the book deals with solutions. Legalization
is discussed and ultimately dismissed as lacking in how it handles
problems of drug abuse.
"Despite the legalizers' powerful critique of the harms done
by the drug war and despite the deep roots of principles such
as individual autonomy and free enterprise in American culture,
this failure to offer guidance on the real problems of drug abuse
and addiction makes many people leery of embracing legalization.
Their concerns are exacerbated by the fact that legalization is
likely to increase levels of drug use. Because some new users
would become drug dependent, abuse and addiction would increase
in turn. How great the increase would be is a contested question
and depends in part on how tightly legal sales would be regulated.
But the underlying principles and values of the paradigmindividual
responsibility for drug use and its consequencesoffer no
counsel regarding the appropriate bounds of public responsibility
for regulating sales or funding treatment, prevention, or harm
The authors suggest that a public health approach is better suited
for getting drug related harms to decrease, and introduce the
concept in the same chapter as they look at legalization, they
go on to a full chapter on what a possible public health approach
could look like. As part of this they look at the history of public
health movement in getting such taken for granted things as public
sewage treatment. After singing Public Health's praises they go
on to look at prohibition/regulation of various substances.
"For example, the prohibition of nicotine theoretically would
yield enormous health benefits for individuals and would lower
many costs to society (insurance rate, government disability benefits,
and health subsidies). But the creation of an enormous black market,
the crime and the violence, and the impact on current addicts
(who would be forced into the criminal underworld because of their
addiction) would likely outweigh the benefits of prohibition and
argue for other forms of regulation. Similarly, the prohibition
of certain kinds of alcohol (200 proof moonshine, for example)
makes sense: it is enforceable and it creates only a small black
market. But this prohibition is workable because it is part of
an alcohol regime that also allowsand regulatesmore
benign, less potent alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine.
For those drugs that are regulated but not prohibited, difficult
and contested question would remain about the actual mechanisms
of regulation. For example, where should decisions about regulation
be madeat the local, state or national level? And what kinds
of regulations would discourage the progression toward more serious
drug involvement (from no use to casual use to abuse to addiction)
and instead encourage less frequent and less dangerous forms of
They end with a chapter on the politics of reform. The authors
seem unaware of the political potential of the internet, so they
look at mainstream prevention and treatment advocates for most
of the meat in this chapter.
"Despite their private misgivings about the drug war many
officials in treatment and prevention associations thus not only
have been reticent to publicly criticize the policy but also have
mined the punitive drug-crime connection for much-needed funding.
A top executive in a national treatment association explained:
"You get resources to deal with the problem any way you can
and you get the resources for treatment with the connection
with the crime problem. I wish it were not true... I wish the
concern out there was the health problem... But if I can get
more money for treatment by tying it to crime, then I should,
because that money is badly needed to strengthen treatment facilities.
The crime budget is not going away... We might as well get money
from it. If treatment were not tied to crime fighting, there would
be no money." "The head of a state organization of substance-abuse
associations, a would-be critic of the punitive paradigm, put
it more bluntly: "It's true. We're whores. But that's the
only way we can get the money we need... If riding the crime wave
is the way to get money, I'll do it. There are a lot of folks
out there who are trying to make ends meet, pay their staffs,
keep their programs going. If this is the way to do it, they'll
The final chapter concludes by looking at some reform successes,
Needle Exchange programs, various judges and elected officials
questioning the punitive paradigm. Three appendices show growth
in drug use and law enforcement in quite striking relief. We've
seen these graphs before I imagine, their source is ONDCP. Spending
goes up, street price goes down, (except for marijuana), emergency
room episodes go up. Estimated number of casual users goes down,
estimated number of hard core users goes up.
I can recommend this book to all and sundry reform minded people,
as well as those that are on the fence, as perhaps Mr. Matthews
The book is heavily annotated and a comprehensive bibliography
follows the appendices.