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Winning The Drug War

This column was written by Jonathan V. Last.

There's a wonderful scene in the movie "Traffic" in which a captured drug kingpin, played by Miguel Ferrer, is being interrogated by two federal agents. Ferrer says to them disdainfully: "You people are like those Japanese soldiers left behind on deserted islands who think that World War II is still going on. Let me be the first to tell you, your government surrendered this war a long time ago."

It's a brilliant bit of filmmaking; it's also bunk. Over the last five years, while no one was paying attention, America has been winning its war on drugs.

The cosmopolitan view has long been that the fight against drugs is a losing battle; that the supply of drugs pouring into America is never-ending; that drug lords are unrelenting zombie-supermen — kill one, and five more spring up.

The American drug problem grew to epidemic proportions throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1979, agencies of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health performed a national household survey of illicit drug use; substances included marijuana, cocaine, heroin, banned hallucinogens and inhalants, and unauthorized use of sedatives, stimulants and analgesics. As of 1979, the numbers were horrifying: 31.8 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 had used drugs; 16.3 percent of them had used in the last month. Among those ages 18 to 25 it was worse: 69 percent had used at some point; 38 percent in the last month.

But throughout the '80s, those numbers shrank. Sophisticates derided "Just Say No," but by 1993, only 16.4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had used, and only 5.7 percent had used in the last month. In the 18-to-25 age bracket, 50.2 percent had tried drugs, but only 15 percent had used in the last 30 days. It was a remarkable success.

From 1993 to 2001, the numbers become less rosy: Among ages 12 to 17, the percentage of youths who had tried drugs increased almost twofold. In the 18-to-25 crowd, the increase was less marked, but still noticeable.

There's a reason we pay so much attention to these two age groups. As Tom Riley, the director of public affairs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), explains: "If people don't start using drugs as teenagers — the mechanism of addiction clicks much more quickly in the developing brain — then they are unlikely to ever go on to serious drug abuse. If we can reduce the number of teens who use drugs, we change the shape of the problem for generations to come."

After 2001, the tide turned again. Since then, teen drug use is off nearly 19 percent. Which means that 700,000 fewer teens are using drugs today than just a few years ago.

What happened? For one thing: funding. Since 1998, the ONDCP's real budget has increased, from $8.2 billion to $12.4 billion. That extra money has mostly gone to law enforcement and drug treatment, attacking both the supply and the demand sides of the problem. Measures for demand are fuzzy, but the supply side of the equation — the "war" part of the war on drugs — has solid metrics.

Each substance is its own front and has its own dynamics. Drug supply is shockingly local. Take coca, the substance from which cocaine and crack are derived. From 1998 to 2001, world coca production increased from 586,100 metric tons to 655,800 metric tons, with the lion's share grown in Columbia. Since then, the ONDCP orchestrated a campaign to spray 140,000 hectares of Colombian coca fields with glyphosate (you know it as Roundup). The result: world coca production is down 20 percent.

With other substances, the news is even better. On Nov. 6, 2000, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided an abandoned missile silo in Wamego, Kan., which housed the world's leading LSD operation. By 2004, LSD availability in America was down 95 percent. The market still hasn't recovered.

The supply of all the major drugs is down, but at the same time, drug interdiction is up. In 1989, 533,533 kilograms of the four major drugs were seized by U.S. authorities. By 2005, the total had risen to 1.3 million kilograms.

Earlier this week, the ONDCP released a report outlining their order of battle for 2006. Director John Walters is not the type to go running for the nearest TV camera. Yet the quiet success he has overseen is a powerful reminder that the bad guys are not 10 feet tall; that failure is not inevitable; that the war on drugs is a war worth fighting; and that we're fighting it well.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the February 5, 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
By Jonathan V. Last

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