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When Richard Nixon swept into office in 1968, the United States was on fire in the literal sense of the word.  Fractured by the ongoing disaster in Vietnam, the nation was closer to civil war than it had been for a century, and when Martin Luther King was cut down in Memphis that spring, over a hundred^ cities from coast to coast exploded in flames. Within the Halls of Ivy, the flag itself was being torched, and the stunned middle class watched in dismay as their kids burned draft cards, ripped off their bras, grew hair, smoked dope, and joined the Panthers on the barricades.  In living rooms across the country the air fairly crackled with fear and rage, and that fall Richard Nixon promised to set it right.

But after demolishing the Democrats as soft on crime, Nixon was faced with an unpleasant reality.  It began to dawn on his advisors that there’s really not much the White House could do that directly impacts the crime rate. The thugs people are really afraid of—burglars, robbers, murderers—are not normally

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subject to federal law.  They’re the business of local cops and state courts. That January, as Mitchell and Ehrlichman explored various means of involving the Executive Branch directly in the fight against crime, they kept running headlong into the Constitution—the first in a series of ultimately fatal collisions with that nettlesome document. Its quaint 18th Century sensibilities seemed unsuited to the dangers these men faced. By reserving all this power to the States, the Tenth Amendment hemmed them in, frustrating their best ideas.  Then somebody mentioned drugs and everybody looked up. Once again it was the perfect target—exotic imports poisoning the nation’s bloodstream—and the federal government already had the authority to bust drug suspects anywhere, any time.[1]

Many people are under the impression that Richard Nixon started the drug war, but he was simply following the hallowed footsteps of Hamilton Wright, Richmond Hobson, Harry Anslinger, Hale Boggs, and a hundred other political operators over the last half-century who have used narcotics to advance their careers.  Nixon, however, would shift the process into overdrive.  By resurrecting Captain Hobson’s image of the Drug User as Vampire, the Administration was able to focus public anxiety on junkies and dope smokers in a way that made perfect sense to an America whipsawed by war, riots, and an incomprehensible younger generation.  People already suspected marijuana and LSD were at the root of the youth rebellion, and they read in the papers that heroin was driving inner-city blacks to rape and pillage. On the nightly news, these two images began fusing together as heroin and marijuana merged into a single dreadful scourge in the public mind. Nixon’s political genius was to spot these waves of public anxiety before anyone else and to ride them like a surfer. “I believe in civil rights,” he said. “But the right of every American is to be free from violence, and we are going to have an administration that restores that right in the United States of America.”[2]

In a skillful display of fear management, the White House warned the country that a plague of unimaginable proportions

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was about to engulf the nation. The numbers were astounding. From a total of 68,088 heroin addicts in 1969, the official count jumped to over 550,000 in two years—an eight-fold increase.  “The problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency,” said the President. “I intend to take every step necessary.”[3]  To fight the drug pushers on their own terms, he would need emergency powers—preventive detention, unorthodox strike forces, more freedom to search, wiretap, and arrest. The Democrats in Congress, impressed with the whip-crack political power of Nixon’s law-and-order message, backed him to the hilt.

But it turns out the numbers that launched this spectacular crusade, in the grand tradition of drug wars past, were totally fabricated.   The 1971 addict count—559,000—was not arrived at by discovering new junkies, but by taking the 1969 total—68,088—and multiplying it by a factor of eight.[4] The first number, suspiciously precise in itself, was simply a list of all the addicts who had run afoul of the law. Harry Anslinger always maintained every junkie would come to the attention of the cops sooner or later, but by 1970 the record-keepers at the Bureau of Narcotics began to suspect this was wishful thinking. After a study of the actual street scene, they concluded that the official count was probably off by about 800 percent. So instead of a dramatic increase in addiction, the new numbers simply reflected a second look at the original data. But nobody at the Bureau bothered to call the White House spokesmen on this flagrant misconstruction of the facts, and the press never bothered to ask.

By 1972, however, the appearance of a growing addict population was becoming an embarrassment. This huge jump had occurred, after all, on Nixon’s watch, and this was an election year.  So the White House called the head man at the Bureau of Narcotics and told him to cool it. The drug agency, responding instantly to this shift in the wind, arbitrarily cut the number of junkies to 150,000 in the next report, and the Administration was able to take credit for the overnight cure of some 400,000 addicts.[5]

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After Nixon’s second landslide, the White House set out to redesign the Executive Branch, and among the alterations was a new plan for the nation’s drug fighting apparatus. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and several other bureaucracies were to be absorbed into a vast new organization called the Drug Enforcement Agency.  From its birth in July of 1973, the DEA had awesome powers—as great in many respects as the FBI and Customs combined—and their reach was global. They could detain and interrogate suspects, call for wiretaps and no-knock warrants, and bring in the tax men.  And with the influx of several hundred agents picked up from the CIA and Customs, the new superagency now had the talent and ability to conduct black bag operations and domestic surveillance.  But thirteen days before this omnipotent police force was to be turned loose, the D.C. Metro cops arrested five burglars in the Watergate office complex and the Administration’s secret plans began to come unraveled.

One unexpected benefit of the Watergate debacle was the mountain of evidence, memos, tapes, and diaries, offering a surgical cross-section of government operations at the highest level. Author Edward Jay Epstein dug through this mountain in the late ‘70s and after interviewing the principal players, he came to the conclusion that the Nixon War on Drugs was a mask for darker designs. In his book, Agency of Fear[6], he makes a persuasive case that the DEA was to have functioned at some level as a private army for the White House.  The discovery of the famous Enemies List gave some hint of what they had in mind.

When Richard Nixon’s helicopter lifted off the South Lawn for the last time in 1974, he left behind a drug fighting apparatus that was larger by an order of magnitude than the one he inherited.  For half a century, the federal anti-narcotics force had been a tiny sidebar to the country’s overall enforcement effort, largely symbolic, never involving more than a few hundred men. Now it was a vast international law-enforcement operation with

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over four thousand agents. And though the agency’s operations routinely ran afoul of the Constitution, the public willingly began to surrender bits and pieces of the Bill of Rights because the fear of drugs was now palpable.

In truth, the actual number of heroin addicts throughout the Nixon era remained fairly stable. According to the Pentagon and other government sources, it peaked in 1969 and may have actually been declining when the war on drugs was launched.[7] In any event, the totals were always modest. Even the White House at its most extreme was never talking about more than three people in a thousand.[8] But by blurring the distinction between marijuana and heroin, the prohibitionists effectively added 40 million pot-smokers to the total, and 45 million drug users was a frightening epidemic by any measure.[9]

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, thought jailing people for smoking marijuana was counterproductive.[10]  He was not alone. A presidential commission appointed by Nixon himself had recommended decriminalization as early as 1972—a stunning embarrassment for the White House. Nixon had appointed a Republican drug hawk, former Pennsylvania Governor Ray Shafer, to head the commission, and his job was to create a scientific foundation for the administration’s hard line on marijuana.  But after months of digging, the facts overwhelmed the folk tales and the Shafer Commission reversed engines: “Marihuana use, in and of itself, is neither causative of, nor directly associated with crime…”[11]  They found no basis for the gateway theory. Alcohol, they said, was probably a greater danger, and they concluded that personal use of marijuana should no longer be a crime.[12]  Nixon buried the report but the facts were on the table nonetheless.

At the same time, a lot of people were disturbed by the way police and prosecutors were using the drug laws as a political sledgehammer. In Texas, Black Panther Otis Lee Johnson

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got 30 years for passing a joint that wasn’t even his, while white college kids doing a lot worse were getting off with a wink and a nod.[13]  The blatant hypocrisy was starting to erode respect for the law in general, and that was alarming to bedrock conservatives like William F. Buckley and Milton Freidman.[14]  All over the country lawmakers were taking another look at marijuana penalties and by the time Jimmy Carter got to the White House, eleven states had reduced possession to the equivalent of a traffic ticket.[15]

At this pivotal moment, President Carter turned over the helm of national drug policy to a man who actually knew something about the problem.  Stanford-trained psychiatrist Peter Bourne had helped open the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and his observations of the street scene in San Francisco convinced him that prison was the last thing most of these kids needed. As drug czar, he hammered away at his close friend Jimmy Carter and finally convinced him that the law should be changed.  On August 2, 1977, the President told Congress, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself,” and for the first time in four decades of criminalization, the White House called for the elimination of penalties for possession of marijuana.[16]  It looked, for an instant, like the rules of engagement for the drug war were about to be rewritten.

But while Peter Bourne may have had a clear picture of the medical issues, he was incredibly naive about marijuana politics.  An Englishman by birth, he failed to grasp the symbolic connection between reefer and the cultural war that had split the U.S. since the onset of Vietnam. To at least half the country, marijuana was emblematic of the unpatriotic, long-haired anti-war counter-culture—not just a drug, but a flag of anarchy. These citizens had not abandoned the field. They were waiting for a strategic opening and now it was at hand.

By the mid-70s there were plenty of advance warnings that the country was once again on a collision course

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with cocaine.  Time and Newsweek were carrying titillating tales about the “smart set” offering coke spoons along with the caviar at fashionable gatherings in Manhattan and Hollywood.[17] But this latest romance with the magic powder would be a replay of the cocaine rush the country experienced earlier in the century, beginning with a rhapsody of praise, followed by assurances that it’s non-addictive, ending with the grim realization that a lot of people couldn’t quit if their lives depended on it. But in the opening phase of any drug cycle, people always manage to convince themselves there is such a thing as a free lunch, and in 1977 cocaine was the miracle energizer that made you witty and charming.  In the end, it would devour everything in its path including Dr. Peter Bourne.

As well-meaning government officials have discovered time and again this century, just talking about re-examining drug policy makes you politically vulnerable.  The slightest misstep and you’re down like a gut-shot buffalo.  In the case of Peter Bourne, the wounds were largely self-inflicted.  On a hot summer day in 1978 a young woman on his staff told him she needed a sedative.  She was breaking up with her boyfriend and hadn’t slept in days.  Dr. Bourne wrote a prescription for fifteen tablets of methaqualone, all perfectly legal, but since she was a member of the White House staff, he made it out to a fictitious name to protect her identity. She made the terminal mistake of asking a girlfriend to get it filled for her, and the girlfriend happened into a drug store that was being audited by a state pharmacy inspector.  He became suspicious, asked for I.D., nothing matched, he called the cops, and the cops called on the doctor who wrote the prescription.  Bourne, of course, had a perfectly logical explanation for all this, but as far as the press was concerned the explanation was coming from an outspoken drug-legalizer who was caught passing a bogus scrip for Quaaludes—a known sex enhancer—to a lovely young female assistant. Within days every mistake Peter Bourne ever made hit the front page and one of his mistakes was attending a Christmas party

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the year before where marijuana and cocaine were used openly. Bourne claimed he never touched the stuff, but his credibility evaporated.  With his enemies in full cry, he was run out of town.[18]

A few weeks earlier, a radical change in marijuana policy had been almost a foregone conclusion.  Now it was out of the question. The administration itself had become vulnerable on the drug issue and Carter was forced to the right. There would be no more loose talk about legalization from the White House.

Ronald Reagan didn’t need any instruction in marijuana politics. Using the drugs-and-crime issue as a battering ram, he flattened the Democrats with a masterful law-and-order campaign, and once in the White House he picked up the ball exactly where Nixon had dropped it.

Reagan had promised to get rid of the welfare state and cut big government down to size.  To do that he would have to convince everybody that the blame for social problems arose not from inequality, racism, and injustice as the Liberals maintained, but from the immoral acts of bad people—a distinct minority that simply needed to be cut from the body politic like a tumor. The government’s role, therefore, was not rehabilitation, but vengeance. In June of 1982, Reagan  reopened the War on Drugs with a broadside from the Rose Garden.  “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts. We’re running up a battle flag.”[19]  This time, there would be no room for the wounded.  The federally funded drug treatment network, begun under Nixon and nourished by three administrations, got the ax.[20]  Law enforcement was what the people wanted, and the firepower was about to be escalated dramatically.

As with all previous drug wars, this one began with a list of demands for tougher legislation and fewer restraints on lawmen.  Once again, extreme measures were required. The biggest problem was the fact that the bad guys had more money than the good

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guys. The staggering profits of the cocaine trade had created a sleek, high-tech underworld with more firepower, better communications, faster cars, planes, and boats than the cops. To strip the narcotraffickers of this obscene wealth, the administration dusted off a legal strategy that originated in the early days of the republic when the government fought smugglers by seizing their ships and cargo.[21]  The concept, known as forfeiture, was used again during alcohol prohibition to relieve bootleggers of their assets.  Now it would be transformed into a Sword of Damocles, hanging by a thin judicial thread over every citizen in the country.

The Omnibus Crime Bill of 1984 gave the administration everything it asked for and then some. In addition to the inevitable boost in prison terms, prosecutors could now confiscate cash, cars, boats, homes, bank accounts, stock portfolios—anything believed to have been tainted with drugs or drug money—based on nothing more than an accusation. And because drug traffickers are notoriously slippery, the law provided for an element of surprise.  It allowed police to take  property without notice. In other words, the goods would be seized first, then charges would be filed, then the evidence would be gathered—the exact reverse of due process. While this legal shortcut proved to be a powerful weapon against the guilty, it contained no safeguard for the innocent.  And the new law had one additional clause that would subtly alter the relationship between citizens and police.  From now on, seized assets would be shared among the law enforcement agencies that made the seizure.  The symmetry was appealing—using the trafficker’s ill-gotten gains to combat drug trafficking—but in practical terms, the cop on the beat now had a cash incentive to capture property instead of criminals. In an era of belt-tightening, profits from seizures were a way for strapped departments to make ends meet.  Very shortly, law enforcement agencies throughout the country began including seizure projections in their annual budgets. Now there were hard numbers on paper that represented official targets—

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quotas—that would have to be filled whether there were enough criminals to go around or not. The inevitable consequence of this process was evident in one 1990 Justice Department memo to all U.S. Attorneys: “We must significantly increase our forfeiture production to reach our budget target. Every effort must be made to increase forfeiture income in the three remaining months of fiscal year 1990.”[22]  It was a return to the halcyon days of medieval criminal justice. Generations of property rights going back to the Magna Carta were set aside in the name of legal efficiency. It was now possible for anyone—hostile neighbor or greedy cop—to have you kicked out of your own house. All they had to do was accuse you of buying the place with drug money.  No proof would be required.  No conviction.  No evidence. Suspicion alone would be enough to land you and your family in the street. In case you happened to be innocent and wanted the place back, the burden of proof and the legal fees would be on you. If you couldn’t account for every payment, the house could be sold at auction and if your neighbor was the one who turned you in, he might be eligible to split the take with the police. It was, in fact, this is the very act—using seizures to finance the King’s army—that led Hancock and Jefferson and Adams to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.[23] If they were with us today, they would surely be at our throats.

Not surprisingly, tales of official chicanery started rolling in almost immediately. The vast majority of cases seldom hit the papers, but every once in a while lawmen would break down the wrong door and the whole country would get a glimpse of asset forfeiture close up. The L.A. County Sheriff’s raid that killed reclusive millionaire Don Scott was particularly revealing.  The 200 acres of sagebrush and chaparral that Scott owned may not have been much to look at, but as they say in the real estate business, location, location, location. Trail’s End Ranch ran along the spine of the coastal mountains above Malibu, and its rolling crestline hills were coveted by a number of parties including the National Park Service. Scott repeatedly refused to

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sell. In 1992, he married a young Texan named Frances Plante and brought her to Trail’s End.  About that time it came to the attention of Deputy Sheriff Gary Spencer down in Malibu that Scott’s new bride had been busted a year earlier for marijuana possession. Now here she was living up on that isolated mountaintop.  A background check revealed that her name had come up in connection with a narcotics investigation. It seemed unlikely to Spencer that she’d be totally clean.

And then, according to the Deputy, he got word from an unnamed source that there were 3000 plants growing on the ranch. Convincing his superiors he was onto a major bust, Spencer set out to get some kind of visual corroboration. Over the next four weeks, he organized a surveillance effort that included everybody from the LAPD to the U.S. Forest Service, but despite overflights by the California Air National Guard and extensive ground sweeps by a special Border Patrol mountain unit, nobody spotted anything. Undeterred, Spencer plunged forward, determined to rip the covers off the old eccentric and his junkie bride.  He pressured a DEA expert to allege that he had seen some plants from the air, then he filed an affidavit riddled with false information and got a search warrant. On the morning of October 2, 1992, with Spencer at the head of the column, thirty officers from half-a-dozen state and federal agencies wound slowly up the three-mile mountain road from the coast.

The Scotts had been partying all night and they were still groggy when the hammering and shouting at the door woke them up. Francis got her jeans on first and just as she reached the living room, the door collapsed and a sea of armed men crashed in.  She screamed.  Her husband stepped into the hallway with a gun in his hand.  Spencer shouted “Drop the gun!  Drop the gun!” then fired two rounds.  Scott recoiled, pitched forward, and his face smashed into the floor. They hustled Francis out of there and proceeded to search the place with—one can imagine—increasing desperation.  For days they scoured the rolling hills, choppering along at treetop level and following up on foot, and they did not find a single marijuana seed.  A painstaking search of the house failed to turn up the expected coke or heroin stash.

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All they had to show for their trouble was this body on the living room floor.[24]

Unfortunately for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office, it turned out Scott had friends in high places. Among them was the District Attorney of neighboring Ventura County, and he was not pleased. It seems Trail’s End Ranch is not in L.A. County in the first place—it is across the line in Ventura. The Ventura D.A. wanted to know why the raid had gone down behind his back.  And since the shooting had taken place on his turf, he took over the case. This awkward turn of events led to an unprecedented investigation of one county sheriff by another, and when the report was released five months later it went off like a grenade. The last page was a map taken from Deputy Spencer’s files with the note: “80 acres sold for $800,000 in 1991 in same area.” At a packed press conference in Ventura, the D.A. said, “Clearly one of the primary purposes was a land grab by the Sheriff’s Department.”[25]

The Scott case will no doubt see some kind of rough justice at the taxpayers expense one day, but in the vast majority of forfeitures, the suspect is simply relieved of his assets and sent on his way.  Guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it.  Eighty percent of the people are never even charged with a crime.[26]  They just lose their possessions.  Minorities are particularly susceptible to this form of institutionalized piracy since everybody knows that a non-white with a wad of dough is probably dealing.  This realization led the sheriff of Volusia County, Florida, to start using the forfeiture law as a toll gate on I-95. His men began stopping Miami-bound suspects on the basis of skin color—eighty percent of the cars they searched were driven by blacks or Hispanics—and if the people in the car were carrying more than $100 in cash it was assumed to be drug money and it was confiscated.  Since fighting to get it back in court could cost as much as ten grand, few people bothered to try. When public outrage began to attract press attention,

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the deputies switched to plea bargaining on the spot, offering to take only part of the money if the travellers promised not to complain.[27]  At this point the department was just a step shy of cash registers in the squad cars.

In time the list of personal tragedies in the drug war would grow to include hundreds of innocent businessmen, farmers, home owners and housewives all over the country who fit some profile or rented to the wrong person and saw their lives ruined and their assets vanish. But of all the unintended consequences of these powerful laws, perhaps the most ominous is to be found in the small print down at the bottom of the economic spectrum.  One list of asset seizures by the Washington D.C. police contained items like “…Tyrone Payton, $5.00 in United States Currency… Kevin Williams, $5.00 in United States Currency…[28]  These numbers hint at petty shakedowns, and that bodes ill for the long haul.  Try to picture this scene through the eyes of the teenager with a few bucks in his pocket—quite possibly earned through honest work—who must constantly be on the lookout for the king’s men or lose it all. It would be tough to come up with a better system for teaching hatred of the law.

Just as police departments became addicted to forfeiture, the media in the 1980s got hooked on the drug war itself.  A survey of network news during the first five years of the decade showed the number of cocaine-related stories jumped from ten a year to 140.[29] Then, in the mid-80s, television discovered raid footage—screaming cops in flak jackets—splintering doors—video images sizzling with danger and unpredictability. Unfortunately, television has certain technical limitations that determine what it can and cannot cover.  A surveillance van with a hidden camera can park on a street in Harlem but it has no access to the Chicago Yacht Club or the ladies’ room at Dan Tana’s in Beverly Hills. As a result, the drug war footage showing up on the nightly news

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focused almost exclusively on the urban street scene, and though the vast majority of drug users have always been white, the people doing drugs on TV were now black and Hispanic. When a couple of researchers from the University of Michigan spotted this phenomenon, they started digging through the archives and discovered that from 1985 onward, the number of whites shown using cocaine dropped by sixty percent, and blacks rose by the same amount. “During the Reagan era, the cocaine problem as defined by the network news became increasingly associated with people of color.”[30]  A lot of people thought this smacked of conspiracy.  The picture fit too perfectly with the administration’s argument that the inner-city was a sink hole of vice unworthy of assistance. The truth was probably simpler: television likes action and the action was in the streets. It was a good gig for everyone involved.  The lawmen looked heroic, and the news crews were into the hottest combat story since Vietnam.[31]

Sixty years earlier, the dawn of commercial radio had given Captain Richmond Hobson a national canvas for his vivid images of the Drug User as Vampire.  Now television would provide the country with an eye-popping view of the vampire in action, and he would turn out to be a black teenager.

The media made one other jolting discovery in 1985. That winter for the first time, crack cocaine hit the front page of the New York Times.[32] Although this smokeable form of the drug had been around a while, it didn’t become a sensation until somebody realized the stuff was so powerful it could be sold by the toke.  A single hit could go for as little as two bucks. This put the drug within reach of the average eighth grader, and in spite of its scary reputation, it was suddenly everywhere.

As the politicians fulminated about who was responsible for this disaster they might well have taken a look in the mirror.  Crack cocaine was not so much a creature of pharmacology as a

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creature of the law—an artifact of prohibition.  The government success in making cocaine exhorbitantly expensive simply forced the users to search for a more efficient way to use the drug. When they cooked up this smokeable version, they found they could get very high indeed on a tiny amount. Dealing in contraband always favors the method that puts the most bang in the cheapest package.  In the days of alcohol prohibition, this dictum led to the adulterated 190-proof synthetic hooch known as “White Lightning.”  It sometimes made you blind, sometimes made you crazy, but always got you high. White Lightning was the crack of the 1920s. Then as now, the First Class passengers stayed with the expensive stuff and left the swill for the deck hands.

Since the drug’s low cost made it available to the people who could least afford it, crack quickly became the blue-collar drug of choice. Here again, most of the users were white, but the only people who knew this were statisticians.[33]  The inner city was the natural Wal-Mart for this new discount drug and the sudden increase in cash flow ignited violent turf wars. The nightly images of gang shootouts, street dealing, and urban chaos helped confirm America’s worst fears about the degeneracy of the urban masses.

At this critical juncture, the death of a single individual would take the drug war nuclear. On the night of June 18, 1986, Boston Celtics rookie Len Bias—a dazzling young black athlete on the brink of fame and fortune—died of heart failure from cocaine poisoning. This tragedy turned out to be larger than life because Bias was no ordinary hoop star. Unlike the dangerous and arrogant young street punks now flavoring the nightly news, here was a clean-cut kid from a religious family in search of the American dream. The fact that the dream was within his grasp when he was cut down made it all the more infuriating. If such a thing could happen to a Len Bias it could happen to anybody.  In the following month the networks aired seventy-four evening news segments about crack and cocaine,

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and any lingering doubts America had about the drug war evaporated.[34]  Congress, equal to the occasion, added another 26 mandatory minimum sentences to the books.  Now even first time small-scale street dealers faced ten years without parole.[35]

Thus, the nation’s moral searchlight had come to focus squarely on the failings of the inner city.  Now it would highlight those failings with a startling new discovery—crack babies—an image so horrifying it seemed to clinch the argument that addicts are indeed vampires. News footage of emaciated preemies—sustained by tubes and electronics at staggering cost—sickened viewers all over the country. Here were the fruits of indulgence, the horrifying issue of women who’s moral compasses were so screwed up they had essentially abandoned their babies in the womb.  Their pathetic offspring, trembling in the glare of the incubator lights, so grievously damaged by their mothers’ weakness, fueled a storm of outrage. Experts said these children were probably beyond salvation.  Their IQs would range in the low 50s—barely able to dress themselves—dependent on the taxpayers for life—“a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”[36]  Informed that the bill for a single child might run to a quarter of a million dollars, the president of Boston University questioned spending this kind of money on “crack babies who won’t ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God.”[37] Then, in 1987, Chicago pediatrician Ira Chasnoff surveyed the pregnant women in 36 hospitals and his startling discovery created a media frenzy. According to press reports, ten percent of the women in the survey were on cocaine.  Nationwide, that would translate into 375,000 potential cocaine babies, a year.  People began bracing for the arrival of a permanent sub-human biologic underclass.

But when the expected tidal wave of brain-damaged, unteachable monsters failed to materialize, a handful of thoughtful people started looking into some of the original assumptions.  They

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discovered that the crack baby epidemic, like the Nixon heroin scare, was a total fabrication—a blend of distorted data and sloppy journalism. The tiny infants trembling in their incubators were real enough—no question about that—but they were usually the victims of an older more established drug.  What the cameras were capturing were the well documented effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

A group of Canadian researchers took a second look at the data from twenty previous cocaine studies and learned that many researchers had lumped the use of cocaine in with other drugs, including alcohol. Reviewing all the data in all twenty studies, they found no link between cocaine use and the so-called crack baby syndrome.[38]  As for the figure of 375,000 crack babies—still gospel to some commentators—it turns out Dr. Chasnoff was simply misquoted. He did not say that ten percent of the pregnant women he surveyed were crack users. He said that ten percent of them had, at some time in their lives, used some kind of drug, which included casual use of marijuana. The jump from there to the crack-baby connection was another leap of pack journalism. The fuzziness of the 375,000 figure itself should have been obvious to any reporter willing to do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.  If, as the government claimed, one out of ten cocaine users becomes addicted, then every pregnant woman in the country would have to be using cocaine for ten percent of them to give birth to crack babies.[39]

Nonetheless, the crack baby was such a hit with the media that any expert who got in the way was steamrolled. Claire Coles, a specialist at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta, had been warning reporters all along that a jittery preemie born to a malnourished, abused woman who drinks and smokes could hardly be laid at the feet of cocaine. Women who use cocaine while pregnant also drink more booze, smoke more cigarettes, and dip into more kinds of other drugs. They have poorer nutrition and health and are more often exposed to violence. Rather than cocaine, said Coles, these children were “victims of

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gross neglect.” When she refused to play along with the accepted story line, the reporters stopped interviewing her.[40]

Finally, Dr. Chasnoff himself, perhaps in penance for his part in triggering this avalanche, did a follow-up study of infants exposed to cocaine and found that their intelligence fit the normal curve.[41] “They are no different from other children growing up.  They are not the retarded imbeciles people talk about.” While there are serious health costs to cocaine use as with any other drug, Chasnoff found the biggest danger these kids faced was the world they were born into. “As I study the problem more and more, I think the placenta does a better job of protecting the child than we do as a society.”[42]ndation, Washington DC, v27, Summer 95, p16.

The spectacular popularity of the crack baby was a testament to the importance of scapegoats.  By blaming these horrifying pictures of quivering infants on an exotic Latin American import, it was possible to ignore the role that poverty played, and to dis-remember the federal cuts that had stripped pre-natal care and treatment from Medicaid earlier in the decade. But women of color would pay a disproportionate price for this political expedience.  A 1990 study of pregnant drug users found that a black woman was ten times more likely to be reported to the authorities than a white woman.[43]  This bias was also reflected in the prosecution of their mates. Over 90 percent of the drug-trafficking defendants in the nation’s courts were now African-American.[44]  By the time Ronald Reagan left office, the prison population had not only doubled in size, it had changed complexion dramatically.  Though only an eighth of the U.S. population was black, they now outnumbered white prisoners for the first time. The country had a higher percentage of black males in prison than South Africa.[45]  Whether by accident or design, the drug war had evolved into a race war.

CHAPTER FIVE—ENDNOTES

[1] Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, Little, Brown & Co., NY, 1996, p15

[2] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p12. Nixon speech at Disneyland, Sept 68.

[3] Richard M. Nixon, message to Congress, June 17, 1971, quoted in Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America, by Edward Jay Epstein, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, NY 77.

[4] Edward Jay Epstein, Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, NY – 1977, p174-177

[5] Epstein, Agency of Fear, p177

[6] Epstein, Agency of Fear,  Opiates and Political Power in America, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1977

[7] Epstein, Agency of Fear, p176

[8] U.S. population in 1970 was 203,302,000 and the official numbers show the apparent heroin epidemic peaked at 559,000 addicts, or 0.27 percent.

[9] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p258.

[10] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p87

[11] Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, Chapter 3: Evaluating the Social Impact of Drug Dependence.

[12] Marijuana: a Signal of Misunderstanding, National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, March 22, 1972, quoted in Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p71

[13] Time, Sept. 10, 1973, p67, “Grass Grows More Acceptable.”

[14] Brecher et al., Licit and Illicit Drugs, p421

[15] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p93

[16] President Jimmy Carter,  Message to Congress, Aug. 2, 1977, quoted in Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p95.

[17] Time, Jan 6, 75, p76, “Freud’s Cocaine Capers;” New York Times Magazine, Jan 6, 75, p14 “Cocaine: the Champagne of Drugs;” People Magazine, Jan 6, 78, p16, “In showbiz, the celebs with a nose for what’s new say the new high is cocaine.”

[18] Trebach, The Heroin Solution, p240; Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p112-115.

[19] Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Signing Executive Order 12368, Concerning Drug Abuse Policy Functions, June 24, 1982; quoted in Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p165.

[20] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p144-145.

[21]  Forbes, May 20, 96, “Forfeiting Rights,” by Susan Adams, p96.

[22] Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Department of Justice, 38 U.S. Attorneys Bulletin 180, quoted in Congressman Henry Hyde, Forfeiting Our Property Rights, Cato Institute, Washington DC, 1995, p35

[23] Congressman Henry Hyde, Forfeiting Our Property Rights, Cato Institute, Washington DC, 1995, p20

[24] Office of the District Attorney, County of Ventura, State of California, Report on the Death of Donald Scott, Michael D. Bradbury, D.A., March 30 1993.

[25] Ventura Co. District Attorney Michael D. Bradbury, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 31, 1993, pA3.

[26] Congressman Henry Hyde, Forfeiting Our Property Rights, Cato Institute, Washington DC, 1995, p6.

[27] Hyde, Forfeiting Our Property Rights, p38.

[28] Washington City Paper, Nov. 20, 1992, “Take the Money and Run,” p8.

[29] Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbell, Cracked coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade and the Reagan Legacy, Duke University Press, 1994, p16.

[30] Reeves & Campbell, Cracked Coverage, p18, 66.

[31] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p226.

[32] New York Times, Nov. 29, 1985, p1, “A New Purified Form of Cocaine Causes Alarm as Abuse Increases,” by Jane Gross.

[33] ^

[34] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p226.

[35] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p228.

[36] Columnist Charles Krauthammer, quoted in Mother Jones, “Crackpot Ideas,” by Jane Greider, January 1990.

[37] Mother Jones, “Crackpot Ideas,” by Jane Greider, January 1990.

[38] G. Koren, et al., “Relationship Between Gestational Cocaine Use and Pregnancy Outcome: a Meta-Analysis,” Teratology, October 1991, volume 44(4) p405-14

[39] David F. Duncan, “Uses and Misuses of Epidemiology in Shaping and Assessing Drug Policy,” Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Providence RI., 1994

[40] Ellen Goodman, “The myth of ‘Crack Babies,’ The Boston Sunday Globe, Jan 12, 1992, p69. Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p217-218.

[41] I.J. Chasnoff, “Polydrug Use in Pregnancy: Two-year Follow-up,” Pediatrics, February, 1992, volume 89(2) p284-9

[42] Arnold S. Trebach and James A. Inciardi, Legalize It?, The American University Press, Washington DC, 93, p117-119; see also Katharine Greider, “Quieting the Crack-Kid Alarm,” The Drug Policy Letter, Drug Policy

 

[43] I.J. Chasnoff, “The Prevalence of Illicit Drug or Alcohol Use During Pregnancy and Discrepancies in Mandatory Reporting in Pinellas County, Florida,” 322 New England Journal of Medicine, 1201, 1990

[44] Reported in “Minor Drug players are Paying Big Prices” by Michael Tackett, Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1990, from a RAND Corporation study.  Quoted in Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p249.^

[45] Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, p259.

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