How America Lost the War on Drugs

After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and Plentiful as Ever: An Anatomy of a Failure

 Ben Wallace-Wells

1. AFTER PABLO On the day of his death, December 2nd, 1993, the Colombian billionaire drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was on the run and living in a small, tiled-roof house in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellín, close to the soccer stadium. He died, theatrically, ­ridiculously, gunned down by a Colombian police manhunt squad while he tried to flee across the barrio’s rooftops, a fat, bearded man who had kicked off his flip-flops to try to outrun the bullets. The first thing the American drug agents who arrived on the scene wanted to do was to make sure that the corpse was actually Escobar’s. The second thing was to check his house.

The last time Escobar had hastily fled one of his residences – la Catedral, the luxurious private prison he built for himself to avoid extradition to the United States – he had left behind bizarre, enchanting ­detritus, the raw stuff of what would ­become his own myth: the photos of ­himself dressed up as a Capone-era gangster with a Tommy gun, the odd collection of novels ranging from Graham Greene to the Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, arriving after the kingpin had fled, found neat shelves lined with loose-leaf binders, carefully organized by content. They were, says John Coleman, then the DEA’s assistant administrator for operations, “filled with DEA reports” – internal documents that laid out, in extraordinary detail, the agency’s repeated attempts to capture Escobar.

“He had shelves and shelves and shelves of these things,” Coleman tells me. “It was stunning. A lot of the informants we had, he’d figured out who they were. All the agents we had chasing him – who we trusted in the Colombian police – it was right there. He knew so much more about what we were doing than we knew about what he was doing.”

Coleman and other agents began to work deductively, backward. “We had always wondered why his guys, when we caught them, would always go to trial and risk lots of jail time, even when they would have saved themselves a lot of time if they’d just plead guilty,” he says. “What we realized when we saw those binders was that they were doing a job. Their job was to stay on trial and have their lawyers use discovery to get all the information on DEA operations they could. Then they’d send copies back to Medellín, and Escobar would put it all together and figure out who we had tracking him.”

The loose-leaf binders crammed in Escobar’s office on the ground floor gave Coleman and his agents a sense of triumph: The whole mysterious drug trade had an organization, a structure and a brain, and they’d just removed it. In the thrill of the moment, clinking champagne glasses with officials from the Colombian police and taking congratulatory calls from Washington, the agents in Medellín believed the War on Drugs could finally be won. “We had an endgame,” Coleman says. “We were literally making the greatest plans.”

At the headquarters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, staffers tacked up a poster with photographs of sixteen of its most wanted men, cartel leaders from across the Andes. Solemnly, ceremoniously, a staffer took a red magic marker and drew an X over Escobar’s portrait. “We felt like it was one down, fifteen to go,” recalls John Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control ­office. “There was this feeling that if we got all sixteen, it’s not like the whole thing would be over, but that was a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

Man by man, sixteen red X’s eventually went up over the faces of the cartel leaders: KILLED. EXTRADITED. KILLED. José Santacruz Londoño, a leading drug trafficker, was gunned down by Colombian police in a shootout. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the heads of the Cali cartel, were extradited after they got greedy and tried to keep running their organization from prison. Some U.S. drug warriors believed that the busts were largely public-relations events, a showy way for the Colombian government to look tough on the drug trade, but most were less cynical. The crack epidemic was over. Drug-related murders were in decline. Winning the War on Drugs didn’t seem such a quixotic and open-ended mission, like the War on Poverty, but rather something tangible, a fat guy with a big organization and binders full of internal DEA reports, sixteen faces on a poster, a piñata you could reach out and smack. Richard Cañas, a veteran DEA official who headed counternarcotics efforts on the National Security Council under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, can still recall the euphoria of those days. “We were moving,” he says, “from success to success.”

This is the story of how that momentary success turned into one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered. It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a piñata, swung to hit it and missed.


For Cañas and other drug warriors, the death of Escobar had the feel of a real pivot, the end of one kind of battle against drugs and the beginning of another. The war itself had begun during the Nixon administration, when the White House began to get reports that a generation of soldiers was about to come back from Vietnam stoned, with habits weaned on the cheap marijuana and heroin of Southeast Asia and hothoused in the twitchy-fingered freakout of a jungle guerrilla war. For those in Washington, the problem of drugs was still so strange and new in the early Seventies that Nixon officials grappled with ideas that, by the standards of the later debate among politicians, were unthinkably radical: They appointed a panel that recommended the decriminalization of casual marijuana use and even considered buying up the world’s entire supply of opium to prevent it from being converted into heroin. But Nixon was a law-and-order politician, an operator who understood very well the panic many Americans felt about the cities, the hippies and crime. Calling narcotics “public enemy number one in the United States,” he used the issue to escalate the culture war that pitted Middle Americans against the radicals and the hippies, strengthening penalties for drug dealers and devoting federal funds to bolster prosecutions. In 1973, Nixon gave the job of policing these get-tough laws to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Administration.

By the mid-1980s, as crack leeched out from New York, Miami and Los Angeles into the American interior, the devastations inflicted by the drug were becoming more vivid and frightening. The Reagan White House seemed to capture the current of the moment: Nancy Reagan’s plaintive urging to “just say no,” and her husband’s decision to hand police and prosecutors even greater powers to lock up street dealers, and to devote more resources to stop cocaine’s production at the source, in the Andes. In 1986, trying to cope with crack’s corrosive effects, Congress adopted mandatory-minimum laws, which hit inner-city crack users with penalties as severe as those levied on Wall Street brokers possessing 100 times more powder cocaine. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans would be locked up for drug offenses.

The War on Drugs became an actual war during the first Bush administration, when the bombastic conservative intellectual Bill Bennett was appointed drug czar. “Two words sum up my entire approach,” Bennett declared, “consequences and confrontation.” Bush and Bennett doubled annual spending on the drug war to $12 billion, devoting much of the money to expensive weaponry: fighter jets to take on the Colombian trafficking cartels, Navy submarines to chase cocaine-smuggling boats in the Caribbean. If narcotics were the enemy, America would vanquish its foe with torpedoes and F-16s – and throw an entire generation of drug users in jail.

Though many on the left suspected that things had gone seriously awry, drug policy under Reagan and Bush was largely conducted in a fog of ignorance. The kinds of long-term studies that policy-makers needed – those that would show what measures would actually reduce drug use and dampen its consequences – did not yet exist. When it came to research, there was “absolutely nothing” that examined “how each program was or wasn’t working,” says Peter Reuter, a drug scholar who founded the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp.

But after Escobar was killed in 1993 – and after U.S. drug agents began systematically busting up the Colombian cartels – doubt was replaced with hard data. Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded. We continue to treat marijuana as a major threat to public health, even though we know it isn’t. We continue to lock up generations of teenage drug dealers, even though we know imprisonment does little to reduce the amount of drugs sold on the street. And we continue to spend billions to fight drugs abroad, even though we know that military efforts are an ineffective way to cut the supply of narcotics in America or raise the price.

All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of ­human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now ­repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.

“What we learned was that in drug work, nothing ever stands still,” says Coleman, the former DEA official and current president of Drug Watch International, a law-and-order advocacy group. For every move the drug warriors made, the traffickers adapted. “The other guys were learning just as we were learning,” Coleman says. “We had this hubris.”


“At the beginning of the Clinton administration,” Cañas tells me, “the War on Drugs was like the War on Terror is now.” It was, he means, an orienting fight, the next in a sequence of abstract, generational struggles that the country launched itself into after finding no one willing to actually square up and face it on a battlefield. After the Cold War, in the flush and optimism of victory, it felt to drug warriors and the American public that abstractions could be beaten. “It was really a pivot point,” recalls Rand Beers, who served on the National Security Council for four different presidents. “We started to look carefully at our drug policies and ask if everything we were doing really made sense.” The man Clinton appointed to manage this new era was Lee Brown.

Brown had been a cop for almost thirty years when Clinton tapped him to be the nation’s drug czar in 1993. He had started out working narcotics in San Jose, California, just as the Sixties began to swell, and ended up leading the New York Police Department when the city was the symbolic center of the crack epidemic, with kids being killed by stray bullets that barreled through locked doors. A big, shy man in his fifties, Brown had made his reputation with a simple insight: Cops can’t do much without the trust of people in their communities, who are needed to turn in offenders and serve as witnesses at trial. Being a good cop meant understanding the everyday act of police work not as chasing crooks but as meeting people and making allies.

“When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers,” Brown tells me. “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I stepped back and asked myself, ‘What impact is all of this having on the drug problem? There has to be a better way.’ ”

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, this philosophy – known as community policing – had made Brown a national phenomenon. The Clinton administration asked him to take the drug-czar post, and though Brown was skeptical, he agreed on the condition that the White House make it a Cabinet-level position. Brown stacked his small office with liberals who had spent the long Democratic exile doing drug-policy work for Congress and swearing they would improve things when they retook power. “There were basic assumptions that Republicans had been making for fifteen years that had never been challenged,” says Carol Bergman, a congressional staffer who became Brown’s legislative liaison. “The way Lee Brown looked at it, the drug war was focused on locking kids up for increasing amounts of time, and there wasn’t enough emphasis on treatment. He really wanted to take a different tactic.”

Brown’s staff became intrigued by a new study on drug policy from the RAND Corp., the Strangelove-esque think tank that during the Cold War had employed mathematicians to crank out analyses for the Pentagon. Like Lockheed Martin, the jet manufacturer that had turned to managing welfare reform after the Cold War ended, RAND was scouting for other government projects that might need its brains. It found the drug war. The think tank assigned Susan Everingham, a young expert in mathematical modeling, to help run the group’s signature project: dividing up the federal government’s annual drug budget of $13 billion into its component parts and deciding what worked and what didn’t when it came to fighting cocaine.

Everingham and her team sorted the drug war into two categories. There were supply-side programs, like the radar and ships in the Caribbean and the efforts to arrest traffickers in Colombia and Mexico, which were designed to make it more expensive for traffickers to bring their product to market. There were also demand-side programs, like drug treatment, which were designed to reduce the market for drugs in the United States. To evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each approach, the mathematicians set up a series of formulas to calculate precisely how much additional money would have to be spent on supply programs and demand programs to reduce cocaine consumption by one percent nationwide.

“If you had asked me at the outset,” Everingham says, “my guess would have been that the best use of taxpayer money was in the source countries in South America” – that it would be possible to stop cocaine before it reached the U.S. But what the study found surprised her. Overseas military efforts were the least effective way to decrease drug use, and imprisoning addicts was prohibitively expensive. The only cost-effective way to put a dent in the market, it turned out, was drug treatment. “It’s not a magic bullet,” says Reuter, the RAND scholar who helped supervise the study, “but it works.” The study ultimately ushered RAND, this vaguely creepy Cold War relic, into a position as the permanent, pragmatic left wing of American drug policy, the most consistent force for innovating and reinventing our national conception of the War on Drugs.

When Everingham’s team looked more closely at drug treatment, they found that thirteen percent of hardcore cocaine users who receive help substantially reduced their use or kicked the habit completely. They also found that a larger and larger portion of illegal drugs in the U.S. were being used by a comparatively small group of hardcore addicts. There was, the study concluded, a fundamental imbalance: The crack epidemic was basically a domestic problem, but we had been fighting it more aggressively overseas. “What we began to realize,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studied drug policy for RAND, “was that even if you only get a percentage of this small group of heavy drug users to abstain forever, it’s still a really great deal.”

Thirteen years later, the study remains the gold standard on drug policy. “It’s still the consensus recommendation supplied by the scholarship,” says Reuter. “Yet as well as it’s stood up, it’s never really been tried.”

To Brown, RAND’s conclusions seemed exactly right. “I saw how little we were doing to help addicts, and I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he recalls. ” ‘This is how we should be breaking the cycle of addiction and crime, and we’re just doing nothing.’ ”

The federal budget that Brown’s office submitted in 1994 remains a kind of fetish object for certain liberals in the field, the moment when their own ideas came close to making it into law. The budget sought to cut overseas interdiction, beef up community policing, funnel low-level drug criminals into treatment programs instead of prison, and devote $355 million to treating hardcore addicts, the drug users responsible for much of the illegal-drug market and most of the crime associated with it. White House political handlers, wary of appearing soft on crime, were skeptical of even this limited commitment, but Brown persuaded the president to offer his support, and the plan stayed.

Still, the politics of the issue were difficult. Convincing Congress to dramatically alter the direction of America’s drug war required a brilliant sales job. “And Lee Brown,” says Bergman, his former legislative liaison, “was not an effective salesman.” With a kind of loving earnestness, the drug czar arranged tours of treatment centers for congressmen to show them the kinds of programs whose funding his bill would increase. Few legislators came. Most politicians were skeptical about such a radical departure from the mainstream consensus on crime. Congress rewrote the budget, slashing the $355 million for treatment programs by more than eighty percent. “There were too many of us who had a strong law-and-order focus,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who ­opposed the reform bill and serves as co-chair of the Senate’s drug-policy caucus.

For some veteran drug warriors, Brown’s tenure as drug czar still lingers as the last moment when federal drug policy really made sense. “Lee Brown came the closest of anyone to really getting it,” says Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. “But the bottom line was, the drug issue and Lee Brown were largely ignored by the Clinton administration.” When Brown tried to repeat his treatment-centered initiative in 1995, it was poorly timed: Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had seized control of the House after portraying Clinton as soft on crime. The authority to oversee the War on Drugs passed from Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit liberal, to a retired wrestling coach from Illinois who was tired of drugs in the schools ? a rising Republican star named Dennis Hastert. Reeling from the defeat at the polls, Clinton decided to give up on drug reform and get tough on crime. “The feeling was that the drug czar’s office was one of the weak areas when it came to the administration’s efforts to confront crime,” recalls Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff.


The administration was not doing much better in its efforts to stop the flow of drugs at the source. Before Clinton had even taken office, Cañas – who headed drug policy at the National Security Council – had been summoned to brief the new president’s choice for national security adviser, Anthony Lake, on the nation’s narcotics policy in Latin America. “I figured, what the hell, I’m going back to DEA anyway, I’ll tell him what I really think,” Cañas recalls.

The Bush administration, he told Lake, had been sending the military after the wrong target. In the 1970s, drugs were run up to the United States through the Caribbean by a bunch of “swashbuckling entrepreneurs” with small planes – “guys who wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.” In 1989, in the nationwide panic over crack, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had managed to secure a budget of $450 million to chase these Caribbean smugglers. (Years later, when a longtime drug official asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld why Cheney had pushed the program, Rumsfeld grinned and said, “Cheney thought he was running for president.”) The U.S. military loved the new mission, because it gave them a reason to ask for more equipment in the wake of the Cold War. And the Bush White House loved the idea of sending the military after the drug traffickers for its symbolism and swagger and the way it proved that the administration was taking drugs seriously.

The problem, Cañas told Lake, was that the cocaine traffic had professionalized and was now moving its product through Mexico. With Caribbean smugglers out of the game, the military program no longer made sense. The new national security adviser grinned at Cañas, pleased. “That’s what we think as well,” Lake said. “How would you like to stay on and help make that happen?”

Taking a new approach, the Clinton administration shifted most military assets out of the Caribbean and into the Andes, where the coca leaf was being grown and processed. “Our idea was, Stop messing around in the transit countries and go to the source,” Cañas tells me. The administration spent millions of extra dollars to equip police in Bolivia and Colombia to bust the crop’s growers and processors. The cops were not polite – Human Rights Watch condemned the murders of?Bolivian farmers, blaming “the heavy hand of U.S. drug enforcement” – but they were ­effective, and by 1996, coca production in Bolivia had begun a dramatic decline.

After Escobar fell, the American drug agents who had been chasing him did not expect the cocaine industry to dry up overnight – they had girded for the fallout from the drug lord’s death. What they had not expected was the ways in which the unintended consequences of his downfall would permanently change the drug traffic. “What ended up happening – and maybe we should have predicted this would happen – was that the whole structure shattered into these smaller groups,” says Coleman, the veteran DEA agent. “You suddenly had all these new guys controlling a small aspect of the traffic.”

Among them was a hired gun known as Don Berna, who had served as a bodyguard for Escobar. Double-crossed by his boss, Berna broke with the Medellín cartel and struck out on his own. For him, the disruption caused by the new front in America’s drug war presented a business opportunity. But with the DEA’s shift from the Caribbean into Bolivia and Colombia, Berna and other new traffickers had a production problem. So some of the “microcartels,” as they became known, decided to move their operations someplace where they could control it: They opened negotiations with the FARC, a down-at-the-heels rebel army based in the jungles of Colombia. In return for cash, the FARC agreed to put coca production under its protection and keep the Colombian army away from the coca crop.

Berna and the younger kingpins also had a transportation problem: Mexican traffickers, who had been paid a set fee by the cartels to smuggle product across the U.S. border, wanted a larger piece of the business. The Mexican upstarts had a certain economic logic on their side. A kilo of cocaine produced in Colombia is worth about $2,500. In Mexico, a kilo gets $5,000. But smuggle that kilo across the border and the price goes up to $17,500. “What the Mexican groups started saying was, ‘Why are we working for these guys? Why don’t we just buy it from the Colombians directly and keep the profits ourselves?’ ” says Tony Ayala, a retired DEA agent and former Mexico country attache.

The remaining leaders of the weakened Cali cartel, DEA agents say, traveled up to Guadalajara for a series of meetings with Mexican traffickers. By 1996, the Colombians had decided to hand over more control of the cocaine trade to the Mexicans. The Cali cartel would now ship cocaine to Guadalajara, sell the drugs to the Mexican groups and then be done with it. “This wasn’t just happenstance,” says Jerome McArdle, then a DEA assistant agent for special operations. “This was the Colombians saying they were willing to reduce their profits in exchange for reducing their risk and exposure, and handing it over to the Mexicans. The whole nature of the supply chain changed.”

Around the same time, DEA agents found themselves picking up Mexican distributors, rather than Colombians, on the streets of New York. Immigration and customs officials on the border were meanwhile overwhelmed by the sheer number of tractor-trailers – many of them loaded with drugs – suddenly pouring across the Mexican border as a consequence of NAFTA, which had been enacted in 1994. “A thousand trucks coming across in a four-hour ­period,” says Steve Robertson, a DEA special agent assigned to southern ­Texas at the time. “There’s no way we’re going to catch everything.”

Power followed the money, and Mexican traffickers soon had a style, and reach, that had previously belonged only to the Colombians. In the border town of Ciudad Juárez, the cocaine trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes developed a new kind of smuggling operation. “He brought in middle-class people for the first time – lawyers, accountants – and he developed a transportation division, an acquisitions division, even a human-resources operation, just like a modern corporation,” says Tony Payan, a political scientist at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied the drug trade on the border. Before long, Carrillo Fuentes had a fleet of Boeing 727s, which he used to fly cocaine, up to fifteen tons at a time, up from Colombia to Mexico. The newspapers called him El Señor de los Cielos, the Lord of the Skies.

The Mexican cartels were also getting more imaginative. “Think of it like a business, which is how these guys thought of it,” says Guy Hargreaves, a top DEA agent during the 1990s. “Why pay for the widgets when you can make the widgets yourselves?” Since the climate and geography of Mexico aren’t right for making cocaine, the cartels did the logical thing: They introduced a new product. As Hargreaves recalls, the Mexicans slipped the new drug into their cocaine shipments in Southern California and told coke dealers, “Here, try some of this stuff – it’s a similar effect.”

The product the Mexican cartels came up with, the new widget they could make themselves, was methamphetamine. The man who mastered the market was a midlevel cocaine trafficker, then in his late twenties, named Jesús Amezcua. In 1994, when U.S. Customs officials at the Dallas airport seized an airplane filled with barrels of ephedrine, a chemical precursor for meth, and traced it back to Amezcua, the startling new shift in the drug traffic became clear to a handful of insiders. “Cartels were no longer production organizations, whose business is wrapped up in a single drug,” says Tony Ayala, the senior DEA agent in Mexico at the time. “They became trafficking organizations – and they will smuggle whatever they can make the most profit from.”


It is only in retrospect that these moments – the barrels of ephedrine seized in Dallas, the quiet suggestion that meth had worked its way into the cocaine supply chain – take on a looming character, the historic weight of a change made manifest. Up until methamphetamine, the War on Drugs had targeted three enemies. First there were the hippie drugs – marijuana, LSD – that posed little threat to the general public. Then there was heroin, a horrible drug but one that was largely concentrated in New York City. And, finally, there was crack. What meth proved was that even if the DEA could wipe out every last millionaire cocaine goon in Colombia, burn every coca field in Bolivia and Peru, and build an impenetrable wall along the entire length of the Mexican border – even then, we wouldn’t have won the War on Drugs, because there would still be methamphetamine, and after that, something else.

Gene Haislip, who served for years as one of the DEA’s top-ranking administrators, believes there was a moment when meth could have been shut down, long before it spiraled into a nationwide epidemic. Haislip, who spent nearly two decades leading a small group at the agency dedicated to chemical control, is his own kind of legend; he is still known around the DEA as the man who beat quaaludes, perhaps the only drug that the U.S. has ever been able to declare total victory over. He did it with gumshoe methodicalness: by identifying every country in the world that produced the drug’s active ingredient, a prescription medication called methaqualone, and convincing them to tighten regulations. Haislip believes he was present the moment when the United States lost the war on methamphetamine, way back in 1986, when meth was still a crude biker drug confined to a few valleys in Northern California – a decade before the Mexican drug lords turned it into the most problematic drug in America. “The thing is, methamphetamine should never have gotten to that point,” Haislip says. And it never would have, he believes, if it hadn’t been for the lobbyists.

Haislip was known around the DEA as precise-minded and verbal. His impulse, in combatting meth, was the same one that had pushed the drug warriors after Escobar: the quixotic faith that if you could just stop the stuff at the source, you could get rid of all the social problems at once. Assembling a coalition of legislators, Haislip convinced them that the small, growing population of speed freaks in Northern California was enough of a concern that Congress should pass a law to regulate the drug’s precursor chemicals, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, legal drugs that were used in cold medicine and produced in fewer than a dozen factories in the world. “We were starting to get reports of hijacking of ephedrine, armed robbery of ephedrine, things that had never happened before,” Haislip tells me. “You could see we were on the verge of something if we didn’t get a handle on it.”

All that was left was to convince the Reagan administration. One day in late 1986, Haislip went to meet with top officials in the Indian Treaty Room, a vast, imposing space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building: arches, tiled floors, the kind of room designed to house history being made. Haislip noticed several men in suits sitting quietly in the back of the room. They were lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry, but Haislip didn’t pay them much attention. “I wasn’t concerned with them,” he recalls.

When Haislip launched into his presentation, an official from the Commerce Department cut him off. “Look, you’re way ahead of us,” the official said. “We don’t have anything to suggest or add.” Haislip left the meeting thinking he had won: The bill he proposed was submitted to Congress, requiring companies to keep records on the import and sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

But what Haislip didn’t know was that the men in suits had already gone to work to rig the bill in their favor. “Quite frankly,” Allan Rexinger, one of the lobbyists present at the meeting later told reporters, “we appealed to a higher authority.” The pharmaceutical industry needed pseudoephedrine to make profitable cold medications. The result, to Haislip’s dismay, was a new law that monitored sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in bulk powder but created an exemption for selling the chemicals in tablet form – a loophole that protected the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.

The law, drug agents say, sparked two changes in the market for illegal meth. First, the supply of ephedrine simply moved overseas: The Mexican cartels, quick to recognize an emerging market, evaded the restrictions by importing powder from China, India and Europe and then smuggling it across the border to the biker groups that had traditionally distributed the drug. “We actually had meetings where we planned for a turf war between the Mexicans and the Hells Angels over methamphetamine,” says retired DEA agent Mike Heald, who headed the San Francisco meth task force, “but it turned out they realized they’d make more money by working together.” Second, responding to a dramatic uptick in demand from the illegal market, chemical-supply companies began moving huge amounts of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine out to the West Coast in the form of pills, which were then converted into meth. Rather than stemming the tide of meth before it started, the Reagan administration had unwittingly helped accelerate a new epidemic: Between 1992 and 1994, the number of meth addicts entering rehab facilities doubled, and the drug’s purity on the street rose by twenty-seven percent.

Haislip resolved to have another go at Congress, but the issue ended up in a dispiriting cycle. The resistance, he says bitterly, “was always coming from the same lobbying group.” In 1993, when he persuaded lawmakers to regulate the sale of ephedrine in tablet form, the pharmaceutical industry won an exception for pseudoephedrine. Drug agents began to intercept shipments of pseudoephedrine pills in barrels. Three years later, when lawmakers finally regulated tablets of pseudoephedrine, they created an exception for pills sold in blister packs. “Congress thought there was no way that meth freaks would buy this stuff and pop the pills out of blister packs, one by one,” says Heald. “But we’re not dealing with normal people – we’re dealing with meth freaks. They’ll stay up all night picking their toes.”

By the time Haislip retired, in 1997, the methamphetamine problem was really two problems. There were the mom-and-pop cooks, who were punching pills out of blister packs and making small batches of drugs for themselves. Then there were the industrial-scale Mexican cartels, which were responsible for eighty percent of the meth in the United States. It took until 2005 for Congress to finally regulate over-the-counter blister packs, which caused the number of labs to plummet. But once again, the Mexican groups were a step ahead of the law. In October 2006, police in Guadalajara arrested an American chemist named Frederick Wells, who had moved to Mexico after losing his job at Idaho State University. An academic troublemaker who drove around campus with signs on the back of his pickup truck raging at the college administration, Wells had allegedly used his university lab to investigate new ways that Mexican traffickers could use completely legal reagents to engineer meth precursors from scratch. “Very complicated numerical modeling,” says his academic colleague Jeff Rosentreter. By the time Wells was arrested, the State Department had only just succeeded at pressuring Mexico to restrict the flow of pseudoephedrine, even though Wells had apparently been hard at work for years creating alternatives to that chemical. The lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, Haislip says, “cost us eight or nine years.”

For some in the drug war, it was a lesson that even the most promising efforts to restrict the supply of drugs at the source – those that rely on legal methods to regulate legally produced drugs – remained nearly impossible, outflanked by both drug traffickers and industry lobbyists. The tragedy of the fight against methamphetamine is that it repeated the ways in which the government tried to fight the cocaine problem, and failed – racing from source to source, trying to eliminate a coca field or an ephedrine manufacturer and then racing to the next one. “We used to call it the Pillsbury Doughboy – stick your finger in one part of the problem, and the Doughboy’s stomach just pops out somewhere else,” says Rand Beers. “The lesson of U.S. drug policy is that this world runs on unintended consequences. No matter how noble your intentions, there’s a good chance that in solving one problem, you’ll screw something else up.”


Within the Clinton White House, the reform effort spearheaded by Lee Brown had created a political dilemma. Republicans, having taken control of Congress in 1994, were attacking the administration for being soft on drugs, and the White House decided that it was time to look tougher. “A lot of people didn’t think Brown was a strong leader,” Panetta tells me. As senior figures within the administration cast about for a replacement, they started by thinking about who would be the opposite of Brown. “We wanted to get someone who was much stronger, much tougher, and could come across that way symbolically,” Panetta says.

During the planning for a possible invasion of Haiti, Panetta and others had discovered a rising star at the Pentagon, a charismatic, bullying four-star general named Barry McCaffrey, who had annoyed many in the Pentagon’s establishment. In 1996, halfway into his State of the Union address, Clinton looked up at McCaffrey, a lean, stern-seeming military man in the balcony, and informed the nation that the general would be his next drug czar. “To succeed, he needs a force far larger than he has ever commanded before,” Clinton said. “He needs all of us. Every one of us has a role to play on this team.” McCaffrey, the bars on his epaulets shimmering, saluted. It was one of the president’s biggest applause lines of the night.

For the drug warriors in McCaffrey’s office, “the General” was everything the languid, considered, academic Lee Brown had not been. “It was clear from the outset that here was a guy who would take advantage of the bully pulpit and who, unlike Brown, would probably be able to get things done,” says Bergman, Brown’s former liaison. “One thing that surprised us all was how thoughtful he was – he wasn’t a knee-jerk, law-enforcement guy. He understood there needed to be money for treatment. He prided himself on being very sensitive to the racial issues, and he was sensitive to the impact of sentencing laws on African-American men.” McCaffrey imported his own staff from the Southern Command – mostly men, all military. They lent the White House’s drug operation – previously a slow place – the kinetic energy of a forward operating base. “We went to a twenty-four-hour clock, so we’d schedule meetings for 1500,” one longtime staffer recalls. “His people sat down with senior staff and told us what size paper the General wanted his memos on, this kind of report would have green tabs, this would have blue tabs.”

The General’s genius was for publicity. “He was great at getting visibility,” Carnevale says. McCaffrey held grandstanding events everywhere from Mexico to Maine, telling reporters that the decades-long narrative of impending doom around the drug war was out of date – and that if Congress would really dedicate itself to the mission, the country had a winnable fight on its hands. Drug-use numbers were edging downward; even cocaine seemed to be declining in popularity. “We are in an optimistic situation,” McCaffrey declared.

For the first time ever, McCaffrey had the drug czar’s office develop a strategy for an endgame to the drug war, a plan for finishing the whole thing. The federal government needed to reduce the amount of money it was spending on law enforcement and interdiction. But McCaffrey believed this was only possible once it could guarantee that drug use would continue to decline. “The data suggested very strongly that those who never tried any drugs before they were eighteen were very likely to remain abstinent for their whole lives, but that those who even smoked marijuana when they were teenagers had much worse outcomes,” says McCaffrey’s deputy Don Vereen. So the General decided to focus the government’s attention on keeping kids from trying pot.

The “gateway theory,” as it became known, had a natural appeal. Because most people who used hard drugs had also smoked marijuana, and because kids often tried marijuana several years before they started trying harder drugs, it seemed that keeping them off pot might prevent them from ever getting to cocaine and heroin. The only trouble is, the theory is wrong. When McCaffrey’s office commissioned the Institute of Medicine to study the idea, researchers concluded that marijuana “does not appear to be a gateway drug.” RAND, after examining a decade of data, also found that the gateway theory is “not the best explanation” of the link between marijuana use and hard drugs. But McCaffrey continued to devote more and more of the government’s resources to going after kids. “We have already clearly committed ourselves,” he declared, “to a number-one focus on youth.”

“That decision,” Bergman says, “was where you could see McCaffrey begin to lose credibility.”

In 1996, less than a year into his term, the new drug czar met Jim Burke, a smooth-talking, silver-haired executive who chaired the Partnership for a Drug-Free America – the advertising organization best known for the slogan “This is your brain on drugs.” “Burke personally was very hard to resist,” one of his former colleagues tells me. “I’ve seen him sell many conservative members of Congress and also liberals like Mario Cuomo.”

Burke told McCaffrey a simple story. In the late 1980s, he said, the major television networks had voluntarily given airtime to the Partnership to run anti-drug ads aimed at teenagers. The number of teenagers who used drugs – especially marijuana – declined during that period. But in the early 1990s, Burke said, the rise of cable TV cut into the profits of the networks, which became stingier with the time they dedicated to anti-drug advertising. The result, the adman told the General, was that the number of teenagers who used drugs was climbing sharply – to the outrage of Dennis Hastert and other conservative members of Congress. As a clincher, Burke handed McCaffrey a graph that showed the declining amount of airtime dedicated to anti-drug advertising on one axis and the declining perception among teenagers of the risks associated with drugs on the other. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure,” one staffer at the Partnership tells me, “that it was that conversation that sold McCaffrey.”

The General mobilized his office, lobbying Congress to allocate enough money to put anti-drug advertising on the air whenever teenagers watched television. His staff was skeptical. For all of McCaffrey’s conviction and charisma, he didn’t have much in the way of facts. “That was all we had – no data, just this one chart – and we had to go and sell Congress,” Carnevale recalls. But Congress proved to be a pushover. Conservatives, who held a majority, were thrilled that soft-on-pot liberals in the Clinton administration finally wanted to do something about the drug problem. “At some point, you have to draw a line and say that some things are right and some things are wrong,” says Sen. Grassley, explaining his support of the measure. “And using any drugs is just flat-out wrong.” To the Partnership’s delight, Congress allocated $1 billion to buy network time for anti-drug spots aimed at teenagers.

The General was also starting to make friends beyond the Clinton administration. The drug czar had found a natural ally in Hastert, who had become the GOP’s de facto leader on drug policy. The former wrestling coach struck few as charismatic – his joyless and drudging style, his form like settled gelatin – but his experiences in high schools had left him with the feeling that the drug issue, in the words of his longtime aide Bobby Charles, “had become extremely poignant.” Hastert wasn’t quite Lee Brown; he believed that the prime focus of the drug war should be to increase funding for military operations in Colombia. But he and his staff had grown frustrated with the exclusively punitive character of drug policy and wanted the Republicans to take a more compassionate stance. His staff had studied the RAND reports and largely agreed with their conclusions. “We felt if you didn’t get at the nub of the problem, which was prevention and treatment, you weren’t going to do any good,” says John Bridgeland, a congressional aide who helped coordinate Republican drug policy. Hastert eventually won $450 million to be used, in part, to expand a faith-based program discovered by Bridgeland: Developed by a former evangelical minister, it brought together preachers, parents and drug counselors to fight the problem of “apathy” through “parent training” and “messages from the pulpit.”

But with McCaffrey’s emphasis on kids came another, almost fanatical focus: going after citizens who used pot for medical purposes. If he was fighting marijuana, the General was going to fight it everywhere, in all its forms. He threatened to have doctors who prescribed pot brought up on federal charges, and dismissed the science behind medical marijuana as a “Cheech and Chong show.” In 1997, voters in Oregon introduced an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state. “I’ll never forget the senior-staff meeting the morning after the Oregon initiative was announced,” Bergman says. “McCaffrey was furious. It was like this personal affront to him. He couldn’t believe they’d gotten away with it. He wanted to have this research done on the groups behind it and completely trash them in the press.” As the General traveled to the initiative states, stumping against medical marijuana, his aides sneered that the initiatives were “all being mostly bankrolled by one man, George Soros,” the billionaire investor who favored decriminalizing drugs.

Even for those who shared McCaffrey’s philosophy, the theatrics seemed strange: There he was, on evening newscasts, effectively insisting that grandmothers dying of cancer were corrupting America’s youth. His office pushed arguments that, at best, stretched the available research: Marijuana is a gateway drug that leads inexorably to the abuse of harder drugs; marijuana is thirty times more potent now than it was a generation ago. “It didn’t track with the conclusions our researchers came to,” says Bergman. “It felt like he was trying to manipulate the data.”

McCaffrey had taken the drug war in a new direction, one that had little obvious connection with preventing drug abuse. For the first time, the full force of the federal government was being brought to bear on patients dying from terminal diseases. Even the General’s allies in Congress were appalled. “I can’t tell you how many times I went to the Hill with him and sat in on closed-doors meetings,” Bergman recalls. “Members said to him, ‘What in the world are you doing? We have real drug problems in the country with meth and cocaine. What the hell are you doing with medical marijuana? We get no calls from our constituents about that. Nobody cares about that.’ McCaffrey was just mystified by their response, because he truly believed marijuana was a gateway drug. He truly believed in what he was doing.”