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Book News

Seeking a 'prescription for sanity'

'Drug Crazy:
How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out'

by Mike Gray

Random House, $23.95

Review by Bob Winstead

(CNN) -- Drugs. The very mention of the word conjures up all kinds of demonic images. Needles, crack houses, babies addicted at birth. Thieves stealing to support their increasing habit. Children dying of overdoses in Rural America. Drive-by shootings of rival gangs fighting it out in a twisted Darwinian black market place. No social problem has characterized the last half of the twentieth century like the drug problem. No issue generates such an instant visceral reaction in people like the topic of drugs. How can we protect our children? How can we protect ourselves? How did we get in such a terrible situation?

Mike Gray, who wrote "The China Syndrome", has spent over six years researching America's involvement with drugs, and he shares his findings in "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess & How We Can Get Out".

Put down whatever book you are reading now, you can come back to it. This is an important book and should be read by every person capable of voting. "Drug Crazy" chronicles America's 80 year war on drugs. It is a study in unintended consequences, which might be funny if it wasn't so devastating. The facts he reports are horrifying. The murder rate is as high per capita now as it was during prohibition. The prison population in the U.S. has jumped from just under 200,000 in 1966, to just under 2 million in 1996, an increase by a factor of ten in just 20 years! According to Gray, the DEA admitted in 1996 that

"The migration of gang and posse members to smaller U.S. cities and rural areas resulted in increases in drug-related homicides, armed robberies and assaults ... Crack continued to be used in epidemic or near epidemic proportions in most major cities ... Worldwide opium production was 4,157 metric tons (an increase in 20% in a single year.)"

Not to mention that a former Colombian high court judge warned that "The income of the drug barons is greater than the American defense budget."

In 1993 alone, the United States federal budget to fight drugs was over $12 billion. Still, children are dying. People scream for new approaches, but the old ones are just intensified. In the U.S. last year the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act was passed, with the stated intention to make drugs "more expensive" and "more dangerous" to traffic in. Gray suggests:

"Not only has America nothing to show for this monumental effort (the Drug War), but the failed attempt has clearly made matters worse. After blowing hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, the drugs on the street are stronger, cheaper, more pure, and more widely available than at anytime in history ... You can buy it in the schoolyard, in the alley, and you can buy it in small Indiana farm towns that just a few years ago never heard of the stuff."

Gray blames the current mess on one simple-yet-powerful premise: The United States has turned what was essentially a minor medical problem into a law enforcement nightmare.

He takes us on an eye-opening history of the drug war, introducing one of America's first drug law enthusiasts, Dr. Hamilton Wright. Before World War I, Wright was charged with helping America wrestle trade relations with the Chinese away from the British. The Chinese welcomed it. The British East India Company had been forcing opium on the Chinese as payment for tea and silk. Dr. Wright, who had become "famous for discovering that beriberi was a bacterial infection, (He was wrong, unfortunately -- it's a vitamin deficiency) ... managed to convince himself that the United States not only had an opium problem, but that it was worse than China's."

This opium "problem", Gray informs us, was in reality middle-aged white women who had unwittingly become dependent on over-the-counter patent medicines that were laced with everything from opium to cocaine.

"Doctors prescribed them freely because patients said it made them feel better." No doubt! Doctors then started realizing the addictive qualities of these medicines. Hamilton saw a political opportunity. "Ironically, just as Hamilton Wright was discovering that narcotics addiction in the United States was soaring out of control, it was actually on the decline," Gray writes.

Gray explains that manufacturers had begun to put ingredient labels on products and people stopped using the ones laced with addictive drugs. Still, doctors began having to treat the addicts they had created. When Wright began calling for a national drug law with a national police force, Southerners balked at this intrusion into state's rights. So, Gray says, "Wright appealed to the racial sensitivities of Southerners by telling Congress that "... cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes ..."

When the Harrison Narcotics Act passed through Congress in 1914, the drug war began.

"Drug Crazy" then tells the story of how racism, inflammatory lies and political chestbeating have been the hallmarks of America's anti-drug effort ever since.

Gray tells us of Harry Anslinger, the head of the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who, despite medical evidence to the contrary, wrote in a critique of an ABA-AMA research paper, that "Marijuana is a lethal weapon, a killer weed ... the worst of all narcotics."

Gray takes us through the administrations of Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, and how tighter and tighter controls were established leading to the DEA and the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1984. Gray writes ...

"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... Seized assets would be shared among the law enforcement agencies that made the seizure. Very shortly, law-enforcement agencies throughout the country began including seizure projections in their annual budgets. It was, in fact, this 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. If they were with us today, they would surely be at our throats!"

With President Bush proclaiming "This scourge will stop!" and on national television, holding up a bag of cocaine seized across the street from the White House itself, the War moved to the suppliers. Gray describes in horrific detail the ensuing bloody battles in Colombia and Mexico; assassinations, bombings, and terror. Ruthless petty criminals who rose through attrition to become some of the richest men in the world. And when the smoke cleared ... "despite the always impressive body counts of kingpins and coca fields, total cocaine output in the Andes had increased 15 percent. Some estimates place it in excess of a thousand tons per year!"

Sometimes reading like a fast-paced crime novel, "Drug Crazy" takes to the streets of America, following shoot-outs of drug gangs with police, the overburdened court system and the corruption of public officials.

Over one million people are arrested annually and the laws just keep on getting tougher. People cry for harsher and harsher penalties, but the problem keeps getting worse. As Gray explains ...

"Prohibition as policy can only ratchet in one direction. Each failure must be met with more repression. Any step backward calls into question the fundamental assumption that repression is the solution."

So if Draconian Law is no solution, What is? Gray suggests looking to the places where success has been achieved. One of a few such places Gray examines is the Chapel Street Clinic in the Liverpool Suburb of Widnes, a place where heroin addicts can be legally prescribed heroin. "The Cheshire Drug Squad tracked 100 heroin users before and after they entered the clinic and found a 94% drop in theft, burglary, and property crimes. But the most interesting finding was the decline in the number of users. "

Clinic director Dr. John Marks said, "It seemed to prevent the spread of addiction."

The clinic was shut down in 1995.

Perhaps in a hundred years or so, America will look back on the drug war like it looks back on the Salem Witch trials, slavery, the Trail of Tears, or McCarthyism, and wonder how it could risk the very fabric of freedom only to have the effort backfire.

Certainly, Mike Gray will be criticized for this effort, and attempts will be made to discredit him. He chronicles instances of people who raised the same issue, only to be attacked as misguided or depraved. But regardless of how you stand on the drug issue, you should read and discuss and implore your leaders to read and discuss "Drug Crazy". It's a superbly written, gripping, extensively researched yet passionate appeal to take a sober, truthful approach to the drug problem.

If Mike Gray is right, and you must read this book and decide for yourself, then only by taking the issue out of the hands of law enforcement -- and placing it back into the hands of doctors and pharmacists -- can there finally be a "prescription for sanity."

Bob Winstead holds a degree in Social Psychology from Florida State University. He works for CNN News Features.

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