Op-Eds by Jim

Don’t Call On The Guard

April 13, 1989
by James Webb, The Washington Post

The National Guard is entering what the Pentagon has euphemistically termed “the nationwide crusade against drugs.” Which is hardly going to cause either the billionaire kings of crack or the minor moguls of the open-air markets to lose much sleep.

The new secretary of defense and the new drug czar, who between them have exactly zero military or law enforcement experience, are now implementing a supplemental appropriation passed lat year by a Congress that was acting more in frustration than through strategic logic. And soon National Guard members will be conducting secondary activities such as aerial photography, assistance in searches and transportation and training of law enforcement personnel. The National Guard, it is stressed, will not be involved in direct participation in such matters as arrest and seizure.

Which means that there will be dozens of photo opportunities, a few widely publicized successes and no real movement toward a resolution of this “crusade.” There still has been no enunciation of a clear strategy in the war against drugs. We have seen important but nonetheless symbolic gestures, such as the ban on importing assault rifles. We have seen administration appointments to amorphously defined positions such as deputies for “supply reduction” and “demand reduction.” We have been told, in the best tradition of former California governor Jerry Brown, to lower our expectations, that we are never going to fully solve the problem. We are being treated to quasi-capitalistic logic: that the best we can hope for is the elevation of the street price of illegal drugs by reducing their volume and purity.

What we haven’t been told is how we’re going to fight and win a war that is killing off young people, depriving others of their potential, creating serious birth defects in newborns and pouring billions of dollars every year into the pockets of criminals. In fact, we are experiencing a guerrilla war whose stakes are dollars, power and the misery of the people they subdue.

National Guardsmen flying over the desert or providing photo opportunities by riding shotgun in police cars are not going to defeat the guerrillas in this war. Nor are deputies for “demand reduction and supply reduction.” If this nation is serious about ridding itself of its most debilitating pestilence, I would suggest the following approach.

Go after the enemy’s sanctuaries. No guerrilla campaign has ever been defeated when the enemy was allowed to operate with impunity from protected sanctuaries, and this principle is true in the drug war. Major drug traffickers operating without fear in nearby countries must lose this luxury. However, this does not mean, as some have suggested, that American troops should be sent in, in what would end up as a naive, fruitless jaunt through the wilderness. The sanctuaries in the case of drugs are most often found in legal protections some countries give to drug kings and their mammoth operations. They can be eliminated on the one hand by assisting and perhaps training domestic police, and on the other by international agreements, particularly those that would allow freezing, and ultimately confiscating, the bank accounts of known drug kings.

Get the drug soldiers off the battlefield. The biggest problem in drug enforcement is not locating drug dealers. It is that our jails are so full and the criminal process so bogged down that the police can’t keep them off the streets. And even the prospect of jail is not a powerful deterrent, since Lorton and similar facilities have become alternate communities for those in the drug culture.

Build a very large, very primitive federal prison in a remote area of Alaska. Next to it build a very large, very primitive juvenile detention center. Pass a law stating that the sale of drugs in any amount constitutes a federal offense, punishable by a mandatory prison sentence in Alaska. Such a law would “delocalize” a massive federal and international problem. Vigorously enforce this law until the prospect of selling drugs literally sends chills down the spine of anyone who considers it.

Those who believe this approach is draconian and won’t work should consider that Japan had 200,000 hard-core and “latent” heroin addicts in 1960, before passing similar provisions in the 1963 Narcotics Substance Control Act. Today heroin addiction in Japan is as rare as smallpox. In the process, the Japanese also dramatically cut back property crimes, which in large part are the province of drug offenders.

Police the battlefield. Now focus on mere drug use, and attempt to eliminate it. Educate the children, treat the victims. Activate your deputies for “supply reduction” and “demand reduction.” Go out and make speeches about the evils of drugs, so that future generations of young Americans will comprehend the miseries that their predecessors endured. And you won’t need National Guardsmen peering out uneasily from police cars, wondering why they’ve been pulled away from their jobs and families to become targets of abuse in neighborhoods that desperately need something more than symbols from their government.

The writer is an author and from 1984 to 1988 served successively as assistant secretary of defense for Reserve affairs and secretary of the Navy.