Recent conversations with counter drug experts reveal America will likely record more than 120,000 young Americans overdosed last year. That is twice our losses in all of Vietnam, three times our dead from the Korean War – and in one year. Year before? 108,000 dead young Americans. We must do better, we have done better. We have solutions if we care to get on them.
In the 1970s, drug abuse was widespread – but lower purities, lower addictive potency, heroin one-tenth current purity, marijuana one-twenty-fifth. President Reagan – and his wife Nancy – undertook to reverse that trend, joined by successor George H. W. Bush. Together, they did.
In the decade from 1982 to 1992, drug abuse, addiction, emergency room incidents, and overdoses fell, as awareness of addiction’s angers and risks grew, along with cultural rejection. Strong prevention, treatment, law enforcement, border and maritime interdiction, and international engagement rose. This combination, without hesitation, did the trick.
The correlation is so strong it makes clear – these coordinated policies worked. Thus, “monthly cocaine use dropped from nearly 3 million users in 1988 to 1.3 million in 1990,” capping a decade of declining drug abuse. After a presidential address, “Overall drug abuse dropped from 14.5 million users to 11.4 million” in one year, 1991 to 1992. Leadership turned the dial.
More broadly, based on an honest discussion of how illegal drugs affect the brain, body, reproductive organs, judgment, ambition, and attitude – and real effort to stop foreign drugs, major change occurred.
Overall drug use plummeted by more than half between 1977 and 1992, capturing the last years of Jimmy Carter, totality of Reagan and Bush, putting the nation on course to reverse overdoses.
Moreover, as congressional testimony affirmed, related social problems – including high school “dropout rate, illegitimacy…HIV, and violent crime” fell in turn. Other social ills are statistically tied to drug abuse – including suicide, 80 percent of domestic abuse, chiefly of women and children, drugged driving, accidents, falling educational scores, and auto accidents.
Unfortunately, like taking your fist from a bucket, things fill in fast behind you. If you lose focus, give up a fight, imagine the fight won, you slide backwards. In the mid-1990s, drug abuse crept up, until a Republican Congress and Democrat President again acted to reverse it.
Again, they did. Working together, with consistent messaging and a robust effort to coordinate honest, unvarnished truth about drug abuse, addiction, overdoses, and the pain they create, Republicans and Democrats did what Reagan and Bush 41 had done before, reversed abuse.
Methodically – with unblinking reference to facts – they spoke truth, together aligning drug prevention in schools, communities, the military, and government with addiction and dependence treatment. They did this not with “harm reduction” or “legalization,” both of which encourage use and addiction, but with proven means for genuinely ending dependence and addition.
They also embraced three coordinated responses, stronger support for federal and state law enforcement against drug trafficking, tough border-and-maritime interdiction, and proven international alliances and programs to reduce drug trafficking, drug-related crime, and drug-funded terror.
From 1995 to 2000, part of the US House Oversight Committee for which I served as staff director and chief counsel led dozens of hearings, featured drug czars and DEA Administrators, everyone from Nancy Reagan and Bill Bennett to Coast Guard Admirals Yost, Kramek, and Loy.
In Congress, Speaker Gingrich set up a Counternarcotics Task Force. Committee leaders in both parties formed one Bipartisan Drug Policy Working Group – a well-attended, serious effort. My jobs included being senior staff for both. Not surprisingly, these congressional efforts bore fruit.
Until the early 2000s, bipartisan congressional, coordinated with two White Houses that cared, showed when the nation works to reduce drug abuse, addiction, and overdoses, we can do it.
Sadly, starting in the early 2000s, taken off course by 9-11, then “transformational” cultural distractions, and shameless promotors of drug abuse, the nation’s drug problem – returned.
This time, unlike past periods, a “perfect storm” of poor leadership created a wildfire – one that continues to consume young people at an alarming rate. In effect, the idea of honestly presenting dangers associated with narcotics abuse and addiction, potential overdose, and the terrifying nature of trying to escape addiction – were thrown away.
Prevention was belittled, thrown out for what politicians thought was easy money, taxing the addicted, pretending they had compassion for devastated lives and families by shifting some money to treatment. It was a shell game, and they knew it going in.
Experts knew it would be a dead end – amplify pain for kids, parents, the nation. Added to hostility for police, border security, and assured prison for traffickers, the wildfire grew.
Why? Because getting addicted to dangerous drugs is easy; escaping addiction is hard, often nearly impossible. One can get addicted in a use or two, even die; getting out can take years.
All this betrays callousness, lack of compassion, lack of caring for those around us – who like the next young person you see just need truth, a reality check, and if they should slip, then treatment. Law enforcement, border enforcement, and international engagement also matter. Politicians play games with the drug issue – their games kill people, especially young people.
So, what is the good news? Just this. We have solutions, know how they work, must care enough to cooperate again – and save the next hundred thousand kids, currently alive but gone a year from now without concerted effort to intercede, speak truth, lead with heart. So, let us start.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.