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ally focus. Illicit drug trade has not been decisively defeated, and drugs remain a major

social problem within the United States and in ever expanding areas abroad. Victory is

proving to be a long and hard road indeed. But in fairness to all those who have labored,

conscientiously if not altogether successfully, to end the American drug problem, lack

of success does not spring from want of talent or exertion. The national effort against

drugs has not produced failure, so much as it has not produced something clearly identifiable

and generally accepted as success in a poorly defined and understood task where

definitive success may not be attainable.

A new U.S. administration at the threshold of a new century provides an opportunity to

re-examine the fundamental questions of what the United States set out to accomplish in

the 1970’s, and whether more detailed and disciplined examinations of what it has confronted

all these years may be useful in charting the future course of national drug policy.

One must not belittle the contributions of those officials at all levels who have devoted

their careers to combating drugs, many at considerable personal or professional risk,

sometimes even at the cost of their lives. Neither should one sit on the ground and sing

sad songs, like those dejected Greek warriors outside Troy after Achilles was killed, when

it seemed Troy would never be defeated. While victory in the familiar military sense of

the term may not be attainable, significant improvement is possible. We can only move

forward and accurately assess our progress, though, if we develop a better understanding

of the task the United States set for itself in this national “war on drugs.” Given the scale

the threat from drug trafficking has reached in the last quarter century, the United States

has no choice but to confront the drug threat. The alternative to doing so is a rapidly

expanding class of new, non-state-based challenges to American national security. The

potential harm narco-mercantilism engenders leaves counterdrug (CD) policy-making

officials longing for the prosaic days in the late 1970’s of multi-ton marijuana loads, slow

coastal freighters and “good ol’ boy’” smugglers. True, disciplined intelligence assessment

of the threat posed by drug trafficking raises serious doubts about the best CD

efforts the US car mount; yet, at the same time, analysis can guide policy makers to more

effective and realistic policy choices. The gravest error in national drug policy would be

failure to confront the true nature of the drug threat and the practical limits of our own

capabilities.

WHAT WE ARE ABOUT, AND HOW WE GOT HERE

When President Richard Nixon first declared his national war on drugs, the United

States was already deeply involved in another conflict, Viet Nam. 587 There the American

military was experiencing severe problems as a result of the ready availability of drugs,

587 The Politics of Heroin, CIA Complicity in The Global Drug Trade, Alfred McCoy, Lawrence Hill Books,

Brooklyn. New York, 1991 is a good source on the early days of the current drug trafficking problem, and the

development of U.S. drug policy. Although I disagree with some of his analyses and details, McCoy provides a

useful view of the long history of drug trafficking, set in a broad context of its impact on other major events

occurring in the same regions and time periods. This book goes a long way in dispelling the idea that drug trafficking

is simply a large collection of individual crimes, lacking a broader significance as a regional security

issue.

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