DEA Congressional Testimony
July 13, 1999

 

Thomas A. Constantine, Former Administrator
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the:

Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources

Date:

July 13, 1999

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: It is a pleasure for me to appear before the subcommittee today to discuss the subject of drug legalization and decriminalization both of which amount to liberalization of drug laws. During my 39-year career in law enforcement, in my positions as Superintendent of the New York State Police and as Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and now as I return to private life, I have passionately believed that legalizing drugs is wrong, immoral, and suicidal for our society. Having seen first-hand the devastation that drug use and availability have had on many segments of our society over the past thirty years, I know deep in my heart that any effort to make more drugs available to the American people including our children and the poor - which, make no mistake is what legalization advocates are suggesting - will have devastating consequences for our entire nation.

When I look at just who is proposing drug legalization I am struck by several things, including the fact that they are mostly affluent, well-educated and socially distant from the potential victims of their experiment. The legalization movement is well-financed and has been spawned in salons in the Upper East side of New York, country clubs on both coasts of the nation, and in locations remote from the realities of drug addiction, despair and the social decay that accompany drug use. The people who are missing from the legalization debate, and this is no accident, are mothers, religious leaders, and the loved ones of those who have been victimized by crime and addiction. Law enforcement officials are also absent from the ranks of those who are calling for legalization, not because we have a vested interest in enforcing the drug laws of the United States, but because we have seen how dangerous and divesting drug use and trafficking have been, particularly in poorer urban and rural areas of our country.

In my brief statement today, I wish to make several points, which I hope will provide the Subcommittee with some additional insight into just how misguided the legalization argument is. In order to do this as succinctly as possible, I would like to address head-on some of the issues that are pertinent in this debate. Because of my extensive experience in law enforcement, the majority of my comments will be focused in this area. First, drug supply drives demand; second, the enforcement of drug laws has had a significant impact on reducing the crime rate; and third, too many questions remain unanswered by legalization advocates about the practical implementation of their social experiment.

The Equation Between Supply and Demand

Many legalization advocates claim that drugs should be legalized in order to satisfy what they characterize as "America's insatiable demand for drugs." From my experience, and the experience of the vast majority of law enforcement officials, it is clear that drug availability leads to increased drug use.

At the current time, American communities are being targeted by powerful international drug trafficking organizations based overseas with headquarters in Colombia and Mexico. These organizations are responsible for sending all of the cocaine, and the majority of the marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine available in U.S. communities. Beginning in the 1970's, when Colombia-based trafficking organizations eclipsed American organized crime groups as the pre-eminent force in drug trafficking, drug users in the United States were supplied with marijuana, and then cocaine from groups based in Medellin and Cali. We know now as we suspected then, that the goal of these ruthless organizations was to flood the United States with their poisonous drugs. They saturated U.S. cities with multi-ton quantities of cocaine and created an unprecedented demand. This was a clear case of supply driving demand.

I'd like to go right to the heart of this debate and address an issue that we could spend countless hours discussing: how does supply influence demand? I have always believed that supply not only influences, but creates demand. It is not only the quantity of cocaine or heroin that influences usage, but more importantly, the available supply.

Let me give you an example. A few years back, Colombian traffickers decided to diversify into the heroin market and made a strategic marketing decision to push heroin as an alternative to cocaine. They were, unfortunately, very successful, and today, 75 percent of heroin sold in the United States is smuggled in from South America. Their savvy marketing techniques included the bundling of heroin along with cocaine and providing "free samples" to hawk to potential buyers. Also, brand names of heroin were created and certain dealers only provided those brands to instill customer loyalty and brand-name recognition. Ultimately, they created a stronger, cheaper, and more appealing product. Purity levels increased from single digits to today's heroin that ranges from 40 to 90 percent pure. As a result, it can be snorted and smoked, rather than injected, thus enticing a whole new generation of users who would otherwise be turned off by needles.

As a result of this combination of higher purity, lower prices, and ready availability in open drug markets, the United States is experiencing a dramatic increase in heroin abuse. Today's heroin mortality figures are the highest ever recorded, exceeding even those of the mid 1970s, when deaths reached a high point just over 2,000. Close to over 4,000 people died in the last three years from heroin-related overdoses. Heroin abuse has taken a toll on a wide range of American communities such as Baltimore and Orlando in the East and suburban cities such as Plano, Texas, in the west.

The fact that drug supply leads to increased drug demand is also being demonstrated by the skyrocketing up-surge in methamphetamine abuse in our country. Methamphetamine, which had appealed to a relatively small number of American users, has reemerged as a major drug of choice.

Historically controlled by outlaw motorcycle gangs, methamphetamine production and trafficking is now controlled by sophisticated organized crime drug groups from Mexico, operating in that country and in California. These groups systematically increased both the production and distribution of methamphetamine, and as a result, statistics illustrate that methamphetamine use and availability has dramatically increased to epidemic proportions throughout the United States in a short period of time. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicates that emergency room episodes involving methamphetamine increased from 4,900 in 1991 to 17,400 in 1997, an increase of 280%. The areas hardest hit by the methamphetamine epidemic are Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse are spreading across the United States at an alarming rate. With their primary methamphetamine production headquartered in remote areas of California, the surrogates of Mexican organized crime groups are also establishing a presence in cities in the Midwest, the deep South and the East Coast. Barely heard of a decade before in the nation's heartland, methamphetamine has taken hold of Des Moines, Iowa, and many other Midwestern cities. Trafficking gangs from Mexico introduced this highly addictive stimulant to citizens there, and the problem has become so significant that meth has been cited as a contributing factor in an estimated 80 percent of the domestic violence cases in Iowa.

By these examples, I do not mean to imply in the least that demand is not a critical factor in the equation. I want to stress, however, that supply definitely generates increased drug use. America's two current drug epidemicsheroin and methamphetamine--support this thesis. Legalization would only make a bad situation more dangerous.

The Impact of Aggressive Law Enforcement

I believe that the application of aggressive law enforcement principles and techniques, rather than drug legalization/decriminalization, is the most successful way to dismantle international drug trafficking organizations and reduce the number of drug users in this country. America's drug enforcement policies are working: from 1979 to 1994, the number of drug users in America dropped by almost half.

Aggressive law enforcement has also reduced the levels of violent crime so often associated with drug abuse and drug trafficking. Within the last several years, it has become very clear that the recent reductions in the violent crime rate within the United States in places like New York, Los Angeles and Houston - now at levels not seen since the 1960's - are due in large part to aggressive law enforcement at all levels. The New York City example is perhaps the most compelling illustration of this point. In the early 1990's after three decades of rapidly increasing levels of violent crime which were exacerbated by the crack epidemic, the City of New York embarked upon an ambitious program to enhance its law enforcement capabilities. City leaders increased the police department by 30%, adding 8,000 officers. Arrests for all crimes, including drug dealing, drug gang activity, and quality of life violations which had been tolerated for many years, increased by 50%. The capacity of New York prisons was also increased. The results of these actions were dramatic: the total number of homicides in 1998 - 633 - was less than the number of murders in 1964. Over an eight-year period the number of homicides was reduced from 2262 to 633 - a reduction of more than 70%.

DEA has also been aggressive in developing and implementing programs to reduce violent narcotics-related crime. One enforcement program, the Mobile Enforcement Teams, lends support to local and state law enforcement agencies that are experiencing problems arising from violent drug related crime in their communities. The results of this program over the past four years indicate that aggressive law enforcement of drug laws does have a lasting impact on reducing crime and improving the quality of life for the residents of communities across the nation. Statistics indicate that on average, communities participating in the MET program have seen a 12% reduction in homicides. But just as important to me have been the scores of letters the DEA has received from leaders in these communities recognizing this decrease in crime and thanking us for helping achieve a more peaceful way of life for citizens.

Drug abuse, along with the combination of violent crime and social decay that accompany it, can be prevented. Too many people in America seem resigned to the inevitability of rampant drug use. However, effective law enforcement programs make a difference, and we must stay the course.

The Reality of Legalization

Legalization proponents are telling Americans that drugs are not dangerous, that increased addiction is not a significant threat to America, and that inner cities will be better off because it is drug dealing - not drug use - that is the problem.

The legalization advocates are not telling the truth about the consequences of their proposal. It is not that they are purposely misleading Americans, but rather they are not providing all of the information necessary for us to make a sound judgment on the issue. The logistics of legalizing drugs are overwhelming. Take pharmaceuticals for example. Despite tough regulations and strict controls, these powerful and addicting legalized drugs remain the most widely abused drugs in the country. Surely the same would happen with legalized heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

There are many tough questions to ask legalization advocates. I believe many cannot be answered adequately. Some of these include:

Will all drugs be legalized? Will we knowingly make dangerous, mind-altering, addictive substances - PCP, LSD, crack, methamphetamine - available to everyone - regardless of their health? profession? age? past criminal record?

How do we address the black market that will inevitably spring up to provide newer, purer, more potent drugs to those now addicted who cannot be satisfied with the product they obtain from the government or the private sector?

Given the fact that our record with cigarettes and alcohol is not very good, how will we limit the abundance of dangerous drugs to 18 or 21 year olds?

Who will pay for the health costs and social costs which will accrue as a result of increased drug use? Who will pay for the losses in productivity and absenteeism ?

Whose taxes will pay for the thousands of babies born drug-addicted?

What responsibility will our society have to these children as they grow and have problems as a result of their drug use?

Will drug centers be located in the inner cities, or will drug distribution centers be set up in the suburbs?

And most legalization experts cannot answer this question: Can we set up a legalization pilot program in your neighborhood?

These are all questions we should ask and answers we should demand. Granted, we have not yet effectively addressed all of the drug problems facing our nation today, but we must also realize that the drug issue is a very complex problem that has been with us for decades. It will take more time for us to see our way clear.

Despite this realization, it is astounding to me that legalization proponents advocate surrender. Our nation is faced with other major problems besides drug use: AIDS, declining educational standards, homelessness - yet we do not hear cries for us to abandon our efforts and surrender to inaction on these issues. Why is the drug issue different?

We do not advocate giving up on our schools, or negating everything we've done to date to find a cure for cancer - even though we have spent billions of dollars on research and we have not yet found a cure.

In closing, I ask each of you to think about these questions, and to ask yourself if we in fact would be better off as a society freely dispensing drugs to anyone who wanted them. Given the enormous challenges our nation faces in the years ahead, I cannot honestly envision a world where our surgeons, pilots, or children are given license by our government - which has an obligation to protect and defend all of us - to take dangerous and addictive drugs.

I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify today. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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