U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum returned earlier this month from his five-day adventure in the jungles of South America convinced the U.S. should spend billions of dollars more than the $15.1 billion a year it already spends fighting the war on drugs.
But as McCollum, a Republican from Longwood, prepares a plan exhorting the government to buy planes and high-tech equipment for Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Congress' own research arm, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), are urging more emphasis on drug education and treatment programs.
Under McCollum's sketchy plan, Congress will fund "several billion dollars a year for a couple of years" for vehicles, planes and high-tech intelligence primarily for use by foreign governments in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia.
"We aren't waging a war. We're waging a series of skirmishes," says McCollum.
Not surprisingly, after huddling in early December with U.S. drug officials and high-ranking officials in the three countries, McCollum was confident that such an investment, coupled with a coordinated strategy, would enable drug warriors to cut by 50 percent the amount of cocaine, heroin and marijuana dodging interdiction efforts and finding its way into the U.S. And he is confident that Americans will agree with him.
"If this is within any range that is possible, most people would believe this should be done," says McCollum, whose trip apparently included meetings with such highly classified drug officials that several lines were obscured from his itinerary before it was shared with Orlando Weekly.
While McCollum also supports drug-treatment programs, he says more emphasis needs to be placed on fighting the drug war overseas. "Getting some people off drugs is not having any material impact on how people get on them," he says.
But research findings released on Dec. 15 by NIDA show that at least four types of drug-abuse treatment can be extremely effective in reducing drug use. Also, the study found that treatment programs reduce criminal acts by drug users, while improving their success in holding down full-time jobs.
The study tracked 10,000 drug abusers in nearly 100 treatment programs in 11 cities from 1991-1993 who had enrolled in outpatient methadone treatment or drug-free behavioral treatment or long- or short-term residential treatment programs.
Among the findings: Methadone treatment cut heroin use by 70 percent. And, a year after beginning treatment, drug users in residential and out-patient treatment were half as likely to use cocaine at least once a week.
"In addition to significant reductions in drug use, treatment also led to significant improvements in other aspects of patients' lives, including their abilities to function in their families and communities," says Dr. Alan I. Leshner, Director of NIDA, which funded the study.
McCollum's resolve to bolster overseas drug-war funding also seems at odds with two GAO reports.
In February 1997, the GAO noted the U.S. government had spent $20 billion on the drug war in the past decade, but "illegal drugs still flood the United States." Among the reasons: highly sophisticated drug cartels had become "increasingly resourceful in corrupting the countries' institutions."
Asked about this, McCollum indicated he was confident the U.S. could control the use of the equipment and attested to the integrity of the officials. He downplayed the problems of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in controlling the military and dealing with human-rights complaints. "Fujimori has done a great deal to cooperate with us," McCollum says.
Drug education and treatment also were alternatives outlined in a March 14 GAO report, which noted rising levels of drug use among American youth despite interdiction efforts. The report suggested research -- like the NIDA study -- "should help policymakers better focus efforts and resources in an overall drug-control strategy."
Also, as it had in the February report, the GAO emphasized the need for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is supposed to coordinate the war on drugs, to establish methods for measuring its progress and evaluating the contributions of the multitude of government agencies involved.
In late January, President Clinton is expected to submit his budget proposal. This will start congressional debates on a wide range of issues, including whether to reauthorize the law that created the cabinet post of drug czar during the Reagan administration. Central to this debate will be how much emphasis should be placed on treatment and education of youth and drug users in America versus combating the production and transportation of drugs from South America through the purchase of planes and high-tech detection equipment entrusted to South American governments.
"The effort to combat substance abuse has to be fought on both fronts. No matter how strenuous our interdiction efforts are, if there is a significant demand, these substances will find their way into the U.S.," says Dave Kohn, spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Porter, a Republican from Illinois, who chairs the House subcommittee that recommends funding for drug treatment and education and sits on the House Committee on Appropriations.
"Since the inception of the war on drugs, we've put a lot of emphasis on interdiction. Is enough being done on the other side?" Porter's spokesman says. "We ought to allocate in an equitable fashion."