• U.S.

Reinforcements in the Drug War

6 minute read
Jonathan Beaty

Getting ready to use the Navy, FBI, IRS—and paraquat Each new war against illegal drugs has seemed, when the fanfare died down, as futile as shoveling sand from a beach.

The enemy is far too big (the $80 billion drug industry is three times the size of IBM), law enforcement is far too limited (the country has 50% more fugitives who have jumped bail on drug charges than it has narcotics agents), and the efforts of various agencies have been uncoordinated. In an attempt to bring some coherence to the crusade, the Reagan Administration has decided to regroup its drug-fighting troops and call in reinforcements.

Although nobody would argue with the Administration’s goals, the methods being considered will be controversial.

Proposals include changes in federal laws that would eliminate bail in some cases, allow the participation of the military in fighting crime, loosen restrictions on the use of income tax and bank records, and fold the Drug Enforcement Administration into the FBI. Furthermore, TIME has learned, plans are being made to resume the spraying of paraquat, a lethal herbicide, on marijuana fields—not only abroad, but in the U.S. as well.

In the past, the drug war has been conducted almost exclusively by the DEA.

Pursuing a “buy-bust” strategy against individual dealers, agents have proved adept at going under cover and making arrests. But the DEA has not had enough accountants and skilled investigators to unravel the major international drug rings. Today there are four times more heroin addicts in the U.S. than there were when the agency was created in 1973, and this is directly contributing to the surge in violent crime. Indeed, the alarming trend may accelerate: a new jolt of heroin from the poppy fields of “the Golden Crescent”—Iran, Iraq and Pakistan—is starting to flood the East Coast.

The Reagan Administration plans to shift enforcement efforts from the smaller dealers to the major traffickers. Spearheading the drive is Francis (“Bud”) Mullen, former FBI executive assistant director, who this month was put in charge of the DEA. He hopes to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, the FBI’S favorite tool against organized crime, to confiscate drug-trade profits. One way of locating these gains is through stricter enforcement of the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act, which requires banks to disclose deposits that exceed $10,000.

Says Mullen: “If we can marry the DEA’s street savvy with the FBI’s talents and its 1,100 accountants—and bring in the Internal Revenue Service as well—then we can do the job.”

The IRS has not been involved in the drug war since 1974, when Congress restricted the agency’s role in law enforcement after learning that President Nixon had used it to harass his political enemies. The Reagan Administration is now trying to loosen the Taxpayer Privacy Act, which some officials bitterly call “the Organized Crime Relief Act,” to give law enforcement agents greater access to taxpayer records. The IRS is also assigning more investigators to ferret out tax evasion among major drug traffickers.

As long as their cash flow remains relatively unimpeded—the DEA seized only $3 million last year—big-time drug dealers will not worry much about being arrested. They can easily post million-dollar bails and walk away never to be seen again (TIME, July 6). The forfeited bail is considered a normal business expense.

This is the reason the Administration is seeking legislation that would allow judges to deny bail to defendants who seem likely to jump and run.

To enlist the armed forces in the war on drugs, the Administration proposes modifying the 100-year-old posse comitatus (literally “power of the county”) statutes that bar military involvement in civilian law enforcement. The Senate and House are expected to agree on a bill that will create a new and potent drug-fighting arsenal, including the use of military spy planes, satellite surveillance and sophisticated radar equipment. The House version would even give the Navy the right to board and seize drug-laden vessels outside U.S. territorial waters.

The State Department, meanwhile, would become more involved in trying to cut off drugs at their source: the opium, coca and marijuana fields around the world. In 1972 Turkey was persuaded to control its opium exports, and is no longer a prime provider of heroin. The U.S. has virtually no diplomatic leverage in Iran and Iraq, which have picked up where Turkey left off. But Peru, a major supplier of the coca used in cocaine, would be open to U.S. suasion. So would Colombia and other Latin American countries that became major marijuana producers after the U.S. subsidized Mexico to destroy its fields with paraquat in 1975.

The use of paraquat to eradicate marijuana crops remains a top priority of the DEA, even though the public is less concerned about pot than it is about hard drugs. The spraying in Mexico became a cause celebre after traces of the toxic chemical were found in pot smuggled into the U.S. When smoked in heavy doses, the tainted weed caused vomiting, hemorrhaging and, in a few cases, irreversible lung damage. Republican Senator Charles Percy’s 1978 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Authorization Act prohibited the U.S. from providing money or materials to foreign countries for paraquat spraying. House and Senate committees recently voted to repeal that restriction, although the Senate version requires that a “marker” be added to the herbicide so that potential smokers can recognize contaminated marijuana by sight or smell. No such traceable substance has yet been developed, but funds to promote spraying programs may be authorized anyway.

Colombia, like other drug-producing countries, is not about to kill off its lucrative marijuana crops until the U.S. sprays its own fields. The DEA is quietly planning a paraquat program that would involve Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Conspicuous by their absence on this list are California, Oregon and Hawaii, the top marijuana producers. The DEA fears political fallout in the two Western states and rules out the islands because of logistical problems. If the DEA gets its way, the first state to be sprayed will be Florida. Although not a leading marijuana grower, Florida may be receptive because of its severe drug-smuggling problem. But there is bound to be public protest. No matter how carefully the DEA maps marijuana fields, paraquat is dangerous to other plant life because it drifts in the wind. The spraying itself may also present a public health hazard. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the legalization lobby, promises to sue if the DEA tries to spray anywhere in the U.S. —By Walter Isaacson. Reported by Jonathan Beaty and Evan Thomas/Washington

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