A Seamless Continuum

Terry O'Neill, J.D., B.A.

Not long ago, I read a published comment by Mr. Robert Sharpe of the Lindesmith Center, an organization that advocates change in our policy toward dangerous and addictive drugs. Mr. Sharpe characterized the struggle against illegal drugs as a "gravy train" because many government agencies and other players, he says, have a vested interest in maintaining current policy. His comment reminded me of a time in 1993 when then State Police Superintendent Tom Constantine crossed swords with a Syracuse newspaper columnist who accused him of lying and having a nose bigger than Pinocchio's. I was inspired to write a poem entitled “The Big Picture” which put the matter in perspective (and the columnist in his place) by explaining in a very patient, kindly and humorous way that he had got it wrong -- the nose was in perfect proportion to the stature of the man.

While I greatly appreciate the work the Lindesmith Center has been doing to promote reform of drug policy, I believe Mr. Sharpe definitely missed The Big Picture and dishonored the memory and sacrifice of many who have been part of the struggle, as I prefer to call it. I'm sure he didn't mean to do that. But once again, I am called upon to put things in perspective. Let me start by reminding him that the drug epidemic is without precedent in human history. If we have inevitably made mistakes in responding to it, we are not without the wisdom to learn from them. I see plenty of evidence that we have. I also see that many of the things we did to respond to the drug problem and the criminal organizations it spawned will serve us well in confronting other and even more dangerous organized criminal and terrorist threats to our national security.

Today, across America, after almost three decades in a perpetual state of crisis, state governments are beginning to fine-tune their policy toward drug abuse. Increasingly, it is seen as a public health if not a public mental health problem that must be treated as such. Mechanisms are being put in place that will divert more drug addicted offenders into treatment programs. Under the can-do leadership of Judge Joseph Traficanti of the Office of Court Administration, for an example close to home, a whole set of special drug courts will be in place statewide within two years. New York will be the first state to fully implement drug courts. Judge Traficanti tells me that 10,000 offenders annually will be diverted from incarceration under this program, saving taxpayers many millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on incarceration and public assistance. It remains to be seen whether we have the capacity and the will to provide treatment and supervision for so many. We must resolve to make that our highest priority.

Thirty years of battling drug trafficking organizations is an experience that has transformed law enforcement in America. Our thousands of small and medium sized police agencies have learned to cooperate among themselves and with state and federal agencies as never before. Law enforcement agencies are better trained and equipped and work more effectively to target the criminals who produce, smuggle and sell drugs. They have learned some pretty hard lessons along the way. Ask the New Jersey State Police about racial profiling in highway interdiction or the New York City Police Department about the community relations cost of oppressive stop-and-frisk tactics. The lessons learned in these instances have sunk in to the betterment of police service everywhere.

In New York, where the harsh sentencing laws enacted in 1973 sparked the growth of prison population from 17,000 then to 72,000 at its recent peak, there is growing resolve to change these laws to lessen the harshness of penalties and to divert drug-dependent offenders into treatment rather than prison. Governor George E. Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Chief Judge Judith Kaye have all spoken out to support change. They are joined and urged on by many responsible organizations including the Catholic Conference of New York, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and ReconsiDer.

Our prosecutors? There has been some recent controversy over their association's opposition to reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They should get with the program. They should also focus on those areas of policy for which they have the most responsibility and potential impact. The leadership of New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau gave us a powerful new money laundering law last year that will make us far more effective in battling drug trafficking organizations by targeting all the financial middlemen who make the drug economy go. We should ensure that police and prosecutors be given the resources they need to make the most of the new statute and we should urge every other state to enact a similar and compatible law. In neighboring Kings County, District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has taken the lead in preparing to accommodate the increasing number of drug offenders who are completing their sentences or being paroled. His ComALERT Program organizes community-based organizations into a network of transition services to help reintegrate them into the community without returning to crime or substance abuse.

To his enduring credit, Professor Tom Constantine, as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, went to Mexico City in 1996, spoke out and began the process of mutually confronting the level of corruption that drug trafficking had engendered. The drug traffickers, he told them, were trying to buy seats on the boards of directors of their major financial institutions to help launder hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits. He followed up by giving the Congress of the United States an uncompromising and blunt assessment of our inability to cooperate with Mexican authorities. “There is no one we can trust,” he said. Now, the Mexican people have thrown out the party that had ruled for over seventy years and permitted that corruption and drug trafficking to take deep root and flourish. Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox Quesada have already met and agreed to a new level of engagement in our bilateral relations with emphasis on drug trafficking and human exploitation.

Five DEA Special Agents lost in a plane crash in Peru's Huallaga Valley in 1994 did not die in vain -- coca production is down 60% in that nation. It has stayed down notwithstanding the current political turmoil there as President Alberto Fujimori's government collapsed in scandal. In Colombia, the Medellin Cartel is history, Pablo Escobar is dead and the wealthy and powerful Cali Cartel was decapitated during Professor Constantine's time as chief of the DEA as the direct result of cooperation between American and Colombian authorities. Whatever one may think of the aid package that Congress voted last year to send Colombia and its neighbors -- and it is controversial -- the fact is that President Andres Pastrana has thereby been enabled to put newly invigorated effort into the stalled peace negotiations with the armed insurgencies there. These rebel armies and the right-wing militias that oppose them have bankrolled themselves through protection of opium and coca cultivation and of drug and arms traffickers. Colombia is our neighbor and a trading partner of growing importance. It also occupies the strategic position between the oil fields of Venezuela and the Panama Canal. It needs help and it is in our strongest national interest to find the resolve to give it.

In recent years, I often found an announcement on the Internet that Professor Constantine was giving a speech entitled: “Law Enforcement as the Solution.” Obviously, looking at the range of initiatives responding to the drug problem outlined above, it has been and will remain a big part of the solution. But only part. I've been to any number of forums on drug policy and invariably, someone like Professor Constantine will preface his statement with: “Let me give it to you from a cop's perspective.” Well, I respect and appreciate a cop's perspective. Professor Constantine has rendered over forty years of the most dedicated service and he has witnessed the devastation that drugs caused during the years when they took hold and grew as a problem. He and his law enforcement colleagues have done a most creditable job of handling the task we've assigned them given the fact that the drug problem is completely unprecedented in human experience and the fact that it has spawned criminal adversaries of a size and power unparalleled in history. Nonetheless, a more truly humane and intelligent drug policy requires that we conceive a bigger picture that “a cop's perspective.” What must that picture encompass?

Trade agreements between the United States and Latin America will in the long term lead to rising standards of living in all of those nations. That is good. Prosperity should lead to stability, reduce crime and cause farmers to abandon cultivation of illicit crops. But many of those nations have a weak tradition of representative government and poorly organized, trained and paid police. These conditions breed authoritarianism and corruption and permit organized crime to flourish. We have strong representative government and professional law enforcement agencies and we can and must help our neighbors develop the same. This is called nation-building and it requires special resources -- intellectual resources. We have those resources. At the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, Professor Adbo Baaklini directs the Center for Legislative Development consulting with legislatures in many nations to help them modernize and strengthen their ability to represent their people. At the same college, Professor Constantine, who is nothing if not a gifted and charismatic leader, is organizing the Leadership Institute for Law Enforcement Executives. After we establish it as the finest program of its kind in the world, we should offer it as a model to our neighbors.

The turn of the last century became known as the Progressive Era because of the many social reforms, including many in the field of criminal justice, that were conceived and implemented in those years. It was an optimistic time. I believe there is even more cause for optimism today and that it is particularly warranted in the area of drug policy. Just as Professor Constantine stood up in Mexico City in 1996 to call attention to corruption, let me venture to stand up today and call attention to the work that Father Peter Young has done to persuade us that we must give drug addicts a second, a third, even a tenth chance to recover; to a scholar like Professor Shadd Maruna at Rockefeller College School of Criminal Justice who has studied deeply what motivates many offenders to finally get their lives in order; to Dr. Leonard Morgenbesser who has helped organize scattered groups of crime victim advocates into a coherent and legally incorporated entity so that they may offer victims counseling and other services that may prevent trauma and grief from turning into chemical dependency; to Professor David H. Bayley, an expert in international policing, who is working with Professor Constantine on the reform of the Police Service of Northern Ireland -- a major nation-building initiative and one that will serve as a model for many others; to Professor Dennis Sullivan and his colleagues who have been promoting for thirty years now the compelling concept of Restorative Justice -- the idea that we should devote as much imagination to undo the damage caused by crime as we devote effort and resources to prosecute and punish it. I also call attention in particular to Professor Dilip Das of SUNY Plattsburgh, a man who once held a position equivalent to New York's Superintendent of State Police in India's turbulent frontier state of Assam. Professor Das has already organized an annual international conference and a scholarly journal on criminal justice issues that are designed to make the research and insight of scholars meaningfully accessible to law enforcement executives. These are only a few examples of the human and intellectual resources we have with which to launch a New Progressive Era in criminal justice.

Let me come once again to Professor Constantine who, on May 8, 1998, wrote an extraordinary letter to Governor George E. Pataki and to key members of the State Legislature urging them to pass a bill that we had put together for his 1962 State Police Academy classmate Paul Richter, whose career as a trooper ended abruptly when he was shot and paralyzed by a criminal. Governor Pataki signed that bill into law a mere two months later adding $8.5 million a year in new funding for research toward a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis, giving hope to victims of reckless and impaired drivers and to victims of gunshot wounds who languish and suffer today, many in abject poverty, as casualties of the crack wars of the last two decades. That is the most spectacular and creative instance of an implementation of restorative justice that I have yet seen. I expect it is only a beginning.

During his time as head of the DEA, Professor Constantine was fond of talking about his vision of all the world's law enforcement authorities working cooperatively together with the single common purpose of winning the struggle against drug trafficking and organized crime. He called it “A Seamless Continuum.” Well, I have a vision of a seamless continuum, too. It links the criminal justice system, other agencies and levels of government, lawmakers, diplomats, academics, faith-based and non-profit organizations, the business sector and the community in a cooperative and common search for solutions. And that is not without precedent.

It has been a very long time since the American people were all down on our luck and in trouble together. The way people looked out for one another and struggled together during the Great Depression and World War II is a memory that grows dimmer with each passing year. Professor Constantine has evoked that memory on a number of occasions when he has said that the American people are not as serious about winning the war on drugs as we were about winning World War II. Now, it is Professor Constantine who is missing The Big Picture. (Or maybe, like a good teacher, he's just trying to provoke and challenge us.) Well, this time I'm not going to write an amusing poem to expand his perspective. This essay will do that quite satisfactorily if someone brings it to his attention. But perhaps an “arresting” metaphor will help him see the link more clearly.

All the length of the North and South American continents there is a spinal cord of sorts. Its Spanish name is La Cordillera. It is comprised of the Rocky and Andes Mountains. There is a whole region -- the drug producing and transshipment region -- of that spinal cord that is damaged and the injury is interrupting the flow of commerce, prosperity, democracy, peace and human rights. With Professor Constantine's help, we were able to put the brainpower of New York's medical research establishment to work to find a solution to the problem of spinal cord injury paralysis -- an injury that doctors since the time of the pharaohs have said could never be repaired. As of 2001, $22 million in new monies is going into research every year. There will be a cure. Now we need to put that same kind of brainpower to work on the North-South problem.

Professor Constantine has been my teacher since long before he even became a Professor; although it's all been distance learning. That's okay. It teaches one to be self-reliant and self-motivated -- and not overly dominated by one's mentor. One of the things he taught me is that once a problem is confronted and understood, you get resolve and it will be solved. (He puts it a little more colorfully: “If you want to be somebody, you've to beat somebody.”) That's the story of the destruction of the traditional Italian-American Mafia after its existence was exposed in 1957 and the full resources of a very determined Department of Justice were brought to bear on its eradication. It's the story of the Medellin and Cali Cartels. It will be the story of the Mexican drug traffickers and every other criminal and terrorist organization that will follow them, as they surely will.

And the war on drugs? Well, President George W. Bush said during first his visit to Mexico: “... the main reason why drugs are shipped through Mexico to the United States is because United States citizens use drugs.” First you have to admit that you have a problem. Right? And the next step?

General Barry McCaffrey sent me a letter in 1996 in which he wrote: “Together we will face down the problem of illegal drugs with common sense, commitment and perseverance.” A rather thin sentiment, I thought, so I wrote back to him saying: “Better we try faith, hope and love.” To which I would add a little brainpower, of course, and imagination and leadership.

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