War on Drugs? Nothing to show for the trillions spent

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(This is the second of a two-part series on the War on Drugs. Read the first part HERE.)

“Nunziata” is the only clue that remains. While the drugs vanished from the NYPD holding facility at 400 Broome St., the car chase from the film of The French Connection remains unforgettable.

Director William Friedkin, described making this scene: “[Bill] Hickman drove at 90 miles per hour for 26 blocks… I would never do anything like that again.” He began the project by going to the Head of the Transit Authority and asked if he could get permission to use an elevated train dedicated to the film for a period of time.

french20connection“And this guy sat there, looked at me like I was crazy. I can’t let you do that.”

“The Memory of Man runneth not to the contrary,” Friedkin reminisced. He and the production manager got up to leave the meeting. The Head of the Transit Authority interjected, “Wait a minute. Maybe there is a way.”

“Well, what would that be?”

“$40,000 and a one way ticket to Jamaica.”

“Why do you want a one way ticket to Jamaica?”

“Because I am going to get fired.”

And he was! Friedkin recalled, “When that film came out, we had his permission. We owned that elevated line, and he was fired.”

Thank God for the decision of the Head of the Transit Authority. The car chase scene became the greatest car chase in film history and the movie took home six Oscars. The French Connection celebrates the successful bust of an international drug smuggling ring with a French connection.

On the way to Camp David in 1971, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then counselor to President Nixon, chuckled in delight to Secretary of Labor George Shultz, “Shultz, don’t you realize that we just had the biggest drug bust in history?”


“Come on, this was a huge bust in Marseilles. We’ve broken the French connection!”

“Great work.”

“Shultz, I suppose you think that as long as there is a big, profitable demand for drugs in this country there will be a supply.”

“Moynihan, there’s hope for you.”

George Shultz’ saw the drug marketplace as a more powerful social force than any law, no matter how draconian. He remembered Prohibition, and like Prohibition a generation earlier, drug laws only succeeded in making organized crime stronger and filling up our prisons with non-violent offenders. The formula for failure on drug distribution was simple marketplace economics. With increased scarcity comes increased demand, and drug runners go to all lengths to reap those greater profits.

Diacetylmorphine was the 1895 formulation of Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken, which became Bayer AG. Bayer trademarked diacetylmorphine as Heroin, reportedly because test subjects felt heroic. It was marketed it as a safe non-addictive alternative to morphine. Along with Bayer’s other proprietary drugs, Aspirin and Lycetol, Heroin was also a nice ‘soothing syrup’ for bawling babies.

Not until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, regulating the importation of opiates (including morphine and heroin) and coca products (including Coca-Cola), did the United States government address the spiraling addiction problem of narcotics, allowing them only to be prescribed and sold for medical purposes. Prior to the Harrison Tax Act, drug addiction was already becoming perceived as a national health problem. Coca-Cola in 1903 had substituted “fresh” cocaine leaves for “spent” cocaine leaves, with cocaine already extracted, and Bayer in 1910 ceased marketing harmless Heroin to consumers.

The Harrison Tax Act was one of a string of acts which formed the FDA, from the Vaccine Act of 1813 to the Biologics Control Act of 1902, the Food and Drug Act (Wiley Act) of 1906, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) 1938, and finally the Kefauver-Harris Amendment of 1962 which demanded pharmaceutical companies demonstrate “substantial evidence” of a drug’s safety and efficacy.

The incipient FDA addressed drug addiction as a health issue, whereas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, activists and lawmakers saw drug addiction primarily as a legal issue. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was such a failure that even President Warren Harding kept his private cache of spirits in the White House during Prohibition.

By 1922, alcohol consumption in the United States was greater than in 1919 before Prohibition. The only spectacular increase in anything was organized crime and gangland murders such as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

As alcohol use combined with overall drug abuse increased throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, culminating with the spectacular arrests associated with the French Connection, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller felt compelled to act. With Presidential ambitions demonstrating his “toughness on crime”, he picked up where Prohibition left off. In 1973, he signed the Rockefeller Drug Laws whereby selling two ounces of heroin commanded a minimum of 15 years to life in prison.

Even distinguished figures on the right, such as William F. Buckley, were staunchly against it. The Rockefeller Drug Laws caused a three-fold increase in the prison population with no notable decrease in drug usage. By 2009, New York Governor David Paterson lamented in his inaugural address, “I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws.”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also came to believe the War on Drugs was a failure and he termed it “Iatrogenic Government” – a failed cure. The War on Drugs is so expensive only a Rockefeller can afford it. It costs $30,000 a year just to imprison one inmate. With 500,000 inmates imprisoned for drug offenses, we waste more than $15 billion a year on prison cells.

The total cost for the War on Drugs, with enforcement, courts and imprisonment averages out to over $30 billion a year since the early 1970s. The Drug War Clock says if one just factors in the nominal Federal expenditures of $15 billion a year, we squander $500 a second for the War on Drugs.

We tried ‘Just say no’. Enforcement failed.

In 1972, police officers noticed the 100 pounds of heroin and cocaine confiscated from the French connection case and stored in the NYPD storage facility on Broome Street was infested with red beetles. Beetles? The drugs were replaced with flour. Even a successful case such as this was botched. The “silent hand” of the marketplace has proved stronger than enforcement, even when it came to filming the chase scene later.

The only clue left from that theft was “Nunziata”, shield number 3496, the nom de guerre of one who signed for and removed the narcotics in July of 1972.

They were never recovered.

With more than 1.5 million drug arrests a year and over a trillion dollars lavished on a broken policy, we must forgo our emphasis on enforcement with lengthy prison sentences, re-align our focus on health, get them in treatment and let our citizens once again be productive members of society.

(This article first appeared on the Baltimore Post-Examiner)