General Buzzkill

Former drug czar talks recovery, sobriety—and terrorism?

Former White House drug czar and retired Army General Barry McCaffrey says there is a link between drugs and terrorism, but wiping out the latter will not eradicate the problem of addiction.

Former White House drug czar and retired Army General Barry McCaffrey says there is a link between drugs and terrorism, but wiping out the latter will not eradicate the problem of addiction.

SN&R Photo By Kel Munger

It was definitely a party. But no one got out of line.

Of course, if anyone did step out of line, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, veteran of the first Gulf War and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy under President Bill Clinton, would no doubt have been able to handle it.

The several-thousand people gathered on the west side of the Capitol on September 5 might have been there for a rock show, given the assemblage of jeans, T-shirts and tattoos. Instead, they rallied—clean and sober—at the 12th annual “Recovery Happens” event. Neither political rally nor fund-raiser, “Recovery Happens” was, according to organizer Susan Blacksher, executive director of the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources, “a celebration of recovery.”

McCaffrey was the honorary chairman of this year’s rally. The former drug czar is a member of the board of CRC Health Group, a major player in providing treatment for addictions. He fired up the crowd, who really didn’t seem to need much in the way of encouragement, by informing the recovering addicts and alcoholics that they were examples of the kind of courage shown by soldiers in combat.

It was one more example of the way in which addiction, which the professionals all agree is a disease, gets caught up in the language and images of war.

McCaffrey acknowledged as much to SN&R. “I never lead with that,” he said, referring to the connection between Americans’ drug use and terrorism. “Terrorism’s a problem and we’ve got to address it in a sensible manner,” he said, noting that “we’re not doing very well in addressing it sensibly right now.”

The connection to terrorism, he said, is about money. “The value of a drug is not inherent; it’s situational,” McCaffrey said, pointing to the difference between the “five grand a movie starlet in L.A. pays for a weekend binge” and the two or three dollars a “Pakistani truck driver” pays for the same amount of drugs. McCaffrey’s point is that in the right situation, there’s a lot of money to be made from drug sales.

“What is true, though, no question, is that when you look at terrorist organizations,” he said, “almost all of them are essentially supported by criminal behavior. Whether it’s bank robbery, extortion, kidnapping or credit-card fraud,” McCaffrey contended, “terrorist organizations go for criminal enterprises that provide them with cash.”

So, of course, drug sales fund terrorism. It’s a no-brainer, according to McCaffrey.

But what about the conundrum caused by referring to a health problem in political and criminal terms? “I don’t know that it is a health problem,” McCaffrey said. “I think that it’s a health problem, and a criminal problem, and an international problem, and a work-related problem.” The complexity of the situation is such that “you can’t either choose to arrest drug dealers or choose to fund drug treatment.” Eradication and prosecution of dealers isn’t a bad idea, according to the general. It’s just not the only idea.

“Sure, we want to go after drug dealers,” McCaffrey said. “We understand that the Taliban is funded primarily by drug money. Al-Qaeda used to be funded by charitable donations from Saudi businessmen; now increasingly it’s funded by drug money out of Afghanistan.” But burning the opium fields won’t end terrorism, and it will make little difference in addiction. “It’s a good idea to try and eradicate the crop,” he said, “but that’s not going to help next year, with the drug problem.”

McCaffrey’s solution—from both a political and a health perspective—is this: “The centerpiece of any effective drug policy has to be prevention and education programs targeted at youngsters.” It’s the kid at risk who has to be helped, if only because that’s one less customer buying from a dealer—who may have bought from a middleman who purchased the drugs from a terrorist organization.

“You’ve got to get the political will and you’ve got to get the insurance companies to back scientifically based drug and alcohol treatment,” McCaffrey said.

Then he stopped to shake hands with a guy wearing a paper nametag that proclaimed his 45 days of sobriety.