The year is 1980 and America is in upheaval at every level of society, distrust of government and the power structure is the norm. Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at rescuing the Americans that were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Teheran on April 24th, 1980 was such a failure and embarrassment to the United States that Carter’s re-election is all but an assured defeat in the upcoming Presidential elections in November of the same year. He would lose to a B movie Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan who had been the Governor of California. With the arrival of the 80s and the election of Reagan, drugs, and the Nicaraguan Civil War which will evolve into the Iran-Contra Scandal, America is about to experience how the mix of politics, drugs, drug policy and scandal will betray the American citizen in a way that no other President and his administration has ever done. This betrayal will come close to bringing down the Reagan government, create a drug epidemic and push politicians to put the terminology “The land of the free” in doubt. America will become the country that incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation on the planet.
Drug and politics in the 1980s
No matter the priority that politicians, the media and the public, attach to the ever-growing drug problem at different points in time, drugs were unquestionably a major social problem for the United States in the 1980s. Their significance was compounded by the fact that drug problems do not stand alone.
In the 1960s, a presidential commission stated: ”The concern and the distress of the American people over the national problem of drug abuse is expressed every day in newspapers, magazines, scientific journals, public forums and in homes. It is a serious and many-faceted problem.”(1) The use of illegal drugs would become a long-standing problem in American society, a problem that would take on a particular urgency over the next 30 years and beyond.
Richard Pryor unwittingly publicized freebasing (the precursor to crack cocaine) when he nearly burned himself to death.
Pryor’s famous ‘fire incident’ occurred on June 9, 1980. Pryor poured rum over himself and proceeded to light himself on fire. According to the Washington Examiner, he was freebasing cocaine. “His daughter said her father was in a drug-induced psychosis and poured rum over his body and set himself on fire.” The comedian was given a 1-in-3 chance of living and was lucky to survive. He suffered severe burns that covered more than 50% of his body.(2)
The Reagan factor
The 1980s saw the emergence of cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, as a new focus of concern. Reagan reinforced and expanded much of Nixon’s War on Drugs policies. Reagan’s wife Nancy launched the “Just Say No” campaign in 1984. Reagan’s focus on drugs and the passing of severe penalties for drug-related crimes in Congress and State legislatures led to a huge increase of incarcerations for non-violent drug crimes.
Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. This new law established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. The law opened the door to many federal and state laws that would be criticized as having racist ramifications because it gave longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). Just 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered an automatic five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same sentence. This law was later called “the 100 to 1” law.
I was both a witness and a victim in the 80s of being arrested on suspicion of drug use at a higher rate than whites. This bias and racist law that began under the Reagan Administration led to a rapid rise in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses. In the 1980s there were 50,000 incarcerations for drug offenses, which rose to 400,000 incarcerations by 1997. By 2014, about half of the 186,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States were incarcerated on drug-related charges, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
On January 28, 1982, President Reagan created the South Florida Task Force. This task force was created to concentrate and focus on a federal assault on South Americans smuggling cocaine into the country. Reagan put Vice President George H. W. Bush in charge of the effort, which included law enforcement and the use of Naval destroyers and other military assets to stop smugglers. On June 24, 1982, Reagan declared war on the drug trade and created a new White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy. Reagan said, “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts. We’re running up the battle flag.” Reagan and his wife, Nancy, went on television and spoke to the nation about the war on drugs on September 14, 1986. Out of this came the “Crusade for a Drug-Free America.” Congress got tough not only on drug traffickers, but users too. In October 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In October 1988, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The bill also contained new attacks on “recreational” users, including the revocation of professional licenses and stiff civil penalties for any drug offenders.(3)
My biggest criticisms of the Reagan administration’s drug policies are the increased penalties which I believe led to higher incarceration rates that included nonviolent drug users.
According to Pew Research and many other sources, the country saw a sharp growth in overall incarceration between 1980 and 1997. By 2008 that number rose to 2.3 million. The incarceration rate rose from 310 per 100,000 people to 1,000 people in the same period.
According to statistics from the World Prison Brief, the United States has the highest prison population of any country in the world, despite not having the highest population in the world. There are 2.1 million people in prison in the United States which has a population of 325 million people, compared to 1.6 million in China, a country that has a population of 1.38 billion people.(4)
Reagan, Nicaragua, Iran and Drugs
The Reagan Administration believed that political changes taking place in Nicaragua and Iran in the 1970s threatened U.S. national interests.
In Nicaragua, a socialist movement (the Sandinistas) seized power in 1979. The Administration feared the spread of socialism in Latin America. To combat the spread of socialism in South America, Reagan backed the Contras who sought to overthrow this revolutionary regime.
There was upheaval taking place in 1979. Power changed hands in Iran when a radical Islamic movement overthrew the Shah of Iran, a U.S.-backed dictator. The new government was unfriendly toward the United States and appeared to align with the Soviet Union. Reagan tried to back moderate elements within Iran, but this policy became more complicated when Iranian-backed terrorist seized American hostages.(5)
The overthrow of the Shah of Iran was the beginning of the crappola hitting the fan. If I told you today that there was strong evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency ignored accusations of drug dealing by operatives it was working with, you might call me crazy. The question is, did it happen?
The answer is it did. In Reagan’s push back against the communist backed Sandinista government in Nicaragua, some of the C.I.A.-backed contras funded their cause through drug dealing. This fact was noted in a 1988 Senate subcommittee report.
The blow up
Things really blew up when Gary Webb, a journalist at The San Jose Mercury News, after first not believing the story, began to investigate. In 1995 through 1996, he produced and reported a three-part series called “Dark Alliance.”
His ground-breaking series was the first to blow up on the new worldwide web. Gary was first celebrated, then investigated, and at the end, discredited. After being pushed out of journalism in disgrace, he committed suicide in 2004. Webb was found dead in his Carmichael home on December 10, 2004, with two gunshot wounds to the head. His death was ruled a suicide by the Sacramento County coroner’s office.(6)
The movie “Kill the Messenger” decidedly remains in Gary’s corner. Rival newspapers, government officials and his own newspaper, threw him under the bus. It can be said that there were flaws in his investigation techniques, and even in parts of his writing, but that doesn’t mean that he was wrong.
Gary then wrote, “Dark Alliance: The C.I.A., The Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion,” after which, Nick Schou, a journalist, who covered parts of Webb’s downfall, wrote “Kill the Messenger: How the C.I.A.’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb.” Both books made the argument that journalism ate itself while the government got away.
Gary’s real trouble began 10 years later, when he began to tie cocaine imports from people connected to the Contras, to the crisis of crack cocaine in large cities, like Los Angeles. Gary began to follow the trail of that connection which led him to a guy by the name of “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a drug boss in Los Angeles, who flooded the streets with crack. He then drew a line from Ross to the C.I.A.-backed Contras, writing that court records show that the cash Ross paid for the cocaine was used to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense,” or the FDN, one of several contra groups.
The Dark Alliance three-part series promised to reveal how “a drug network opened the cocaine pipeline from Colombian cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, known as the ‘crack’ capital of the world.” It is believed to be the first newspaper series to go viral before there was even a terminology or an understanding of the word “viral.”
At first, news outlets shrugged, but leaders of the drug-ridden communities did not. However, Gary never suggested that the C.I.A. had deliberately set out to addict urban black populations. But black communities believed that the C.I.A. did exactly that.
The Democratic Representative of California, Maxine Waters, led protests by the Congressional Black Caucus. Comedian Dick Gregory was arrested for attempting to put crime tape at the door of C.I.A. headquarters.
The denial, then the proof
But Mr. Webb’s victory lap was short lived, as other news organizations responded with significant stories, and his editors at The Mercury News backed away slowly, then all at once. In 1997, Gary’s newspaper published a letter to its readers, signed by the executive editor at the time, Jerry Ceppos. Ceppos wrote “I feel that we did not have proof that top C.I.A. officials knew of the relationship” between members of a drug ring and Contra leaders paid by the C.I.A., adding that the series “erroneously implied” that the connection between Mr. Ross and Nicaraguan traffickers “was the pivotal force in the crack epidemic in the United States.”
Peter Landesman, an investigative journalist who wrote the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger,” said, “Planeloads of weapons were sent south from the U.S., and everyone knows that those planes didn’t come back empty, but the C.I.A. made sure that they never knew for sure what was in those planes,” he said. “But instead of going after that, they went after Webb, who didn’t really know what he had gotten into or where he was. The most surprising thing in doing the work to write this movie is how easy it was to destroy Gary Webb.”
Gary died alone, but he lived long enough to know that he did not make the whole thing up. Frederick P. Hitz, the C.I.A. inspector general in 1998, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that after looking into the matter at length, in his opinion the C.I.A. was a bystander — or worse — in the war on drugs. Hitz, said, “Let me be frank about what we are finding,” he said. “There are instances where the C.I.A. did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contras program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity, or take action to resolve the allegations.” However dark or extensive, the alliance Mr. Webb wrote about, was real.(7)
There are more rumblings in the American social structure of the 80s that is looking and sounding like the 60s when the Nixon Administration used drug policy to discredit and damage its citizens. John Erlichman gave an interview admitting to the lies the Nixon Administration used against Americans he deemed to be political enemies. Erlichman said, “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left (young white people) and black people (demanding civil rights). Do you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies (young white people) with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”(8)
1 President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse, 1963:1
8 Comment about “the war on drugs” by John Ehrlichman, Former Domestic Policy Advisor to President Richard Nixon, as quoted in “Le galize It All,” Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine, April 2016
George Lewis is founder and CEO of Motivational Consulting, Inc. and has more than 18 years of experience in the human services industry. His website is motivationalconsultinginc.com.
Last Updated on March 10, 2021