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Awash in ‘Crack,’ Swamped by Crime : Candidate Bush Talked Tough on Drugs; President Bush Must Have Tough Policy

<i> Ira Reiner is the district attorney of Los Angeles County</i>

The Great Crime Wave that started in the early 1960s and crested in the mid-to-late-1970s had a simple explanation: demographics. Those were the years when the huge baby-boom generation passed through the peak crime-committing ages of 15 to 24.

By 1980, that crime wave had lost its force as the baby boomers “aged out” of crime, setting the stage for the crime decreases that marked the early ‘80s. When members of the Reagan Administration tried to claim credit for the trend, law-enforcement professionals snickered--it was like a new harbor commissioner claiming credit for the tide coming in.

By rights, that crime decrease should be continuing for years to come. Males 15-24 make up a still-declining proportion of the population (7.9% of all males in 1987 compared with 9.5% in 1980). We should have been able to expect growing domestic security through the rest of the century.

But that expectation has been cheated. While both of the widely-used measures of crime--the “crime rate” calculated by the FBI from reports to the police and the “victimization rate” calculated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from surveys--fell from 1980 through 1984, the crime rate turned up in 1985 and the victimization rate followed in 1986.

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The numbers for 1987 are even worse. The total crime index is now up more than 10% from its 1984 low. Violent crime started to rise earlier, and has risen further, than property crime. America is having a crime wave that should not be happening.

The social scientists are still scratching their heads and massaging their data, but police and prosecutors think they know the reason for the unexpected bad news: cocaine, especially the smokable variety called “rock” or “crack.”

Dealers, often gang members, shoot at each other (and hit anyone in sight) in drug-related turf wars. Hundreds of thousands of new addicts have started to steal to support their habits. And because rock (unlike heroin) can produce aggressive and even psychotic behavior unrelated to the need for money, and because many of the dealers are also heavy users, the new wave of drug-related crime is more likely than ever to be violent.

What happened to transform the relatively small, yuppie-dominated cocaine powder market of the 1970s into the huge and socially diverse contemporary market for rock cocaine of the 1980s? What caused the drug to change its social profile from Beverly Hills and the Upper East Side of Manhattan to South-Central Los Angeles and the South Bronx?

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The enterprising drug merchants get some of the credit. The cocaine dealer who realized he could serve his clients’ desire for freebase by processing it himself--for that is all rock is, freebase produced by dealers--was an evil marketing genius. At a stroke he vastly expanded the market for his drug by making a single short-acting, powerful dose available to anyone with curiosity and $10.

But these drug merchants could not have done this alone. The crack market could never have spread to its present size--and indeed might never have gotten off the ground--had the price of cocaine not collapsed. A kilogram of powder that fetched more than $60,000 in 1980 now sells for less than $15,000. As the prices dropped, we began seeing increasing amounts of rock on the streets of Los Angeles and other major cities in this country.

The cocaine price collapse, in turn, resulted from the flood of cocaine reaching this country from abroad. Over the last seven years, imports have more than tripled. The reasons? Too many chiefs, too much emphasis on hardware and not enough on trained investigators, too many speeches and not enough help for embattled local enforcement, an Administration with so little understanding of the drug problem that just five months after the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, it deleted virtually all funding for law enforcement.

By any objective standard, the federal effort to combat the cocaine invasion has failed. Indeed, the Reagan Administration’s effort comes nowhere close to matching its tough-on-crime rhetoric. This triumph of slogan over substance may have served candidate George Bush well; it should not, however, be mistaken by President Bush for a serious approach to this country’s most pressing domestic problem.

On Jan. 21, after the festivities and celebration and inaugural speeches have concluded, Bush should announce a new national policy--a policy that recognizes that the war on drugs is a war of attrition and that what is at stake is a generation of Americans. He should then unveil a real program that commits this nation to a generation-long effort that embraces both law enforcement and education. Law enforcement needs to be funded and equipped--not just cheered on. And schools need the resources to conduct an unprecedented educational effort; a drug-education program that reaches every school-aged child in the United States.


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