The Sun-Times published an excerpt of “Drug Warrior: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo and the Rise of America’s Opioid Crisis” by Jack Riley, who formerly headed the Chicago office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In it, Riley recalled a 2012 meeting with then-Attorney General Eric Holder and was critical of Robert Grant, former special-agent-in-charge of the FBI in Chicago, who he wrote told Holder in a pained whisper, “With all due respect to Jack, I think the war on drugs is a complete bust, a complete waste of money.” Here’s what Grant wrote to the Sun-Times in response.
I read the piece on Jack’s new book. Jack suffers from the current cultural problems of narcissism, wrapped in hubris and tied together with fiction, which is eroding our public discourse.
First, nobody ever accused me of speaking in a whisper or a pained voice. That made me just laugh out loud. What I had was over 25 years in the FBI, including working drugs, at the highest ranks on down, and that, in my opinion, gave me some experience and authority on which to comment. My office in Chicago had more personnel working gangs and drugs than Jack’s, so I think I came from an important perspective.
What I responded to was the question of what did we “need to think about.” I brought up something which I had also brought up with Mayor Daley when he would rail about gun control.
I didn’t, and still don’t, believe that in the 50-plus years of the “War on Drugs” that Congress or the administration had outlined what the objectives or measures of success were. I advised Holder, whom I knew from a prior corruption case we worked together, that after 50 years of this “war,” here is what we could point to:
1.) A significant increase in the number of people in prisons, disproportionately falling on the poor and minorities of our country.
2.) Significant increases in gang membership and related violence attendant to drug distribution.
3.) A significant increase in drug-related law enforcement corruption.
4.) The undermining of foreign governments to our south and, in some cases, turning them into violent narco-states.
5.) Wider experimentation and drug use at the preteen and teenage levels across the country to the extent that employers, including law enforcement, have had to adjust their hiring standards because it was so difficult to find people who have never used illegal drugs.
6.) And the price of drugs had gone down in real terms and not up over those 50 years.
All because America has an insatiable appetite for drugs. I never said that the efforts by law enforcement were a waste of time or resources, nor did I recommend the diversion of resources.
But what I did want was for Congress and the administration to begin to assess this war and what they were trying to achieve. Was this a law enforcement problem or a public health problem? Should we employ different tactics and strategies, given the current one wasn’t working?
Sure, it might have been heresy to all the men and women working drugs across the country. But that is OK because it is time someone started a strategic discussion to find a better way forward.
To suggest this war is to be fought by law enforcement alone is to stick one’s head in the sand, like Riley, and pretend press conferences showing drugs and guns on a table is really having an impact. In fact, such press conferences were rarely attended by the news media because they had become so routine.
I also opined to Holder that the American war on drugs was the domestic equivalent of the Vietnam War, noble and courageous on the part of the participants executing it but wholly lacking in top leadership responsibility. As with so many other things, Congress doesn’t work nor does it address the most serious issues affecting our country.
I do not know the solution to this crisis, which is why law enforcement has to continue to work hard on this problem. However, I think its consequences and the consequences of the war are so destructive that the leadership of the country needs to begin serious conversations about other options, other tactics and other ways of addressing this problem.
As for “not knowing the streets,” like Jack, let me say this. I have lost a very close family member to an accidental illegal drug overdose, and I have had two close family members’ lives unalterably destroyed by the violence associated with illegal drugs.
I would put my “street” smarts on par with, if not substantially higher, than Jack’s.
The question I had as an experienced law enforcement leader was: At what cost are we executing the war on drugs?
As for Chapo, that prosecution and conviction was as much about the courage of the federal government of Mexico as it was about anyone else’s. It reinforced, as with Bin Laden and others, that nobody is beyond the reach of the United States when it is determined.
However, in the end, it won’t change the widespread destruction that drugs are doing in the U.S. On the scourge drugs are in our society, I agree with Riley. But it’s a business, and the business will continue. New CEO but same old business.
If Jack is suggesting that we continue to do the same things we have been for 50 years, then he is no better than President Johnson or Robert McNamara, subjecting people to the misery and violence associated with the struggle with no solution in sight and a lot of dead bodies to show for the cause. We will have more funerals, more deaths and more violence. Is that the definition of success? Or is it the definition of insanity?
And Jack is not correct when he says he “never talked with [me] again.” I still have the phone logs of my conversations, of which there were dozens over the next six months, as well as my emails between Jack and myself, including after I retired and started working for Disney. His attendance at my retirement and his communications with me afterwards left me believing we still forged a strong working relationship over the years to serve the country, even if we might disagree on this important topic.
Makes me wonder what else in the book is pure fiction.