Drugs and the Law

GUEST: Robert M. Morgenthau
VTR: 7/7/1988

Richard Heffner:
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on the Open Mind. Officially speaking, it’s not just a matter of getting tough on drugs. Just about everyone in and out of government recognizes that drugs are what today’s guest, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called “a national pestilence,” not just “a victimless crime.” He should know, for Manhattan’s intrepid District Attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, deals constantly with the harsh impact of drugs on everyday life as he summarized it for the Senate of the United States: drugs kill and destroy lives, more and more each year. They are a prime cause of crime, more and more each year. One half to three quarters of the men arrested for serious crimes in 12 major cities tested positive for the recent use of illegal drugs. They are a major cause of infant fatalities and birth defects. Drugs are a contributing factor in child abuse cases. They play the major role in the most devastating scourge of our times: AIDS. And, as a city-dweller, I can affirm the District Attorney’s assertion that drugs destroy the very quality of life in our neighborhoods. Well, the question remains, of course, what to do, how to wage a war on drugs. Some – the so-called “supply siders” – say that until we effectively interdict the supply of drugs, the tons and tons of the damn stuff that pour into our country from overseas each year, there’s no real way to “say no” to this dreadful affliction. Others – the so-called “demand siders” – emphasize diminishing demand here at home; if there’s a lessened demand, the supply will necessarily dry us, too.

Both sides are right, of course. But the question remains what to do now. Clearly, just saying “no” isn’t enough. And so I’ve asked the District Attorney to The Open Mind to help us think through what our priorities must become and to ask him why we Americans have done so much less than we might have about this over-riding problem, given its horrendous dimensions.

Mr. Morgenthau, why haven’t we dealt effectively enough?

Robert Morgenthau:
I wish I knew the answer to that. It’s a very tough and intractable problem. And I think that in many cases our leaders, both at the national level and state and city level, haven’t wanted to make it priority for fear of failure.

Richard Heffner:
Fear of failure: Don’t start it because you can’t finish the job.

Robert Morgenthau:
Going back to the Carter administration, it started out as a priority and then it got pushed to the back burner because I think that with elections coming up they were afraid to have that out front too much. Then the Nixon administration made it a priority, then they got diverted by a lot of other problems. But no national administration has given the drug problem the kind of attention that it deserves and requires if it’s going to be solved.

Richard Heffner:
The Reagan administration also indicated that it was going to put this priority on the drug question.

Robert Morgenthau:
Well, actually, when the Reagan administration first came in, they tried to cut the budget of the drug enforcement administration – the lead organization – by 25%. And when the head of that agency, Mr. Bensinger, who served under Ford and Carter, protested, he was fired.

Richard Heffner:
What would you do if you had your druthers? How would you approach this problem? What would be the priorities you would have?

Robert Morgenthau:
It’s got to go to the top of the foreign policy agenda. It’s got to be as important as any other issue in dealing with foreign governments. And it’s got to go to the top of the domestic priority agenda. It’s got to be a major effort of the federal government and the state governments and the local governments all have to put it at the top of their priority list.

Richard Heffner:
There are those who say that whatever the talk is and to whatever degree public officials and private individuals talk about the drug menace, we’re still as a people not yet sufficient cognizant of the real problem. What do you think?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think that’s right. And to the extent that we do know about it, we’re not acting on it. This has been the history in the United States. I think we do a lousy job until we really get aroused, and then we’re capable of doing a very good job. And I think we haven’t reached that point, where we really want to do something.

Richard Heffner:
What would bring us to that point? One reads the newspapers, one reads … One watches television constantly.

Robert Morgenthau:
I think we are. Congress has got some very important legislation pending. And I think maybe this is the year where they’ll do something that makes a difference.

Richard Heffner:
Talking about legislation. What’s your own position on the question of using the death penalty somewhere in this drug mess.

Robert Morgenthau:
Quite frankly, I think that’s a red herring. One of the problems is that people are always looking for easy answers; they’re always looking for that one thing that will make a difference. We’ve got drug wars going on all the time. People are shooting each other. The death penalty is not going to discourage that kind of activity, particularly where the dollars involved are as large as they are. The people involved in the drug traffic are living from day-to-day and hour-to-hour. I wish it would be successful but I really don’t think that would have any significant impact.

Richard Heffner:
Is it a political notion then to raise the question of the death penalty?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think it is. I think it’s trying to look for easy answers. One thing we do know about the drug problem and that is that there are no easy answers.

Richard Heffner:
But you know there are some people who say when you have testified before the Senate about the need for the drug question being a number one foreign policy concern, talking about all the others, talking about the supply-siders, that that’s something of a distraction too, and that we really have to address first and foremost is the question of what goes on in this country to lead to such a demand.

Robert Morgenthau:
Looking at what we’re doing in the foreign policy area first. You look at Colombia and the total amount that foreign aid to Colombia is $11 million, United States foreign aid. And the drug traffic is bringing in something over $4 billion. You look at Bolivia, again, in the low millions. And one drug dealer in Bolivia said … He took full page ads in the paper; this is not gossip. “If you don’t enforce the drug laws, I will pay off the national debt of Bolivia” which is $3.8 billion. Peru, which is the number one supplier of cocaine, the cocoa plant, last year $8-1/2 million. So we haven’t really tried. I mean I don’t know if it’s going to work; I can’t tell you whether we can really effectively cut down the supply. All I can tell you is that we have not really tried. We have not put any significant amount of resources into that effort.

Richard Heffner:
The function of an unwillingness to spend the dollars or a function of, again, an unwillingness to come to grips with the problem?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think it’s both. I think it’s both. I think that … We think in terms of where does this government stand on the issue of communism? Actually what we’re doing with friendly governments … I mean, I used to view those governments as the enemy. I now have a different view: we’re destroying the governments in those countries because the drug dealers are being, becoming so powerful and they’re dealing with the Left, using the Left for protection. We’re completely undermining the governments of those countries in Central America.

Richard Heffner:
You have been in law enforcement so many years of your life; as United States Attorney for the Southern District, as District Attorney here in New York. What would you do?

Robert Morgenthau:
I would make … I think you’ve got to really say we’re going to try a little bit of everything. And the first thing I would do is … You never hear the Secretary of State – whom I respect greatly – speak out on the drug problem. I think it’s got to be at the cabinet level. I think the Secretary of State has got to deal with the Secretary of State of the Central American countries and work out a serious plan which we’ll help to fund because we have to, to cut down on the growth of the cocoa plant. I think we have to try that … We never tried it. When you give $8-1/2 million to Peru, that’s nothing in the scheme of things. So I think that’s the first thing you’ve got to do. You’ve got to make a serious commitment, both in political negotiating … The way we did with Turkey in 1969, when Turkey was then the major supplier of heroin to this country. That negotiation was at the highest level of government and we persuaded the Turkish government to eradicate the poppy there and to prevent the heroin from … well actually the crude morphine which was turned into heroin going to France where it was converted. And we were successful in doing that. We never made that kind of an effort in Central America.

Richard Heffner:
Turning just for a moment to the demand side, do you have any sense of what the proper strategy should be for reducing it?

Robert Morgenthau:
We’re doing quite a bit now in the field of education but we’ve got to do a lot more. We bring junior highschool students down to our office. We talk to them. We ask them what kind of drug education are you getting? And they’re getting some. We have a pretty decent program but it’s obviously not enough; we’ve got to do a lot more in educating our young people as to what damage to their future is going to be done by the use of drugs. We certainly have to do that. We also have to have much more in the way of treatment facilities. I understand that in Los Angeles it takes six months to get into a treatment program. In New York it takes months to get in. I think treatment has got to be available on demand. If somebody says, “I’m an addict, I want help,” there’s got to be a facility available to help them.

Richard Heffner:
Mr. Morgenthau, let’s go back to the question of the school kids. Are we talking here about ignorance, or are we talking about a “need,” a demand that comes from something else in our society other than ignorance?

Robert Morgenthau:
It’s hard to distinguish that but one of the things I think we’re seeing is that among middle class children there seems to be a reduction in the use of cocaine. But on the lower echelons of society that use is increasing. So I think we’re not reaching a lot of these kids; we’re not doing enough to make them understand how drugs are going to destroy their lives.

Richard Heffner:
There are those who say it’s essentially a problem of poverty. Now you mention middle class kids. How accurate is it, in your estimation, to think of this as a poverty problem?

Robert Morgenthau:
That is one aspect of it but it’s a problem that goes right across all segments of society. You see drug abusers at every level. But I think we’re doing a little better job on education – maybe we’re spending more time with middle class kids. We’re doing a little bit better job with them but still it’s a serious problem.

Richard Heffner:
Do you have any qualms … You’re a civil libertarian, you’re always going to be in a situation as Mr. District Attorney with those who claim you impinge somewhat upon their rights. Do you have any problem with the matter of testing, for instance, that has been so prominent in the news recently?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think you’ve got to establish a reason for it. I don’t think you can just go in and test everybody. But if somebody in a safety sensitive job, like flying an airplane or running a subway train, then I think you have a right to do the testing. But I don’t think you can do it across the board. You have to establish a reason for it.

Richard Heffner:
But is it reason enough to be in a field, to be in a general category of people who are dealing with jobs that do relate to the public safety, or do you feel you need a reason for testing this individual and that individual?

Robert Morgenthau:
I don’t think for specific individuals. I think you would have to establish that there had been some abuse among that class of people. Some abuse, before you go and do the testing. But if you could establish there was a safety problem then I think you have a right to do it.

Richard Heffner:
Do you think we’re coming closer to that?

Robert Morgenthau:
I do. I think anybody who flies a plane wants to be darn sure that that pilot is not a drug abuser.

Richard Heffner:
Has it happen yet though? I ask that as one who flies quite frequently in airplanes.

Robert Morgenthau:
It hasn’t but I mean … I mean it’s happened in the railroads and subway trains. And if you establish any kind of pattern of drug abuse I think you have a right to test all of the people in that particular job.

Richard Heffner:
You know you make so much sense when you say that and yet it’s not being done, just as you said a moment ago. With all due respect to the Secretary of State, you don’t believe that he is addressing the drug problem not in the way you wish that he would. What in the world is happening to us? When we confront the problem, we see the statistics, all we have to do generally is put our heads outside of our doors and we know what’s going on, and we don’t do these things.

Robert Morgenthau:
I don’t know. Part of it is that we’re not seeing a lot of the effects of drug abuse. Children are bearing the brunt of it. So many of these child abuse cases, I’d say three-quarters of them now, involve parents who are drug abusers. But I think people are not always making the connection they should be making.

Richard Heffner:
I wondered sometimes, watching the evening news, whether it’s become almost overkill. I don’t think there is an evening that goes by, that twice I don’t see something that relates to some horrendous story involving drugs. And I wonder whether it’s become so trivialized almost, that we’re not sufficiently aware of the problem as you described it very eloquently before the Senate. It’s just too much.

Robert Morgenthau:
Maybe, but I don’t know how you’re going to get action unless you keep telling people and informing people about what’s happening.

Richard Heffner:
I raised the question before about testing. What progress, as we see it, is being made along those lines, if you were to look forward five years from now? What will we look like as people who are protecting themselves from the drug menace?

Robert Morgenthau:
I can’t … my crystal ball is not that good. I mean I think that … I sense that the Congress reflects the mood of the country and I sense that this year we’re going to get some significant help, some significant financial commitments to put this at the top of the priority. The Constitution of the United States says – the Preamble – one of the purposes of the Constitution is to insure domestic tranquility. As long as drugs are being sold the way they are, we don’t have any domestic tranquility. So I do view this as a national responsibility and I think we’re reaching that point where we’re going to get some significant action.

Richard Heffner:
You were at this table about five years ago and I remember being somewhat surprised when you took a point of view, you were rather optimistic about our control … our increasing control over the crime situation. Has the drug problem reversed that optimism?

Robert Morgenthau:
Absolutely. Crime went straight up through about 1973 through to 1980. Then it leveled off ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84 it was going down. Then starting ’85 it’s gone right up again. And I think it’s directly related to drug abuse.

Richard Heffner:
What do you prefer in terms of dealing with drug abusers? Is it the prosecution and incarceration short of the facilities for helping people, facilities that we don’t seem to have in abundance.

Robert Morgenthau:
I think you’ve got to do everything. We don’t know what is working. All we do know is that we haven’t made a major commitment in cutting down the supply. We haven’t made a major commitment in interdiction. We haven’t made a major commitment in enforcement. The lead agency of the federal government is the Drug Enforcement Agency. They’re very professional people, they do a very good job. But for the entire United States they have 2,800 people. Now how can you say that’s a major law enforcement commitment when you have 2,800 people?

So, what I’m saying is we’ve got to do more of everything. The federal force has got to be increased. State and local efforts have to be increased. We’re not doing enough. Everybody has got to do more. We’ve got to do more with our education. We’ve got to do more with treatment. I wish I could tell you that there’s one thing that would work but we’ve got to do more effective work in every single area.

Richard Heffner:
There are some people of course who use the word ‘decriminalization’ as a slogan. They say that that would help us in this problem. How do you respond to that?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think what you’ve got to understand … The number one problem today is cocaine and crack. And cocaine in crack forms leads to very violent behavior. You can say, looking back, maybe with nostalgia, when heroin was the problem, people on heroin were happy, they were nodding out. Cocaine raises blood pressure, raises the heart rate, gets to the brain 15 to 30 seconds after it’s ingested, and leads to violent behavior. How are you going to protect children of drug abusers? How are you going to protect the mothers who say to their sons or daughters, “You’ve got to give this up …” I saw a story in the Times from Florida where a 65 year old grandmother tried to restrain her granddaughter, who was 20-21 years old, from using cocaine. And the granddaughter started stabbing her. She stabbed her 63 times and the grandmother kept staying, “I’m your grandmother, I love you, I’m trying to help you,” and this girl kept stabbing her. So, how are you going to protect people from drug abusers if you legalize it?

Richard Heffner:
Would decriminalization a decade ago had seemed to you more sensible before the problem of crack?

Robert Morgenthau:
It would have seemed more sensible but I would not have favored it because I think it’s copping out; it’s throwing in the sponge and saying we’re going to say to you drug addicts, “We can’t help you; we’re going to give it to you,” we’d be destroying a whole generation of young people. And I guess I’m just too stubborn to give up on a problem that easily. It’s a cop-out, that’s what it is.

Richard Heffner:
What’s your stance as a prosecutor in the D.A.’s office in Manhattan? Do you try to get the longest possible terms?

Robert Morgenthau:
I’m a believer in prompt and certain sentence rather than the longest possible. So we try to move cases just as quickly as we can and if we can get a plea that’s down from the top that we can put that drug seller away, we’re going to do it. It’s prompt and certain, getting him out of circulation. I think that’s the most important thing.

Richard Heffner:
It seems to me that that point of view which is to me so rational is beginning to be understood. Because I hear less and less of the attack upon plea bargaining and a greater and greater recognition of the role it plays as you just stated. Is that a correct perception?

Robert Morgenthau:
I think it is and I think when people start to analyze it, they realize that the so-called plea bargain is not that different from what the ultimate sentence would be. But it’s a lot faster, it’s a lot quicker and a lot cheaper, if you don’t go through that long involved court proceeding.

Richard Heffner:
We’ve talked about the international aspects of this problem in terms of the source. What about the problem in other parts of the world? Are we alone in suffering from this incredible business of drug abuse?

Robert Morgenthau:
No, the European countries are having an increasing problem. I think the problem is increasing worldwide and I guess in the long run that may be helpful because the more people who are involved, the more eventually there’s going to be a public outcry and a demand for action.

Richard Heffner:
You say eventually. Is this happening to any significant extent now?

Robert Morgenthau:
Of the European countries, I think the Germans are particularly suffering now from drug abuse. The Dutch. I think they’re much more sympathetic toward cooperating with us than they were in the past.

Richard Heffner:
What’s the element there. Is it again a supply? Are they victims, as we are, of the pushers from other parts of the world?

Robert Morgenthau:
There’s no question that where there’s supply, there’s more use. There’s more use in New York than there is in Cleveland because it’s easier to get the drugs. There’s no doubt that where there’s a large supply there’s going to be more drug abusers.

Richard Heffner:
The unwillingness – although you haven’t put it that harshly – the lack of incentive on the part of our foreign relations persons, is that seconded in other countries, or are they doing more by way of putting pressure on the suppliers?

Robert Morgenthau:
I’m not really qualified to answer that; I really don’t know the answer.

Richard Heffner:
And the role of the military now … We seem to be more able, better able now to use our own military might …

Robert Morgenthau:
We’re really not using them very much. Part of the reason is that our radar equipment and our surveillance techniques are directed toward intercontinental missles and high-flying planes and we have great difficulty detecting any plane coming in below 10,000 feet. It’s not just the United States; what happened in Russia, you have that young 18 year old German boy flying right through undetected. That’s one reason why I think it would not be bad for the military itself to gain the experiencing in detecting low-flying planes.

I spoke … because I’ve been trying to get support for a stronger national legislation … I spoke down at the conference in Mobile, Alabama. And the Attorney General of Alabama was there, the head of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, which is primarily has the responsibility for drug enforcement. And I said what kind of … of course, they’re on the Gulf Coast … and I said, “What kind of help are you getting from the military?” And they said, “Well, we’ve got to request it six weeks in advance and who knows six weeks in advance when a plane is going to come in?” So we’re not getting any significant help from the military yet.

Richard Heffner:
Do you think we could?

Robert Morgenthau:
I’m sure we could. We have a great military establishment and I’m sure if they put their mind to it and devoted the resources we could get significant help. But it’s token at this point.

Richard Heffner:
Does it mean right now local officials like yourself have this burden?

Robert Morgenthau:
That’s right. We have in New York State as many people in prison – in fact we have more – than the entire federal correctional system. The state of California has 50% more than the entire federal correctional system. So the burden is falling on state and local law enforcement.

Richard Heffner:
Well we’re going to count on you then, Mr. District Attorney, and thank you so much for letting me count on you and coming here today.

Robert Morgenthau:
Thank you for inviting me.

Richard Heffner:
All right Sir. And thanks too to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.

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