Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Richard M. Smith, Morton M. Kondracke, Margaret Garrard Warner, and Elaine Shannon of Newsweek on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse

August 01, 1986

Q. Well, last time Mort and I were here we were talking about SALT and arms control, and now we're here to talk about another war, another

The President. Yes, and a very vital war.

Q. We've followed, of course, the First Lady's interest in the drug problems for years, but now it seems as if you and the White House staff and the fellows on Capitol Hill are all beginning to move at the same time on this. What prompts the activity now?

The President. Well, let me say, it isn't just a recent thing. Nancy would have never sat back doing what she was doing and let us get away with doing nothing. But we felt from the very first, in 1981 when we came here, that the obvious, legitimate job of government was the interception of—or the interdiction of the drugs and preventing them from getting to the users. Nancy, of course, had approached it from what I've always believed is the real way if we're ever to get control of this; and that is, to take the users away from the drugs instead of the other way around. And she had been interested in this before we even got here. Finding out how many parents weren't aware of there being a threat to their children—whether they were unwilling or just didn't know that this was happening in the schools and so forth—and she had started along that tack.

When we first came here, Florida had been targeted, I suppose, because of its position down there and the inflow by sea and air for drugs. And so, we put together a task force under the Vice President that for the first time, I believe, in our history really put together every agency that could be interested at every level of government—complete cooperation between Federal, State, county, local. And it was tremendously successful; the inflow through Florida decreased greatly. And as a result of that, we then followed with further units for border interdiction under the Vice President because of the border across the Southwest and our two seacoasts. What had actually happened is: You began to stop the flow in Florida, and they just started diverting and finding other places to land. But as this has gone on, and this increasing problem, we have all begun to come to the conclusion-and looking at what has happened; for example, look at Nancy's Just Say No idea. That came out of a simple answer to a question before a bunch of young people in Oakland, California, when she was asked about what could they do. And she said, "Just say no." And now there are 10,000 Just Say No clubs among young people throughout the country.

And I think it's just the increasing problem that made us finally aware that what is really needed is a nationwide campaign, not just government. But as we've done so many times in the past, when you take a problem to the American people, they now are concerned about it. The polls show that this is on most people's mind—the number one problem in the country. And we're going to very shortly be going public with soliciting the help of everyone on both sides. Because it's not only necessary to step up our efforts to make it difficult to get the drugs, but the main thrust has got to be to get the people, themselves, to turn off on it.

Q. We understand that there are going to be some initiatives involving Federal employees and the use of drug tests for certain Federal employees. Is that true?

The President. Well, there has to be, when you stop to think of some people in some very—well, the type of work that they are doing. For example, you can't have people in law enforcement who carry weapons, you can't have air traffic controllers and so forth—have this be a possibility. So, we've always been in agreement on keeping tabs on people in those positions—using testing. But we're still discussing the ways of getting at this, not only in government but out in business and industry, where it's estimated that the cost now to business and industry in America of drugs and alcohol abuse is about $100 billion per year.

Q. Would you favor drug testing for all Federal employees?

The President. I have great concerns-other than the type of people I was just mentioning, where I feel that it's justified to be mandatory—I think you've got a right to say that if I'm entrusting my life to someone's care, I've got a right to know. But I would rather see a voluntary program in which we can say to them, and say to people who might be detected in such a program, or that if they want to come forward and simply say this, that they won't lose jobs and there won't be punishment. What there would be is an offer of help, to tell people, "No, if this is your problem, let us help you cure yourself of addiction."

Q. Will you be—

The President. And.—

Q. Oh, I'm sorry. Will you be asking your department heads, though, to select those jobs that they consider safety- or national security-related enough to ask the people who hold those jobs to take these tests?

The President. Well, and in some instances, I think it's all right to have it mandatory. That, as I say, people who have other people's safety in their own hands—I don't think that they should complain about mandatory testing. But in the other, I believe through—down all the way—and this is why a nationwide movement, and one at the civilian sector—to again have that same approach, in business and industry. Let the executives volunteer themselves and say to others, you know, do this, but with that assurance: We're not out to find you and destroy you—punish you in any way. We're out to help you.

Q. You had a little problem with George Shultz on the question of polygraph testing. Do you think you might have that problem if you ask the Secretary of State and State employees to take drug tests?

The President. No. If it would help, I would be very much in favor of volunteering to start at the top, and not only in government but in business, industry, the professions, everyplace else as an example to others and be willing to do it.

Q. Do you think that people with security clearances fall in that category?

The President. I would think, yes, that that's legitimate.

Q. Are you, in fact, going to ask your Cabinet officers to submit to testing on a voluntary basis, themselves, and ask their subordinates to do that?

The President. Well, Mort, there's going to be some of your questions that I can't answer, because we're still in the process. And I'm afraid that any announcements that we have will come after this interview has been printed. But, yes, this is under discussion right now, and I have already suggested such a thing to our top people.

Q. Are you at all concerned about the privacy issue that is raised by mandatory drug testing?

The President. Well, as I say, if the mandatory is only in those areas where you can show the kind of responsibility for national security, for people's lives, and so forth— there I don't think there can be a quarrel. On the other, I feel that it might be far more productive to go the voluntary way.

Q. Could I ask a question about the money connected with all this? If these people turn up or even volunteer themselves and come forward, is there going to be the money available for rehabilitation required. And also, is there going to be added money for prevention, you know, education programs and that sort of thing? How much more money is going to be spent?

The President. Well, this, of course, is, again, one of the things that we have under discussion, and we know the problem that we have to meet. I think one simple thing could add to the money right now without an additional penny being spent. Having come from being a Governor, one thing that was very much in my mind was getting a lot of Federal grants to local and State governments converted into what we could call block grants. For example, I have to tell you that as Governor of a State I found out that Federal grants that came to us, totally wrapped in red tape and restrictions and absolute directions as to how the money must be used, every dollar of it, that the amount that went into administrative overhead was far in excess of the amount that was then left to do the job.

So, we sought to combine some of these into block grants and then let the people at the local and the State level use this money where it met their problems the most. For example, to say nationwide to a State: You must use x amount of money in an alcoholic treatment. You must use x amount of money in drug treatment—well, you can't believe that every place in the country had the same ratio of problems. One of them might have a very great problem over here, another one over here. So, we introduced this idea of block grant and to put all this money together. But when the Congress approved it, what they did would add amendments that put all the red tape and all the directions, specific directions, back in. So, out there too much of that money is being spent on administrative overhead. Now, what we would like to do as a part of this program is ask that those restrictions be taken off and see how far the money goes if it isn't all being spent on bureaucracy.

Q. But does that mean that there won't be any additional money? And the question you get from a lot of people involved in this is: If this is a real war, are we going to devote the resources to it, the money, to really fight it, or are we going to try to nickel and dime it or handle it by rhetoric?

The President. No, not going to be rhetoric. And it's possible that there will be more need for money. On the other hand, you can't underestimate what can be done at the private sector without government intervention. When you look at the amount of money, right now, that is being spent and being raised privately by people in the private sector and is being administered by the private sector because of the help of volunteers—no one can estimate the amount of money it would take to replace these volunteers with bureaucrats. And I don't mean to denigrate the people that work in government, but they would be legitimately doing the job. But they can't afford to be volunteers. So, we will have to look at this other, and then it has to be a matter of priorities.

Now, in the budget that I submitted and which the Congress—if it wasn't dead on arrival, they stabbed it right after arrival-had to do with spending cuts we had proposed in the domestic sector. And those cuts weren't just off the top of our heads. Those came from hours and hours of meetings, day after day in the Cabinet Room, with the people who would be in charge of these programs. And they were the ones who were willing to say that they could do this program for less money than it had been done before and so forth. Then you sent it up to Congress, and they who have nothing to do with the administration of the program say: Oh, no, sir, you've got to spend twice as much money. There, as I say, we've listed at least 40 programs that we don't think are needed at all, that are not serving any useful purpose. So, once again, if this is the primary problem and we're talking about human beings and lives and a whole generation of young people, then I think we're entitled to go back and say: Isn't this more important than some of these other things that you insist we keep on doing?

Q. Mr. President, if you talk to the people who run treatment programs, rehabilitation programs, they say they're swamped—they are turning people away. And yet they also say that it's been under your administration that there's been less money for rehabilitation and treatment.

The President. The less money was because when we switched to block grants we figured that that had eliminated—and we know this from the return on block grants in other areas—that added so much money to the actual work that could be done rather than to administrative overhead that we didn't feel we needed quite as much. But then, when the Congress put back in all the red tape and the restrictions that we had tried to eliminate, why, of course, that left less money for the actual program. But, once again, this is part of what we believe when we start appealing for this national drive. And I've talked to leaders in the private sector of many areas on this very subject; they're raring to go. And some of them are already involved in this, with programs. So, maybe we'll find that that can be a good part of the solution.

Q. On the law enforcement side of things, what can be done, or should be done, to try to stop drug use? Should drug users go to jail?

The President. No, I think we should offer help for them. I can tell you, however, what the military did, and this is very encouraging. Early on, when we first came here, then the military started taking up this problem within the ranks and found, yes, there was widespread use of drugs, just as there is on some of our prestigious educational campuses and so forth. And the military put into effect a program, and it wasn't one of, hey, you're out if you were found using them. It was a case of offering treatment and help. And then there've been very few that have been ousted. They had a system of the junior recruits. New people were given a couple of chances if they, you know, if they came forth and said: Okay, yes, I will take the treatment. Then if they backslid and didn't—we gave them two chances. Then the next grade up and junior officers and so forth—they only got one more chance. And that's what it is at the very top. And so, there've been a very small number who have been removed from the service. But the usage of drugs has been cut by 67 percent in the uniformed services.

Q. It sounds odd to say, but should drug dealers go to jail?

The President. Yes, yes. I'm-

Q. Should they be executed, as Malaysia did?

The President. Here again, while we haven't come to final decisions on this, I would tell you that my own personal view is that if you're talking about the death penalty, I know they deserve it. But, no, I would think that we might be taking on, then, something that would divide our ranks, because there are so many people who don't believe in the death penalty for anything. So, no, I think the stricter penalties and all of this and law enforcement—but my own view is that the death penalty would be counterproductive.

Q. Doesn't that imply that if the commitment is to put drug dealers in jail, doesn't that imply a substantial new commitment to build new prisons and to step up the enforcement procedures?

The President. Well, I think we've got a problem of whether we have enough. We have one locally in Washington, a problem with whether we have enough confinement facilities now. So, we have to do whatever is necessary there.

Q. And spend whatever is necessary to expand prison capacity?

The President. Yes, we're talking about human lives at stake. I actually believe that the prime effort, however, if we're to succeed, has to be in turning off. The thing that Nancy's been doing so much of is getting the young people, themselves—and not only the young people but the others—to come forward and want to turn off. In other words, want to just say no.

Q. What's your view, in a mood when you've described America as upbeat, optimistic-why are drugs such a problem now?

The President. Well, how do you relate that? For one thing, we've had some of our modern day things of interest to young people in the music world that has stimulated this, that it made it sound as if it's right there and the thing to do, and rock and roll concerts and so forth, musicians that the young people like and that make no secret of the fact that they are users, and many times, when they're performing, the lyrics of songs, show business, itself. I must say this, that the theater, well, motion picture industry, was started down a road that they'd been on before once with alcohol abuse. I can remember when it was rather commonplace in films, particularly if you wanted some laughs in a comedy, to portray drunk scenes and so forth as being very humorous. And the motion picture industry decided sometime ago that that wasn't right for them to do, that that was encouraging and painting the wrong picture; and they stopped. And yet, recently, there have been some pictures in which there was a gratuitous scene in there just for a laugh of drug use that made it look kind of attractive and funny, not dangerous and sad.

Already, Nancy's been working with the headman and meeting with the headman of the motion picture industry, and there is now a movement there in that part of the entertainment world to stop any examples of that. Just recently, there was a picture where there was a scene—and you had to say it was a good picture—but there was a scene of two people, an elderly couple, driving a pickup truck. They had no part in the movie other than this, just a gratuitous scene in which they're stopped at a roadblock by a trooper. And the only line is, Mama says to Papa, "Is the grass still in the glove compartment?" These two old people—well now, you know that was dragged in by the heels for a laugh. Got a laugh, but it shouldn't have. And I could name other instances of that kind. But that is one thing to stop it and to work on, also.

Q. Well, let me ask you about enforcement. A lot of people say that your war on drugs is all rhetoric. You're spending half of 1 percent of the defense budget on drug enforcement and education—talking about $2 billion compared to $300 billion-plus for the defense budget. You have about 300 more DEA agents than you had in 1974. You, personally, have increased DEA agents numbers to about 500. But there's still—

The President. Yes.

Q. —a few hundred. How can you fight a war with a few thousand people and with this very limited.-

The President. Well, that is in that one agency. But I don't think that counts all the other people that we've organized into these task forces and the dozen such forces under the Attorney General that have other personnel from other agencies plus the local and the military and all the others that have been banded together in this. In other words, the job is just not in the hands of the DEA agents alone. So, I think that's been exaggerated in the way it's been portrayed. As I say, when you've got a team that comes from local law enforcement, and you have access to them—to State legal or law enforcement people, to military, to Federal, and that kind of cooperation, such as is in these groups under the Attorney General, why, we have added to the personnel that are fighting this.

Q. But some of the congressional Republicans are talking about raising taxes to fund the war on drugs. Would you support that?

The President. Well, I don't believe it's necessary. But let's go at this program that we're going to announce and this effort that we're going to try to get going throughout the Nation and see. Incidentally, on the question a moment ago on music, when I was talking about that, here again, I think you should know that there is a movement now among those musicians and these musical groups for drug-free rock concerts and so forth, that they're working within the trade, themselves, to help clean up.

Q. Mr. President, some members of your own party, in addition to talking about the need to spend more, are saying that your policies toward drug-producing countries contain only carrots and not enough sticks.

The President. Well, there's a limit to what you can do with regard to another sovereign nation. You can't stand in there and whip their law enforcement authorities now. But I don't think that's a fair charge. We have been working—and here again, the start came from Nancy, when she had the idea of inviting a large group of First Ladies from all the other countries and speaking to them as mothers and wives and so forth and together. And they went back to their own countries, and it started.

And I saw the effect of it subsequently at one of the economic summit conferences where, suddenly, the heads of state sitting around the table—their wives had been a part of this group that Nancy had put together-and suddenly they said: Hey, wait a minute, what are we doing? Let's us do something. And we are working, and working hand in hand, with foreign ministers. As a matter of fact, Secretary Shultz just said the other day that he, as a result of this First Ladies' thing and what Nancy has done, is getting actual inquiries from other foreign ministers. So, we're trying to work with them and help them. And, yes, there will be problems of noncooperation. And where there are, then I think that we'll have to take what action we can.

Q. What kind of leverage would that include? Economic sanctions?

The President. I don't know as yet. Again, as I say, there's so much of what we're, right now, talking that—and so many facets to it—that I can't tell you what we would-

Q. Would covert action in any sort of way be a possibility to go to the source of drug production?

The President. I can't answer that one. I really can't.

Q. No "contras against drugs" in South America?

The President. [Laughing] I can't answer that.

Q. Well, let me ask a specific question on Mexico. When you came in, everybody said Mexico had a model program. Now it's the number one supplier of heroin to the United States. According to your own State Department, it's the leading—either one or two—supplier of marijuana, that a third of the cocaine is thought to come through Mexico. You're meeting with President De la Madrid shortly.

The President. Yes.

Q. Are you going to bring this up? And how hard a line are you willing to take with Mexico?

The President. Well, let me tell you that from the President's level there we have been having cooperation. We are working with them. They know that, and it isn't all just from them, it's through them—a large portion of this. And that's a 2,000-mile border. And, obviously, they do not have all the forces that are certainly equal to ours or not. But, yes, there are problems there and within the country, as there are in some of the other countries that we deal with in which the drug czars have been able to infiltrate and to gain allies in a great many places because they have the means to buy. And so—

Q. Would you consider closing the border as President Nixon did in the late sixties?

The President. Well, I don't know whether that would do it or not, because the people that are crossing that border and bringing in much of this now are not going through the normal border stops. They're crossing the border surreptitiously and—

Q. No, but it is an economic sanction. It hurts trade, and it got the Government of Mexico's attention in 1969. Were you willing to go that far, if necessary, to force them to deal with the problem?

The President. Well, yes, but this if you feel that they are not dealing up to their capacity, that they're shutting their eyes to it and letting it happen. But you have to recognize that, as I say, some of these countries are limited in their means and their ability—their personnel in handling a problem as big as this. And it wouldn't do any good to punish them for not being able to do more. It would be up to us to find ways where there could be better cooperation and where we can all be helpful to each other.

Q. Could I go back to the consumption side?

Mr. Speakes. We're just about out of time. Maybe we can get one more question. There's one of your answers that you might want to amplify, because it could be subject to misinterpretation. That was the one where they said, "Do you favor jail sentences for drug users?" And just sort of—The President. No, no.

Mr. Speakes. —an emphatic no, but you know many States have laws that already.-

The President. Oh, well, we can't overrule States and their laws. But I do think that as a part of a campaign of the kind that we're talking, where you're going to want to identify the users in order to be of help to them, in this program now of turning them off on drugs, why, then, I think that we're going to be—my own view is—far better off if we do as the military did and offer them—you can come in and you can ask for help and you won't be punished if you will agree to take the help to try and cure you.

Q. Can I just follow up on that?

Mr. Speakes. You know the business of the jails, too—you know we talked about if you reduced the use of drugs, then many people who are using drugs have resorted to crime in order to get money to pay for the habit—

The President. Oh, yes.

Mr. Speakes. —and then you're reducing the problem.-

The President. It's such a complex problem. Let me just, along that tack, just tell you something. One community in California that I know of—know very well—and they're getting the street hustlers peddling drugs as fast as they can. And they conducted an experiment. One weekend, they just went out—and because they're pretty sure of who the users are now; they see them on the streets buying—and they rounded up all the users they could identify, and they just threw them in the jug. And they left them there for a few days, and it was an experiment. They didn't hold them beyond that.

Q. Do you like that idea?

The President. Well, let me tell you what happened. In that period they wanted to find out something about—this was local law enforcement. In that period robbery and burglary was virtually zero while they were off the streets, which was what they wanted to find out; and that is that, yes, a lot of the crime, particularly the robbery-type crime, is coming from the people that need it to feed the habit—the pay for the habit. And when they shut them up for a few days, the police didn't have any crimes.

Q. But what do you do about kids in schools that are found to be taking or selling drugs?

The President. Now, here again, this is the one above all. I think first of all we want to sit down with the teachers, the principals, the school boards, and so forth to make sure that they recognize that in this war it is no reflection on them. You know, sometimes school officials can be a little reluctant to report something, because they're afraid the school board will think, well, they're derelict in their duty. But we want to deal with them and then, yes, we want to get at the students. And it's just like the Just Say No thing. We're going to do everything we can to let them know, again: Come tell us; we'll help. There won't be punishment. Now, if you get the recalcitrant who is just—he's going to continue regardless, then we've got some wonderful examples where school principals here and there in our country have taken over schools that were really out of bounds, that were running wild, and the kind of principal that, just starts—well, I know of one that had over 350 expulsions, just expelled that many students, and now has a school that is a model for everyone to follow.

Q. Are you in favor of cutting off Federal aid to school systems that don't have good drug programs? And if so, how do you enforce that?

The President. Well, you're talking there about secondary education—colleges and so forth.

Q. Yes.

The President. My concern there is: Wouldn't you be punishing a lot of nonusers, because a lot of those Federal funds are going to individual students in the form of grants and loans so they can go to college. Well, you shut off the grant, and you shut off the ability to go to college for a lot of kids who aren't users. And I don't think that's the way to go.

Mr. Speakes. You're pushing your schedule about 10 minutes behind.

Q. I was going to ask another Hollywood question, if you—

The President. I'm tempted. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Q. Okay, the question is: To what extent is the problem with Hollywood that a lot of people out there are using it themselves? And what do you do about that, I mean, as a person who used to be a resident?

The President. And that is at a level of society, also, where we know that—you know, they have a dinner party and they feel they have to put the drug out on the coffee table, like a cocktail party. And, yes, that has to be dealt with—that particular problem.

Q. Did that happen when you were there? Were you ever

The President. No, the drug thing hadn't hit Hollywood. There had been a time in the past, and I guess in that golden era, when—as I call it—of pictures, we were in the afterwave of the reaction to all of that. And as a matter of fact, if you will recall, or maybe you didn't know, in those days when you had a contract with a studio, were under contract as a performer, there was a morals clause in that contract. And if you violated what was commonly accepted as public morals, you were out. Your contract was canceled.

Q. No one ever tempted you?

The President. What? No, but all the things that are going on today—it's a different industry.

Q. Thanks, Mr. President.

Note: The interview began at 11:35 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. It was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on August 4. Larry M. Speakes was Principal Deputy Press Secretary to the President.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Richard M. Smith, Morton M. Kondracke, Margaret Garrard Warner, and Elaine Shannon of Newsweek on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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