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Joe Biden and Drug Control: A More Complete Picture (Part 2—the 1980s)

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC). She continues the series on Joe Biden’s drug policy she started last week.

It was an election year—1980—but Senator Joe Biden was not up for reelection. His interest and expertise in drug policy were sharper than ever, and his membership on the Foreign Relations and  Judiciary committees (where he chaired subcommittees on European affairs and criminal justice) enabled him to pursue the drugs issue from both the international/supply side and the domestic/demand side. 

Biden had been immersed in international Cold War politics while working on agreements with the Soviet Union and others to curb the nuclear arms race (the SALT treaties). At the same time, he accepted the duty of oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) starting in 1978, as the first experimental decade of massive federal funding for law enforcement was drawing to a close. Though setbacks would occur, the early 1980s presented Biden with a unique opportunity to create more robust federal drug control. 

Biden’s foreign affairs work in early 1980 reminds me of an emerging consensus among many current historians of the drug wars: that U.S. attempts to control the international movement of drugs are actually veiled projections of power abroad. Biden had reacted indignantly to testimony from DEA agents working in Asia that poppy growers and opium smugglers were immune from the DEA’s reach so long as they were serving another purpose, such as thwarting regional incursions of communist revolutionaries or providing information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, knowingly or not, Biden played into this decades-old reality after an April 1980 tour of Europe and the Middle East resulted in a report on international heroin trafficking that largely reflected Cold War alliances.

Although it would result in a Biden-authored committee report titled “The Sicilian Connection: Southwest Asian Heroin En Route to the United States,” the origins of the fact-finding trip undertaken by Biden (and other members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) lay in the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. The overthrow of the American-allied shah, along with Soviet incursions into Afghanistan, had thrown the United States into an intense new phase of the Cold War. Thus Biden spoke aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, then announced to the press that Navy pilots stood ready to strike Iranian targets should diplomatic efforts fail to win the hostages’ freedom. (A botched rescue attempt was launched from the same carrier only a few weeks later.) The delegation also planned to talk with NATO officials and the Turkish government, Biden said, and would approach Greece about rejoining the military alliance, perhaps in exchange for an agreement to become a permanent site of the Olympic games. 

Biden addresses Navy pilots on an aircraft carrier during the Iran hostage crisis. The Cold War alliance framework bled over into Biden’s justifications for waging international war on drugs.

A few days later, the senators met the pope. Upon returning home, Biden held a press conference to announce that the trip had not succeeded in winning support for American policy in Iran and Afghanistan. Among other complaints, he said the Italian government was unwilling to “lose construction contracts for its businesses in Iran.” None of the press coverage of the senators’ mission mentioned heroin or poppy farming.

Yet in “The Sicilian Connection,” a report based on this same trip, Biden laid out an argument that American allies in Western Europe were suffering under a flood of “Southwest Asian heroin produced from opium grown in the uncontrolled tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan” and then processed in Iran and smuggled through the Eastern Bloc with government connivance. Only (neutral) Yugoslavia was attempting to stop the deadly flow of narcotics into Europe. The amount of drugs from this new source dwarfed “anything we have known before in Mexico, the Golden Triangle or Turkey.” In fact Turkey (now a key NATO ally) was no longer a source of opium, Biden reported, though the border area between Turkey and Iran was believed by the DEA to be “the location of significant laboratory activity.” DEA records also showed that heroin appearing on U.S. streets was increasingly of this new variety, with a higher “purity” than heroin smuggled from elsewhere. Greece too was becoming a minor transit point.

Using only DEA sources, Biden noted that overdose deaths were spiking in Western Europe, particularly in West Germany. The language of his report conflated Cold War and drug war alliances: “Western Europe is for the first time suffering from a heroin epidemic of its own, and our European allies are finding it very much in their interest to work with us on what has become ‘their’ problem as much as ‘ours,’” he wrote. “This country has a wealth of experience upon which to base an international war on drugs—an experience we must share with Europe if we are to conquer our common enemy.”

Meanwhile, the increased drug activity was a warning that the flood of heroin would soon arrive in the United States, facilitated by organized crime families on both sides of the globe. The report reviewed recent seizures of “several major, very sophisticated laboratories in Italy” and arrests including “a former French connection chemist.” DEA director Peter Bensinger had revealed that heroin processed in Sicily was bound for the United States. Anti-narcotics efforts by Italian police had resulted in some 70 “gangland-style slayings” in 1979.

All of this boded ill for U.S. efforts to fight drug abuse. Biden’s recommendations to Congress included continuing to fund locally administered drug treatment programs, creating more centralized and authoritative structure of federal drug control, and expanding asset forfeiture. These are recognizable as Biden solutions. However, he also recommended using American aid to prop up drug prohibition efforts in Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, and Afghanistan—all strategically important to resisting Soviet expansion—and bringing Italian police to the United States for lessons from the DEA in fighting organized crime.

It is somewhat bizarre that Biden should have relied so heavily on DEA information while also taking responsibility for oversight of the organization. “The Sicilian Connection” might have benefited Biden’s proposed crime reforms—which almost entirely dealt with drugs—by generating urgency among his colleagues to head off a new wave of heroin addiction. After 1980, he certainly argued more often that a drug czar was absolutely necessary to deal with the threat of international drug trafficking, rather than to end bickering among agencies.

True to his original drug policy positions, in 1980 Biden remained tepid toward cannabis prohibition but deeply concerned about heroin. He was convinced that heroin addiction caused crime. This belief was based on conversations with police chiefs and commissioners in major cities; at one point he said he must have spoken with 85 percent of these officials. He was also certain that his constituents deeply desired an effective program of federal drug control.

The DEA was failing to deliver such a program, Biden had concluded based on information he gleaned from late-1970s hearings. Rivalries and noncooperation among federal agencies comprised a large part of the problem, a fact that inspired Biden to push for a cabinet-level “drug czar” to manage and coordinate investigations among the many agencies involved—DEA, FBI, CIA, IRS, Customs, and others. Remarkably, Biden would achieve this goal as part of a major legislative package on crime in 1984, even after Reagan’s election in 1980 brought with it a Republican-majority Senate for the first time in 26 years.

Biden’s drug policy concerns boiled down to accountability on one hand and funding on the other. If accountability could be achieved by centralizing under a drug czar, how could the federal anti-drug effort be salvaged in the face of a recession that had winnowed DEA funding, followed by Reagan’s budgetary war on “big government”?

In the midst of the former, Biden requested help from the General Accounting Office (GAO) to explore the latent possibilities of drug-related asset forfeiture. It had been 10 years since Congress had passed legislation calling for the forfeiture of assets of drug traffickers. “[O]ur goal is to take the profit out of crime,” he wrote in late December 1979, requesting that the GAO analyze “a representative sample of DEA investigations of the highest level traffickers and Department of Justice prosecutions … the ones involving the highest level of illicit profits and accumulated assets.”

At a subcommittee hearing Biden called in June 1980, he announced that the DOJ’s “record in attacking the financial foundations of organized crime has been very nearly nonexistent.” Staffers had found that the Justice Department, home of the DEA, could not even provide a list of cases in which forfeiture had been attempted. They compiled their own list of 99 cases representing a possible total forfeiture of $3.5 million in assets, of which only half a million had actually been deposited in the U.S. Treasury. This result, Biden said, should be taken in the context of an estimated $54 billion annual drug trafficking industry–the Justice Department’s own figure. The untaxable cash proceeds of drug trafficking were so great that they were corrupting ordinary American business, finding their way into real estate, car dealerships, and other legitimate operations. It was time to take these assets away from these wealthy predators.

Biden’s critiques of the rivalries and corruption among drug-control agencies were illustrated in this 1981 cartoon by a Gannett News artist. Biden’s rhetoric on asset forfeiture also did much to create a new kind of drug-trafficking villain: a dripping-rich capitalist who could easily escape the clutches of the law.

Biden used the details from the GAO report, formally issued in 1981, to mount a series of attempts to revise the U.S. criminal code to expand asset forfeiture. The report blamed the Department of Justice outright for failing to provide leadership, incentives, and training to its prosecutors and to DEA agents.

Biden’s attraction to crime control, and to drug control in particular, was part of a centrism that allowed him to flourish even under the Reagan administration. The forfeiture issue might have had bipartisan support anyway, but taking the lead on tougher sentencing and so-called bail reform endeared him to the conservative wing of the Republican party, including its Congressional linchpin, Senator Strom Thurmond. When Republicans gained the majority in 1981, Thurmond famously orchestrated a bloodletting, shuffling the standing committees to place the most ideologically conservative senators on the Judiciary Committee and kicking off moderate Republicans who might have occasionally voted with Democrats. As a friend and someone known to vote with Republicans occasionally, Biden stayed in Thurmond’s good graces and continued to influence the subcommittees he had previously chaired.

Those who marvel that Biden was able to find so much common ground with the deeply conservative, segregationist Thurmond should recall the massive shift in electoral politics that occurred in 1964, when Southern Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act abandoned the party. (Thurmond switched to the Republican party and campaigned for Barry Goldwater, the very symbol of the new grassroots conservatism, in 1964.) In other words, Democrats in 1972 were not the Democrats of today, especially on race and rights, having just bid farewell to Southern race ideologues. Thurmond and Biden both were ideologically opposed to busing and comfortable with heavy policing of minorities, as many Democrats would have been in the early 1960s.

A Biden re-election campaign ad published in autumn 1984.

When Reagan signed a comprehensive crime bill into law in October 1984, just a month away from an Election Day that DID include Biden this time, it set the stage for a more repressive style of drug wars in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, its “reforms” made it harder for defendants to get out on bail and curbed parole for federal prisoners. Indirectly, it incentivized asset forfeiture from top to bottom by codifying “equitable sharing.” Lawmakers probably considered this arrangement a satisfying replacement for funds it had given to local enforcers for a relatively short time, from 1968 until the dramatic budget cuts of the Reagan era.

There is much more to be learned about how the bipartisan consensus on crime was formed in the mid-1980s. Certainly Biden played a key role in negotiating this consensus, but his claim to have done so “without tampering with the Bill of Rights” turns out to be quite untrue.

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