Twelve years ago, President Ronald Reagan launched an all-out effort to rid the country of illegal substances, chiefly cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The campaign focused on stopping drug production in countries from Colombia to Burma, disrupting the flow of drugs into the United States and destroying the open-air street markets in inner cities. President George Bush continued the drug war, focusing on interdicting drug supplies before they entered the United States and on stricter local law enforcement, including the arrest and imprisonment of drug offenders. With the arrival in the White House of the new Clinton administration, which advocates more emphasis on prevention and treatment efforts, the debate over how best to win the war on drugs is heating up once again.
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Nothing seemed unusual about the cargo ship President Truman when it docked May 20, 1991, in Oakland, Calif. According to the manifest, the vessel had embarked from Bangkok, Thailand, with a shipment of plastic bags. On a hunch, Customs agents decided to search the hold to check out minor inconsistencies in the manifest. Hidden among the crates of bags, the agents found 1,071 pounds of heroin from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. Its estimated street value: $2.5 billion.
Flashback two years earlier to Sylmar, Calif., near Los Angeles. A resident complained to police of heavy late-night traffic at a warehouse in his neighborhood. Concerned that Colombian drug cartels were shifting their smuggling operations from Miami to Los Angeles, federal and local police investigated the complaint. Again, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The warehouse was unguarded and protected with nothing more than a $6 lock. But inside they found almost 14 tons (47,554 pounds) of cocaine. Estimated street value: between $6 billion and $7 billion.
The Los Angeles seizure still holds the record as the biggest cocaine recovery anywhere. The Oakland bust still stands as the...