Losing the Drug War

Drug prohibition has turned the U.S. into a nation behind bars. With only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of its prisoners (and consume 25% of its drugs). Ours is the highest incarceration rate in the world. The bulk of that imbalance stems from imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. West Virginia Senator Jim Webb says: “Either we have the most evil people on Earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong.”

Sure, treatment programs are less expensive–about one seventh the cost of prisons–but prisons are tougher and more effective, right? Not so. Prisons are far less effective at curbing both crime and drug use. Canada incarcerates 111 per 100,000 of its population, while the U.S. now incarcerates 794 per 100,000. Even though it has similar demographics Canadian crime rates have differed insignificantly from U.S. crime rates since the drug wars began.

Such draconian punishment is also ineffective at curbing drug production and use. McClatchy news service recently quoted the State Department’s announcement “Cannabis cultivation in Mexico soared 35 percent last year and is now higher than at any time in nearly two decades.” The Rockefeller drug laws (now repealed in New York State), and Reagan’s “War on Drugs” were the origin of this incarceration spree in the U.S., so we have had since the 1970s to notice a difference. The universal verdict is that drugs are more widely used and available.

Enforcing drug prohibition also has an impossible-to-ignore racist component. Drugs common to other-than-white races were the target of the original laws prohibiting drugs (the Klan backed alcohol prohibition), providing yet another excuse to arrest the “uppity.” Current drug enforcement has a racial bias too. Says Senator Webb: “African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. [So African-American drug users are less than 2% of the general population] But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison…”

Some of my conservative friends reply that they know of kids who were “scared straight” by an encounter with our draconian prison policies. But these are anecdotes, not statistics. Someone always wins the lottery too, but that does not mean it’s sensible to rely on it as a retirement plan.

Criminalizing drug consumption, rather than bad behavior, leads to enormous corruption–both domestic and international–and disrespect for the law. It has also spawned the “prison-industrial complex.” Privatized prisons are a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, initiatives like “three strikes” to keep cells full, and other well-funded weapons for targeting any politician who threatens its interests.

California’s Proposition 19, legalizing marijuana consumption, is a step in the right direction, but decriminalizing more drugs would be even more effective. The Swiss recently decriminalized heroin, and discovered crime fell by nearly 85%. The drug users were required to get prescriptions, and threatened with imprisonment if they stepped outside legal drug access.

Decriminalizing drugs does not mean endorsing them. It is not criminal to smoke cigarettes, but it’s hardly endorsed by public policy. The decline in the number of smokers, prompted by education and taxation, is something other we could emulate with other drugs. Following our present prescription condemns us to increasing drug use, prison costs, and growing criminal influence. Let’s get off this merry-go-round to nowhere.

For more from a former drug warrior, see Judge Jim Gray.

Adam Eran

Comments

  1. Popster says

    All of you keep missing the point. Ask yourself this question over and over: what is freedom, and to whom does it pertain? The framers of The Constitution, if you care, feared exactly this intrusive executive branch, and its creation at the constitutional convention was worrisome to many of them. Now this “gang of kings” is testing your pee, taking away your freedom for nothing more than pursuing happiness, and using your dollars to do it. Not to mention their raping of the “lost amendment”, the fourth, regarding search and seizure. Among the aches in the soul of the American psyche is this great injustice. It’s a sad shame our vaunted Baby Boom generation hath left this to the next generation, our kids, who, knowing better, will surely scrap it. The healing will be felt in ways unexpected. It’s another shame it took a severe economic splat (from all the other idiocy in our heads)to make us realize, hell, we can’t really afford this.
    A right inalienable, and self evident, to do with thy body and mind as thy damn well please. Tricky Dick (only president to resign in office)and Ronny Reagan (only one to dement in office) got theirs, by America the Beautiful, for the perpetration of this great injustice on her people. The politician who finally has the rocks to end it just may be the next face in granite in South Dakota.

  2. Adam Eran says

    Jay Levenberg, Esq. says:

    “I can see nothing good coming from legalization of another drug that alters the mind. It’s just one more thing we don’t need our children doing which is exactly what will happen. I don’t think some of the people writing these articles have children.”

    Well, Levenberg wouldn’t “see anything” since his eyes appear to be tightly shut. Let’s also not forget that decriminalizing drugs actually might make it more difficult for him to make a living (“Esq.” means he’s a lawyer).

    And does anyone honestly think kids will not have unfettered access to drugs simply because it’s criminal to have them? Criminal penalties for drugs have never been more draconian, and drugs have never been more available — especially on the schoolyard — than at the present.

    To accompany all the other “accuracy” Levenberg Esq. has opined, I am a parent.

    Finally, let’s remind Mr. Levenberg that law school “alters the mind,” and in an arguably more harmful way than even the most harmful drugs. [Q:What do you call a hundred attorneys dragged to the bottom of the sea? A: A good start. How many other professions have so many cruel jokes at their expense? How many others can boast so many cruel jokes certified to practice?]

    Given the European experience legalizing drugs, there’s nothing factual behind the protests that decriminalizing marijuana will lead to more “driving while stoned” (infinitely safer than DUI, incidentally, even when it does happen).

    All Mr. Levenberg, Esq. is providing is more evidence of the bankruptcy of his own profession’s solution: bursting-at-the-seams prisons, and an increasing number of drug users.

    Repeating the slander that marijuana is a gateway drug ignores the real gateway drug — nicotine — is far more pernicious, and happens to be legal.

    I’m *not* promoting drug use or criminals. Mr. Levenberg is.

  3. Dennis says

    Every convenience store in America sells rolling papers, and hardly anyone rolls their own TOBACCO cigarettes. Most people (including 7/11) think that smoking marijuana is no big deal.

    The parallel to alcohol prohibition is clear.

    Instead of our failed “War On Drugs”, let’s wage ECONOMIC war on marijuana–the government should buy the production and sell the product, using profits to educate people about drugs. Put the criminals out of business and eliminate their revenue. Consumption and bad behaviour by users will still be with us, but the crooks will suffer a huge loss. And countless lives will not be disrupted by trying to regulate personal behaviour that harms no one.

  4. Jillian Galloway says

    $113 billion is spent on marijuana every year in the U.S., and because of the federal prohibition *every* dollar of it goes straight into the hands of criminals. Far from preventing people from using marijuana, the prohibition instead creates zero legal supply amid massive and unrelenting demand.

    According to the ONDCP, at least sixty percent of Mexican drug cartel money comes from selling marijuana in the U.S., they protect this revenue by brutally torturing, murdering and dismembering countless innocent people.

    If we can STOP people using marijuana then we need to do so NOW, but if we can’t then we need to legalize the production and sale of marijuana to adults with after-tax prices set too low for the cartels to match. One way or the other, we have to force the cartels out of the marijuana market and eliminate their highly lucrative marijuana incomes – no business can withstand the loss of sixty percent of its revenue!

    To date, the cartels have amassed more than 100,000 “foot soldiers” and operate in 230 U.S. cities, and Arizona police are now conceding that parts of their state are under cartel control. The longer the cartels are allowed to exploit the prohibition the more powerful they’re going to get and the more our own personal security will be put in jeopardy.

  5. says

    I support Adam’s reasoning.

    I have been torn by this question of legalizing marijuana. I am long into recovery and know that increased, even rampant marijuana use will not be good for our society and certainly not good for our kids. I have known too many people whose lives have been severely damaged by drug use — yes, even by marijuana use, especially as marijuana apparently has been made to be much more potent over the past several decades.

    But the problem is that our current drug policy approach — this vaunted “War on Drugs” — has been an abject failure. It has criminalized a whole sector of our society — a notably black and brown sector — led to the construction of a huge prison gulag system, and yet has done little to curb drug use. Let’s scrap this broken system and discourage drug use much more effectively:

    “Decriminalizing drugs does not mean endorsing them. It is not criminal to smoke cigarettes, but it’s hardly endorsed by public policy. The decline in the number of smokers, prompted by education and taxation, is something other we could emulate with other drugs.”

    That’s it exactly. If we approach drug use the same way we did cigaret use — another big killer — using social pressure, a government-sponsored medical information campaign, and taxation, we can make marijuana smoking *not* the cool thing to do, without locking up brigades of people. We have much to gain from such an approch and evidence — in the form of much reduced cigaret use — that it might work. Clearly, what we’re doing now does not.

  6. Jay Levenberg,Esq. says

    I guess if this thing passes, we will now have lots of DUI’s except for use of marijuana instead of alcohol. I can see nothing good coming from legalization of another drug that alters the mind. It’s just one more thing we don’t need our children doing which is exactly what will happen. I don’t think some of the people writing these articles have children. Otherwise, they would know how destructive this additional drug would be. It’s fine for cancer victims but it’s not fine for the kids. I have watched too many young adults go from weed to harder (in some cases legal) drugs to continue their journey to the bottom. Instead of promoting drug use, we should as a nation decide enough is enough and control the dangerous substances from getting in here in the first place and educating children on the evils of use. We have never really tried to do so in an effective manner. I would rather spend 50 billion in additional dollars fighting drugs than on a second stimulus program. It will do much more good in the long run.

    • Matt says

      Jay nailed it right on the head. Legalization would make our freeways an even more dangerous place to be and would be bad for our kids. We need better law enforcement and stronger anti-drug messages to kids. Legalization certainly falls into the “what you tolerate, you encourage” category.

      • AL IN STL says

        HOW UTTERLY RIDICULOUS… IF IT’S LEGAL, ITS TAXABLE, FEDERALLY TESTED & APPROVED, LOWERED PRICES, NO CRIME INVOLVEMENT FOR USERS (NO CRIMES DONE TO BUY IT, SO LESS PRISONS, LESS PRISON GUARDS & STAFF),NO CRIME INVOLVEMENT FOR SELLERS(THAT PART OF THEIR TRADE FINISHED)… COPS, MOST ARE USUALLY METERMAIDS WITH GUNS, WOULD HAVE TO START WORKING FOR THEIR PAY FINALLY BY WORKING TO STOP THE HARDER DRUGS, POLITICIANS WOULD HAVE TO FIND A NEW SOURCE OF UNDER-THE-TABLE FUNDING…IF IT’S LEGAL IT’S LEGAL & NO WORRY (THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED WITH ALCOHOL IN THE USA)…IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT FREEWAYS THEN YOU REALLY OUGHT TO MAKE ALCOHOL ILLEGAL…STRONGER ANTI-DRUG MESSAGES…YEAH, LIKE THAT’S WHY DRUG USE IS SO RAMPANT, THE MESSAGES WEREN’T STRONG ENOUGH…GRADE SCHOOL KIDS CAN GET YOU THE BEST OF ANY DRUGS & YOU WANNA COME UP WITH A “SCARIER” MESSAGE…
        WHAT A MA-ROON…COPS WILL LOSS MONEY & JOBS IF THEY LEGALIZE POT WHICH IS WHY THEY’LL TRY TO STOP ITS LEGALIZATION…AND COPS USUALLY HAVE THE BEST POT ANYWAY…ASK ANYBODY THAT KNOWS ONE…

  7. says

    Law enforcement likes to have lots of things illegal. They live in a dependency world in which if drugs were legal then the push for law enforcement would diminish as “get tough” monies disappeared. Few people understand that in the 1960s the LEAA, the federal Law Enforcement Administration Act, was passed and it allowed the federal government to begin to funnel big money to local police departments to set up SWAT teams, drug enforcement measures, etc. (For old timers this was also the time when the FBI/Hoover defined the Black Panthers and Martin L. King as enemies and this LEAA money was also used to fund counter intelligence (COINTELPRO) activities. This made local law enforcement agencies, i.e. police and sheriff departments, susceptible to federal direction. Prior to that time most local law enforcement bitterly opposed federal messing with their policies and procedures but money smoothed the way. Later the legislation that brought about the DEA and the war on drugs expanded this federal largess that has brought a lot of federal money into US law enforcement communities.

    When you have a drug as common as Marijuana illegal then it is very easy to pop lots of people and throw them in jail, especially the young in poor or rebellious communities. As it used to be taught in the Whole Earth Catalog and I paraphrase, “If everything or lots of things are illegal then everyone is subject to arrest.” so everyone lives in a state of fear. Police Departments like to have drag net possibilities.

  8. says

    It’s a real racist approach. Good point. The state will raise $50 an ounce or $1.5 billion a year, if legalized. With the cost of an ounce being over $250 , you might be able to tax it at $150 an ounce and growers could still make money.After all they would be making $100 for an ounce of something that grows almost like a weed. Since we can’t tax the higher classes fairly in California maybe we can tax the “high,” and raise close to $5 billion a year.
    We send 5.4 times as many people to jail as does Europe.

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