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Losing the Drug War

Adam Eran: Criminalizing drug consumption, rather than bad behavior, leads to enormous corruption--both domestic and international--and disrespect for the law.

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 The Rockefeller drug laws (now repealed in New York State), and Reagan’s “War on Drugs” were the origin of this incarceration spree in the U.S., so we have had since the 1970s to notice a difference.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.

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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