The Drug War – Time To Wave The White Flag
Recently, while speaking at a presidential forum in New Hampshire, New Jersey governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie remarked, “… the war on drugs has been a failure — well-intentioned, but a failure.” One only need look at the startling statistics associated with the U.S. “War on Drugs” to see how right he is:
- Although the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, our country houses approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
- Since the war on drugs began in 1971, the U.S. prison population has surged 700 percent.
- According to FBI data from 2012, an arrest for violating an American drug law occurs every 42 seconds.
- There are more people now under “correctional supervision” than were in the Gulag Archipelago during Stalin’s reign in Soviet Russia.
- One in every 110 adults in the U.S. is incarcerated.
- Nearly half of those in federal custody are for drug offenses.
- The number of persons in state prisons for drug offenses has increased thirteen fold since 1980.
- The number of people arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2013: 693,482; of those, the number arrested for possession only: 609,423 (88 percent).
- More than $51,000,000,000 spent by federal, state, and local governments annually.
- More than a trillion dollars has been spent during the more than four decade’s long drug war.
- African Americans, 13 percent of the U.S. population, who proportionally account for 13 percent of the nation’s drug users, are 30 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and nearly 40 percent of those held in state and federal prisons for drug crimes. 
- Two thirds of those in U.S. prisons for drug offenses are persons of color although their drug use is in the same proportion as that of whites.
- Of the 23.5 million Americans in need of substance abuse treatment, only one in 10 receive it.
- Conservative estimates of legalizing drugs could boost the U.S. economy by $88 billion a year in law enforcement savings and new tax revenue.
- Mexican drug cartels now control illegal drug markets in at least 230 American cities. 
- More than 100,000 persons have been killed in Mexican drug violence since 2006.
- Al Qa’ida and almost half of those groups on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list have ties to the illegal drug trade.
- Three out of four American voters look upon “the war on drugs” as a failure.
- According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as of 2012 the cost of one gram of pure cocaine cost $177.26, 74% lower than it was 30 years before.
- Teens report that that buying illegal marijuana is easier than buying legal beer.
- Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana possession in some form, and four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, have legalized marijuana possession.
Decades of Drug War Policy
A brief review of drug law policy since the second half of the last century shows how we arrived at the current situation.
In the 1960s, drugs came to symbolize a youthful rebellion period and social and political dissent. It was during this time that the government halted scientific research to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of many drugs.
The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 divided controlled substances into five schedules or classes on the basis of their potential for abuse, and their safety under medical supervision. Title II of the Act, entitled “Control and Enforcement,” forms the legal basis for the government’s fight against abusive drugs and other substances.
In June of 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” Thereafter, his administration dramatically increased the size and presence of several drug control agencies, including in 1972 the creation of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and began to push measures such as mandatory sentencing.
The Nixon administration also placed marijuana into Schedule I, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending a review by his appointment of a commission led by Pennsylvania governor, Raymond Shafer. In 1972, although the Commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing possession for personal use, the president ignored the report and rejected its recommendation.
Even so, during the 1970s eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In October of 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.
Soon, however, public opinion began to change. During the 1980s there was increasing media anti-drug campaigns, most notably Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” initiative. Throughout the mid-1980s, zero tolerance policies were implemented. By the middle of the 1980s, Congress and state legislatures passed laws that rapidly increased prison populations. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act strengthened crimes for drug possession, and made sentences stiffer, including five (5) year prison terms for possession of 5 grams of “crack” cocaine.
Although Presidents Nixon and Reagan both paid lip service of the need to deal with the demand (rehabilitation and treatment) side of the drug war, neither did much in this area, preferring instead to concentrate the lion’s share of money and resources on supply (prevention) side efforts. Reagan actually decreased funding for programs of education, prevention and rehabilitation.
President Clinton, although increasing the percentage spent on rehabilitation and preventions programs, continued to concentrate on supply side drug war efforts, encouraging substantial increases for eradication programs and law enforcement.
However, the Clinton era also saw the emergence of a movement seeking a different approach to the drug policy. Prominent conservatives such as William F. Buckley joined with civil libertarians, including Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman, in advocating for ending drug prohibition. A number of other educators, scholars, and members of government joined them.
Unfortunately, the era of George W. Bush witnessed a rapid escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. Although in the early part of this century federal drug reforms mostly stalled, state level reforms began a slow growth.
Most recently, our country has seen state after state reassess its marijuana laws, especially for medicinal purposes. Four states, as previously mentioned, have made marijuana for personal use completely legal.
The Failure of Supply-Side Drug War Eradication
As the US war on drugs escalated, so did the view to eradicate drugs at their source. This falls in line with the view that the US drug policy should place emphasis on supply side strategies.
Currently, various “carrot” strategies exist to encourage continued Latin American participation, including additional economic assistance for eradication of drug fields.
However, efforts at drug eradication in Latin America have largely failed because of what is referred to as the “balloon effect.” This is a situation that occurs when one country is targeted with eradication, and drug cultivation in neighboring countries expands, much like displacement of air to other parts of a balloon when squeezed. For example, while the U.S. claimed eradication victories in Colombia, cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia increased to meet demand.
Supplying drugs to the U.S. is a lucrative endeavor. As such, cartels fight over territory and smuggling routes, and extreme violence and crimes continue largely unabated.
Arguably, no Latin American nation has suffered more from drug war violence than Mexico, our closest southern neighbor. Drug cartels in other Latin American countries, most notably Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, employ various Mexican cartels to import their drugs into the U.S. Huge drug transportation networks have developed.
Mexico, which has long sought to appease the United States in its quest for American dollars, is in a state of chaos in many areas of the country. Rival gangs fight one another, as well as local and state law enforcement and politicians, for territorial rights over area and key smuggling routes.
Despite law enforcement efforts, Mexican cartels have grown so prodigiously that they now operate throughout the United States. According to the Washington Post,
There is no disputing that Mexican cartels are operating in the United States. Drug policy analysts estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine on U.S. streets came here courtesy of the cartels and their distribution networks in Mexico and along the Southwestern border.
As a sign of just how far illegal Mexican cartels have infiltrated our country, in 2013 Chicago named cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman its first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone.
Despite all the resources engaged and financial costs incurred by the U.S., Latin American eradication efforts as part of its overall strategy of prohibition have failed. The costs of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have decreased, while potency has increased. Illicit drugs are more plentiful and available than ever. The lucrative black market that prohibition created continues to spawn and expand criminal enterprises willing to assume the risks associated with illicit drug trafficking in order to share in the enormous wealth available. Such wealth makes it easy to see why there is an inexhaustible supply of other entrepreneurs quickly willing to replace drug sellers and traffickers taken off the street.
An end to drug prohibition will mean a reduction in the black market by making drugs legal and available. It will allow for establishment of standards and appropriate regulations for use. Governmental revenues will increase from taxes levied for drug production, sales, and consumption. Ending prohibition will free law enforcement efforts to concentrate on violent crimes such as murder, aggravated assault, rape, child abuse, and robbery, thus keeping our communities safer. Most importantly, however, it will end the draconian process of sending masses of Americans to jail for non-violent personal possession of drugs, branding them felons, and destroying countless families in the process. Drug use will be dealt with as a health issue by medical professionals and not the criminal justice system. However, although a decided majority of the American people views the drug war as a failure, there still are huge forces at work within the prison industrial complex to maintain the status quo.
The prison industrial complex (“PIC) is defined broadly as the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. It includes corporations that contract prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, private probation companies, lawyers, prison guard and law enforcement unions, and the media and lobby groups that represent them.
The drug war policy of harsh drug sentencing has fueled the meteoric rise of the PIC. States have increasingly turned to private companies to run their jails and prisons. “Prison profiteering” has become big business, to the tune of billions of dollars of yearly profit. The burgeoning prison population has led to increased prison construction, maintenance, and administration. Nearly every aspect of prison life is looked act through a pecuniary lens, which can turn out to be extremely lucrative. In return for building and running prisons, prison profiteers seek assurances of high occupancy rates from government. Not surprisingly, these companies routinely lobby for incarceration for minor offenses, three-strike laws, and laws that make reductions in lengths of sentences more difficult.
Prison privatization creates a symbiotic relationship between prison profiteer companies and politicians who award them contracts. One writer has aptly observed,
When combining the potential for enormous corporate profit with a politician’s need to be reelected, a toxic foundation is laid that portends legislative initiatives sponsored by representatives who use “tough on crime” campaign rhetoric, while simultaneously accepting lucrative contributions from a private prison lobby intent on increasing the stream of U.S. prisoners… Further, corporations that produce products that U.S. citizens consume view prison labor as a profitable enterprise, similar to “third world labor power exploited by U.S.-based global corporations.” (citation omitted)
The resulting need to fill prison beds has kept prison populations high, and many poor communities, especially African-American neighborhoods, in a constant state of devastation. One in three African-American males will serve prison time in his lifetime. Most African-American males in prison today are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes. The prison diaspora of African American men from their homes has led John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, to observe,
It has become a norm for black children to grow up in single-parent homes, their father away in prison for long spells and barely knowing them. In poor and working class black America, a man and a woman raising their children together is, of all things, an unusual sight. The War on Drugs plays a large part in this.
Changing the Drug Paradigm
The drug war, by many standards, is a policy that has failed. But what would happen if drugs were legalized? Would that not just lead to anarchy and chaos? Rampant crime? A nation of addicts?
In 2001, Portugal was facing a heroin addiction crisis and an associated HIV epidemic. Portugal heard loud and vocal opposition when the country debated legalizing drugs as different approach to the drug war model in place. There were dire predictions about horrible consequences that would happen if drugs were legalized. Nevertheless, Portugal made the decision to legalize illicit substances, changing its view on drug use from criminal problem to that of a public health issue.
Currently, in addition to substance abuse treatment and counseling, the Portuguese government offers clean syringes and condoms to heroin addicts. This has led to a drastic reduction in HIV infections. Since decriminalization, Portugal has seen unanticipated decreases in adolescent drug use and the street value of drugs. There have been further reductions in opiate use and related deaths and infectious diseases of all types.
In the fifteen years after decriminalization, health experts in Portugal, the country that decided to treat addicts rather than punish them, has seen addictions decrease by half.
Closer to home, information has been gathered on Colorado and Washington in the several years since those two states legalized marijuana.
In Washington, a July 2015 report by the Drug Policy Alliance finds marijuana-related convictions down 81%. The state is now saving millions of dollars in law enforcement resources that previously were used to enforce marijuana laws. Since decriminalization, violent crime has decreased and other crime rates have remained stable. Washington has collected nearly $83 million in marijuana tax revenues. These revenues are funding substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, youth and adult drug education, community health care services, and academic research and evaluation on the effects of marijuana legalization in the state. Youth marijuana use and the number of traffic fatalities remained stable in the first year that adult possession was legalized.
Colorado has similar results. According to a January 5, 2015 status report, also published by the Drug Policy Alliance, since legalization in 2012, marijuana arrests for possession, distribution, and cultivation have fallen 95%. This represents 37,000 individuals who will not have to bear the stigma of arrest and the potential for conviction. It also represents countless work hours freed up for law enforcement to pursue other crime. Colorado’s first ten months of legal marijuana sales resulted in nearly $40 million in tax revenue. Violent crime decreased in Denver during the first 11 months of 2014. Statewide traffic fatalities continue to decline. The increased revenue has allowed the state to allocate more than $8 million to fund youth education and drug prevention efforts.
The foregoing shows that abolition of the drug war will not result in calamity, or make us less safe. The drug war, a well-intentioned failure, must end. After more than four decades, we have not succeeded in reducing drug use or availability, only in imprisoning fellow citizens in record numbers. The vast resources expended on the drug war may be better spent on many other pressing problems. However, abolition will not happen until our politicians are brave enough to stand up, take charge, and change the direction of a failed policy.
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