America In A Fix by John L. Kane

© 2002, Rocky Mountain News

April 27, 2002

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit or educational use.


 

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Drug war has proven more corrosive for America than the drugs themselves

 

Our present War on Drugs began in 1972 when pot-smoking demonstrators against the Vietnam War mocked all authority, ridiculed President Nixon and challenged the very assumption of his authority. His response has resulted in a society subjected to draconian remedies. The War on Drugs — through stringent, puritanical measures — attempts to set the public right. Not only is justice not done, it is threatened and derided.

Our national drug policy hasn't changed significantly with changes in administration. It emphasizes interdiction, police action and imprisonment with a pious and pseudo-reverential nod to treatment and education. The policy persists in spite of all evidence, even the government's own, demonstrating that it is foolish and unworkable.

And despite the billions of dollars spent each year in drug enforcement programs, less that $1 out of every $100 is spent on research and evaluation to find out why it isn't working. As recently as March 29 of last year the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering advised that the nation's ability to evaluate whether the drug policies even work is no better now than it was twenty 20 years ago when the War on Drugs was escalated from bravado to guns and blood.

Without hard, well-researched information, it is not even possible to articulate a new or improved policy. All that is left is the frequently expressed inanity that changing our drug policy would "send the wrong message to our children.''

In this darkest of comedies, the government hasn't the slightest notion what message our children are presently receiving. Perhaps we should send a message to our children about the causes of death in the United States. We would have to tell them that tobacco is legal and, at 430,700 deaths per year, is the leading cause of substance-abuse deaths; that alcohol is legal and 110,600 die from it each year; that adverse reactions to legal prescription drugs cause 32,000 fatalities a year; that 30,500 commit suicide; 18,000 are homicide victims; and that 7,600 people die each year from taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin. Of course, we don't want to send them the wrong message that the total number of deaths caused by marijuana is zero.

Perhaps the message we should be sending our children is that local, state and federal governments now spend more than $9 billion per year to imprison 458,000 drug offenders. What would be the cost of our current drug policy if it were succeeding rather than failing? Incarcerating all cocaine users in the U.S. would cost $74 billion, but only after constructing 3.5 million more prison beds at an initial cost of $175 billion. It would cost $365 billion to jail everyone who smoked marijuana last year — five times the total national, state and local spending for all police, courts and prisons combined. To contain this crowd behind walls, we would need a cadre of guards and other prison employees larger than all of our military forces combined. These projections are not entirely academic: The nation is completing the construction, on average, of a new prison every week.

More costly than money, however, is the price we now pay for this failed policy in terms of the decline in public safety, the breakdown of our criminal justice system, the erosion of our civil liberties and the pervasive public disrespect of the law. Good citizens, who are otherwise law-abiding, ignore or evade drug laws. With literally tens of millions of people using illegal drugs or related to those who do, an ever-increasing part of the population has become cynical about our laws, legal system and political process.

Each year since 1989, more people have been sent to prison for drug offenses than for violent crimes. At the same time, only one in five burglaries is reported and only one in 20 reported burglaries ends in arrest. Yet detectives continue to be reassigned from burglary details to investigation of street sales of drugs. The cost for this particular aspect of our national folly is absorbed in significantly increased insurance premiums.

Furthermore, interdiction efforts are utterly futile.

Using data supplied by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, we learn that the price of heroin has dropped, not increased, while its production has risen greatly. The illegal market price of cocaine in 1981 was $275.12 per gram and by 1996 it had dropped to $94.52. Because a kilogram of raw opium sells for $90 in Pakistan, but is worth $290,000 in the United States, law enforcement seizures have little, if any, impact on operations or profitability.

And, as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis observed on April 28, 2001, "The effort to stop cocaine exports from Peru has cut the flow from there substantially. But that reduction has been more than made up by a huge increase in coca cultivation and production in Colombia. As Plan Columbia, the military anti-drug program, gets under way there, production is reportedly beginning to shift to Ecuador.'' Lewis listed the costs to other nations of our current drug policies: the rise of drug gangs, the poisoning of peasants from the spraying of undesirable crops, the corruption of governments and increased deaths by violence. "Yet,'' he notes, "the amount of cocaine and heroin entering the United States is as great as ever.'' Police agencies still need to protect the public by holding those who cause accidents or commit crimes while under the influence of drugs and alcohol fully accountable for their acts, but we must get them out of the business of financing their operations through the seizure and forfeiture of private property. The costs of law enforcement should be funded from the public treasury so that we can determine how much the implementation of government policies is costing. In other and harsher words, we need to terminate the symbiotic business relationship that law enforcement has with the illegal drug industry. Each scratches the other's back.

Indeed, the two groups who would suffer most from an elimination of the black market in drugs would be, in nearly equal measure, organized crime and law enforcement. Those who would benefit the most would be the people, especially children, who have never before tried drugs because there would be no economic incentive to turn them into customers. Those who are already addicted or abusing drugs or who will no matter what law obtains can be treated rather than imprisoned at a cost of one-seventh the amount needed to imprison them.

And let's not forget the "other victims'' of the so-called War on Drugs — those people and businesses who can't get into court to have their cases heard; the victims of traditional crimes such as burglary, rape and robbery who can't get justice because the police are tied up with drug cases; merchants going bankrupt because the police no longer have time to investigate or prosecute bad-check cases; battered spouses whose mates are not sent to jail because there's only room there for pot smokers; physicians and other medical care providers who cannot treat their patients according to conscience and the discipline of their profession; the sick and dying who endure unnecessary pain; children whose parents are taken from them; the police who have given up honorable and challenging work investigating and detecting crime because they have become addicted to and dependent upon an informant-based system reminiscent of Lenin's dreaded Cheka; families forced to select one member to plead guilty lest the entire family be charged; prosecutors and defense attorneys who have turned the temples of justice into plea-bargaining bazaars; and, most painful to me, judges who let this happen and don't say a word.

In order to deal successfully with drug abuse, this nation must abandon its failed policies and rhetoric of misinformation. I suggest that federal drug law should be severely cut back. The importing of unauthorized drugs should continue to be a federal crime and the regulation of manufacturing drugs for distribution in interstate commerce should likewise be a federal concern, but the several states should regulate sales and decide which activities are criminal — such as selling or inducing minors to take drugs — and which drugs, if any, should be prohibited. In sum, the policy should be to end the black market, end the freebooting financing of law enforcement by forfeiture and treat those drug and alcohol abusers who want to be treated.

At the present time, our national drug policy is inconsistent with the nature of justice, abusive of the nature of authority and ignorant of the compelling force of forgiveness. Our drug laws, indeed, are more mocked than feared. These are the messages we are sending our children.

 

John L. Kane is a United States senior district judge in Denver, Colorado.

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Last modified 6/18/03