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Toward a Sane National Drug Policy

The case for rational change in the United States


The drug war has been most efficient at filling up the country's prisons and jails.

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The War on Drugs is over. After eight decades of interdiction, prohibition and punishment, the results are in: There are now more than 330,000 Americans behind bars for violating the drug laws. We are spending over $20 billion per year on criminal-justice approaches, but illegal drugs are available in greater supply and purity than ever before. Cynical phrases such as zero tolerance and drug-free society substitute for thoughtful policies and realistic objectives. It’s time for a change.

We have ignored the clear lessons of history. Prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, financed the rise of organized crime and failed miserably as social policy. Likewise, the War on Drugs has created new, well-financed and violent criminal conspiracies and failed to achieve any of its goals.

It’s time for Americans to look seriously at other options. No one has found the answer to the drug problem, but there are alternatives to spending tens of billions each year on a policy that is better at filling prisons and spreading AIDS than curing addictions. When Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders spoke out in December 1993 in favor of studying alternatives, it came as no surprise that drug-policy reactionaries screamed. But more interesting were the voices of support from around the country: Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly of Washington and Mayor Frank Jordan of San Francisco have joined former secretary of state George Shultz, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and a number of prominent Americans from across the political spectrum in speaking out for an alternative.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence that pot has ever caused a single death and that there is clear evidence that cannabis is actually useful in treating certain medical conditions, the federal government continues to spend millions of dollars each year to eradicate plants and harass users. In 1992, according to the FBI, 535,000 people were arrested for possession, sale or manufacture of marijuana. In six cases, life sentences were imposed.

This is the drug war at its most absurd. Paramilitary raids composed of state police, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives and National Guardsmen fly over public and private lands, their helicopters skimming the tops of private homes. Citizens are detained at gunpoint, and houses and property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are forfeited to local police departments for no other reason than the existence of small numbers of marijuana plants.

The DEA’s global presence stands at an all-time high. U.S. military units and border-patrol forces scramble around Bolivia and Peru, destroying easily replaced makeshift laboratories. The U.S. Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Customs Service patrol the seas in search of illicit shipments. U.S. diplomats lean on European governments to throw their money into the kitty for perennial crop-substitution programs.

To what effect? Certainly not any reduction in the flow of drugs into the United States. Law-enforcement authorities readily admit that cocaine imports appear to be as high as ever. Heroin exports to the United States, meanwhile, are rising to unprecedented levels as Asian gangsters and Afghan terrorists consolidate their networks and the ever resourceful Colombians enter the business.

In late 1991, the General Accounting Office reported that the Pentagon’s interdiction efforts, which cost U.S. taxpayers close to $1 billion during the previous two years, had had no impact on the flow of drugs. For at least a generation, law-enforcement officials have recited the claim that they seize “only 10 percent” of drug shipments into the United States. The fact is, despite this dismal rate, they haven’t the slightest idea what percentage they’re seizing.

The drug war has been most efficient at filling up the country’s prisons and jails: In all, there are 440,000 prisoners in local jails, 840,000 in state prisons and another 87,000 in federal prisons. (Add to that 2.7 million people on probation and more than 500,000 on parole.) This represents by far the highest proportion of the American population incarcerated in our history, as well as the highest proportion incarcerated of any country in the world.

Much of the increase in prison population can be explained entirely in terms of the war on drugs. More than 60 percent of federal prison inmates are incarcerated for violations of federal drug laws. One in five are first-time petty offenders, in many cases naive young people who ran into sophisticated entrapment procedures. According to a Justice Department study ordered by Janet Reno, 16,316 federal prisoners who have no previous incarcerations, crimes or high-level drug activity on their records are serving an average of six-year sentences for drugs. Two out of three are in prison because of mandatory sentencing laws. More than half of new incarcerations in New Jersey state prisons in 1990 were for drug-law violations, 46.7 percent in New York, 32 percent in Pennsylvania, and 53 percent in Washington, D.C. Although no one has actually added up the numbers, it is safe to estimate that one-third of a million people are now behind bars for violating drug laws and two to three times that many are on probation or parole for the same reason.

These grim statistics don’t reveal the entire cost of the government’s war against its own citizens. A complete total would have to include the drug dealers incarcerated for crimes of violence as well as the one-third of robbers and burglars who reported in a survey sponsored by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that they had committed their crimes to obtain money for drugs.

The drug war takes most of its collateral casualties from the inner cities. Here, drugs are a fact of life, even if many, customers live far away in protected communities. Though illegal-drug use has fallen in some inner cities, there are still intolerable levels of violence associated with competitive drug dealing.

If our prohibition policies really made a difference in terms of reducing illicit-drug use in the country, there might be some grounds for the claim that this tremendous expenditure of dollars and lives is worth it. But all the evidence suggests that the simple deterrence model of tough enforcement and incarceration has not had the desired impact on drug availability in the inner city or the small town. The ambitious street sweeps of drug dealers and ever more pervasive undercover operations have simply made it that much easier for urban young people to step into the shoes of those whose jobs they covet.

The costs incurred by America’s orgy of incarceration are impressive. But they pale, at least in human terms, next to the costs exacted by the spread of AIDS by and among illicit-drug users, their sexual partners and their babies. Most U.S. states, as well as the vast majority of foreign countries, allow people to buy syringes over the counter. Nine states, however, don’t. Those nine are nearly the same as those with the worst illicit-drug-use problems and the highest number of drug-related AIDS cases.

Both common sense and a host of scientific studies suggest that making syringes available over the counter, creating needle-exchange programs and sponsoring outreach programs to maintain contact with hard-core drug users are cheap and relatively effective ways of reducing the spread of AIDS among drug users. National and state commissions on AIDS, as well as international health organizations, routinely advocate these programs. Virtually all European countries, including some that punish drug dealing as severely as rape and murder, have instituted such measures. But in the United States, cowardly politicians who know better have combined with inner-city leaders obsessed with the rhetoric and images of genocidal plots to oppose such programs.

What it all adds up to is a contemporary variant of the Crusades –— a war to purge America of illicit drugs and any one who makes, sells or uses them. Forget compromise. Forget tolerance. And for that matter, forget any attempt at cost-benefit analysis. Forget as well the fact that virtually all societies in the history of human civilization have used psychoactive substances –— whether it’s marijuana or wine.

It’s time for a new drug policy. The choices are far more complex than prohibition vs. legalization. What we need to do now is start learning what works in other countries and start relying a little more on common sense and decency. We need to stop demonizing illicit-drug users and remind ourselves that they are citizens and human beings. We need to stop filling our prisons with petty dealers and unlucky users and focus our criminal-justice resources on those who commit violent and predatory crimes. And we need to stop believing that abstinence is the sole solution to drug use.

The easy way to begin is with small steps –— ones that reduce the harmful effects of drug use and drug policies without completely eliminating our current system of prohibition.

First, we should immediately decriminalize the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana and make it easily available by prescription to those suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. Eleven states decriminalized marijuana during the 1970s, with no noticeable effects on consumption rates. California has saved more than $1 billion in criminal-justice costs by decriminalizing pot.

No drug, including marijuana, is completely safe –— but as the DEA’s own administrative law judge Francis Young declared in 1988, marijuana is possibly “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” Though 36 states have called for the legalization of marijuana for medical treatment, the federal government refuses to remove pot from a Schedule 1 listing as a dangerous narcotic.

What about hard drugs like heroin? The first steps of a harm-reduction-based policy are easy and virtually risk free. Hundreds of studies and 25 years of experience have proved that getting heroin addicts to switch to methadone can reduce heroin consumption, crime and AIDS and help former users to get and keep their lives together. But methadone is now the most tightly regulated drug in the pharmacopeia, according to Ernest Drucker, professor of epidemiology and social medicine at Montefiore Medical Center-Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, N.Y. It continues to get a bad rap from powerful politicians and drug-treatment bigwigs who insist that abstinence is the only cure. They’re wrong, just like those who insist that the only way to deal with teen-age pregnancy is by telling kids to remain “sex-free.”

What we need is a wide range of methadone programs and outlets: from full-service programs that help recovering drug users get their lives together and find jobs to “low threshold” programs that reach out to the most down-and-out addicts on the streets. We should allow private physicians and public-health clinics to write prescriptions for methadone and allow their clients to pick the drug up at a local pharmacy. Methadone could be dispensed from mobile vans —– as Baltimore and Boston have begun to do. And most important, we should not kick people out of methadone programs if they relapse and continue taking illegal drugs. All the evidence shows that they, and we, are better off if they maintain some link with health services. Simply stated, we should treat drug addicts who want methadone like we treat diabetics who need insulin and depressed Americans who want Prozac.

Virtually every public-health commission and organization –— from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academy of Sciences to the World Health Organization –— has suggested that needle exchanges can play an important role in reducing the transmission of HIV by and among drug injectors. In some European cities, addicts can exchange dirty needles in local pharmacies, health clinics, vending machines and even police stations. We should do the same. The policy is risk free.

What about cocaine? It’s helpful to remember that the crack epidemic, a devastating plague, but one that is passing, was not prevented by strict prohibition. Indeed, the drug laws may well have created crack, just as Prohibition produced 190-proof bathtub gin. And just as the repeal of Prohibition didn’t legalize moonshine, so the repeal of drug laws doesn’t have to mean legalizing crack. The world is full of drugs that are less dangerous and more attractive than crack. We can begin by testing low-potency cocaine products – coca-based chewing gum or lozenges, for example, or products like Mariani’s wine and the Coca-Cola of the late 19th century –— which by all accounts were as safe as beer and probably not much worse than coffee. If some people want to distill those products down to something more potent, let them. But most people won’t want to buy it, just as few Americans wanted to keep buying 190-proof alcohol once beer, wine and liquor became legally available.

There’s much more we can do to reduce the negative consequences of both drug use and our drug policies without junking the whole prohibition system. But we can’t do it successfully unless we put our punitive predispositions and abstentious goals on the back burner. Drug-treatment programs should be user-friendly, as other medical services are supposed to be, rather than like adolescent hazing rituals. A good harm-reduction program teaches sex workers how to get uncooperative clients to use condoms and saves the moralizing for later. It teaches illegal drug injectors how to inject safely, so that they don’t end up in emergency rooms or dead, and then lets them know there’s a drug-treatment slot available when they’re ready.

From all accounts, policies like these work. Free needles, readily available methadone and other harm-reduction programs hold no attractions for kids trying to decide whether to use drugs or not. And these policies are more effective in undermining illegal drug markets, cutting crime and improving public health than anything yet devised in the United States.

Repeal immediately all mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws for drug-law offenders. It’s hard to find a respected jurist, from Chief Justice William Rehnquist on down, who supports either current mandatory minimum requirements or the Draconian penalties he or she is required to impose on petty drug offenders. “Three strikes, you’re out” is catchy sloganeering, and it may even make sense for murderers and hired assassins, but it’s a ludicrous approach for drug offenders.

Virtually everything we’re suggesting here is already happening in many European cities. None of it’s revolutionary. In fact, quite the opposite, virtually everything we’re suggesting can be described as evolutionary, relatively risk free and less expensive than our current policies. All the available evidence indicates that a switch from a war-on-drugs approach to a harm-reduction strategy will save lives, reduce disease, cut crime and contribute to safer, healthier, more livable cities.

When all is said and done, however, the best drug policies are those that rely not on prohibition but on regulatory approaches wisely conceived and implemented. We harbor no illusions regarding the political prospects of repeal in the short term. But once Americans realize that most of our drug problems are a result of current policies, drug prohibition will crumble just as alcohol prohibition did 61 years ago.

One often forgotten lesson of Prohibition is that it was followed not by a uniform national policy but by “local option.” When, in 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed Prohibition, the states went their own ways: Some opted for state monopolies, others for licensing schemes, and some chose to remain dry. Some legalized all alcoholic beverages, others just beer and wine. Some imposed high taxes, others low taxes.

We need local solutions to local problems. What the federal government needs to do is repeal many of the laws and regulations that stifle local initiatives and block any movement away from the war on drugs. Let towns, cities, counties and states experiment with new approaches. It’s the only way to find out what really works.

Any good nonprohibitionist drug policy has to contain three central ingredients. First, possession of small amounts of any drug for personal use has to be legal. Second, there have to be legal means by which adults can obtain drugs of certified quality, purity and quantity. These can vary from state to state and town to town, with the Food and Drug Administration playing a supervisory role in controlling quality, providing information and assuring truth in advertising. And third, citizens have to be empowered in their decisions about drugs. Doctors have a role in all this, but let’s not give them all the power.

A drug policy with these ingredients would decimate the black market for drugs and take out of the hands of drug lords the $50 billion to $60 billion in profits they earn each year. The nation would gain billions of dollars in law enforcement savings and tax revenues, which could then be used to treat America’s most serious problem: the miserable life prospects of millions of poor, undereducated Americans growing up in decaying, crime-ridden inner cities.

The only respectable argument against such a policy is that it would result in a substantial increase in drug use. We don’t see why. All the evidence, as well as common sense, indicates that the vast majority of Americans don’t need drug-prohibition laws to keep from becoming junkies. Some African American leaders, like Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, cry genocide, but they forget that drug prohibition has already proved a failure and a disaster in urban ghettos. Other Americans ask, “What about our children?” but they forget that virtually any kid —– in any city, town or suburb –— who wants to try drugs can find them easily enough right now. And still others say, “What about the message it would send?” but they forget that our current response —– inane anti-drug efforts like “Just Say No” and “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” along with our incredibly cruel laws, send far worse messages: that kids are stupid, that drug users are less than human and that people who do no harm to others deserve to lose their freedom.

A society cannot long afford to have its laws widely and openly broken. The urge to use some form of mind-altering substance is deeply ingrained in human nature. Attempting to legislate it out of existence can only lead us to grant government the kind of power it should not have in a free society. The drug laws in this country are outdated. The arguments against decriminalization are tired and invalid. Our fear that it would result in a massive wave of new addicts is unfounded. The institution of common-sense harm-reduction proposals would eliminate much of the inner-city violence associated with competitive drug dealing and allow billions of dollars to be rechanneled for economic assistance for job training, day care and better schools.

In the inner cities, where the frontline battles of the drug war are waged daily, the situation is desperate. The disintegration of the family structure, the dire job outlook, inadequate education and government abandonment have created communities where the drug trade is guaranteed to flourish. Drug prohibition has created a permanent underclass of unemployable inner-city youths whose lives have become hopelessly interwoven with drug crime and who in turn are becoming parents to another generation of dysfunctional children. Can we let this damage continue? Isn’t it time to stop moralizing about drugs and put an end to policies that are destroying the nation?

In This Article: Coverwall, War on Drugs


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