Toward a Sane National Drug Policy
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.