The “war on drugs” is a losing battle.
Our former governor touched a third-rail when he took a stance in favor of the legalization of marijuana back in the 90s. Now it appears he is to run in the presidential Republican primary in 2012 (by the way, why not for Bigaman’s vacated senatorial seat, Gary?).
After $1 trillion spent on the “War on Drugs,” even the United States drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes that, “in the grand scheme, it has not been successful.”
Meanwhile, with 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
In a recent report, the Associated Press assembled some pretty grim statistics. Here are just a few. The federal government has evidently spent $33 billion in various antidrug messages and prevention programs. But high-school students continue to use illegal drugs at the same rate as in 1970, and drug overdoses have risen steadily since then.
Some 37 million nonviolent drug offenders – about 10 million of them using marijuana – have been arrested, at a cost of $121 billion; jail time, research shows, tends to increase drug abuse. Another $450 billion has been spent on locking these people up in federal prisons alone.
At some point, it becomes impossible to pretend any longer that government and its law enforcement arm can solve a problem of this nature. This is a job for families and local institutions, not a paramilitary police state spearheaded by the DEA.
How are other countries handling the problem?
Since 1976, Holland has pursued a marijuana decriminalization policy in which law enforcement will not harass people in possession of small quantities of the weed. Harder drugs are treated in a similar fashion: As long as the quantities remain within certain limits and the individuals involved commit no other criminal behavior, the laws will not be enforced.
Two decades later, teenage marijuana use in Holland is half the level in the United States. Hard drug use decreased among the same group from 15 percent to 2.5 percent, and the average age of the users of such drugs increased by more than seven years.
Portugal recently introduced an even more sweeping policy, abolishing criminal penalties for possession of previously illegal drugs. Again, the results that critics predicted have not come to pass. Portugal was not overrun by so-called drug tourists, and its drug problem has not been exacerbated. To the contrary, five years after the implementation policy, drug use was down considerably among young people, deaths related to heroin and drugs of similar caliber had been cut in half, and the number of people seeking drug treatment had more than doubled.
Had drug use and deaths increased, critics would have pointed to them as evidence of the failure of the policy.
The number of U.S. drug prisoners has increased twelvefold
Meanwhile, in the United States it has been full steam ahead with the imprisonment strategy. The number of drug prisoners has increased twelvefold since 1980, at a time when the number of people behind bars has only quadrupled.
If we add up the number of people incarcerated for all crimes in England, France, Germany and Japan, we would not reach the number incarcerated in the United States for drug crimes alone.
Within a generation of the beginning of the War on Drugs under Nixon, some 19,000 state and local police officers were pursuing the drug war full time, with another 11,000 engaged in it part time.
Two California congressmen confided to a U.S. judge that every federal agency they could think of was getting extra funding in the name of the war on drugs – not just the Drug Enforcement Administration, the military, and the State Department, but also agencies one would never think of, like the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Land Management.
These agencies, the judge was told, are “addicted to the funding provided by the War on Drugs, and they do not want to give up the money.”
The war on drugs has been counterproductive
The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 43.7 percent of American adults – over 98 million people – admitted to marijuana usage at some point in their lives, with 10 percent having used it in the past year. That’s 22.5 million people. At that time the entire incarcerated population of the United States amounted to about 2.3 million. Since it is impossible, and obviously not desirable, to incarcerate tens of millions more, what on earth are we doing?
As for our neighbor south of the border, the Mexican government has released a database it says covers all murders presumed to have a link to the country’s drug wars in which at least seven different cartels are fighting each other and federal forces deployed in a massive offensive against them that was launched in December 2006.
The number of deaths has risen rapidly since then to total 34,612 through the end of 2010, which was by far the most violent year so far with 15,273 people killed. Reportedly, half of the drug trade from Mexico involves marijuana.
Like the failed prohibition laws on alcohol between 1920 and 1933, the prohibition on marijuana has tragically squandered lives and resources, and has been, in practice, a job-creation policy for criminals and corrupt governments and police forces.
Cut government spending on the war on drugs
House Republicans just unveiled a far-reaching budget proposal for next year and beyond that cuts $5.8 trillion from anticipated spending levels over 10 years, and is likely to provide the framework for both the fiscal and political fights of the next two years.
I haven’t read the budget and don’t know how much of the proposed spending cuts would involve cuts in agencies currently funded to fight “the war on drugs.”
But now would be the prefect time for Congress to put those futile drug war expenditures on the table for budgetary discussion, alongside a strong advocacy for the total legalization of marijuana.
Molitor is a regular columnist for this site. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.