Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 5, 2009: "Ending the drug war insanity"

The United States is losing this war. The reasons are endlessly debated and strategies are constantly changing but to little effect. Most everyone agrees the war began with unrealistic objectives and too few resources. Now it seems like a swamp that sucks in whatever is thrown into it and there is no end to the conflict in sight.

I am not talking about the war in Iraq or the “war on terror”. I am talking about the “war on drugs”. This war has been going on about as long as I can remember. First declared by President Nixon, it has been carried on and expanded by all his successors and all fifty states at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. No one would describe it as being even remotely successful.

We are in a time when there is broad awareness that a lot of things we have been doing as a society and even as a planet just aren’t working. The word “crisis” often shows up in multiple stories in any day’s news summary: energy crisis, environmental crisis, credit crisis, etc. While distressing to live through, such times historically are also times of opportunity for needed change and fixing things that are broken. Reports from a number of quarters, domestic and international, point to an emerging consensus that the drug war is broken beyond repair.

I won’t bore you with a lot of statistics since most of us are aware of the basic facts. Rates of drug use have changed little, if at all, over the past 40 years. At the same time, studies show that the street price of drugs has generally declined (indicating increased availability since demand has not changed) and the quality of product has improved. Occasional well-publicized drug seizures are drops in the bucket compared to the constant flood of drug supply.

The passage of mandatory sentencing laws also has had little affect except to strain prisons to the breaking point. Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) recently launched a new effort for a top-to-bottom reform of our criminal justice system. With
rare political courage, Sen. Web is trying to force his colleagues and the country to ask embarrassing and painful questions. Here is an excerpt from his speech proposing a new prison reform commission:

Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .

Webb goes on to note that since 1980 the prison population of drug offenders has gone from 41,000 to over 500,000, an increase of %1200. Over half of federal incarcerations are for drug offenses. It is also obvious that these prosecutions are grossly inequitable. Again, Sen. Webb:

[T]here are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison . . . .

No one denies the devastating effect of drug abuse. Yet nearly everyone involved with the issue agrees that it is much better dealt with as a public health issue than a criminal one. And the exploding costs of the legal drug offensive now clearly show that this ineffective cure is worse than the disease. The ever-increasing but never sufficient monetary costs for law enforcement are bad enough. The social costs, however, are staggering.

Again, the list is familiar and nearly endless. In this area, the drug war is like Prohibition on steroids. The money being made by professional criminals exceeds anything the gangsters of the 1920s ever dreamed of. In addition, the corrupting anti-drug efforts of advanced countries have ricocheted around the globe, ensnaring whole governments in some cases. Most recently we have watched in horror the reports of murder and torture in Mexico as drug cartels, equipped like small armies, battle for power. Inevitably this struggle has begun to spill across our border. Secretary of State Clinton, however, correctly apologized to Mexico saying the real spill-over has been our failed drug policy into their society.

The parallels with Prohibition are becoming so obvious they can no longer be ignored. Adopted in a sincere yet na├»ve attempt to improve society, the nation’s experiment with banning booze ran into the simple fact that a whole lot of people liked to drink. Soon the “speakeasy” became a national institution—as did organized crime. Today, alcohol abuse continues but at no worse a rate than before. It’s recognized as a condition needing diagnosis and treatment, not prosecution and incarceration.

Many people, of course, see drugs as more dangerous and “evil” than alcohol. The term “drugs” covers a broad waterfront, however. For the vast majority of users—including those imprisoned—the drug of choice is marijuana, which few experts now argue is intrinsically any more dangerous than alcohol. The belief that it leads to use of “harder” drugs is also debatable. But the larger issue is that, regardless of the danger of this or that drug, using law enforcement to battle what is really a public health problem has been an unmitigated disaster.

Advocates of drug decriminalization are increasing, even among law enforcement officials. Financially strapped states are being forced to re-examine their policies as they run out of money for new prisons or even to operate the ones they already have. Small countries that have already taken this route—most notably The Netherlands but also Portugal—now have years of positive experience to give support for such a move.

It‘s time for a serious national conversation on drugs and drug policy. We can no longer hide behind politics and moralizing. We need to talk about real people and our society as it actually exists, about the real effectiveness of current policies, and about their real costs both in terms of dollars and their impact on people’s lives and on society as a whole. A popular phrase from the world of psychology is being used in a lot of places these days and it applies here as well: Insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. With the “war on drugs” it’s time to stop the insanity.

It’s always been easy to demonize criminals and the imprisoned. Most of us are aware, however, that justice is often based more on one’s ability to pay for a good lawyer and that our jails and prisons are living nightmares of violence and sexual abuse. This situation continues, at least in part, because few of us ever experience it first-hand. How different it might be if we took seriously Jesus’ “Judgment Day” vision that one basis for separating the righteous from the unrighteous is whether or not they visited “the least of these” in prison. And in this “Holy Week” when we focus on the cross, the central mystery of our faith, we must certainly be aware that trials and convictions do not always produce justice and being labeled “a criminal” is never the full measure of any person.

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