War on Drugs not having intended resultsDec 15th, 2009 | By Zach | Category: Columns, From the Archives, Opinions
by Zach Becker
It is time to declare a ceasefire. The war on drugs is a classic case of the solution being a bigger problem than the problem itself.
Now, before you attack me, let me state that I have never tried nor ever intend to try any drugs. This is not the ranting of some pot or crackhead. I would heartily recommend all people stay away from drugs.
This issue must be examined logically, though. We had 7.3 million people in our correctional system in 2007. That is 1 in 31 adults. That is triple the number of people in the system back in 1982. During that time frame, our nation has redoubled its efforts in the war on drugs.
We’ve gotten tough on crime, as politicians like to say, and now dole out longer, mandatory sentences for drug crimes. Federal mandatory sentencing guidelines set out by Congress in 1986 and 1988 take away the discretion of judges to decide what punishment is best suited for a particular drug offender based on the facts of a case.
Instead, federal judges are given concrete rules that determine the length of an offenders sentence based on the amount of drug sold and whether or not a firearm was involved. Some might deserve longer sentences, but many non-violent offenders could better served by being sent into drug rehab. Our prisons are overflowing, yet instead of addressing the problem, we continue to send non-violent drug offenders into their ranks.
If the goal is to lock as many people up as possible, then the war on drugs has been a total success. We account for 25 percent of the world’s prison population, yet only have five percent of the total world population. If the goal is to rehabilitate offenders and successfully re-integrate them into society, then the war on drugs is an unmitigated failure. A 1994 study shows that 67 percent of drug offenders are arrested again within three years of release from prison, up from 50 percent in 1983. We’ve got a revolving door of drug offenders coming in and out of prison.
The problem stretches beyond the United States. We serve as the goal line for a multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade that makes its way up from South and Central America and goes right to the heart of our cities, leaving behind it a wake of death and destruction at the hands of powerful drug lords.
Now, let’s imagine what would happen if we decided to legalize all drugs and treat them like we do cigarettes and alcohol (meaning regulating their manufacture, publicizing their dangerous side effects, restricting their use for certain activities like driving, and not allowing them to be sold to or used by those under 18).
Suddenly, these dangerous drugs are widely available at your local supermarket. Cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana are now sitting at your local drugstore in a locked case next to the cigarettes and beer.
The cost of these products will inevitably be cheaper than those purchased on the street. Almost overnight, the drug trade will disappear. The pot of gold waiting in the United States for Colombian drug lords will be gone, as will much of their power. The neighborhood meth lab ready to explode at any minute and take half the neighborhood with it will be gone, too.
The supply will be safety tested, eliminating contaminants common in illegally manufactured drugs. Drug users can cheaply buy clean needles to use in their habit, slowing the spread of HIV and other illnesses. The drugs will be taxed, creating a new revenue stream for local and state governments. I don’t want people using drugs, but they will anyway. At least now they could do so more safely.
The prison population would drop significantly, freeing up taxpayer resources. Non-violent drug offenders could be sent home or to rehabilitation facilities. Violent crimes would go down, as affordable drugs would eliminate the need for users to commit many of their money-related crimes.
What would we be left with in the wake of legalizing drugs? One huge drug problem, just like we have now. The difference is that our method of dealing with it would not cost billions of dollars and would not overflow our prison system.
Look at alcohol. We tried making that illegal. We ended up with many of the problems we are facing now with drugs; illegal manufacture and use and increased burden on the correctional system.
Instead, we legalized it and brought it out into the open. Many people still have an alcohol problem in this country, yet I think our current solution is better than making its use illegal.
Today we have support groups and rehab clinics ready to help alcohol abusers. With all the money we will save on prisons, we can increase our rehabilitation efforts for drug users. Make these open and free for anyone who is ready to get help.
Some might argue that by making drugs readily available, we will encourage more people to use them. However, cigarettes are widely available, but their use has been on a downturn for years through civic education about its risks. Per capita alcohol consumption has been going down since the 1980s. Legalizing drugs will eliminate the appeal of them for some people drawn to things forbidden, while education about these drugs at the point of purchase will increase public awareness about the danger involved.
We spent over $13 billion combating drugs in 2008. Throwing more money at law enforcement is not going to solve this problem. We need to stand down and try a new strategy focused not on locking people up for using drugs, but rather treating people who have this problem.
A solution that causes more problems than it solves is no solution at all. End the war on drugs.