The Drug War Toll Mounts
by Radley Balko; Cato
In Washington, D.C., a 27-year old quadriplegic is sentenced to
ten days in jail for marijuana possession, where he dies under
suspicious circumstances. In Florida, a wheelchair-bound multiple
sclerosis patient now serves a 25-year prison sentence for using an
out-of-state doctor to obtain pain medication. And in Palestine, Texas,
prosecutors arrest 72 people -- all of them black -- and charge them
with distributing crack cocaine. The scene bears a remarkable
resemblance to a similar mass, mostly-black drug bust in nearby Tulia
five years ago.
These examples aren't exceptional. They're typical. America's
drug war marches on, impervious to efficacy, justice, or absurdity.
Drug prohibition was nowhere to be found in Election 2004. There was no
mention of it in the debates, the conventions, or the endless cable
news campaign coverage.
In some ways, that was a blessing. Campaign discussion of drug
prohibition has too often focused on which candidate took what drugs
when, and who was more sorry for having done so.
While it's refreshing that we've moved beyond apologies, it's
also true that under the laws many of today's politicians support, a
kid who experiments with illicit drugs the same way many of them once
did may not get the chance to finish school or go to college, much less
run for political office.
The number of policymakers who've dared to question any aspect
of the drug war could comfortably fit on the back of a pocket-sized
edition of the Bill of Rights. This needs to change. America should
reexamine its drug policy.
Today, federal and state governments spend between $40 and $60
billion per year to fight the war on drugs, about ten times the amount
spent in 1980 -- and billions more to keep drug felons in jail. The
U.S. now has more than 318,000 people behind bars for drug-related
offenses, more than the total prison populations of the United Kingdom,
France, Germany, Italy, and Spain combined.
Our prison population has increased by 400 percent since 1980,
while the general population has increased just 20 percent. America
also now has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- 732 of
every 100,000 citizens are behind bars.
The drug war has wrought the zero tolerance mindset, asset
forfeiture laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and countless exceptions
to criminal defense and civil liberties protections. Some sociologists
blame it for much of the plight of America's inner cities. Others point
out that it has corrupted law enforcement, just as alcohol prohibition
did in the 1920s.
On peripheral issues like medicinal marijuana and prescription
painkillers, the drug war has treated chronically and terminally ill
patients as junkies, and the doctors who treat them as common pushers.
Drug war accoutrements, such as "no-knock" raids and searches, border
patrols, black market turf wars and crossfire, and international
interdiction efforts, have claimed untold numbers of innocent lives.
For all that sacrifice, are we at least winning?
Even by the government's own standards for success, the answer
is unquestionably "no." The illicit drug trade is estimated to be worth
$50 billion today ($400 billion worldwide), up from $1 billion 25 years
ago. Annual surveys of high school seniors show heroin and marijuana
are as available today than they were in 1975. Deaths from drug
overdoses have doubled in the last 20 years.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the
price of for a gram of heroin has dropped by about 38 percent since
1981, while the purity of that gram has increased six-fold. The price
of cocaine has dropped by 50 percent, while its purity has increased by
70 percent. Just recently, the ONDCP waged a public relations campaign
against increasingly pure forms of marijuana coming in from Canada.
So despite all of the money we've spent and people we've
imprisoned, despite the damage done to our cities and the integrity of
our criminal justice system, despite the restrictions we've allowed on
our civil liberties, despite the innocent lives lost and the needless
suffering we've imposed on sick people and their doctors -- despite all
of this -- the drug trade isn't just thriving, it's growing. Illicit
drugs are cheaper, more abundant, and of purer concentration than ever
Like alcohol prohibition before it, drug prohibition has failed,
by every conceivable measure. Isn't it about time for America to take a
hard look at its drug policy?