Examining the Drug War

The Denver Post has begun a new series examining the drug war . Adam Brickner, director of Denver's Office of Drug Strategy, argues that substance abuse prevention must be the top priority:

Substance abuse and addiction not only cause significant harm to Colorado families, but also carry a hefty price tag for our community. Colorado loses roughly $4.4 billion annually and Denver loses $1.5 billion annually in productivity, medical costs and criminal justice costs, in addition to the incalculable toll in human suffering.

University of Denver law professor Robert Hardaway says we are stuck in a quagmire:

Every year, more than 400,000 Americans die as the result of tobacco use. Alcohol abuse results in the deaths of another 110,640 Americans, including 16,653 alcohol-related traffic deaths. Alcohol is a major factor in more than half of all homicides and rapes, 62 percent of assaults, and 30 percent of suicides. According to the Cato Institute, based on deaths per 100,000 users, "tobacco kills 650, alcohol 150, heroin 80, and cocaine 4." If an observer from another planet - say, Mars - were to analyze these statistics, he might be surprised to learn that out of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, only the others are criminalized in the United States.

Even more preposterous, says Hardaway, are the financial and other costs of the drug war:

  • The expenditure of more than $80 billion annually to arrest and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of citizens, using large chunks of America's scarce jail capacity and necessitating the early release of murderers, rapists and child molesters.
  • The imposition of thousands of raids, searches and wiretaps on American citizens;
  • The forfeiture of billions of dollars of potential tax revenues to organized crime;
  • The commission of more than one-fifth of all property crime in the United States, amounting to billions of dollars annually, by addicts seeking money for drugs made artificially expensive by criminalization;
  • The corruption and undermining of our political system, particularly at the local level.

As for tangible results, Hardaway notes they are sorely lacking:

while such efforts have indeed reduced drug imports by 5 percent, this modest "success" has perversely done nothing more than raise the price of drugs, increase the profit margin to drug dealers, and thereby send a signal to the drug producers to produce more drugs - with the result that the number of drug users has risen dramatically since the war on drugs was launched.

Hardaway's column is a must read. He delves into the history of criminalization and prohibition and examines decriminalization. He notes that drug use increased after criminalization took effect. It even saved the mob from extinction. And he aptly notes:

One can only imagine how the billions spent on incarcerating people for minor drug offenses might be used to rehabilitate, educate and treat drug victims.

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