The Failure of the War on Drugs

Providence, Rhode Island columnist Froma Harrop today exposes some of the statistics from the War on Drugs, calling it a failure:

Since it started in 1970, American law enforcement has arrested 38 million people for nonviolent drug offenses, nearly 2 million last year alone. The number of people jailed for violent crimes has risen 300 percent, but the prison population of nonviolent drug offenders has soared 2,558 percent.

The culprit, as Harrop says, is mandatory minimum sentences. [More...]

The insanity continues under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. During the Clinton era, more people were arrested for nonviolent drug offenses than in all the previous years of the war combined. And despite his past, Bush has shown no mercy, not even for high-school kids caught smoking pot behind the bleachers. One of the silliest spectacles of his administration was federal agents raiding the backyards of cancer patients growing medical marijuana, as permitted by California law.

At least Clinton, when he met with bloggers in 2006, acknowledged his regret for having so many mandatory minimum laws enacted during his Presidency and criticized America's over-incarcerating ways. As I wrote then,

We also talked about America's criminal justice system, how politicians are too afraid to do what's right, about the over-jailing of offenders, particularly those with minor drug offenses, about mandatory minimum sentences and how they haven't worked or promoted fairness. He said former offenders should regain the right to vote.

The primary blame for mandatory minimums goes to Ronald Reagan, although it was Richard Nixon who officially initiated the War on Drugs:

1971- US president Richard Nixon initiates the full-blown policy of War On Drugs, declaring drug use to be 'Public Enemy Number One'. The stance adopted by the Nixon regime takes US drug policy to an even more aggressive level, and fully committing the country for the foreseeable future to a law-enforcement solution to the problems associated with drugs. US policy has yet to emerge from this project, and continues to deploy its influence, economic, diplomatic and military in discouraging other UN countries from adopting any alternative approaches.

One more stat from Harrop: Cocaine was 40% cheaper in 1970.

Some good news is:

Revulsion against the War on Drugs is starting to gain momentum. The National Conference of Mayors recently voted to end the conflict, as has the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. Cole wants to embolden politicians to say what everyone knows -- that the war has been a dismal $1 trillion failure. If they do that, he said, "they're not going to lose one more vote than they gain."

I agree with Harrop, there's a way for Hillary or Obama to distinguish themselves here: "Promise a pullback from the War on Drugs."

But, don't hold your breath. I doubt either one is likely to do more than promise to study the problem. Here's what they said at a recent debate about mandatory minimums. If they can't even come out for medical marijuana, they aren't likely to go the distance.

< Immigration Raids Run Amok | Obama Bitten By The Beltway >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    diogenes, (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by roger on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 06:15:09 AM EST
    When the price goes down, you could tax sales to the extent that the price stays the same. Goodbye federal deficit!

    In 1970 the average cost of gasoline was $0.34 (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by JSN on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 08:07:45 AM EST
    per gallon so a 40% increase in the cost of cocaine looks pretty good in comparison to gasoline. As far as I can tell good quality illegal drugs are readily available at reasonable prices so we are not getting a lot of bang for our drug enforcement buck. As a drug court judge said recently "If it does not work try something else."

    The most serious charges with the highest probability of admission to an Iowa prisons are a class C drug felony, a class D drug felony and a class D  DUI felony (they start out as a serious misdemeanor). The probability of admission for a violent crime is rather low. About 90% of the drug charges are for trafficking. There is no mandatory minimum for drug possession in Iowa but the amount of drugs it takes to trigger a trafficking charge is very small. My guess is that maybe 20% of the trafficking charges are really possession charges.

    Most mandatory minimum sentences are for violent crimes with some mandatory minimum drug sentences at the class B and C level. Because there are so many persons admitted for class C drug charges the mandatory minimum drug population is increasing.

    My own view is that only a small minority of these drug prisoners are violent. A study by the DOJ about ten years ago indicated that about 25% of the drug prisoners had violent crimes in their criminal record. I think they lost credibility because they included arrests as well as convictions for violent offenses. My understanding is that only convictions can be considered when a judge does a pre-sentence investigation (that seems sensible to me because someone can be arrested and charged on imaginary evidence). I think the study should be done over giving more detail about how the violence is related to drug activity.

    The money costs don't get enough attention (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:59:42 AM EST
    Ms. Harrop's been on this for a few years. A pity more columnists are not taking the lead she's offering, as there's a gold mine of 'public interest' stories tied in with the prosecution of the DrugWar.

    I have only one beef with this article. Far too many people believe that the insanity began in Tricky Dick's days. Wrong. As difficult as this may be for some to accept, the first Federal War on Drugs was initiated in 1914, not 1970. Yes, 93 years ago. And the first victims of it back then were doctors trying to treat addicts. Fast forward to today, and you find the DEA doing a similar thing, by going after doctors treating intractable pain. Some things just never change...

    Number of addicts (1.00 / 0) (#24)
    by diogenes on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:59:39 PM EST
    By the time people need treatment for addiction, it's almost too late.  Look at Lindsay Lohan whiteknuckling it as her life hangs at the edge.  
    Does anyone here really think that legalizing the possession and sale of crack or methamphetamine will DECREASE the number of addicts?
    Many cautious people like myself would have tried cocaine, meth, and heroin once (as I did with cigarettes) if they were legal and easy to get.  Lots of people have a visceral fear of trouble with the law.

    Their actions say otherwise (none / 0) (#1)
    by Sumner on Sun Nov 25, 2007 at 09:07:39 PM EST
    Our courts and legislatures are packed with torturers whose religion is schadenfreude. They absolutely feel that all their wars are a tremendous success.

    mandatory minimums (none / 0) (#2)
    by diogenes on Sun Nov 25, 2007 at 11:02:36 PM EST
    NY Times recently had a series on how prosecutors don't call witnesses in murder cases in New Jersey to protect the witnesses' lives.  Mandatory minimums for possession is a sure thing to put the bad guys away without jeopardizing witnesses.  Sort of like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion.
    Legalizing drugs would lower the prison population but it would also lower the price and increase the availability of drugs.  Strange how the same people who demand that public smoking of cigarettes be banned and want to raise the price and age limit to decrease use are so sanguine about this.

    Um (none / 0) (#4)
    by scarshapedstar on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 12:36:24 AM EST
    Legalizing drugs would lower the prison population but it would also lower the price and increase the availability of drugs.

    That's like saying that reducing the amount of arsenic in the water supply would help children but it would also help protect adults and pregnant women and kittens, too. There's no readily apparent downside here. Most people use nonaddictive "drugs" (could you please specify which drugs you're talking about here? there's a lot of them, and "the illegal ones" is a spectacularly bad group encompassing a staggering variety of chemicals with one thing in common: somebody in Washington doesn't like the way they make you think and act.) and their right to do so ought to be respected as is their right to use other mind-altering substances (alcohol, anti-depressants, Fox News). And lower prices translates to less money going to drug cartels. Are you saying they need more money? That's certainly a novel view. Got family in Columbia?

    Strange how the same people who demand that public smoking of cigarettes be banned and want to raise the price and age limit to decrease use are so sanguine about this.

    This probably has to do with cigarettes being addictive and killing many, many, many, many, many times more people than all illicit "drugs" combined. It's kind of like you're saying that people who praise Al Gore ought to be ashamed because he and Hitler are both human beings.

    To my knowledge, however, none of these "same people" have suggested anyone receive jail time for smoking cigarettes, which is kind of what this whole thing's about, in case you forgot.


    We need to start by taking marijuana (none / 0) (#8)
    by lilybart on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 08:09:30 AM EST
    off the table. Crack cocaine and heroin and meth are instantly addicting and have no upside.

    Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. First step is to legalize and control marijuana just like we do alcohol.

    This alone will empty the prisons and give law enforcement time and resources to go after the dangerous drugs, but not the users.


    Crack cocaine (5.00 / 0) (#10)
    by scarshapedstar on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:13:38 AM EST
    This alone will empty the prisons and give law enforcement time and resources to go after the dangerous drugs, but not the users.

    I'd like to think you're suggesting we decriminalize possession of addictive drugs, and treat addiction as a medical problem, as we should. But the mention of "the dangerous drugs" sounds like the old, flawed, "okay, we'll end one Prohibition at a time" model.

    Prohibition doesn't work. Period. Doesn't matter how bad you think the stuff is, the costs will always outweigh the perceived benefits.


    Wrong (5.00 / 0) (#27)
    by Gus on Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 04:56:13 PM EST
    I tried meth. Once. Interesting, but wouldn't want it for a steady diet. Nothing, and I mean nothing is instantly addicting. You've absorbed a bit too much propoganda.

    Oh, also (none / 0) (#12)
    by scarshapedstar on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:17:16 AM EST
    I meant to ask why "crack cocaine" is apparently more addictive than powdered cocaine.

    Because it is? (none / 0) (#17)
    by lilybart on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 12:14:40 PM EST
    Cocaine itself may not be instantly addictive. I used to share a gram on saturday nights with the other waiters. If I had some left, I saved it for the following week. I am an addictive personality, but cocaine was not a lure.

    I am torn on cocaine and legalization. And I don't think we will win the decriminalization of all drugs in a few lifetimes. So, I think we could a lot of good by taking marijuana and treating it like alcohol.


    no more so (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Sun Nov 25, 2007 at 11:53:58 PM EST
    than alcohol & tobacco, the two most widely used drugs in the world, diogenes.

    i don't think any rational person would assert that misusing drugs is good for you. that said, in most cases, the worst thing that can happen, as a consequence of illegally using drugs, is that you get arrested, not that you become an addict.

    regulating drugs such as pot, much as alcohol and tobacco are currently regulated, would go a long way to controlling it, and be a heck of a lot cheaper than our prison system.

    continuing education in our schools, using real information, would also influence the level of people using drugs.

    Regrets selling so danm many people down the (none / 0) (#5)
    by Rojas on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 01:32:22 AM EST
    river. Feels thier pain.
    At least Clinton, when he met with bloggers in 2006, acknowledged his regret for having so many mandatory minimum laws enacted during his Presidency and criticized America's over-incarcerating ways.

    Exactly (5.00 / 0) (#28)
    by Gus on Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 04:58:09 PM EST
    I give Clinton no credit for regretting his role in ruining so many lives. I might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he actually does something, but until then, he's just another drug warmonger.

    I don't think it's been a failure at all. (none / 0) (#9)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 08:56:55 AM EST
    I think its whole purpose is analogous to the WOT fantasy.

    It's been stupendously successful at creating more "criminals" to justify spending obscene amounts of money on creating little beaurocratic empires with to "catch" the invented bad guys.  

    It's also gives politicians and self-righteous projecting "moral" failures something to rail about being "at war" against, to show everyone how "good" they are.

    Interesting that every problem they invent and go to war against gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger.... with no end.

    That's the problem. Not the drugs.

    If all you have is a hammer (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by scarshapedstar on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:14:53 AM EST
    Declare a "War on Nails" and then call everything a nail.

    You mean... (5.00 / 0) (#13)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:23:44 AM EST
    Gee (1.00 / 1) (#14)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 09:56:37 AM EST
    Here we had a nice, sociable, enjoyable and educational thread and then, guess what.

    Bush Derangement Syndrome rears its head.


    Any govt. program.... (none / 0) (#18)
    by kdog on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 01:19:58 PM EST
    that is so out of sync with the will of the governed is doomed to perpetual failure.  Be it drug prohibition, alcohol prohibition, morality laws...what have you.

    We the people like to drink, like to get high, and like to fornicate...always have, always will.  Why governments continue to fail to grasp this basic truth is beyond me.

    use of drugs (none / 0) (#19)
    by diogenes on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 02:57:40 PM EST
    Those who are genetically vulnerable to develop drug addictions (which are VERY hard to treat, once entrenched) are more likely to develop them if they start drug use as teens.
    Does anyone here really think that legalizing drugs won't increase teen use?  A lot of teens don't use drugs because they don't want to risk arrest. They drink alcohol instead, partly because it is legal.  Or they use quasi-legal drugs like ritalin or oxycontin.  
    Legalize if you want to, but ask real drug addicts at 12 step meetings-"treatment" is not often successful, it can take many rehabs, and addiction is wickedly hard to stop.  Think about the people on oxygen tanks who still smoke cigarettes.  If you legalize then you'll have less crime and more freedom-and more addiction.  That's what happened with alcohol after prohibition ended.  

    Better for society to have... (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by kdog on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 03:10:41 PM EST
    an addiction problem as opposed to an addiction problem, a crime problem, and a prison population problem all at once, no?

    And as someone not to far out of my teen years, it was easier to get reefer than it was to get alcohol...far easier.  One of the upsides to legalizing and regulating is to make it more difficult for teens to get their hands on the stuff.


    A substantial number of prison inmates (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by JSN on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 03:43:01 PM EST
    have alcohol abuse problems and some of them were intoxicated when they committed the crime they are serving time for. Ending alcohol prohibition eliminated some very serious law enforcement problems but it did not provide a solution to the problems of alcohol abuse.

    Prohibition did eliminate the saloon which I think was probably a good thing. Some people claim it reduced consumption but I have never been convinced that they had the data needed to conclude anything about consumption at that time. Prior to prohibition alcohol consumption was slowly decreasing and after a delay consumption increased after prohibition ended. I have often wondered if the attempt to prohibit alcohol made things worse.



    Prohibition eliminated the saloon?.... (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by kdog on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 03:52:22 PM EST
    I highly doubt that.  All prohibition did was take the sign off the front of the saloon, it did nothing to change what went on inside.

    Saloons were owned by distilleries and breweries. (none / 0) (#23)
    by JSN on Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 05:28:09 PM EST
    They proliferated to the point where the only way to stay in business was to feature gambling, drugs and prostitution. They
    have been eliminated by control of the wholesale sale of alcohol.

    I see now.... (none / 0) (#25)
    by kdog on Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 08:12:26 AM EST
    I took saloon as a synonym for a bar/pub.

    They are far from eliminated though...we've got local wineries with a bar serving their wine.  Off-track betting terminals and keno in some bars.  Not to mention the strip club.  Nothing wrong with free americans patronizing any of these places, imo.


    The breweries and wineries who serve alcohol (none / 0) (#26)
    by JSN on Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 08:50:06 AM EST
    are regulated by their state and the regulations differ from state to state. I recall being served complementary glasses of beer after touring a breweries in Colorado and Wisconsin but I don't think they could make retail sales.

    Wineries may be different although my recollection is that their retail sales are of packaged goods.


    Do you really think (5.00 / 0) (#29)
    by Gus on Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 05:01:10 PM EST
    that a teen who is genetically disposed to addiction who uses Oxycontin isn't going to get addicted? Your "won't somebody please think of the children" arguments aren't rational. The main reason to legalize drugs is that drug prohibition doesn't work. We need to concentrate on harm reduction. Putting people in prison for altering their consciousness doesn't help anyone.