Today’s War On Drugs…Are We Losing The Battle?
From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent
The term ‘war on drugs’ was first used by President Nixon on June 17, 1971. However it was popularised by the proponents of drug decriminalization, or legalization. Nixon’s war referred to policies his Administration instituted as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970). It is worthwhile noting that these policies were really a continuation of the U.S. Drug prohibition policies that had begun in 1914. The war on drugs refers to a mixture of prohibition, foreign military aid and military activities carried out with the assistance (usually) of other nations. Perhaps the most obvious, and easily measurable, result of this ‘war on drugs’ are incarceration rates. In 2008, 1.5 million Americans were arrested on drug offences and 500 000 were imprisoned. And in 2010 the Federal Government spent in excess of $15 billion dollars on the ‘war on drugs’.
By examining some different approaches to drugs that are being employed overseas we are perhaps able to gain a different perspective on ‘the war on drugs’ and ask ourselves if a ‘war’ is the best option available to our Government. Holland is a very popular stopover point for tourists in no small part because of the liberal attitude towards drugs. However, cannabis has never actually been legalized in Holland. In fact it is Portugal’s drug laws that are the most liberal in Europe. In 2001 it became the first European country to abolish criminal penalties for the personal use of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Therapy was offered in the place of jail time. A paper published by an admittedly liberal think tank the Cato Institute includes figures that strongly suggest that the law changes have been effective in combating drug use. For example, between 2001 and 2006 lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh to ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6% and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction doubled. Skeptics argue that these figures may reflect the cyclical nature of drug epidemics. However, author of the paper Glenn Greenwald points out that, contrary to fears raised before the new laws were brought in that Portugal would become a mecca for drug tourists (much like Holland), decriminalization has not resulted in increased drug use and “…that is the central concession that will transform the debate”.
I would argue that the problem with the drug problem is that most of the debate misses the point by ignoring the social implications of the ‘war on drugs’. In this challenging economic environment it is hard to think that the $15 billion dollars spent by the US Federal Government on the ‘war on drugs’ – a rate of $500 every second – could not have been better spent elsewhere. In the context of the social consequences of this war it is sobering to consider that despite the fact that while only about one in seven drug users are black, a staggering 75% of those in prison for drug offences are black. These statistics have led some to suggest that the war on drugs is more of a war on African Americans. And in case you think that figure is a one off, consider the fact that in 2001 violent offenders were sentenced to an average of 63 months in prison, whereas the average drug offender (most of whom were convicted for possession rather than dealing) was sentenced for 76 months. If in fact US authorities are winning the war on drugs it’s pretty clear who the losers are.
It is tempting to suggest that the decision by the Obama administration to stop using the term ‘war on drugs’ signals a change in approach. However despite Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), pointing out the success Sweden has achieved by combining a balanced public health approach and opposition to drug legalization, the war continues unabated. Perhaps the fact that cocaine use in Sweden is one fifth that of the United Kingdom, where drug policy is more similar to that of the United States, doesn’t impress Mr Kerlikowske as much as we might have suspected.
By any statistical measure the ‘war on drugs’, regardless of whether any Administration uses the term or not, can only be regarded as a massive failure. Rates of drug use in the United States remain high, as do incarceration rates (not to mention the taxes that keep these people in prison). In fact, one in six prisoners committed their crimes to get money for drugs. And, if a 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron is correct, legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the economy.
The best argument for drug decriminalization is lower rates of drug use that are seen in many countries with more liberal drug laws than our own. Given that a poll conducted in 2008 found that three out of four Americans believed the war on drugs was a failure it is pretty clear that the war on drugs is largely being fought to appease the conservative lobbyists who hold so much sway in Washington. Would there even be a war on drugs if more actual drug users were in prison, and if 76% of those in prison for drug offences were white?