To the Editor:
It seems almost every issue of the Herald includes drug arrests. Is the War on Drugs working? They say “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
In 1920, good intentions got our Constitution amended to prohibit alcohol. Proponents thought Prohibition would eliminate the evils caused by intoxication. Instead we got bootleggers, organized crime syndicates with murder, mayhem, and mass disobedience to the law. The public and politicians came to their senses in 1933 and repealed Prohibition.
Unfortunately in “The United States of Amnesia” lessons are often forgotten. Nixon began the War on Drugs. Until that time, the United States was putting less than 0.2 percent of the population in prison. By 1980 the prison population skyrocketed, quadrupling by 2008, and turning the Land of the Free into the Number One Jailer in the world.
The human misery caused by the War on Drugs exceeds any social ills of drugs themselves. Families are torn apart and lives destroyed by incarceration while the financial burden on individuals, the legal system and taxpayers is enormous.
Note that around 300,000 deaths in the US are caused by obesity. Do we lock people up for eating too much? Should the government be telling people what to do with their bodies?
Note that none of these illicit drugs costs much to make. Marijuana is a “weed”, but the War on Drugs makes a bundle of the stuff worth thousands. Enormous profits induce criminal cartels to use murder and terror. We now have a Prison-Industrial Complex with for-profit prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Our local version reflects the national one.
This week the Herald reports draconian sentences of six and ten years for possessing methamphetamine. Our sentencing laws in general are already barbaric. Imagine if you were told you’d be locked up for one year. Would that seem “light” to you? The Herald recently reported the costs of the new jail, and plans already to expand it. Our sheriff says the county might make a lot of money by housing federal prisoners at $80 per day. That’s over $29,000 per prisoner per year.
And where does that money come from? The taxpayers! The War on Drugs costs US taxpayers around $58 billion per year. Obviously, drug addiction needs to be addressed. But is locking people up for decades the answer? Is creating high profit margins for criminal cartels by making drugs illegal a good idea? Is there a better idea?
In the 1990s the Rand Drug Policy Research Center concluded that treatment was twenty-three times more effective than using law enforcement to try to stop drug supplies.
Twenty years ago Portugal, facing the same failure of its own War on Drugs, heeded that advice. In Portugal possession of all drugs was decriminalized. Users with addiction problems are identified. They don’t hide because they don’t face draconian punishments. Interventions with drug counselors are freely available. Treating people is a lot less expensive than housing people in prisons.
According to a 2009 Cato Institute study the Portuguese experiment has been a success on many levels. In this country it has largely required citizen initiatives to change what politicians refuse to change. If the US is to stop the insanity of the War on Drugs, it will take citizens to speak out and demand change. There are many organizations currently involved in this effort.
I hope the Herald will focus some reporting on those efforts and alternatives to incarceration, rather than simply report the dismal news of more drug arrests and long-term sentences. I also hope local citizens will join in the national effort to end the expensive failure of the War on Drugs.