The Drug War Toll Mounts
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
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
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
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 as 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 of 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 before.
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?
by Radley Balko, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.