Forty years ago, President Nixon used the unfortunate phrase “War on Drugs,” launching a misguided crusade that has encouraged street violence, eaten away at state budgets and packed our prisons with non-violent offenders. The nation’s punitive approach to drugs has turned us into a penal colony. We lock up more of our citizens per capita than brutal dictators like Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro.
There’s an old saying about seeing the opportunity in a crisis. Perhaps the multiple crises caused by the Great Recession — which has bled state and local treasuries and swelled the federal deficit — will prompt lawmakers to end this futile era of prohibition, which has been costly far beyond the money spent.
Much of the social cost has been borne by black men, who use illegal drugs at rates about equal to whites but are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last year. That’s because lazy tactics encourage local police officers to focus on penny-ante street dealers to plump up their arrest records.
That practice can have tragic consequences, as it did in 2006, when Atlanta police fraudulently targeted the home of an innocent elderly woman, Kathryn Johnston, and shot her dead. More often, those tactics yield less dramatic but equally tragic results: Prison has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-violent black men, ripping them from their families and neighborhoods, rendering them unemployable and, therefore, un-marriageable. Currently, more than 10 percent of all black males ages 25 to 39 are in prison or jail.
(Any offender, black, white or brown, who murders, rapes or maims deserves to stay under lock-and-key. But the streets are not made safer when we put non-violent offenders in prison for selling or possessing small quantities of illegal drugs.)
If you prefer a cool-headed focus on finances, though, that, too, shows wasted resources. Counting local, state and federal spending, the nation fights this losing war at an annual cost of more than $40 billion. Attorney General Eric Holder implicitly acknowledged those costs when he announced recently that the feds, with “limited resources,” would no longer punish users of medical marijuana, as long as they follow state laws.
That was a perfectly sensible move, though a modest one. Holder followed up with highly publicized raids in several U.S. cities, including Greater Atlanta, on a Mexican drug cartel. The message? The Obama administration may not call it a war, but they will employ the same tactics to halt the savagery of drug thugs.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has no choice but to target violent cartels. However, the violence associated with the drug trade is fueled by the illegality of the product, just as it was during Prohibition. Al Capone wreaked havoc in Chicago, all the while making millions (way back then) from the sale of illegal alcohol. When the 18th Amendment was repealed, the violence dropped off precipitously. If customers can buy their intoxicant legally, gangsters have little reason to get in the business.
Most lawmakers are too cautious to advocate de-criminalizing all narcotics, and that’s probably just as well. Methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are highly addictive substances that should be regarded with due caution. But there is every reason for local and federal law enforcement authorities to target only big-time dealers, measured not by ounces or bags but monetary value. Anybody caught with less than a thousand dollars worth of coke is not even a court jester, much less a drug kingpin.
California, meanwhile — so often the cutting edge — is considering legalizing marijuana outright and taxing its sale. If the state succeeds — if it can find a new revenue stream from legal marijuana sales without obvious collateral damage — other states will certainly want to do the same. This era of prohibition could end one state at a time.