Commentary

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 coverage.

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 political office.

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 policy.

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?

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.