A week from today, the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia will focus on one issue we know won't be discussed at the Republican and Democratic conventions: the nation's failed drug war.
The presidential candidates will say as little as possible about drugs during this year's campaign. And if they do say anything, we can predict what it will be: lots of talk about getting tougher on drugs, and on the countries where drugs are produced, and on the people who buy and sell them, and perhaps a little lip service to the need for more "treatment" - as long as it's "tough."
My feeling is: Give us a break! We've been hearing this talk for decades, yet most illegal drugs are cheaper and more available than they've been in decades, if not ever. Marijuana, LSD and heroin. Cocaine, and then crack cocaine. Now methamphetamine, Ecstasy and the "date-rape" drugs - one after another, with more to come. They say there are two things you can count on in life: death and taxes. Let me add two more: that human beings will use drugs, and that politicians will promise to get tough on them.
Most drug warriors don't try too hard to define success or failure in the drug war. Better to keep one's options open. If drug seizures are up, pile 'em up and call a press conference. If drug production in Bolivia or Peru is down this year, declare victory (and forget that production's soaring in Colombia). If drug arrests are up, that must be good - after all, the law is the law. If they're down, that must be good, too. Maybe fewer people are using drugs - or maybe not?
It's all a political shell game, with lookouts watching warily for any rational thinkers who might spill the beans.
But there is one criterion that keeps popping up year after year: the number of Americans, especially teenagers, who confess to a pollster that they used one drug or another in the last week, or month, or year. On this basis, drug warriors often point to the 1980s as a time in which the drug war really worked. The number of illicit drug users peaked around 1980, then fell more than 50 percent over the next 12 years.
But there's another way to view the last two decades of drug policy. Consider that in 1980, no one had ever heard of the cheap, smokable form of cocaine called crack, or drug-related HIV infection or AIDS. By the 1990s, these novelties had reached epidemic proportions in American cities.
In 1980, the federal budget for drug control was about $1 billion, and state and local budgets were perhaps two or three times that. Now the federal drug-control budget has ballooned to almost $20 billion, two-thirds of it for law-enforcement agencies, and state and local expenditures on drug enforcement are even greater. On any day in 1980, approximately 50,000 people were behind bars for violations involving the drug laws. Now the number is approaching 500,000. That's more than Europe (with a bigger population than the United States) incarcerates for everything.
What's needed today is a new bottom line for evaluating the success or failure of our drug policies - one that focuses on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and our prohibitionist policies. Sure, it's interesting, and not unimportant, to know whether the number of teenagers smoking marijuana went up or down last year. But what's more important is whether drug-related deaths went up or down; whether overdose fatalities went up or down; whether new HIV and hepatitis infections went up or down; whether new incarcerations of nonviolent drug offenders went up or down; whether we spent more or less money on prisons instead of education.
Let me state the proposition even more bluntly: If marijuana or Ecstasy use goes up next year, but overdose deaths drop, new HIV infections drop, and the number of nonviolent drug offenders incarcerated drop - that's real progress. And if marijuana or Ecstasy use go down next year, but total drug-related death, disease, crime and suffering go up - that's failure. Of course we'd prefer that all of these dropped, but given a choice, we need to make priorities.
There are now millions of Americans with a mother or father, brother or sister, or son or daughter behind bars on a drug charge. Millions more have lost family members to drug-related HIV/AIDS, or an overdose, or drug (i.e., prohibition)-related violence, or been arrested for marijuana possession, or had their property seized by overzealous police agencies, or otherwise been victimized by the drug war. When the Shadow Convention (at the Annenberg Center) focuses on drug policy a week from today, it will be to give voice to these Americans.
And to impress on our political leadership the need for a new bottom line - one based on common sense, science, public health and human rights.
Ethan A. Nadelmann is executive director of The Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation (www.drugpolicy.org).