Imagine a country, a democracy,
with a domestic program that is increasingly costly and socially disruptive. The problem it is supposed to
solve has actually grown worse over
the years -- but neither major political party will talk about changing the
That is a picture of the United
States and its drug policy. By any
rational test the war on drugs, with
its use of the criminal law and harsh
sentences to solve the problem, is a
costly failure. The number of Americans in prison for drug offenses has
multiplied by 10 since 1980, from
41,000 to 458,000. But drugs are more
available than ever, and more young
people are using them.
In the face of this political and
social disaster the Republican and
Democratic parties offer: silence.
Their leaders are evidently afraid
that even discussing different approaches might get them labeled as
soft on drugs.
But the silence is about to be broken. In tandem with the Republican
National Convention starting Monday in Philadelphia, and later with
the Democrats, there will be shadow
conventions that discuss the failed
war on drugs and two other issues
that the major parties have not
solved: campaign finance and the
gap between rich and poor.
Senator John McCain and other
politicians brave enough to break
with their parties' wishes will participate. Senator McCain will be the
keynote speaker tomorrow, talking
about the idea that makes him anathema to so many other Republicans:
ending the scandal of campaign money and influence.
The shadow conventions are the
brainchild of Arianna Huffington, the
columnist and gadfly. She has moved
from the political right toward the
left -- or perhaps to a position of
dislike for all evasive politicians. The
shadow conventions will have participants from all camps.
Representative Tom Campbell of
California, the Republican candidate
for Senate against the incumbent
Dianne Feinstein, will talk about the
failed drug war. So will another Republican brave enough to challenge
the policy, Gov. Gary Johnson of New
Mexico, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Walter Cronkite, the greatly respected former broadcast newsman, has
made a 10-minute video special for
the shadow convention on the cost of
the drug war.
The staggering figure mentioned
above -- that 10 times as many
Americans are in prison for drug
offenses today as in 1980 -- comes
from the Justice Policy Institute in
Washington. It has just issued a report that shows, in fresh ways, some
consequences of the war on drugs.
The 458,000 men and women now in
U.S. prisons on drug charges are
100,000 more than all prisoners in the
European Union, whose population is
100 million more than ours. The annual cost of incarcerating them is $9
Nearly 80 percent of drug arrests
in 1997, the most recent year for
which figures are available, were for
possession. Of those, 44 percent were
for possession of marijuana.
Blacks are overwhelmingly more
likely than whites to be imprisoned
for drug offenses, a study by Human
Rights Watch showed. Just 13 percent of regular drug users in this
country are black, but 62.7 percent of
drug offenders sentenced to prison
are black. Evidently juries and
judges treat offenders less seriously
if they are white.
The Justice Policy Institute report
found that in 1986, 31 out of every
100,000 young people in America
were put in state prisons for drug
offenses. By 1996 the figure had nearly quadrupled, to 122 per 100,000.
The institute studied states with
higher rates of imprisonment for
drug offenses to see whether that had
a deterrent effect. It found, to the
contrary, that states with higher incarceration rates also had higher
rates of drug use.
There are already signs around
the country of unease with the human cost and practical failure of our
drug policy. Perhaps the shadow conventions will move more political
leaders to face the reality recently
stated by The Economist of London:
"That misguided policy has put millions of people behind bars, cost billions, encouraged crime and spread
corruption while failing completely
to reduce drug abuse."
Ralph Nader has chided me for
saying that he has paid little or no
attention as a candidate to the civil
liberties record of the major parties.
In fact he has called the Clinton administration's record "abysmal."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company