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U.S. Should Concede Defeat in the War on Drugs
Published on Tuesday, September 24, 2002 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
U.S. Should Concede Defeat in the War on Drugs
by Tom Brazaitis

One war at a time is enough, don't you think?

With President George W. Bush hell-bent on waging war against terrorism, isn't it about time he surrendered gracefully in the war on drugs? It isn't his war to begin with. President Nixon declared war on drugs 30 years ago. It proved useful politically in his landslide re-election over Democrat George McGovern, but it has been a losing battle ever since.

The federal budget for the war in 1972 was roughly $101 million. In that same year, the average monthly Social Security check was $177.

Now, the federal government is spending almost $20 billion a year on the drug war. To put the increase in context, if Social Security had grown at the same rate the average monthly check today would be more than $35,000.

And what are we getting for our money?

Foreign production of illegal drugs has increased, not decreased, despite billions spent on trying to cut off the flow at the source.

Despite more billions lavished on border security, customs officials admit they stop less than 20 percent of drugs coming into this country. Even if authorities could cut off the overseas supply, domestic suppliers would fill the gap.

The supply of drugs is so plentiful that today's marijuana, cocaine and heroin are of higher quality and selling for lower prices than ever.

As for demand, didn't Prohibition teach us that no amount of laws and policing can control what people consume privately?

Millions of young people in the United States have criminal records because they grew or used or simply possessed a prohibited drug. They got caught. The president wouldn't be president if he had been caught in his reckless youth. He'd be just another ex-con.

Now, the president's niece, the daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, faces the stigma of a criminal record. You'd think these personal encounters with the foolishness of treating drug use as a crime rather than a medical issue would have an impact on how the Bush brothers shape drug policy. But no.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded that the drug war has been a flop. But Bush never has paid much attention to science. Consider that he ignores the abundant scientific evidence on global warming.

A sign of just how far out of control the drug war has wandered came last week in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the mayor, a half-dozen city council members and three former mayors joined an estimated 1,000 citizens to defy the Drug Enforcement Administration by distributing cannabis products in the courtyard of City Hall.

California voters have twice voted to make marijuana legal for use in alleviating the symptoms of serious illnesses. Again, the National Academy of Sciences supports the idea that marijuana works to lessen nausea and other side effects in cancer patients and others.

The open display of defiance by Santa Cruz officials came two weeks after the DEA raided the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, destroyed the group's 2002 marijuana crop and arrested the operators.

I happened to be in California last week, 75 miles from where the insurrection occurred, and I spoke with Joe McNamara, a former police chief who has campaigned against the drug war since retiring from active police duty.

McNamara, who served with the New York City Police Department and as police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif., now is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he writes and lectures on the damage caused by criminalizing drugs.

The drug war has been far more harmful to America than the drugs themselves ever were or could be, McNamara says. In fact, he says, the political leadership's obsession with combating drugs may have been a factor in our vulnerability to terrorists on Sept. 11. "In budget requests made four months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI asked for only eight additional agents to combat terrorism — a meager increase that follows the agency's paltry 2 percent manpower growth over the past two years," McNamara wrote in the Winter 2001 edition of the trade journal Regulation.

"The Drug Enforcement Agency, on the other hand, has enjoyed a 26 percent increase in personnel. It is worth pondering whether the Sept. 11 attacks would have occurred if Congress had increased FBI anti-terrorism resources by 26 percent instead of DEA resources."

Isn't it about time we pursued an honorable peace in this dishonorable war?

Brazaitis is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Distributed by Newhouse News Service.


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