AUSTIN, Texas — That was quite a remarkable moment that George W. Bush had in Mexico. You may have missed it or even assumed he was just pointing out the obvious again, but consider the implications of the president of the United States saying in Mexico, "One of the reasons why drugs are shipped, the main reason why drugs are shipped through Mexico to the United States, is because United States citizens use drugs." And that's not the first time that Bush has pointed out that our problem is not supply but demand.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that Bush has thought through the policy implications of his statement. Policy does not, actually, interest him much.
And it is also possible that he's suffering from cognitive dissonance on the subject, a disconnect common to politicians of all stripes. But the futility of the War on Drugs is apparent to everyone except politicians terrified of the dread accusation "Soft On Drugs."
The sad history of efforts to eradicate drug use in this country is pockmarked with recurring waves of hysteria, usually involving the association of some drug with some minority group. The Chinese and their opium dens, Mexicans and marijuana, blacks and crack — we literally scare ourselves silly, getting so scared of the menace of drugs that we react stupidly. That politicians feed our fears, milk them for electoral advantage, is another part of the sad pattern.
At the very least, I think we can expect Bush to support scrapping the annoying and presumptuous process of certification — our annual passing of judgment on Mexico's anti-drug efforts. At best, Bush may see the real political opportunity here.
The cost of the War on Drugs, both in lives and dollars, is staggering. And people know it isn't working. The first party to stand up and say so will get a real political windfall.
Bill Clinton, on his way out of office, told Rolling Stone magazine that he supports decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and an end to the disparity of sentences for crack use vs. cocaine use. Of course, it wasn't terribly helpful of him to say this on his way out the door. NOW he questions mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
But it is possible for practicing politicians to take these stands as well. The Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, is famous for his crusade against draconian drug laws.
The terrific new film "Traffic" underscores the futility of the War on Drugs. We have a million people in prison on drug charges — more than the entire prison population of Western Europe. Federal spending has increased from $1 billion in 1980 to $20 billion on the drug war last year, and the states spend even more.
Yet drugs are as available as ever. Both cocaine and heroin have gotten cheaper and purer during the past 20 years. This is not working.
The bad news is that Attorney General John Ashcroft has a terrible record in this area. He is a noted practitioner of the Git Tough school of political pandering. When he was in the Senate, Ashcroft denounced the idea of spending money on drug treatment as a trick to take money away from the War on Drugs.
According to "Drug War Facts," compiled by Kendra Wright and Paul Lewin, 55 percent of all federal drug defendants are low-level offenders, such as mules or street dealers. Only 11 percent are classified as high-level dealers. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, the Bureau of Prisons' budget has increased by 1,350 percent — from $220 million in 1986 to about $3.19 billion in 1997.
One of the most outrageous aspects of this is the seizure of property. During a 10-month national survey, it was discovered that 80 percent of the people who had property forfeited were never charged with a crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is legal to take property from an owner who had no knowledge of its illegal use. There is no presumption of innocence, no right to an attorney and no objection to hearsay. The burden of proof of innocence is on the property owner.
For all the money, time and hysteria spent on the problem of illegal drugs, all illegal drugs combined kill about 4,500 Americans a year — 1 percent of the number killed by alcohol and tobacco. Rehabilitation is not only much cheaper than prison but also more effective in reducing drug use.
Powder cocaine and crack cocaine are two forms of the same drug with exactly the same active ingredient. The average sentence for low-level and first-time offenders for trafficking crack is 10 years and six months; that's 59 percent longer than the average sentence for rapists.
So we are looking at a colossal, stupefying, incredibly expensive failure. Don't you think it's high time that we stopped pouring good money after bad?