The United States' so-called war on drugs brings to mind the old saying that if you find yourself trapped in a deep hole, stop digging. Yet, last week, the Senate approved an aid package to combat drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America, with a record $400 million going to Mexico and $65 million to Central America.
The United States has been spending $69 billion a year worldwide for the last 40 years, for a total of $2.5 trillion, on drug prohibition -- with little to show for it. Is anyone actually benefiting from this war? Six groups come to mind.
The first group are the drug lords in nations such as Colombia, Afghanistan and Mexico, as well as those in the United States. They are making billions of dollars every year -- tax free.
The second group are the street gangs that infest many of our cities and neighborhoods, whose main source of income is the sale of illegal drugs.
Third are those people in government who are paid well to fight the first two groups. Their powers and bureaucratic fiefdoms grow larger with each tax dollar spent to fund this massive program that has been proved not to work.
Fourth are the politicians who get elected and reelected by talking tough -- not smart, just tough -- about drugs and crime. But the tougher we get in prosecuting nonviolent drug crimes, the softer we get in the prosecution of everything else because of the limited resources to fund the criminal justice system.
The fifth group are people who make money from increased crime. They include those who build prisons and those who staff them. The prison guards union is one of the strongest lobbying groups in California today, and its ranks continue to grow.
And last are the terrorist groups worldwide that are principally financed by the sale of illegal drugs.
Who are the losers in this war? Literally everyone else, especially our children.
Today, there are more drugs on our streets at cheaper prices than ever before. There are more than 1.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., and a large percentage of them for nonviolent drug usage. Under our failed drug policy, it is easier for young people to obtain illegal drugs than a six-pack of beer. Why? Because the sellers of illegal drugs don't ask kids for IDs. As soon as we outlaw a substance, we abandon our ability to regulate and control the marketing of that substance.
After we came to our senses and repealed alcohol prohibition, homicides dropped by 60% and continued to decline until World War II. Today's murder rates would likely again plummet if we ended drug prohibition.
So what is the answer? Start by removing criminal penalties for marijuana, just as we did for alcohol. If we were to do this, according to state budget figures, California alone would save more than $1 billion annually, which we now spend in a futile effort to eradicate marijuana use and to jail nonviolent users. Is it any wonder that marijuana has become the largest cash crop in California?
We could generate billions of dollars by taxing the stuff, just as we do with tobacco and alcohol.
We should also reclassify most Schedule I drugs (drugs that the federal government alleges have no medicinal value, including marijuana and heroin) as Schedule II drugs (which require a prescription), with the government regulating their production, overseeing their potency, controlling their distribution and allowing licensed professionals (physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc.) to prescribe them. This course of action would acknowledge that medical issues, such as drug addiction, are best left under the supervision of medical doctors instead of police officers.
The mission of the criminal justice system should always be to protect us from one another and not from ourselves. That means that drug users who drive a motor vehicle or commit other crimes while under the influence of these drugs would continue to be held criminally responsible for their actions, with strict penalties. But that said, the system should not be used to protect us from ourselves.
Ending drug prohibition, taxing and regulating drugs and spending tax dollars to treat addiction and dependency are the approaches that many of the world's industrialized countries are taking. Those approaches are ones that work.
David W. Fleming, a lawyer, is the chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation and immediate past chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court.
© 2008 The Los Angeles Times