More and more conservatives and liberals, from the halls of Congress to people in communities across the country, are agreeing that the so-called “war on drugs” needs serious rethinking.
First, we should define our terms. The “war on drugs” that was started by Richard Nixon in 1971 and persists to this day, refers to illegal “street drugs” – cocaine, heroin, marijuana and variations thereof. It is not used to mean a war on legal pharmaceuticals, whose excessive and often inappropriate prescribing takes over 100,000 lives a year in our country. Ironically, prescription opioids alone took 35,000 lives last year – about equal to traffic fatalities.
The argument to criminalize “street drugs”, and severely punish their sellers and users, is largely based on the assumption that a “tough on crime” approach will reduce addiction and abuse of these dangerous substances. Criminalizing drug use consistently fails to address the health problems of addiction, and drives the drug trade underground where crime, violence and death flourish.
Our country learned this hard lesson firsthand when it prohibited the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920 through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. That led to an underworld of organized crime and illegal undercover stills making “moonshine”, whose victims could hardly go for medical treatment. Considered a failure, the amendment was repealed in 1933 with the 21st Amendment.
This national experiment with prohibition verified the wise observation of the famous dean of the Harvard Law School, Roscoe Pound, who said that there were certain human behaviors that are beyond “the effective limits of legal action.” In short, the law couldn’t stop the addicting alcohol business; it could only drive it underground.
Legalizing the sale and possession of alcohol allowed people suffering from alcoholism to come out of the shadows and find support through thousands of successful chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatment options. Alcoholism is still a problem in our country, but it is out in the open where a rational society can address it.
Nicotine from tobacco products is one of the most addictive drugs that people can ingest. Lawmakers since the days of the Virginia tobacco growers in the 17th century have not prohibited the smoking of tobacco. For generations, smoking cigarettes and cigars was not considered harmful; it was said to help concentrate your mind on your tasks. The mass media perpetuated such false statements through ads that claimed doctors preferred Lucky Strikes because they were “less irritating.”
Then the historic and widely reported US Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 concluded that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis. Over time, accumulating scientific knowledge connecting smoking to lung cancer and a host of other diseases began changing habits.
In 1964 about 44% of American adults smoked regularly; now it is down to 17%. Now smokers cannot indulge on airplanes, buses, trains or in schools, waiting rooms and most office buildings. Had we driven tobacco use underground, organized crime would have claimed the tobacco market and smokers and low-level dealers would have been jailed. If alcohol prohibition taught us the limitations of drug criminalization, efforts to reduce tobacco use have shown what is possible when dangerous products are taxed and regulated and consumers are educated.
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So, what about “street drugs?” The drug trade is tearing Mexico apart. Just in the past few years, over 50,000 people have been slain by the fights between drug cartels and against police, judges, reporters and innocents who just happen to be in the way of the machine guns. Fear, anxiety, outright terror and political corruption grips large regions of our southern neighbor as the cartel’s violently work to meet the black market demand in the US and elsewhere.
Drug dealers in the US fight each other, producing violent crimes and terrorized neighborhoods.
To suppress this drug trade the US is spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars a year. Drug cases are clogging our court dockets and crowding out important cases involving corporate crimes and negligence. Low-level drug offenders continue to receive mandatory minimum sentences; filling our prisons and leading to the expansion of the private prison industry whose lobbyists prefer a status quo that commodifies the ruined lives who sustain their profitable inventory.
For decades, conservatives like William F. Buckley and progressives like the then Mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, have called for decriminalization, or legalization and regulation, of illegal drugs. We don’t jail alcoholics for being alcoholics, or incarcerate people for smoking highly addictive cigarettes. Their addictions are treated openly as afflictions to be treated individually and more broadly through sound public policies.
Despite the many calls for reform, the arch-reactionary Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has recently ordered 5,000 federal assistant US attorneys to charge defendants peddling street drugs, many of whom are addicts themselves, with the most serious crimes and impose the toughest penalties possible.
Not so fast, say a growing group of liberal and conservative members of Congress. From Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to liberal Patrick Leahy (D-VT), lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are joining together to sponsor a bill to end mandatory minimum sentences. Senator Paul said such sentences “disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities” and will worsen the existing “injustice” in the criminal justice system, while Senator Leahy declared that as “an outgrowth of the failed war on drugs, mandatory sentencing strips criminal public-safety resources away from law-enforcement strategies that actually make our communities safer.”
The bipartisan bill, S.1127, is already supported by 37 Senators and 79 members of the House. Both the NAACP and the Koch brothers support this legislation!
We need more open debates about the impact of the “war on drugs.” As Justice Louis Brandeis said years ago – “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
To learn more about the need for drug policy reform, and the history of the failed war on drugs, watch this informative video from the Drug Policy Alliance.