July 28, 2005

War on Some Drugs

Earlier this month the Chicago Tribune ran a piece that gave a pretty full airing of the views of critics of US marijuana policy just before the SCOTUS decision allowing the feds to raid state-approved medical marijuana patients. The article discusses the mental health issues, drug arrests rates and statistical trends in drug use. But also interesting was the closing quote by a psychologist who makes a criticism of the drug war I've long felt justified from the anecdotal evidence available to me:

... And last week, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and more than 500 other economists endorsed a report that said state and federal coffers could reap a net gain of $13.9 billion if marijuana were legalized.

The study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that law enforcement would save $7.7 billion, while taxes on the drug could amount to $6.2 billion. Miron's study was largely funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that supports liberalizing marijuana laws.

... Mitch Earleywine, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, believes that the campaign overstates the dangers of marijuana and runs the risk of backfiring among teenagers, who are already skeptical of adults.

"My big worry is that if you tell a 14-year-old that if you smoke pot, you're going to become psychotic, and then he tries it and nothing happens, you lose credibility," said Earleywine, author of "Understanding Marijuana." "So when you tell him that using meth will make your brain smaller, which it absolutely will, he'll think, 'You lied to me about the marijuana, so I think I'm going to smoke this meth.'"

The managing editor of the Journal Enquirer in Manchester wrote this opinion piece stating that the war on drugs was meant to be fought, not won, after listening to a local Superior Court judge speak to a community group:

The judge asserted what can neither be denied nor acknowledged -- that public policy on drugs doesn't work. Speaking from his 15 years of experience on the bench, Scheinblum estimated 90 percent of criminal cases in Connecticut are connected in some way to the pursuit of illegal drugs, and he asserted that society would be far better off to let users of such drugs obtain them by prescription and to be charged for them according to their ability to pay.

... Sensible as this might seem -- after all, despite drug criminalization, illegal drugs are more prevalent than ever; the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, claim so many more lives than illegal drugs; and who really cares how people waste their lives as long as they don't hurt others?-- the judge said any departure from futile drug policy would be blocked by "vested interests." For if drug prohibition crime ended, the judge said, Connecticut wouldn't need as many police, courts, prisons, drug programs and so forth. ...

Today, Rolling Stone has released an article on the state of Bush's war on pot. It's a disheartening catalogue of money wasted, ridiculous mandatory minimums, the futility of drug testing and the disconnection from reality of the people runnning our drug policy:

... By almost any measure, however, the war has been as monumental a failure as the invasion of Iraq. All told, the government sinks an estimated $35 billion a year into the War on Drugs. Yet illegal drugs remain cheap and plentiful, and coca cultivation in the Andes -- where the Bush administration has spent $5.4 billion to eradicate cocaine -- rose twenty-nine percent last year. "Drug prices are at an all-time low, drug purity is at an all-time high, and polls show that drugs are more available than ever," says Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug-reform organization in Washington, D.C. Drug smugglers and South American cocaine growers, he adds, are fast developing new ways to evade U.S. eradication efforts. "All they have to do is double their efforts," he says. "They can adapt more quickly than the government can." ...

The Rolling Stone article also talks about the dramatic increase in prison sentences for simple possession, as well as the reduction in the number of people available to fight the so-called war on drugs. Perhaps the increase in low-level pot busts is occurring for the same reason that the wrath of the drug warriors has turned on doctors who prescribe pain medication: there are a lot of them, they're rarely dangerous and they're relatively easy to find.

In other words, the war on some drugs has turned into a classic bureaucratic boondoggle of exactly the sort that any self-respecting conservative worthy of the name would repudiate at once. It's produced no demonstrable increase in the public good, has become a black hole for taxpayer dollars and is riddled from bottom to top with people whose only function has become justifying the existence of their jobs.

Prisons and schools are now the easiest places to get drugs. The illegal ones are preferred by teenagers as alcohol is effectively off the menu because its legal and well-regulated. Most egregiously, in spite of whites making up the majority (in raw numbers and per capita) of all drug users, the large majority of drug arrests and convictions involve blacks. Indeed, the justice system in this country is the number one remaining vehicle for institutionalized race discrimination.

The only thing to show for decades of prosecuting a war on consensual, pleasure-seeking behavior is a laundry list of failures, increased crime rates, broken homes, skyrocketing prison populations and costs, ruined lives and terrorized communities. It should be a crime to cause this much damage, but unfortunately, it's the law.

Posted by natasha at July 28, 2005 04:17 PM | Civil Liberties | Technorati links |

Let's add in the upcoming federal war on the sale of cold medicine over the counter.

Posted by: Paige at July 28, 2005 07:07 PM

I am not for legalizing any drug just so long as a person does not hurt someone else. The dangers of the more serious drugs are clear. However, a better means of dealing with them must be found.

As for marijuana, its status as an illegal drug makes little sense in the context of tobacco and alcohol being legal, not to mention the countless painkillers that can be obtained via prescription that are far more dangerous and addictive then marijuana.

While it is a fool's dream to believe there is any way tobacco would be made illegal, I think it is reasonable to argue that marijuana should at a minimum be legal as a prescribable drug. Whether it should be available recreationally is open for debate and discussion, but not allowing it for cancer, glaucoma, etc..., is completely devoid of logic.

Posted by: Scott at July 29, 2005 04:52 AM

Perhaps unwittingly, the Republicans put their finger on a great weakness of liberalism and did a little jujitsu. As Scott illustrates, a lot of liberals have a weakness for making laws that "are good for you".

And hey, presto! before liberals even knew what hit them, Afro-Americans were going to jail in astounding numbers for astounding lengths of time, emerging without the right to vote. And Republicans are able to claim with a straight face that the black family is fatally flawed, because so many fathers are missing. Gee, I wonder where they could be?

I've been in the health-care business for 30 years and this coin has two sides- drugs that shouldn't be illegal are, and drugs that should be illegal, aren't. Regulation is like a gun- if you're not willing to make it work properly, you shouldn't be using it at all.

And, IMHO, this is a big reason young people won't vote, Democrat or otherwise. When Joe Lieberman, running for V-P, voted for a bill to make dancing illegal, the Gore ticket lost my vote. I just can't vote for a man who wants to criminalize dancing.

This ain't about some hippy wanting to get stoned- it's about $35 billion that could be spent on schools and clinics. It's about the Republican effort to make America a "failed state" and the Democrats who are helping them do it.

Posted by: serial catowner at July 29, 2005 04:11 PM