It Is Time to End the War on Drugs

Judicature, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

It Is Time to End the War on Drugs


An over-reliance on law enforcement and incarceration to address the drug problem has led to seriously adverse consequences not only for public health, but also for the courts and correctional systems.

A three-year-old visits his mom each month for a few hours. She never reads him a story before bed, nor will she help him with homework when he starts school. She mistakenly thought being a drug courier for a few hundred dollars might get him the necessities she could not afford. Mom is in prison. A governor faces the wrath of a federal court that demands he find a way to release 44,000 inmates from a prison system that is so overcrowded that basic medical care and inmate safety can no longer be provided. A trial judge's docket is overwhelmed with drug cases, most of which result hi ieugthy and costly periods of incarceration. All are among the victims of the war on drugs. It is a war that soon will mark its 39-year anniversary. Few public policies have compromised public health and undermined the fair and effective functioning of the justice system for so long. It is time for the war to end and for policymakers to implement new strategies that utilize !united justice system resources in the service of public health and demand reduction.

The war on drugs was declared by President Nixon in June 1971. The metaphor of the war on drugs created the image of a united national effort to defeat an enemy. In times of war, dissent from the mission is unpatriotic and cost is of little concern. Americans don't lose wars. But from its inception, the metaphor of war on drugs created problems. To call for an end to the war on drugs is not to advocate thai drugs are good for you. Each day someone dies from a drug overdose. A child drops out of school because of drugs. A marriage goes afoul and an unreliable, drugdependant employee is fired. A sound national policy is far more complex than a worn out metaphor.

Nixon administration officials considered other options that were radical by today's standards. When President Nixon declared the war on drugs, he said narcotics were "public enemy number one in the United States." For the next 39 years, this nation has been caught in a quagmire as devastating as the Vietnam war. Nixon's rhetoric set in motion policies that shaped the composition of court filings and prison populations. The war led to racial profiling, polarized police-community relations, and contributed to a judicial philosophy that devalued the Fourth Amendment. The war, however, did little to provide treatment for the chemically dependent.

For decades, the war on drugs enjoyed bi-partisan support, hi 1986, under the leadership of House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Congress passed mandatory-minimum laws that sent crack users to prison while powder cocaine users who possessed 100 times more product avoided prison. By the time the first President Bush appointed Bill Bennett drug czar, the amount of money spent on "consequences and confrontation" reached $12 billion. The nation devoted much of this money to expensive weaponry: fighterjets to take on Columbian cartels, and Navy submarines to chase cocaine-smuggling boats in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, states adopted laws that resulted in an explosion of prison populations.

What is the difference between thoughtful policy and a war on drugs? Wars allow leaders to marshal resources. Wars are ripe for myth creation, and indeed myths may be necessary to continue the war. And wars have collateral casualties - innocent victims of" war that a fair system of justice would not tolerate. Metaphors do have consequences.

There is now an opportunity to adopt a more sensible drug policy. But each day missed compounds the problem. So far this year, nearly $37 billion has been spent by law enforcement to arrest 1. …

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