Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

The Hidden Costs of America's War on Drugs

Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

The Hidden Costs of America's War on Drugs

Article excerpt

I. The Cause of Crime

In 1870, an Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso, sometimes referred to as the father of criminology, concluded that there was a "criminal type." Lombroso, after studying the inmates of an Italian Army penitentiary, hypothesized that it was possible to identify lawbreakers by inherent physical characteristics (Friedman, 1993, p.141). Ever since Lombroso advanced his premise of "Atavistic Anomalies," countless behavioral scientists have theorized on the causes of crime.

Despite the abundance of conjecture, it is possible in the United States to identify the literal cause of crime - an act or omission prohibited by law and punishable by fine, imprisonment, or death (Black, 1968, p.444). The United States, unlike many other nations, embraces statutory law. In other words, the crime must be defined in writing by a legislative body of elected officials and endorsed (rather than vetoed) by an executive member of government, who is usually also elected. Thus, the government, by defining certain acts, such as assaults, thefts and murders, or omissions, such as refusing to pay income taxes or failing to obtain a license before driving a motor vehicle, as illegal, causes crime. All fifty states have lengthy penal codes classifying various behaviors as crimes. In addition, counties, municipalities, towns, and villages also label certain activities as illegal. In general, however, federal law preempts decrees of subordinate jurisdictions, subject to certain provisions of the national Constitution, as adjudicated by federal courts (Friedman, 1993, p.5558; 297-300).

I was a policeman for 34 years of the last century. As a beat officer in New York's Harlem, and as police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, and San Jose, California, I caused many drug users to be locked up. I have come to believe that jailing people simply because they put certain chemicals into their bloodstream is a gross misuse of the police and criminal law. This article examines some of the reasons why.

II. The History of Drug Criminalization in the U.S.

As medical historian Professor David Musto (1987) of Yale has reported, the drug war started roughly 100 years ago. Protestant missionaries from the U.S. working in China and other American religious groups joined with temperance organizations in convincing Congress that drugs were evil and that drug users were dangerous, immoral people. These groups often exhibited xenophobic and religious bias and mistakenly believed that drug use was a habit of foreigners. Some reformers candidly viewed it as the white man's burden to Christianize the yellow (Chinese) heathen. Some were disgusted by the thought of white women being with "Chinamen" in opium dens. Others perceived the drug problem as causing Negroes in the South to attack and murder whites. In addition, many saw drug use as the habit of degenerate Mexicans. The religious groups predominately believed these foreign drug habits to be a moral threat to native-born Americans. Still others were humanely concerned with the obvious damage that this "sinful, depraved and immoral behavior" caused among the "inferior races." The reformers' mistaken biases (most drug use in America was by native-born Caucasians) swayed Congress (Musto, 1987; McNamara, 1973b; Hofstadter, 1955, p.177-85).

The Progressive drug reform efforts certainly did not solve the drug problem, but they did give birth to unanticipated social damage.

This process of legislating criminal behavior is vital in analyzing America's war on drugs. Given the intensity of emotions surrounding the drug war, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including police officers, let alone residents of other nations, would be surprised to learn that for roughly the first 140 years of this Republic, the sale or possession of certain drugs that today might result in a life sentence in prison was legal. Even children were free to enter a pharmacy or general store to purchase morphine, opium, cocaine, cannabis, and other nostrums that today trigger heavy criminal penalties for possession and sale. …

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