Critics Scapegoat the Antidrug Laws; Advocates Pushing for Decriminalization of Drug Use Blame the War on Drugs for Creating an 'Incarceration Nation.' but a Hard Look at the Facts Proves Otherwise

Insight on the News, November 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Critics Scapegoat the Antidrug Laws; Advocates Pushing for Decriminalization of Drug Use Blame the War on Drugs for Creating an 'Incarceration Nation.' but a Hard Look at the Facts Proves Otherwise


Byline: James R. McDonough, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT

An oft-repeated mantra of both the liberal left and the far right is that antidrug laws do greater harm to society than illicit drugs. To defend this claim, they cite high rates of incarceration in the United States compared with more drug-tolerant societies. In this bumper-sticker vernacular, the drug war in the United States has created an "incarceration nation."

But is it true? Certainly rates of incarceration in the United States are up (and crime is down). Do harsh antidrug laws drive up the numbers? Are the laws causing more harm than the drugs themselves? These are questions worth exploring, especially if their presumptive outcome is to change policy by, say, decriminalizing drug use.

It is, after all, an end to the "drug war" that both the left and the right say they want. For example, William F. Buckley Jr. devoted the Feb. 26, 1996, issue of his conservative journal, National Review, to "the war on drugs," announcing that it was lost and bemoaning the overcrowding in state prisons, "notwithstanding that the national increase in prison space is threefold since we decided to wage hard war on drugs." James Gray, a California judge who speaks often on behalf of drug-decriminalization movements, devoted a major section of his book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, to what he calls the "prison-industrial complex." Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and perhaps the most unabashed of the "incarceration-nation" drumbeaters, says in his Web article, "Eroding Hope for a Kinder, Gentler Drug Policy," that he believes "criminal-justice measures to control drug use are mostly ineffective, counterproductive and unethical" and that administration "policies are really about punishing people for the sin of drug use." Nadelmann goes on to attack the drug-court system as well, which offers treatment in lieu of incarceration, as too coercive since it uses the threat of the criminal-justice system as an inducement to stay the course on treatment.

In essence, the advocates of decriminalization of illegal drug use assert that incarceration rates are increasing because of bad drug laws resulting from an inane drug war, most of whose victims otherwise are well-behaved citizens who happen to use illegal drugs. But that infraction alone, they say, has led directly to their arrest, prosecution and imprisonment, thereby attacking the public purse by fostering growth of the prison population.

Almost constant repetition of such assertions, unanswered by voices challenging their validity, has resulted in the decriminalizers gaining many converts. This in turn has begotten yet stronger assertions: the drug war is racist (because the prison population is overrepresentative of minorities); major illegal drugs are benign (ecstasy is "therapeutic," "medical" marijuana is a "wonder" drug, etc.); policies are polarized as "either-or" options ("treatment not criminalization") instead of a search for balance between demand reduction and other law-enforcement programs; harm reduction (read: needle distribution, heroin-shooting "clinics," "safe drug-use" brochures, etc.) becomes the only "responsible" public policy on drugs.

But the central assertion, that drug laws are driving high prison populations, begins to break down upon closer scrutiny. Consider these numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics compilation, Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2000. Across the United States, state courts convicted about 924,700 adults of a felony in 2000. About one-third of these (34.6 percent) were drug offenders. Of the total number of convicted felons for all charges, about one-third (32 percent) went straight to probation. Some of these were rearrested for subsequent violations, as were other probationers from past years. In the end, 1,195,714 offenders entered state correctional facilities in 2000 for all categories of felonies. …

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