In the 42 years since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, we have spent over a trillion dollars and made more than 39 million arrests of nonviolent drug users. In 2009, the United States had 1.6 million people in prison for drug offenses, 80 percent of them for simple possession.
According to the 2008 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 46 percent of Americans have tried an illicit drug at some point in their lives. If 46 percent voluntarily admit to breaking the law, you can be sure the real number is much higher. This is Prohibition all over again.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported in 2011 that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” The commission included former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, Paul Volcker, George Shultz, and five prime ministers or former presidents. A telling indication of failure, from the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the number $177.26, the recent price of one gram of pure cocaine. That is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago, a sure sign that cocaine is more plentiful than ever.
Recently, prescription pain killers — obtained mostly from shady “pill-mills” — result in more fatal overdoses, 26,000, than all illicit drugs combined.
But long term, alcohol kills more people than recreational drugs and pain killers together — 85,000 deaths in 2000, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The most dangerous drug, however, is tobacco. Half of all lifelong smokers will die from their habit, victims of a pharmacological dependency on nicotine that is as strong as from opium or heroin. According to Robert Proctor (The Golden Holocaust) tobacco killed about 100 million people in the 20th century, and at present levels of smoking, could kill one billion in the 21st century.
What to do? For the biggest killer, tobacco, Proctor recommends that the FDA require cigarette manufacturers to lower the amount of nicotine and to require that no cigarette smoke have a pH less than 8, which would make the smoke too acidic to inhale. The FDA could also mandate the removal of some of the 30 poisons contained in cigarettes, including arsenic, cyanide, formaldehyde and ammonia.
With respect to marijuana, legalizing and taxing it, as Colorado and Washington recently decided, would help pay for treatment and reduce the crime associated with drug trafficking by driving gangsters out of a decriminalized marijuana market, just as the Mafia was largely driven out the alcohol market after the end of prohibition.
Moreover, legalizing marijuana would reduce the blatant racial discrimination in drug law enforcement, described in the Chicago Reader. It found that 89 percent of people found guilty of low-level marijuana offenses in Chicago between 2009 and 2010 were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and only 2 percent were white — even though more whites smoke marijuana.
Nationwide, blacks make up 12.1 percent of the population but they comprise 34 percent of all drug violation arrestees, leaving many with felony drug convictions that cripple their employment prospects for life.
As for “hard” drugs, in 2001 Portugal decriminalized the purchase, possession and use of all previously illegal substances, including heroin, opium and cocaine. Instead, health workers provide medical advice, methadone, and clean needles. The addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. Since 2001, addiction has decreased by 50 percent and drug-related HIV cases have decreased by 75 percent, according to the AP.
For alcohol abusers, an innovative program started by Larry Long, a district court judge in South Dakota, called 24/7 Sobriety, requires people who commit alcohol-related crimes to show up twice a day, every day, for a breathalyzer test as a condition for staying out of jail. If they fail to appear, or fail the test, they immediately go to jail for a day.
Seven years’ experience demonstrates that people show up sober more than 99 percent of the time. According to the state attorney general's office, the program has made a big dent in rearrests for DUI.
Another approach, by Philip Cook of Duke University, suggests that tripling the alcohol tax — from about 10 cents to about 30 cents per drink — would prevent at least 1,000 homicides and 2,000 motor-vehicle fatalities a year.
Jimmy Carter said in 1977 that “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” There are no magic bullets to deal with drugs, but throwing non-violent offenders in prison is more damaging and costly long term than treatment.
Tom Maertens describes himself as a political centrist who has worked in national security for both political parties in the White House and in the U.S. Senate. He is part of a Free Press team of readers from all political viewpoints asked to write columns.