Whenever one begins a war one needs to consider the exit strategies. This was a fatal flaw in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe it is also a fatal flaw in the one war being fought on American soil: The War on Drugs.
It is hard to consider what was thought of as the end game of this war when it began. Was the end of the war going to be some utopian time where no one used drugs? Was it when all the drug users were in prison? How would winning this war look?
We can ponder those questions because we know with certainty what losing this war looks like.
I asked a public defender who works in felonies what percentage of their cases are small time drug charges (not drug king pin charges). Her response? 90%. 90%! Nine out of ten people being processed by our criminal justice system for serious crimes were busted for drugs.
Felony drug charges can be filed for tiny amounts of drugs (like enough for a couple “highs”).
The prisons are bursting with drug criminals. It costs $40,000 a year to incarcerate someone for 1 year. 1 year! It costs untold amounts of money and energy to arrest, prosecute and defend these drug criminals. It is very easy for police to arrest drug users. They go to the neighborhood and “sell” drugs to addicts. Their partner arrests the users a moment later. They can arrest 100 people in a day like that. They go through the criminal justice system and weigh down the system.
The selective prosecution of immigrants and under-privileged drug users is horrifying. At frat parties across the country drugs are used with no consequence. The hobo who gets high goes to prison for a few months, years, decades even life. Three drug arrests and convictions can lead to life in prison (or more accurately death in prison). If someone who is undocumented gets picked up for a drug charge, even if the drug charge is dropped or fabricated they can be deported. Losing fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters to the drug war only increases the social problems in lower class neighborhoods.
In the last few weeks there has been an encouraging development, more and more news articles have appeared in the media calling for an end to the drug war.
First, The Guardian reported that world leaders were calling for an end to the international drug war. The names associated with the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s push come from all over the world. The problem exists internationally to the point that the US sends $1.4 billion in aid to Mexico and Central American nations to wage their drug wars at home. The commission is calling for decriminalization and legal regulation.
Then, in The Atlantic, I saw a great line from David Simon, creator of The Wire, which really told to story of the drug war to the people. The show is based on the real drug war in downtown Baltimore. It accurately portrays the many issues with the drug war. For some reason, Eric Holder asked for another season of The Wire. Simon said he would be happy to consider it if the administration was ready to reconsider its current stance on the drug war.
Next, President Jimmy Carter weighed in with his endorsement for ending the drug war. Citing the great work of the aforementioned international group, Carter turns the issue into a political one and talks about how great he was and how bad Reagan was. But there are some worthwhile points in his Op-Ed. For example, in California 11% of the budget goes to prisons and 7.5% goes to higher education. He calls on the American government to adopt the strategies of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
Perhaps the most important factor is that Americans from all political ideologies can agree on this. Conservatives want to spend less money on drug enforcement. Liberals want to even the playing field for under-privileged folks and libertarians don’t want the government telling people what they can and cannot do.
We can all agree on this issue. Doesn’t it make sense to stop fighting about things we will never agree on for just a few minutes to end the War on Drugs? It seems to me that we can actually get some good work done if we would fix the things we agree about.
What should the drug policy be? Same as alcohol. Indoors only. Sold and taxed. Public intoxication or endangerment to others would be illegal.
What would happen? The courts would be less burdened. Our prisons would be mostly empty (and humane). The police and the citizens in their neighborhoods would have a less adversarial relationship due to less arrests and less fake drug sales. Police could return to more wholesome police work. Our local and federal government would have money to spend on much more important projects. We all win.
End this war.