War on Drugs or on Us?
If you are not free to choose wrongly and irresponsibly, you are not free at all.
~Jacob Hornberger (1995)
The War on Drugs turns ordinary and otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminal defendants, erodes the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment and saddles decent people with criminal records which may prevent them from obtaining government benefits, including student loans, subsidized housing, and food stamps, and securing government employment, security clearances and professional licenses. Non-citizens convicted of drug crimes face not only incarceration, but deportation and exclusion from the United States.
Because of both Federal and State minimum mandatory sentences, individuals charged with serious drug offenses, when compared to the sentences typically meted out to those convicted of violent felonies, face disproportionately lengthy periods of incarceration. Insignificant amounts of drugs, such as cocaine or crack, can unjustly and dramatically enhance a period of incarceration. “Sentencing cliffs” escalate the unfair to the absurd and overcrowd our prisons with non-violent offenders.
The War on Drugs, simply stated, ruins lives.
Drug prohibition has caused gang warfare and other violent crimes by raising the prices of drugs so much that vicious criminals enter the market to make astronomical profits, and addicts rob and steal to get money to pay the inflated prices for their drugs.
Government prohibitions of drug or alcohol use are merely strong-arm tactics that most individuals resist, do nothing to address the underlying root causes of addiction, and make a manageable “problem” worse. Criminalizing drug or alcohol use usually fails to curtail individual usage, drives distribution and use underground, and spawns cartels that enrich themselves on the demand for illicit substances. As organized bootleggers filled the demand for alcohol during Prohibition, cartels from Columbia, Bolivia and Peru cultivate and process cocaine to satisfy demand in the United States. Though the United States spends billions attempting to interdict and stem the flow of cocaine and heroin into the country, there is no evidence that these costly efforts have reduced availability of the drugs. Indeed, the Office of National Drug Control Policy data reveals that the street level price per gram of cocaine dropped in 2006 while its purity increased, despite the U.S. spending in excess of 31 billion dollars on various interdiction operations over the previous decade.
It is obvious that the U.S., no matter what draconian methods it institutes or how much money it throws at the “problem,” cannot prevent cocaine or heroin from entering the country. Suppliers will always find a way to evade interdiction efforts to reap the profits of satisfying demand. Since the U.S. is determined to eradicate – rather than regulate – the narcotics trade, it has forfeited its authority to control the cultivation, processing and distribution of these drugs and, perhaps more importantly, prevent their contamination. As a result, unsavory individuals in the distribution chain are free to lace their products with hazardous chemicals to enhance the user’s high. Today, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 82% of seized cocaine contains Levamisole, a drug veterinarians use to deworm farm animals. In June 2011, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology cited dermatologists encountering cocaine users suffering from disfiguring necrosis of the nose, ears and cheeks from sniffing or smoking cocaine adulterated with Lavamisole. Our simpleminded prohibition policy has turned cocaine, a narcotic used for centuries to combat fatigue, and in the mid-nineteenth century as an effective local anesthetic and asthma remedy, into a dangerous, flesh deforming commodity.
So long as we need to control other people, however benign our motives, we are captive to that need. In giving them freedom, we free ourselves.
And what of demand? In spite of the U.S. government’s criminalizing narcotics possession, demonizing its use, and exaggerating its dangers, cocaine and heroin, as well as other drugs, remain popular. Users are either indifferent to the government’s prohibition efforts, suspicious of its often dubious health warnings, or outright hostile toward its nanny-state policies which intrude on individual choice. The threat of arrest and prosecution is real: in 2009, Federal, State, and municipal law enforcement agencies arrested 1,663,582 individuals for drug offenses. Yet, demand for illegal substances remains high. Obviously, we cannot arrest and prosecute our way to national sobriety. Prohibition has never succeeded and will never succeed.
To reduce consumption of cocaine, heroin and other drugs the U.S. government would be well advised to adopt the approach of Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, implementing a clear-headed, humane, and reasonable policy of treating addicts instead of prosecuting and incarcerating them. The result? Drug usage, among the young in particular, dropped significantly, HIV infections among drug users fell by nearly 17%, and deaths attributed to heroin and similar drugs declined by more than half. The money Portugal saved on counterproductive law enforcement efforts allowed it to increase funding for treatment of those suffering from substance abuse.
As long as the government can arbitrarily decide which substances are legal and which are illegal, then those who remain behind bars for illegal substances are political prisoners.
We did not declare war on drugs, but on drug users. In prosecuting this ill-advised war, we have channeled billions of dollars into wasted interdiction efforts, prosecuted and incarcerated millions of non-violent men, women and children, delivered our urban neighborhoods into the hands of armed drug factions, and profited nothing. It’s time for a mature and reasoned drug policy.
Kevin J. Mahoney is a Cambridge, MA criminal defense lawyer, on-air legal analyst, and author of Relentless Criminal Cross-Examination. He represents those accused of drug crimes across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.