This is the last of a multi-part series on illegal drugs and their impact on our society with a special emphasis on the US-Mexico border region, exploring how we got here, what are the economic and social impacts of our policies, and exploring alternatives to our current policies going forward.
This past November much of our attention was riveted on the election of a new President along with the other political contests up for grabs for our national, state, and local representatives. Almost as a side event was the decision by the electorates of the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize and regulate the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal recreation. For the first time since the early part of the last century state law made it legal for individuals to use marijuana subject only to the same kind of restrictions and regulations that have been applied to alcohol or tobacco, including taxation, abuse (DUI) and age restrictions for use. The US Department of Justice officials were quick to point out that federal law still classified marijuana as an illicit narcotic, use or possession of which was subject to federal criminal prosecution. Is this the tipping point, allowing the personal use/possession of marijuana, or simply an aberration in the decades-long war on drugs where the feds will simply step in and squash any attempts to legalize these drugs? So far the feds have not really taken any action one way or another but there has been no visible change in the enforcement program, including the prosecution of medical marijuana patients.
In the previous articles in this series we have tried to present an objective, open view on illicit drugs (primarily marijuana, along with cocaine, heroin, and certain other narcotics), their history, the history of our laws and policies related to them and the economic /social costs as we have waged what is called “The War on Drugs.” Over the past century, based mostly on misinformation, bias, and fear we have created laws and pursued policies that have broadly sought to create a “drug-free” world focused primarily on prohibition, eradication, interdiction and criminal prosecution. The effort to prohibit alcohol use lasted for something over a decade, and was launched with an amendment to the Constitution – thus requiring another amendment to overturn this failed “Prohibition.” These laws and policies have done little to free our society of drugs or drug abuse and instead have led to numerous unwanted and, often, unintended results. For instance, we now incarcerate more individuals (2.45 million) in our federal and state prisons than the number of active duty and reserve military combined! This makes the US number one in terms of imprisoning our own people (far exceeding Russia, China or any other nation). Statistics show that more than half of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, of which greater than 90% are non-violent. Policies intended to remove violent, repeat offenders from our streets (minimum sentencing, “three strikes” laws and reduced paroles) have bloated our prisons, causing the numbers of prisoners to more than triple from the levels that held stable over the previous six decades. We spend approximately $30,000 annually per inmate, three times what we spend on educating elementary or high school students!
Economically, we have spent more than $1 Trillion over the past 40 years pursuing the War on Drugs declared by President Nixon. Recent figures show we are spending just over $26 Billion a year in federal funds, primarily aimed at enforcement and interdiction here and abroad. Figures from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s latest report show actual economic costs at over $193 Billion annually in 2007. Costs of incarcerations and enforcement, along with lost revenue associated with regulating and taxing these drugs if no longer illicit, easily approach $70 to $100 Billion a year. Imagine using these savings to pay down the national debt in lieu of the cuts to Social Security or Medicare now at the forefront of our national debates!
Societal costs are even greater. A $350 Billion global illicit drug industry driven by continuing use and consumption in the US and elsewhere, provides more than 50% of all worldwide criminal profits. This has led to enormous costs in terms of lives lost and ever-growing drug cartels, threatening not only individuals but entire towns, states, and even nation-states. In Mexico more than 50,000 deaths and 25,000 desaparicidos (missing) in the past five years can be attributed to the drug cartels and the violence associated with them. Many of these brutal deaths and missing were innocent men, women and children with absolutely no ties to the cartels or their drug activities. In the border city of Cd. Juarez, more than 10,000 deaths occurred during this period, making it the new “murder capital” of the world. The weekly number of deaths recently has dropped sharply, not due to any public policy or military intervention but only because one of the drug cartels has emerged as the “victor” in controlling this lucrative “plaza” for drug movement into the US. The tens of thousands in the US arrested and imprisoned for using or distributing marijuana or other drugs face a life of general poverty, poor education, few legitimate life skills, shortened life spans and little hope of breaking the cycle of more advanced criminal activity-imprisonment-criminal activity, preventing them from becoming productive members of society. They are also permanently barred from participation in the civic life of the nation as convicted felons, unable to vote, serve on juries, and the like.
In 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy-made up of various high-level individuals including seven former Presidents from around the world – issued a report calling for a dramatic change to the world’s approach to drugs. They state:
“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”
They called for a number of reforms, including actions to:
- end criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others
- encourage new models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine organized crime and ensure the health and security of their citizens
- offer health and treatment services to those in need
- invest in drug use prevention strategies, eschewing zero tolerance policies in favor of credible educational efforts
More recently, a public letter circulated by the Beckley Foundation this past December underscored the Commission’s findings and called for governments to “seriously consider shifting resources away from criminalizing tens of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens and move towards an approach based on health, harm reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect for human rights.” The signatories, including former Presidents Carter and Clinton, as well as sitting Presidents Otto Perez Molina (Guatemala) and Juan Manuel Santos (Columbia), call for reexamining the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Changing its one-size-fits-all approach will allow individual countries the freedom to explore drug policies better suited to their individual domestic needs. Noting that the illicit drug industry is the “third most valuable industry in the world,” and is “all in the control of criminals,” the Foundation has also launched a new video campaign, Breaking the Taboo to try to spread their message.
The new state laws in Washington provide examples of how we might proceed here in the US in dealing with our drug issues. The new laws call for the legalization/decriminalization of the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption or use. Adults 21 or older can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Driving Under the Influence(DUI) regulations are being created to ensure public safety. Private businesses can now be licensed to cultivate and sell pot with the state able to levy new taxes on the proceeds. By regulating the sale and distribution of the products state authorities expected to gain upwards of over $600 million annually in marijuana revenues for schools, roads and other projects. The only losers appear to be the Mexican drug lords who currently provide more than two-thirds of America’s illegal pot.
Following historical precedent, it appears that the states will be the first to act in trying to resolve the problems we face with our current drug laws and policies. Assuming President Obama stands by his earlier statements regarding the passage of the Washington and Colorado laws that, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” it is likely that other states may enact their own versions of “recreational use” of marijuana laws. That said such change faces an entrenched bureaucracy staffed by hardliners who have built their careers on going after pot. Kevin Sabet, director of the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute and former White House adviser on drugs, noted recently, “There are not too many friends to legalization in this administration.” He notes Joe Biden, who coined the term “drug czar,” continues to guide the administration’s hard-line drug policy. During a recent congressional hearing, DEA head Michele Leonhart maintained that pot is as dangerous as heroine–when pressed given the lack of any scientific evidence or experience to back this claim, she refused to concede the point, maintaining that “all illegal drugs are bad.”
As noted by the Global Commission on Drug Policy we must begin serious discussion of not only legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and possession but extension of this change to all illicit drugs as defined under the Controlled Substance Act of the US. Again, the overwhelming majority of those who have suggested global changes in these policies do not advocate encouraging or facilitating the use of illicit drugs. Rather, they recognize that our current polices just don’t work -marijuana and other drug use is widespread among teens, as well as adults, and all the marijuana seizures over the past decades have not created any scarcity of this drug, whose price remains stable. And not only do these policies not work, they actually do much harm to individuals, communities and entire countries. To reiterate, the result of the War on Drugs is that criminals are in charge of the world’s third largest industry.
We can look to examples where new drug policies have been very successful–not in eradicating the use of drugs, a goal that is unobtainable–but in reducing the consumption and the violence associated with illicit drugs. Portugal, for instance, in 2001 decriminalized the possession and use of all drugs, focusing instead on the medical and social aspects of the user, providing treatment and counseling for problems related to drug use and addiction, including HIV and health issues. Switzerland has taken a similar stance, providing clean needles to addicts rather than forcing them to use dirty needles and further spread HIV in the society. Holland, which has allowed for legal access to marijuana at regulated “drug bars,” maintains marijuana consumption rates 50% less than neighboring countries.
Getting to a humane and rational, non-criminal policy concerning drugs globally or in the US will not be easy. The entrenched interests of our law enforcement agencies, our judicial system, our ever growing public and private penal system, our border security and homeland security agencies, a reluctant Congress, and hard-line officials whose careers have been built on prohibition-not to mention the interests of the drug cartels themselves- do not suggest these policies will be changed any time soon. Nonetheless, the change won in the states, led primarily by grass-roots activists, gives hope that after more than a century we may begin to turn these misguided policies around. At the very least we must begin a serious national and international discussion of other options than those we have followed for so long with such disastrous results. The time to act is now.–Paul Maxwell with Marshall Carter-Tripp