Friday, April 06, 2007

Ending the drug war

An interesting post yesterday on the failed Drug War over at Arianna Huffington's blog was enough to provoke some comment in the blogosphere.

Is there any current policy more dumb than the Drug War? If there is, I can't think of it. It's a major bipartisan disaster. The fact that's it bipartisan is, I suppose, the reason nothing is done to change it.

The Drug War has done far more damage to civil liberties in the last 35+ years than anything connected with terrorism or spying. The Supreme Court has even gone so far as to carve out large exceptions to the Bill of Rights to keep it going, eviscerating the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in particular. Pre-trial property seizures are now enough to keep some police departments in business without the need for taxes. And we all know what happens when government's revenues are disconnected from democratic control. Even worse are the no-knock raids that sometimes kill innocent people, often for no reason. No-knock raids are justified only if someone's life is in danger. Even giving the police the benefit of the doubt in ambiguous situations would end most of these raids.

And the policy has been, from the start, a complete failure. Drugs are not less available than they once were. Only in the world of politics is failure an incentive to redouble a failed policy. Huffington's post on the subject is motivated by another glaring Drug War injustice, the fact that black and Latino drug offenders are convicted and incarcerated at a much higher rate than white drug offenders. (This is after you take into account the fact that drug users are disproportionately black and Latino to start with - there's still an extreme imbalance in both the rate of conviction and the severity of the punishment.) It's not as if the policy was intended to be racist - most black and Latino politicians are, if anything, more in favor of the Drug War than are white politicians.* Unfortunately, that leaves politically less powerful "people of color" more vulnerable to out-of-control law enforcement. After all, educated middle and upper class people tend to complain more and more effectively when their rights are trampled on, and in politics, the squeakiest wheel always gets the most grease. The injustice of incarcerating a couple million non-violent drug offenders, in already overcrowded jails, is rarely remarked upon.

And I haven't even mentioned what the Drug War has done to American foreign policy. It makes relations with many Latin American countries more difficult than they need to be. But the worst thing it does is to create an artificial market for expensive, illegal substances whose inflated profits bolster and arm some of the world's worst criminal organizations, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Colombia's FARC guerilla movement. It pulls farmers in poor countries away from growing food towards the much more lucrative growing of poppies, marijuana, etc.

What should be done? We must start with the recognition that there's nothing romantic about drug abuse, in spite of the psychedelic nonsense planted in some people's heads in the 60s. Like alcohol, psychoactive drugs can be used in a limited way for an occasional high - or they can destroy users' lives. But the Drug War is a larger, longer-running, and more expensive version of the failed Prohibition of the 1920s - and Americans then had enough sense to end that. Our society since has learned more positive ways of limiting alcohol consumption and discouraging its destructive misuse. It's not an accident that Alcoholics Anonymous, the world's most effective program for treating substance abuse and a model for many other similar programs, was started in 1934 - by private, voluntary initiative - immediately after Prohibition was repealed.

At a minimum, the "Drug War" itself should be stopped, even if possession and use remain felonies. That would mean an end to the special status that fighting drug offenses has in American justice and law. (The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a Prohibition-era relic, should be folded back into the Justice Department.) A much better and more comprehensive change would be to drop possession and use to misdemeanors, leaving selling as a felony. Ultimately, certain less harmful drugs could be decriminalized altogether. (Possession, use, and sale to minors would remain illegal.) If drug users on a high pose a danger to others, they should be treated as we now treat drunk drivers.

Imagine what that would be like. No more property seizures. No more no-knock raids. No more wondering when it might be possible to vacation again in Colombia. No more violent Third World thugs surfing on drug profits. It might even be omnipartisan - conservatives, libertarians, and lefties like Arianna overcoming the idiocy of brain-dead bipartisan "consensus."
* I should mention an honorable exception to the rule among black politicians, Baltimore's former mayor Kurt Schmoke.



At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Nariah said...

Great work.


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