June 17th marked the anniversary of America’s longest running war. Not the war in Afghanistan or even Vietnam, but a war that has cost us more money than Afghanistan and Vietnam combined.
Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, making drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Yet $1 trillion later we have absolutely no victories to proclaim, no one to congratulate and more problems than we ever could have imagined as a result of our all-out War on Drugs.
The forty-year blanket prohibition on drugs has given the United States the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest incarcerator. We have only five percent of the world’s population but twenty five percent of the world’s prison population. Over the course of the Drug War we have incarcerated tens of millions of people, ruining lives and families, for offenses that were not even crimes for much of American history.
Across the border in Mexico, drug cartels fight to control the flow of drugs to their number one customer, the United States. Here at home, local and federal law enforcement agencies spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year trying to stop the flow of drugs from Latin America, yet drugs are cheaper and easier to access than they have ever been. In these difficult economic times, we must change course not only to save money but to save lives through treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
In 2006, I worked for the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana (CRCM) which backed Ballot Question 7. If passed, the measure would have taxed and regulated the possession and sale of an ounce or less of Marijuana to individuals over 21 years old using a similar structure to the distribution of alcohol. While I worked for the campaign, I spoke about legalization with hundreds of Nevadans all over the state. A majority of voters had a complete misunderstanding of the facts and science behind drug prohibition, believing that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” a theory that has long been proven false. This is the result of nearly a century of government misinformation to convince Americans that our nation’s addiction to drugs is a criminal matter instead of a public health problem.
Texas has a reputation as being one of the toughest states on crime in the country. But in 2007 the Texas legislature allocated $241 million to expand drug treatment programs instead of spending $2 billion to build more prisons. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice recently released an evaluation of released offenders who took part in rehabilitation programs after being released and found that recidivism rates among those who participated was significantly lower than those who did not. Programs like these need to be implemented across the country to save money and produce real results instead of relying on policies that have been abject failures.
Legalization of marijuana is gaining traction nationwide. In 2005, a Gallup poll found that 36% of Americans favored legalizing marijuana use, while 60% were opposed. Today, support for legalization is up to 46% while opposition had dropped to 50%. A majority of citizens in a growing number of states now say that legally regulating marijuana makes far more sense than prohibition and incarceration. Additionally, there is support for legalization across the political spectrum. Recently, unlikely congressional allies, Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA), introduced legislation that would let states to decide whether or not they want to legalize marijuana. This is the first time such a bill has been introduced and has sparked a great deal of debate about the benefits of ending prohibition on the federal level.
Those who scoff at the idea of ending the Drug War need to take a serious look at both the major policy failures associated with our attempts at social control and the immense amount of time and money we have thrown at a problem that has only grown worse. We can no longer incarcerate our way to a victory in the War on Drugs.
Nixon economist Milton Friedman said it best, “So long as large sums of money are involved – and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal – it is literally hopeless to expect to end the traffic or even to reduce seriously its scope. In drugs, as in other areas, persuasion and example are likely to be far more effective than the use of force to shape others in our image.”