We Have Lost the War on Drugs

Recently I met a man in the chow hall who, when asked what he did to get into this federal prison, responded:

I gave the wrong man a ride on my jet.

For this he received a 5 year sentence. He was a pilot who owned his own jet and charter company. A passenger hired him to deliver a load of quantum computers. He had even looked in one of the boxes to confirm it contained a computer. It turned out the computers contained drugs and the passenger was eventually indicted for drug trafficking. In an effort to cooperate and get a much reduced sentence the passenger lied, testifying against the pilot saying that the pilot knew he was transporting drugs.

This pilot who is in prison with me is one of many casualties in the war on drugs that was declared by president Reagan in 1982[^1]. While it no longer gets as much media attention, the war still rages after 4 decades, sending many of its participants and some casualties to share living space with me. If we measure success by how many drug offenders are arrested and incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons, then the drug war is a resounding success. If we measure success by how much drug use occurs in our country then the drug war is an abysmal failure.

Approximately 350,000 people in the USA are in prison today for drug offenses. In 1980 it was only 41,100[^2], surely our country is safer and free from the evils of drugs with so many offenders locked up? Hardly. The war on drugs was declared at a time when drug related crimes were declining, the American public did not view drugs as a high priority issue[^3]. In the 80’s there were about 21,000 annual drug related deaths. In contrast there were 22,000 annual deaths related to drunk driving and close to 100,000 deaths connected to alcohol consumption. Last year there was 109,000 deaths due to drug overdose. In 1985 there were 3,612 deaths due to drug overdose. The population of the US in 1985 was 238,005,715. Last year the US population was 333,287,557. Our population has increased by 40%, yet the rate of deaths due to drug overdose has increased 1,760%. Surely something must explain how drug use has gone up at the same time incarceration has increased?

There are many issues at play that can help explain this but the main problem is we are fighting this war on the wrong front. Drug addicts first exposed by their friends, siblings, even parents will resort to drug dealing themselves or other crimes, in order to pay for their addiction. When they start dealing they will create more addicts which perpetuates the spread and usage of drugs. More users drive the prices higher. High prices encourage more production and trafficking. The strategy to fight the problem has been to try to find the traffickers and dealers and shut them down. Unfortunately whenever a trafficker or dealer is arrested and taken off the streets others will quickly fill their place.

When Reagan began the war it was executed in several ways. The first was passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations. Judges were forced to hand down 5 or 10 year sentences for low level drug offenses. By contrast other developed countries impose a max of 6 months for first time drug offenders if any prison time is imposed at all[^5].

The war got off to a slow start because drug enforcement was typically handled by state and local police, which had higher crime priorities than drug use. The federal government incentivized local police with federal funds to fight its war. The Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act gave police access to military weaponry and resources. This military aid and federal funds created the sharp increase in the number of SWAT teams in each state. Originally created to combat domestic terrorism and hostage situations they are now routinely deployed in drug raids with too frequent civilian casualties. The federal funds were awarded based on drug arrests so it is guaranteed police will keep fighting this war. They are further incentivized because they can seize and keep for their department any money, vehicles or property connected with a crime. The pilot in the chow hall had his $1 Million jet seized and has no hope of getting it back.

All stakeholders in the war on drugs benefit in its perpetual existence and gain nothing if it were to end. The prosecutors are rewarded for getting convictions or guilty pleas. The police are rewarded with federal money and weapons for arrests. The kingpins — which are supposed to be the target of the war — are allowed to operate to maintain the status quo with only a few notorious exceptions. As long as there is a demand for drugs there will be drug producers, traffickers and dealers.

Drug addicts need to be treated as victims and not criminals. Drug use needs to be viewed as a health care crisis not a crime wave. One may think locking up drug addicts will help them get sober because they would no longer have access to addictive substances. The truth is our country’s jails and prisons are just as full of drugs as the street, the only difference is drugs cost more in prison. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen one person taken to the SHU (special housing unit) because he failed a UA (Urinary Analysis) that was administered when staff found out he was high on meth. That was just the guy that got caught, most drug use continues undetected. I heard a story from a guy who spent some time in a county jail. Everyone else on the housing block he was in shared a needle to inject themselves with H because they could not wait a few months until they got out to get a fix. As long as there are addicts in jail there will be those willing to smuggle drugs inside.

A medical solution other countries have employed with great success is to treat addicts in medical clinics with the same drugs that they are addicted to, that they would otherwise get on the streets. Addicts know they can go to the clinics to get treatment instead of buying drugs from the street which they cannot afford. The drugs are administered by medical professionals so there is no risk of contamination or overdose and they can provide help to wean the addict off drugs. This strategy is being employed in Portugal and Sweden with great success[^6]. Once the demand for drugs was removed the drug dealers pulled out of the country to deal in more profitable markets.

If America were to adopt this strategy it would require a paradigm shift in all levels of the legal system and it would only be part of the solution. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons there are about 50,000 staff and 150,000 inmates. A ratio of 1:3. If our nation’s schools operated with a staff to student ratios close to this we can be sure there would be less inmates in prison. Spending needs to shift from prisons to education, rehabilitation, and re-entry. Right now harsh prison sentences and oppressive prison culture almost guarantee first time offenders will become repeat offenders when they are released. 83% of those released will be arrested again within 9 years. Locking someone up for years with other criminals only makes them more criminally minded. Of course there are exceptions, those who have emerged from a long prison sentence changed and a better person than when they entered. In reading their stories, I found they were able to change despite the system they were in, not because of it.

There is hope, Famlies Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is making slow steady progress in convincing politicians to reduce harsh sentences. [Asking politicians]((https://famm.org/visitaprison/) ) to visit prisons has been particularly effective to get them to see the problems.

Most of the information in this article comes from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I will follow up with another post explaining more what the book is about. I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to learn the underlining reasons the war on drugs was declared.


[^1]: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (The New Press)*, pg 59
[^2]: Marc Mauer and Ryan King, *A 25-Year Quagmire The “War on Drugs” and Its Impact on American Society* (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2007), 2
[^3]: Julian Roberts, “Public Opinion, Crime and Criminal Justice,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol. 16, ed. Michael Tonry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
[^5]: Mauer, Race to Incarserate, 35-37.
[^6]: Ernesto Benavides, “Portugal Drug Law Show Results Ten Years On, Experts Say,” AFP, July 1, 2010 (reporting that those who use hard drugs fell by half following decriminalization, along with a “spectacular” drop in HIV infections and a significant drop in drug-related crime); Barry Hatton and Martha Mendozaw “Portugal’s Drug Policy Pays Off; US Eyes Lessons,” Assiciated Press, Dec 26, 2010; Glenn Greenwald, [Drug Decriminalization in Protugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies](www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf) (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009)

ject, 2007), 2

[^3]: Julian Roberts, “Public Opinion, Crime and Criminal Justice,” in *Crime and Justice: A Review of Research*, vol. 16, ed. Michael Tonry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[^5]: Mauer, *Race to Incarserate*, 35-37.

[^6]: Ernesto Benavides, “[Portugal Drug Law Show Results Ten Years On, Experts Say,](news.yahoo.com/portugal-drug-law-show-results-ten-years-experts-1080013798.html)” AFP, July 1, 2010 (reporting that those who use hard drugs fell by half following decriminalization, along with a “spectacular” drop in HIV infections and a significant drop in drug-related crime); Barry Hatton and Martha Mendozaw “Portugal’s Drug Policy Pays Off; US Eyes Lessons,” Assiciated Press, Dec 26, 2010; Glenn Greenwald, *[Drug Decriminalization in Protugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies]*(www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf) (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009)

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