Pubdate: Fri, 14 Dec 2001
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2001 Foundation for National Progress
Author: Adam J. Smith
Note: Adam J. Smith, JD, is currently writing a book about the impact of 
the drug war on youth.
Note: This is a web exclusive, entered as an exception by the MAP Editor


With the confirmation of John Walters as the new drug czar, the US is 
committing itself to a punishment-based War on Drugs -- even as most of its 
allies are declaring cease-fires.

In America's cities, punishment remains the rule in the War on Drugs.

Last December 5th marked the 68th anniversary of the effective end of 
Prohibition, drawing to close this nation's "noble experiment" with 
criminalizing alcohol. So it seems ironic that it was also the day on which 
the United States Senate confirmed John P. Walters as the new director of 
the Office of National Drug Policy -- the nation's drug czar.

Walters, who spent much of the 90s working in various positions at the 
federal office he will now lead, has a track record of opposing measures 
like syringe exchanges while supporting large-scale incarceration for drug 
users and military action to stop drug production in places like Colombia 
and Peru. His appointment is the clearest sign yet that the Bush 
administration is committed to a punishment-based approach to the problems 
caused by illegal drug, undeterred by a growing consensus both at home and 
abroad that the War on Drugs is as ill-conceived as the war on alcohol 
nearly seven decades ago.

Over the past five years, Americans have voted in favor of nearly every 
significant state initiative to reform drug-policies, from legalizing 
medical marijuana in Arizona, to banning the seizure of assets of accused 
but unconvicted drug dealers in Oregon, to last year's Proposition 36 in 
California which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for drug 
users. In most cases, that public support came despite strong opposition 
from the federal government.

Our allies in Europe have gone much further. The US has had no firmer 
friend in Europe than the United Kingdom. But even as the UK has enlisted 
wholeheartedly in the war on terror, it has taken steps towards declaring 
peace in the War on Drugs.

In late October, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the British 
government will soon abandon the policy of arresting people for marijuana 
possession. Blunkett also indicated that the New Labour government is ready 
to discuss expanding the medically-supervised distribution of heroin to 
addicts, while some Labour members in Parliament have called for reducing 
the penalties for the manufacture, sale and possession of Ecstasy.

"The drug war, in Western Europe at least, is essentially over," says Paul 
Flynn, a Labour member of Parliament since 1987 . "Our course is 
irreversibly moving toward legalized, regulated markets in so-called soft 
drugs, availability of drugs like opiates for those who are addicted 
through various health systems, and a more pragmatic approach to substance 
abuse generally throughout Europe."

Far from being trendsetters in this regard, Britain trails every European 
Union nation other than Sweden in moving away form criminally-enforced 
prohibition, according to a survey by the European Non-Governmental 
Organizations Council on Drugs and Development, an umbrella group of 
advocacy organizations. Holland led the shift starting back in the 1970s, 
when it "normalized" the cannabis trade -- meaning that over the counter 
sales were tolerated, though not exactly legal. Dutch policymakers hoped 
that, by separating out the market for "soft" drugs like marijuana from 
that of "hard" drugs like cocaine and heroin, marijuana users would be less 
likely to come into contact with more addictive and dangerous substances. 
That approach seems to have yielded results.

In its latest annual report on drug use, released last month, the European 
Union's European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that 
Britain and Ireland rank highest among EU nations in per capita use of 
cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine. Per capita usage in the Netherlands, 
the report indicates, is significantly lower. The incidence of intravenous 
and long-term regular use of opiates, cocaine or amphetamines is also two 
to three times higher in the UK than in The Netherlands, the report indicates.

Due in part to the success of the Dutch model, most Western European 
countries have over the past five years begun to soften their approach to 
personal use of most drugs. Spain and Germany no longer arrest people for 
possession of "soft" drugs such as marijuana, and this year, Portugal 
essentially decriminalized drug possession altogether.

More controversially, some EU countries are experimenting with programs 
under which registered addicts can receive legal, measured doses of heroin, 
along with other health and social services. Switzerland has established 
such programs as part of its overall health policy, and the Netherlands, 
Spain, Germany and Denmark are launching pilot programs.

Several European countries are also testing the benefits of safe injection 
rooms, places where IV drug users can shoot up under some level of medical 
supervision. Although the data is still inconclusive, several studies 
suggest that these facilitites can help reduce the incidence of fatal 
overdoses and syringe sharing. In Frankfurt, for instance, where injection 
rooms have been open since 1994, city officials report that overdose 
fatalities declined from 147 in 1992 to 26 in 1999. There are now injection 
rooms operating in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. City 
officials in Vancouver, Canada are also considering opening an injection room.

In the US, of course, things are different -- as Walters' nomination makes 

"In Europe, the drug problem is viewed as a collection of consequences -- 
AIDS, crime, addiction -- which must be dealt with. Not so here, where we 
tend to look at drug use and intoxication as a moral issue," says Eric 
Sterling, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy 
Foundation "We justify the most destructive and least effective of our drug 
policies as somehow sending an important message to our children."

Indeed, the man set to become America's newest drug czar has consistently 
cited moral objections in opposing approaches favoring treatment. In 1996, 
he declared that he opposed syringe exchanges on moral grounds, ignoring 
data from major national and international health organizations -- 
including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical 
Association, and the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS -- indicating 
that exchange programs reduce the spread of deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS 
and hepatitis, without increasing drug use.

Walters has also told Congress that he believes foreign drug interdiction 
programs are "cheap and effective," even though a 1994 federal Government 
Accounting Office study found that "the supply of illegal drugs reaching 
the United States via Central America continues virtually uninterrupted, 
despite years of US drug interdiction efforts." A study the same year by 
the RAND Corporation, a private research institute, showed that monies 
spent on treatment are twenty- three times more effective at lowering drug 
use than those spent on interdiction.

In 1996 Walters, then the president of a private think tank, urged Congress 
to increase support for a Peruvian policy of shooting suspected drug planes 
out of the sky, rejecting experts' concerns that the practice would put 
innocent travellers at risk. Last April, US support for that program was 
withdrawn after the Peruvian military shot down a plane carrying an 
American missionary and her daughter -- but no drugs.

Walters has also defended the practice of jailing drug offenders, rejecting 
arguments that too many Americans are imprisoned for simple drug possession 
and that drug sentences are too long as "among the great urban myths of our 
time." Walters clings to his beliefs despite the fact that the US has the 
highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Thanks largely to the 
kinds of policies Walters would continue, the US holds more prisoners for 
drug crimes than are imprisoned in Western Europe for all crimes combined, 
according to the British Home Office and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

By 1933, 14 years after its inception, it was clear that alcohol 
prohibition was a disaster. Crime and homicide rates had increased. Machine 
gun-toting gangsters had become counter-culture icons. Impure black market 
alcohol was causing blindess, disease and death. Governmental and police 
corruption was rampant. Children easily obtained alcohol, drinking out of 
hip flasks, the status symbol of the time.

Nevertheless, to its champions, Prohibition was seen as indistinguishable 
from society's "message" that excessive drink was a bad and a dangerous 
thing. How could we stand firm against the sins of drunkenness, spousal and 
child abuse, violence and wasted promise, if our laws permitted the legal 
sale of such deadly stuff? What we needed, according to Prohibitionists, 
was to re-double our efforts. Those who sought to overturn Prohibition, the 
hardliners argued, were giving up on our nation, on our quest for an 
alcohol-free society, on our children.

"We represent here to-day not only organizations of women, but, as a whole, 
we represent the home, the school, the church, and we stand firmly for no 
amendment to the eighteenth amendment ... but rather a strengthening," Mrs. 
Henry Peabody, President of the Women's National Committee for Law 
Enforcement, told the Senate Judiary Committee on Prohibition in 1926. "We 
stand for strict law enforcement. ... It is never the policy of a good 
mother or teacher to say the children are disobedient -- therefore let us 
give in to them and let them do as they like."

How little things change. Last month, William Bennet, Walters' former boss 
at ONDCP, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging Walters' speedy 
confirmation and accusing the Clinton administration -- which oversaw a 
doubling of the drug war budget and record levels of arrests and 
incarceration -- of "all but giving up" on our children. It is time, said 
Bennet, not to "go soft" but to "push back."

Today, around the world, in England, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Canada, 
a new consensus is emerging. It is one which sees substance abuse as a 
health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue. It seeks pragmatic 
solutions to the problems of addiction, crime and AIDS. Here at home, 
voters are making a statement at the ballot box that moral absolutism might 
be a fine opinion, but it makes lousy law. Walters and the Bush 
administration, however, have yet to get the message.  What do you think?
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