Pubdate: Thu, 01 May 2003
Source: Sojourners Magazine (US DC)
Copyright: 2003, Sojourners
Author: Sanho Tree
Note: Sojourners is a Christian ministry. The author is a fellow at the Drug
Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.


Our jails overflow with nonviolent drug offenders. Have we reached the point
where the drug war causes more harm than the drugs themselves?

In 1965, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy tried to promote an enlightened drug policy
before our country declared war on its own citizens. He told Congress, "Now,
more than at any other time in our history, the addict is a product of a
society which has moved faster and further than it has allowed him to go, a
society which in its complexity and its increasing material comfort has left
him behind. In taking up the use of drugs the addict is merely exhibiting
the outermost aspects of a deep-seated alienation from this society, of a
combination of personal problems having both psychological and sociological

Kennedy continued, "The fact that addiction is bound up with the hard core
of the worst problems confronting us socially makes it discouraging at the
outset to talk about 'solving' it. 'Solving' it really means solving poverty
and broken homes, racial discrimination and inadequate education, slums and
unemployment...." Thirty-eight years later, the preconditions contributing
to drug addiction have changed little, but our response to the problem has
become overwhelmingly punitive.

When confronted with illegal behavior, legislators have traditionally
responded by escalating law enforcement. Yet countries such as Iran and
China that routinely use the death penalty for drug offenses still have
serious drug problems. Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved
through coercion. By treating this as a criminal justice problem, our range
of solutions has been sharply limited: How much coercion do we need to make
this problem go away? No country has yet found that level of repression, and
it is unlikely many Americans would want to live in a society that did.

As the drug war escalated in the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing and
other Draconian penalties boosted our prison population to unprecedented
levels. With more than 2 million people behind bars (there are only 8
million prisoners in the entire world), the United States--with
one-twenty-second of the world's population--has one-quarter of the planet's
prisoners. We operate the largest penal system in the world, and
approximately one quarter of all our prisoners (nearly half a million
people) are there for nonviolent drug offenses--that's more drug prisoners
than the entire European Union incarcerates for all offenses combined, and
the EU has over 90 million more citizens than the United States. Put another
way, the United States now has more nonviolent drug prisoners alone than we
had in our entire prison population in 1980.

If the drug war were evaluated like most other government programs, we would
have tried different strategies long ago. But our current policy seems to
follow its own unique budgetary logic. A slight decline in drug use is used
as evidence that our drug war is finally starting to work and therefore we
should ramp up the funding. But a rise in drug use becomes proof that we are
not doing enough to fight drugs and must therefore redouble our efforts and
really ramp up the funding. Under this unsustainable dynamic, funding and
incarceration rates can only ratchet upward. When Nixon won reelection in
1972, the annual federal drug war budget was approximately $100 million. Now
it is approaching $20 billion. Our legislators have been paralyzed by the
doctrine of "if at first you don't succeed, escalate."

Internationally, our drug war has done little more than push drug
cultivation from one region to the next while drugs on our streets have
become cheaper, purer, and more plentiful than ever. Meanwhile, the
so-called collateral damage from our international drug war has caused
incalculable suffering to peasant farmers caught between the crossfire of
our eradication policies and the absolute lack of economic alternatives that
force them to grow illicit drug crops to feed their families. Unable to
control our own domestic demand, our politicians have lashed out at other
peoples for daring to feed our seemingly insatiable craving for these
substances. We have exported our failures and scapegoated others.

'It's the Economy, Stupid'

Many legislators approve increased drug war funding because they are true
believers that cracking down is the only way to deal with unlawful conduct.
Others support it out of ignorance that alternative paradigms exist. But
perhaps most go along with the drug war for fear of being depicted as "soft
on drugs" in negative campaign ads at election time.

In recent years, there has been an increasingly lively debate on whether
nonviolent drug offenders should receive treatment or incarceration. As
legislators gradually drift toward funding more badly needed treatment
slots, an important dynamic of the drug economy is still left out of the
national debate: the economics of prohibition. Elected officials and much of
the media have been loath to discuss this phenomenon at the risk of being
discredited as a "legalizer," but until a solution is found concerning this
central issue, many of the societal problems concerning illicit drugs will
continue to plague us. Trying to find a sustainable solution to manage the
drug problem without discussing the consequences of prohibition is like
taking one's car to the mechanic for repair but not allowing the hood to be
opened. The time has come to take a look under the hood of our unwinnable
drug war.

Under a prohibition economy where there is high demand, escalating law
enforcement often produces the opposite of the intended result. By
attempting to constrict supply while demand remains high, our policies have
made these relatively worthless commodities into substances of tremendous
value. The alchemists of the Middle Ages tried in vain for centuries to find
a formula to turn lead into gold, but it took our drug warriors to perfect
the new alchemy of turning worthless weeds into virtual gold. Some varieties
of the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana, are now worth their weight
in solid gold (around $350 per ounce). Cocaine and heroin are worth many,
many times their equivalent weight in gold. In a world filled with
tremendous poverty, greed, and desire, we cannot make these substances
disappear by making them more valuable.

Another factor we have failed to take into account is the virtually
inexhaustible reservoir of impoverished peasants who will risk growing these
crops in the vast regions of the world where these plants can flourish.
According to the U.N Development Program and the World Bank, there are 1.2
billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. Imagine paying
for housing, food, clothing, education, transportation, fertilizer, and
medicine on less than $1 a day. Now imagine the temptation of putting a
worthless seed into the soil and coming up with an illicit crop that can
mean the difference between simple poverty or slow starvation for you and
your family. We cannot escalate the value of such commodities through
prohibition and not expect desperately poor farmers to plant any crop
necessary to ensure their survival.

A "Harm Reduction" Approach

Of all the laws that Congress can pass or repeal, the law of supply and
demand is not one of them. Neither is the law of evolution nor the law of
unintended consequences. The drug trade evolves under Darwinian
principles--survival of the fittest. Our response of increasing law
enforcement ensures that the clumsy and inefficient traffickers are weeded
out while the smarter and more adaptable ones tend to escape. We cannot hope
to win a war on drugs when our policies see to it that only the most
efficient drug operations survive. Indeed, these survivors are richly
rewarded because we have constricted just enough supply to increase prices
and profits while "thinning out the herd" by eliminating their competition
for them. Through this process of artificial selection, we have been
unintentionally breeding "super traffickers" for decades. Our policy of
attacking the weakest links has caused tremendous human suffering, wasted
countless lives and resources, and produced highly evolved criminal

Our policy of applying a "war" paradigm to fight drug abuse and addiction
betrays a gross ignorance of the dimensions of this medical problem and its
far-reaching social and economic consequences. Wars employ brute force to
extract political concessions from rational state actors. Drugs are articles
of commerce that do not respond to fear, pain, or congressional dictates.
However, around these crops revolve hundreds of thousands, indeed millions,
of individuals responding to the artificially inflated value of these
essentially worthless agricultural products. For every trafficker that our
"war" manages to stop, a dozen others take his or her place because
individuals--whether acting out of poverty, greed, or addiction--enter the
drug economy on the assumption they won't get caught, and most never are. No
"war" can elicit a unified political capitulation from actors in such
diverse places as Southeast Asia, the Andes, suburbia, and the local street
corner. Such a war can never be won, but a "harm reduction" approach offers
ways to contain and manage the problem.

Guns and helicopters cannot solve the problems of poverty in the Andes or
addiction in the United States. Moreover, our policies of employing more
police, prosecutors, and prisons to deal with the drug problem is like
digging more graves to solve the global AIDS pandemic--it solves nothing. As
sociologist Craig Reinarman notes, our policies attack the symptoms but do
little to address the underlying problems. "Drugs are richly functional
scapegoats," Reinarman writes. "They provide elites with fig leafs to place
over the unsightly social ills that are endemic to the social system over
which they preside. They provide the public with a restricted aperture of
attribution in which only the chemical bogey man or lone deviant come into
view and the social causes of a cornucopia of complex problems are out of
the picture."

Until we provide adequate resources for drug treatment, rehabilitation, and
prevention, the United States will continue to consume billions of dollars
worth of drugs and impoverished peasants around the world will continue to
grow them. The enemy is not an illicit agricultural product that can be
grown all over the world; rather, our policies should be directed against
poverty, despair, and alienation. At home and abroad, these factors drive
the demand for illicit drugs which is satisfied by an inexhaustible
reservoir of impoverished peasant farmers who have few other economic
options with which to sustain themselves and their families.

Some day, there will be a just peace in Colombia and a humane drug control
policy in the United States. Until then, we are mortgaging the future, and
the most powerless among us must pay most of the interest. That interest can
be seen in the faces of the campesinos and indigenous peoples caught in the
crossfire of our Andean drug war; it can be seen in the millions of addicts
in the United States who cannot get treatment they need; it can be seen in
the prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders; and it can be seen in the
poverty, despair, and alienation around the world because we choose to
squander our resources on harmful programs while ignoring the real needs of
the dispossessed.

Because we have witnessed the damage illicit drugs can cause, we have
allowed ourselves to fall prey to one of the great myths of the drug
warriors: Keeping drugs illegal will protect us. But drug prohibition
doesn't mean we control drugs, it means we give up the right to control
them. Under prohibition, the people who control drugs are by definition
criminals--and, very often, organized crime. We have made a deliberate
choice not to regulate these drugs and have been paying the price for the
anarchy that followed. These are lessons we failed to learn from our
disastrous attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

On the other hand, the philosophy of "harm reduction" offers us a way to
manage the problem. Briefly put, this means we accept the premise that mind
altering substances have always been part of human society and will not
disappear, but we must find ways to minimize the harm caused by these
substances while simultaneously minimizing the harm caused by the drug war
itself. We have reached the point where the drug war causes more harm than
the drugs themselves--which is the definition of a bankrupt policy. Drug
abuse and addiction are medical problems, not criminal justice problems, and
we should act accordingly.

Some examples of harm reduction include comprehensive and holistic drug
treatment for addicts who ask for it, overdose prevention education, clean
needle exchange to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, methadone
maintenance for heroin addicts, and honest prevention and education programs
instead of the ineffective DARE program.

We already know what doesn't work--the current system doesn't work--but we
are not allowed to discover what eventually will work. Our current policy of
doing more of the same is doomed to failure because escalating a failed
paradigm will not produce a different result. However, by approaching the
problem as managers rather than moralizers, we can learn from our mistakes
and make real progress. It is our current system of the drug war that is the
obstacle to finding an eventual workable system of drug control.
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