Pubdate: Thu, 01 May 2003
Source: Sojourners Magazine (US DC)
Issue: May/June 2003, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 20-23, 25-26, 41-42). Cover.
Copyright: 2003, Sojourners
Author: Sanho Tree
Note: Sanho Tree 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 aspects." 
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 operations.

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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