Pubdate: Fri, 07 May 2004
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2004 Independent Media Institute
Author: Ann Harrison, AlterNet
Note: Ann Harrison is a freelance reporter working in the Bay Area.


The costs of the war in Iraq can be measured daily in deaths, injuries
and decreasing support for U.S. policies. But how do you measure the
costs of America's other war - the war on drugs.

Each year, the U.S. government spends more than $30 billion on the
drug war and arrests more than 1.5 million people on drug-related
charges. More than 318,000 people are now behind bars in the U.S. for
drug violations. This is more than the total number of people
incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany,
Italy and Spain combined.

At a May 6 forum sponsored by the Independent Institute, an Oakland,
California, think tank, analysts tried to quantify the real costs of
drug war. Have these efforts actually deterred drug abuse or reduced
crime? Boston University economist Jeffrey A. Miron, who spoke at the
forum, applied an economic analysis to determine whether drug
prohibition is a more effective public policy than legalization -
which would tax and regulate drugs. Miron, author of the new book Drug
War Crimes, says the true costs of prohibition should be measured not
just by the billions of dollars spent for enforcement of drug laws,
but the overall impact on drug consumption, crime, public health and
unseen moral consequences.

One of the major goals of prohibition is to increase the cost of drugs
and thereby reduce demand and drug consumption. But Miron says this
approach has failed. He points out that the price of drugs has
actually fallen by 80% in the past 25 years. Despite millions of drug
arrests, Miron says prohibition has had a relatively small effect on
both the supply and consumption of drugs. He says the government's
claims of a fifty percent drop in consumption due to prohibition are
exaggerated. "Prohibition reduces access of drugs to some people, but
there is no evidence that suggests a large effect," says Miron.

Miron also disputes claims by the federal Office of National Drug
Control Policy (ONDCP) that drug use makes people violent and
contributes to crime. He says prohibition increases violence because
people involved in the drug trade have no recourse to the legal system
to settle their disputes and are more likely to settle it themselves
with force. "There is no evidence that merely consuming drugs makes
you go out and do criminal things," says Miron.

Throughout history, Miron says periods of escalating violence have
been sparked by attempts to prohibit certain commodities such as
drugs, alcohol, gambling or prostitution. In instances where
prohibition does increase the cost of drugs, he says drug users are
more likely to steal or rob to pay for drugs. Police efforts to
curtail violence are often diverted to enforcing drug laws.

Miron also notes that the drug trade enriches only the sellers who are
exempt from paying taxes on their products or minimum wages to
workers. Drug sellers are not required to engage in quality control,
which leads to more overdoses and accidental poisonings, says Miron.
And he notes that there are other social consequences that make
prohibition more costly than the legalization. "Because prohibition is
a victimless crime, there is strong incentive for police to impede
civil liberties and do racial profiling," he says. Miron adds that
resistance to needle exchange programs under prohibition also
increases the spread of HIV.

The effects of drug use on third parties such as unborn children or
those involved in drug-related traffic accidents are exaggerated, says
Miron, and not significantly different from the negative effects of
alcohol or forgoing sleep for late-night TV. As for those who think
that drugs are inherently immoral, Miron argues that the concurrent
violence, damage to civil liberties and decreased respect for law
which follows prohibition have a larger negative moral impact on
people who are innocent bystanders to the drug war. According to
Miron, the paternalistic attitude that people need to be protected
from themselves opens a Pandora's box of government

"There is no reason to think that the benefits of reducing myopic drug
use balances the costs that prohibition places on society," says
Miron. "The best policy is to legalize drugs and do it sooner rather
than later."

The Drug War Crimes forum also looked at the impact of prohibition on
police forces. Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose and
now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says police have been
greatly influenced by federal escalation of the drug war. He says
financially strapped local police departments now receive significant
funding and much of their training from federal officials who
encourage them to continue to make drug arrests. "It is a jihad, it is
a holy war you have to fight," says McNamara.

McNamara says local police are also encouraged by city officials to
seize the assets of suspected drug criminals to fund their
departments. "In San Jose when I was given zero dollars in the budget
they said 'you guys seized four million dollars last year, I expect
you to do better this year,"' says McNamara.

McNamara says police are under pressure from citizen groups who worry
about the impact of open outdoor drug markets on children in the
neighborhood. He emphasized that these concerns cannot be dismissed.
But he says current drug policies have vastly increased police
corruption, and created a culture of "gangster cops." Protected by a
code of silence and supported by an attitude from top officials that
police should not be impeded in their duties, McNamara says
prohibition gives rise to a range of police abuses. McNamara says this
has been illustrated in series of police corruption scandals including
one at his former employer, the New York City Police Department.
Investigators there, he said, found that narcotics officers had been
robbing drug dealers and stealing their drugs. Confronted by the
reality that the country is still flooded with drugs, he says police
sometimes develop the attitude that "it's hopeless we can't do
anything about it, why shouldn't we all benefit."

Despite the impact on prohibition on the stability of social
institutions, the US government rarely looks at the unintended
consequences of the drug war, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director
of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The absence of critical analysis
on the part of the administration and Congress is worse now than
ever," says Nadelmann who once worked for the US State Department
analyzing the laundering of drug money.

Nadelmann says the DPA has been building a political movement to shift
public opinion concerning drug prohibition. "We want to end
prohibition as we know it and reduce the harms of drugs," says
Nadelmann. "Nobody should be punished in any way for what we put in
our bodies, that should be a fundamental human right and is sound
public policy."

According to Nadelmann, one of the greatest concerns about drug
legalization is "loss of control." He says that the government's
prohibition policies have resulted in greater overall loss of control
and regulation and taxation of drugs is the answer to this concern.
Since the majority of drug arrests take place for marijuana, he says
the dismantling of prohibition has started there. He says the DPA has
taken the initiative to the states and helped support the passage of
state medical marijuana laws and asset forfeiture reform. DPA also
helped pass California's Prop. 36 which significantly reduced the
number of people sent to jail for drug crimes by offering treatment as
an alternative.

Nadelmann noted that countries with more permissive drug laws have not
seen an increase in drug use. When an audience at the panel asked
about age limits on drug access, Nadelmann says there was support for
age limits such as that which exist for alcohol and cigarettes. But he
noted that children would still get access, as they do now to both
drugs and alcohol, and it is important that these concerns be
addressed by families.

Nadelmann says the marijuana reform movement mirrors the gay rights
movement in that it is pushed forward by those who put a human face on
the issue by coming out of the closet as marijuana smokers. He says
this had helped shift public opinion in which 41% of those polled
support the idea that marijuana should be taxed and regulated with
numbers approaching 50% in Nevada and Alaska.

As an increasing number of states take steps toward regulating medical
cannabis, Nadelmann says the next question will be "what is medical?"
He notes that some people use cannabis to generate the same effect as
Viagra, to treat depression, or to relax at the end of the day as one
would with a cocktail.

According to Nadelmann, the next evolutionary step in the repeal of
drug prohibition is the Oakland Cannabis Initiative, a ballot
initiative in Oakland, Calif. which would make marijuana enforcement
the lowest police enforcement priority and support a statewide effort
to tax and regulate the drug. Supporters of the initiative are still
gathering signatures to place it on the November ballot.

Another challenge for those who wish to overturn drug prohibition is
to end policies that encourage the hatred of those who consume or
distribute drugs. Nadelmann notes that under prohibition, these people
are not only imprisoned, but they have property confiscated, driver's
licenses taken away and are cut off from access to educational
funding. These measures, says Nadelmann, violate the right of
Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He reminded
the audience at the Drug War Crimes forum that the first laws
supporting drug prohibition were put in place in 1914 by
"fundamentalist groups who inserted their concept of sin into the
penal code."

"It is not up to the government to tell us what rights they will dole
out to us," said Nadelmann as the audience cheered. "We were born with
those rights."
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