Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jun 2009
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: WK10
Copyright: 2009 The New York Times Company
Author: Nicholas D. Kristof


This year marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's 
start of the war on drugs, and it now appears that drugs have won.

"We've spent a trillion dollars prosecuting the war on drugs," Norm 
Stamper, a former police chief of Seattle, told me. "What do we have 
to show for it? Drugs are more readily available, at lower prices and 
higher levels of potency. It's a dismal failure."

For that reason, he favors legalization of drugs, perhaps by the 
equivalent of state liquor stores or registered pharmacists. Other 
experts favor keeping drug production and sales illegal but 
decriminalizing possession, as some foreign countries have done.

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three 

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in 
prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly 
five times the world average. In part, that's because the number of 
people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 
to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was 
roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. 
One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is 
that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for 
everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former 
presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored 
the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the 
public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard 
economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend 
$44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven 
times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on 
treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 
percent get treatment.)

I've seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown 
of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal 
meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue 
that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

Mr. Stamper is active in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or 
LEAP, an organization of police officers, prosecutors, judges and 
citizens who favor a dramatic liberalization of American drug laws. 
He said he gradually became disillusioned with the drug war, 
beginning in 1967 when he was a young beat officer in San Diego.

"I had arrested a 19-year-old, in his own home, for possession of 
marijuana," he recalled. "I literally broke down the door, on the 
basis of probable cause. I took him to jail on a felony charge." The 
arrest and related paperwork took several hours, and Mr. Stamper 
suddenly had an "aha!" moment: "I could be doing real police work."

It's now broadly acknowledged that the drug war approach has failed. 
President Obama's new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, told the Wall 
Street Journal that he wants to banish the war on drugs phraseology, 
while shifting more toward treatment over imprisonment.

The stakes are huge, the uncertainties great, and there's a genuine 
risk that liberalizing drug laws might lead to an increase in use and 
in addiction. But the evidence suggests that such a risk is small. 
After all, cocaine was used at only one-fifth of current levels when 
it was legal in the United States before 1914. And those states that 
have decriminalized marijuana possession have not seen surging consumption.

"I don't see any big downside to marijuana decriminalization," said 
Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology at the University of 
Maryland who has been skeptical of some of the arguments of the 
legalization camp. At most, he said, there would be only a modest 
increase in usage.

Moving forward, we need to be less ideological and more empirical in 
figuring out what works in combating America's drug problem. One 
approach would be for a state or two to experiment with legalization 
of marijuana, allowing it to be sold by licensed pharmacists, while 
measuring the impact on usage and crime.

I'm not the only one who is rethinking these issues. Senator Jim Webb 
of Virginia has sponsored legislation to create a presidential 
commission to examine various elements of the criminal justice 
system, including drug policy. So far 28 senators have co-sponsored 
the legislation, and Mr. Webb says that Mr. Obama has been supportive 
of the idea as well.

"Our nation's broken drug policies are just one reason why we must 
re-examine the entire criminal justice system," Mr. Webb says. That's 
a brave position for a politician, and it's the kind of leadership 
that we need as we grope toward a more effective strategy against 
narcotics in America. 
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