Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jun 2011
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2011 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Authnor: A. Barton Hinkle


"The war on drugs has failed," declared the editors of National Review
in 1996, back when the nation's foremost conservative periodical
promoted ideas more intellectually rigorous than cheerleading for the
Republican Party. "It is diverting intelligent energy away from how to
deal with the problem of addiction. ... It is wasting our resources, and
. it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated
with police states.  We [here at NR] all agree on movement toward 
even though we may differ on just how far."

In the decade and a half since then, the federal government has
shelled out more than $100 billion -- vastly more, by some estimates --
fighting the scourge of illegal drugs.  How's that workin' out? Not 
too good! Last Thursday, the Global
Commission on Drug Policy, an international panel that included such
sober souls as former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, said the U.S.-led war
on drugs "has failed."

It has not simply failed.  It has failed miserably.  Increasing 
federal expenditures
have risen hand-in-hand with increasing drug use. From 2002 to 2009, national
drug-control funding rose from $10.8 billion a year to $15 billion -- 
a 39 percent
increase.  Yet as The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman noted last 
October, roughly
22 million Americans used illegal drugs in 2009. That represents a 9
percent increase over the year before and the highest rate since 2002.

People recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are fond of defining
insanity as trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a
different result.  By that standard, American policy toward 
mind-altering substances
looks awfully familiar.  The nation tried Prohibition once, with 
alcohol.  Result: abject
failure, rampant organized crime, and little lasting effect on 
consumption or addiction.
In fact, Prohibition actually encouraged the use of harder spirits, 
because bootleggers
could smuggle more alcohol in a car full of liquor than a car full of beer.

Alcohol prohibition lasted only a few years.  The war on drugs has 
lasted for decades, and for the most part has
consisted of only one solution, over and over: criminalization and
imprisonment. Nearly 2 million people are arrested each year for drug
offenses, and a half-million are currently serving time on drug charges.  Yet
when stiffer sentences fail to produce the desired results, drug 
insist the penalties just aren't harsh enough.  They resemble the 
carpenter who complained that he had cut a board
three times and it was still too short.

Trying to solve the problem of addiction through incarceration is like
trying to get rid of a cockroach infestation by turning on the lights.
The temporary solution doesn't address the underlying problem, which
requires treatment.  Sometimes locking a user up doesn't even interrupt his
using.  Do a Google search on smuggling drugs into prison for an education on
that front.  If prohibition can't keep narcotics out of prison cells, 
it won't keep
them out of playgrounds and office parks.

Decriminalization and treatment -- the approach suggested by the
international panel -- differs from outright legalization, which is
often portrayed as heartless indifference to the ravages that
addiction can inflict. It is not that, or at least not only that. The
moral case for legalization stems from a reverence for individual
autonomy -- the notion that each of us owns his own body, and none of
us has the right to tell another what to do with it. Family and
friends might plead with someone to change his ways, but the
government has no moral authority to make him. Conservatives, who
generally abhor government paternalism and consider freedom an
unalloyed good, do not look nimble when they clumsily pirouette from
denouncing Obamacare and the food police to embracing life sentences
for pot smokers.

Taken to its logical extreme, the autonomy argument can support not
only legalizing drugs but also legalizing prostitution, selling your
organs and abolishing the minimum wage. On the other hand, taken to
its logical extreme the moral assumption embedded in drug prohibition
also leads to unpopular conclusions. If the government can stop you
from using meth because it harms your health and reduces your
usefulness to the community, then by the same token it can stop you
from other unhealthful behavior for the same reason.  Already, 
Arizona is proposing a $50 surcharge on Medicaid recipients
who smoke or weigh too much. Maricopa County is charging smokers $450
more for health insurance - and taking a swab to test for 
nicotine.  How long before the common-good rationale justifies 
mandatory exercise
for everyone?

We don't have to chase every one of those philosophical digressions
down a rabbit hole to recognize the obvious: America is spending tens
of billions of dollars a year putting drug users and sellers in
prison, without putting much of a dent in drug consumption. The drug
war has failed, and its advocates' best thinking got us here. Isn't it
time they tried something else? 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.