Pubdate: Wed, 07 May 2014
Source: Buenos Aires Herald (Argentina)
Copyright: 2014 S.A. The Buenos Aires Herald Ltd.
Author: Gabriela Esquivada


For decades the strategies employed by United States governments to
combat the country's narcotics problem have consistently led to failure

NEW YORK - You can begin with the figures, as stated by The Drug Policy 

"Each year the US spends US$ 51 billion in the prosecution of
drug-related crimes, including possession for simple use of controlled

"In 2012, 1.55 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug

"Of those arrested for marijuana in that year, 749,825 people, or 88
percent, were detained for possession.

"Federal, state and local prisons hold 2,228,400 US citizens: one in
every 108 adults, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and up
to 10 times higher than those in Western Europe and other major
democracies. This is partly because of the harsh legislation that
frames the so-called War on Drugs.

Or you can begin with the news: As of now, potentially thousands of
inmates may seek clemency if they meet six criteria: they are serving
a sentence longer than the current mandatory sentences reformed in
2010; they are nonviolent, low-level offenders; they have no
significant criminal record; they lack connections to the organized
crime; they have served 10 years of their sentence; they have shown
good conduct.

In any case, the fact remains the same: the strategy of the US
policies in the War on Drugs has led to failure.

And not only here: Afghanistan is wrecked by opium poppy fields and
corruption due to heroin, while in Mexico the cartel violence has
produced more than 70,000 deaths since 2006, and expanded their
business - among other crimes - to human trafficking.

Towards the end of April the National Research Council published The
Growth of Incarceration in the United States, which shows that today
the US accounts for less than five percent of the world's population
and almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners. But it has not always
been like that. The report highlights that the incarceration rate went
through the roof during the last 40 years - since Richard Nixon
declared the War on Drugs, in 1971 - as a consequence of the
legislation created in the 1980s. It also suggests that current
criminal justice policies are not useful to the nation, since focusing
on punishment has not prevented the growing and cheaper availability
of drugs in the streets, but only turned the US into the world's most
heavy-handed system.

A person can be an accessory, even an unknowing one (like the woman
with no criminal record sentenced to life without parole because her
boyfriend kept a box with a pound of cocaine in her attic), and rot in
prison because there are minimum sentence requirements: even if the
judge believes the punishment is excessive, the law does not allow a
lesser serving time for the crime.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, found
it "significant" that the report has been funded by the Department of
Justice's research division. "This is yet another indication that the
Obama Administration, after having done little during its first term
to reduce incarceration, is now firmly committed to doing all it can
to reduce incarceration," he said.

However, that might give President Barack Obama excessive

According to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, the prison system
consumes 30 percent of the Justice Department's budget. Also, states
and local governments face financial strain because they have to
allocate resources to the trailing of mere addicts and to the
food-and-lodging expenses of the large prison population created by
their present criminal justice policies.

Just like he did about the still pending migratory reform, the
president has shown concern for the criminalization of nonviolent
crimes, in particular those related to drugs: today marijuana can be
smoked in Washington state and Colorado, and Uruguay is the first
country that permitted it) or matters that would be better served by
educational and health policies (such as addiction or related
diseases). But he has done nothing: intoxication is an issue no less
controversial than undocumented immigrants.

What's more, he has not been open-handed with the presidential 
prerogative of pardon. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton granted one of 
every 100 applications they received; forgiveness became scarcer during 
the administration of George W. Bush (one in 1,000) and even scarcer 
under Obama: one in 5,000.

Even if the number of clemency requests has grown, so has the number
of people imprisoned since Reagan expanded policy and championed
legislation to curtail the crack epidemic of the 1980s, tough laws
that were approved by Congress and state legislatures. At the
beginning of that decade, those in prison for nonviolent drug crimes
were around 50,000; by 1997, more than 400,000.

People still remember "Just Say No," the main slogan of Nancy Reagan's
campaign against illegal drugs (that was later expanded to premarital
sex). By the mid-1980s, only two to six percent of US citizens saw
drug abuse as the nation's "number one problem," The Drug Policy
Alliance states. "The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s
until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent," the
organization observed. "Within less than a year, however, the figure
plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. The
draconian policies enacted during the hysteria remained, however, and
continued to result in escalating levels of arrests and

Not only that: the higher the risks, the larger the profits. The
demand has not decreased: a survey of the US Department of Health and
Human Services showed that 23,9 million US nationals aged 12 or older
used illicit drugs in 2012, that is 9.2 percent of the population. The
advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition says that the
number of drug users has increased 2,800 percent since 1970.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who announced the new policy and
encouraged those eligible to request pardons, said: "These older,
stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed
under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice

While Congress is considering a bill that would allow retroactive
application of the new sentencing guidelines (which could reduce an
estimated 12,000 sentences), many federal and state laws collide with
the Justice Department's new perspective.

They also contradict the common sense of the average US citizen, who
seems to grasp the intensity of the problem that perpetuates violence,
hurts civil liberties, and deepens racial discrimination (61 percent
of those in prison for drug crimes are black and Hispanic): a Pew
Research Center poll found that 63 per cent of US nationals believe
that it would be a good thing if state governments moved away from
mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes.
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