Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jul 2015
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Copyright: 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch


It's been a busy couple of weeks in America's futile War on Drugs. 
It's a war that can't be won, a war that makes billionaires of some 
of the world's most vicious criminals, a war that began 44 years ago 
and has cost more than $1 trillion.

It's time to think about what we as a nation are doing wrong. It's 
time to honestly face the facts.

Yes, we can and should let nonviolent drug offenders out of prison, 
as President Obama has advocated and some conservative states already 
have done, and as bipartisan legislation pending in Congress would do.

All that's fine. But people are still going to be murdered over 
drugs, by the dozens in St. Louis, by the hundreds in the United 
States, by the thousands in Mexico. We're still going to spend $51 
billion a year on supply-side drug-a-nomics. We stop a shipment here, 
they send in a 747-full there. Drug lords have submarines, for crying out loud.

So why not change the emphasis, continue the War on Drug Dealers and 
let everybody else off the hook? There's a Portuguese word for what 
we should do: descriminalizacao.

Fourteen years ago this month, the government of Portugal 
decriminalized all drugs used for personal consumption, including 
heroin and cocaine. You can possess up to a 10-day supply. More than 
that, they come after you hammer and tongs. Spain and Italy 
subsequently followed suit.

Drugs are technically prohibited in Portugal, but it's no longer a 
crime to use them. Most other European countries have "depenalized" 
marijuana, meaning you can't go to jail for having it, but you can 
still be punished. Hard drugs still carry the risk of prison in those nations.

In 2009, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, published an 
examination of the first eight years of the Portuguese experiment. It 
was written by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who would subsequently 
share the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his role in bringing to light 
Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance.

"Portuguese decriminalization was never seen as a concession to the 
inevitability of drug abuse," Mr. Greenwald wrote. "To the contrary, 
it was, and is, seen as the most effective government policy for 
reducing addiction and its accompanying harms."

Did it work? The report says:

"Since Portugal enacted its decriminalization scheme in 2001, drug 
usage in many categories has actually decreased when measured in 
absolute terms, whereas usage in other categories has increased only 
slightly or mildly. None of the parade of horrors that 
decriminalization opponents in Portugal predicted, and that 
decriminalization opponents around the world typically invoke, has 
come to pass. In many cases, precisely the opposite has happened, as 
usage has declined in many key categories and drug-related social 
ills have been far more contained in a decriminalized regime."

The money that Portugal used to spend prosecuting and punishing 
people for drug possession is now used to treat drug addiction. 
Criminals continue to peddle drugs, but the absence of criminal 
sanctions makes the marketplace safer for customers.

Since President Richard Nixon declared the "War on Drugs" in 1971, 
the use and supply of illegal drugs has only grown. Demand drives 
supply, which drives the atrocities associated with Joaquin Guzman 
and the other drug lords. So why not take some of the profit out of 
it? Why not remove some of the danger? Why not focus on treatment 
instead of incarceration?

Yes, there will continue to be victims. But there would be fewer of 
them. Putting nonviolent offenders in prison hasn't worked; it's only 
driven the prison population to 2.2 million and the national 
corrections budgets to $80 billion. It's created a new class of 
smarter, prison-trained criminals. And since everyone who wants one 
can get a gun, it's created all sorts of drug beefs that end in homicide.

The nation has to try something different.

It won't be easy. It may well be impossible. America loves its myths, 
and one of them is that law enforcement can impose its will if only 
we'd turn the cops loose. But public policy based on myths doesn't work.

Consider how long it has taken for a consensus to arise around 
sentencing reform. We've known for decades that there are too many 
people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Even Texas has 
addressed its prison population with sentencing and treatment 
reforms. But in states like Missouri, corrections reform proposals - 
like those suggested by former Missouri Supreme Court Justice William 
Ray Price in 2010 and implemented two years later - have made only 
incremental progress.

The Missouri Sentencing and Corrections Oversight Commission 
announced in December that nearly 30,000 prisoners had been released 
since 2012 because of reforms. But the state's prison population is 
still pushing 32,000, which is a lot of churn but not much progress. 
There's even talk of building a new prison, which would be an 
expensive step in the wrong direction.

But now Charles and David Koch have found common cause with the ACLU 
on the issue. President Obama praises Rand Paul for his work in this 
area, and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Patrick Leahy 
of Vermont are lining up with Republicans like Mike Lee of Utah and 
Ted Cruz of Texas. Something might actually happen.

Reducing sentences is fine, but it doesn't pay for the treatment 
necessary to address the problem. It still leaves bodies in the 
streets and leaves cops and citizens alike in danger.

Descriminalizacao is a long way off. But it doesn't seem quite so far 
off as it used to.


Item: The president of the United States visits a federal prison and 
commutes the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders.

Item: The government of Mexico stages (another) manhunt for Joaquin 
Guzman, whose role in the drug trade in the Midwest is such that 
Chicago has named him Public Enemy No. 1, a title last held by Al Capone.

Item: Ultra-conservative and ultra-liberal members of the United 
States Congress mount an attempt to give federal judges more 
discretion in handing out sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

Item: With more than five months remaining in the year, the homicide 
rate in St. Louis soars past the century mark, causing politicians 
and law enforcement officials to hold an emergency press conference.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom