Source: Blade, The (OH) 
Copyright: 1999 The Blade
Pubdate: Thu, 4 Mar 1999
Section: Pages of Opinion, Page 15
Contact:  541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660
Author: Molly Ivins
Note: Molly Ivins is a columnist For The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her
columns appear in many U.S. newspapers, often with different headlines by
the newspapers. The Common Sense for Drug Policy ads are at


IT's an odd country, really. Our largest growth industries are gambling and
prisons. But as you may have heard, crimes rates are dropping. We're not
putting people into prison for hurting other people. We're putting them
into prison for using drugs, and as we already know, that doesn't help them
or us.

Last year, more than 600,000 people in this country were arrested for
possession of marijuana, a drug less harmful for adults than alcohol. And
according to an ad campaign by Common Sense for Drug Policy, a Department
of Health and Human Services study shows that less than I percent of
marijuana users become regular users of cocaine or heroin. But the history
of our drug policy is that there's always some new drug to be frightened
of, usually associated with a feared minority group, as opium was with
Asians and marijuana with Mexicans. And in the 1980s, along came crack,
associated with inner-city blacks.

According to a series in the. New York Times, "Crack poisoned many
communities. Dealers turned neighborhoods into drug markets. As heavily
armed gangs fought over turf, murder rates shot up. Authorities warned that
crack was instantly addictive and spreading rapidly and predicted that a
generation of crack babies would bear the drug's imprint. It looked like a
nightmare with no end.

"But for all the havoc wreaked by crack, the worst fears were not realized.
Crack appealed mainly to hard-core drug users. The number of crack users
began falling not long after surveys began counting them. A decade later,
the violence of the crack trade has burned out, and the murder rates have

Which would be great news, except for Boots Cooper's immortal dictum: "Some
things that won't hurt you will scare you so bad that you hurt yourself."
And you should see what fear of crack has done to the American system of
criminal justice.

The Times reports that every 20 seconds, someone in America is arrested for
a drug violation. Every week, a new jail or prison is built to house them
all in what is now the world's largest penal system.

A lethal combination of media sensationalism and political lawand-order
opportunism pushed through a virulent stew of get-tough-on-drugs laws. The
worst were mandatory minimum sentences and the three-strikes-and-you're-out

A further distortion in the system produced by these wacky laws is that
good behavior can no longer get you out of prison early; the only way out
is to roll over on somebody else.

And so another unhappy consequence of our fear of crack is that more and
more people are being convicted of crimes they never committed because
other people in prison are willing to lie about them.

"Since 1985, the nation's jail and prison population has grown 130 percent,
and it will soon pass 2 million, even as crime rates continue a six-year
decline," reports the Times. And on top of that is the particularly ugly
racist distortion in the law.

The gross disparities in sentencing between powder cocaine users (largely
white) and crack users constitute one of the open scandals of America. What
is less well known is that most crack users are white, too. But law
enforcement has so heavily targeted inner-city blacks that black users are
jailed at a far higher rate.

But none of this has reduced illicit drug use. Far fewer Americans use
drugs today than did at the peak years in the 1970s, but almost all of the
drop occurred before crack or the laws passed in response to it, according
to the Times.

Unless you are a drug user or know somebody in the joint, all this may seem
far removed from your life, It's not. They're taking money away from your
kids' schools to pay for all this, from helping people who are mentally
retarded and mentally ill, from mass transit and public housing and more
parkland and ... 
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