Commentary: War on Drugs is a public policy failure | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: War on Drugs is a public policy failure

Sep 26, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2011 - In 1971, then President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs." This war has been fought unceasingly for 40 years and it has failed, according to the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

In a report issued last June, the commission detailed how this war has had devastating consequences on individuals and societies. Because of the failures described in the report, we need new, non-ideological thinking to produce fundamental reforms in our national and global drug control policies.

The Drug Enforcement Agency says we are winning the War on Drugs, even though Centers for Disease Control statistics show that approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population used illegal drugs in the past month. We do not think that this is a measure of "winning" this war.

In comparison to the anti-drug effort, let's look at what Prohibition accomplished. It gave us more public drunkenness than any time in our history. It led to the rise of powerful, ruthless criminal gangs and the violence associated with them. It was not a romantic period, even though gangsters were glorified in popular culture. Sound familiar?

The CDC cites statistics showing more than 27,000 drug overdose deaths in a recent year: approximately 2,000 from heroin, 5,000 from cocaine use and 20,000 from prescription painkillers. No known deaths are attributed to marijuana overdose. By contrast, approximately 75,000 overdose deaths (poisonings) by alcohol are reported annually. In 2005, around 150,000 people died from lung cancer (85 percent of which due to smoking). Yet, according to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, we spent $44 billion on the war on drugs in 2008. Over 10 years, that is getting close to a half a trillion dollars to prosecute people for selling or using drugs that kill people at about 10 percent of the rate of alcohol and about 5 percent of the rate of smoking. Something is wrong here.

We are not suggesting that such drugs as meth or heroin are good for you, but there has always been a demand for drugs. We need to think outside of a prison cell.

Most studies show that drug use rates do not differ between racial or socioeconomic groups. Data show that even though the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, 75 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses are dark-skinned minorities. Why?

Our prison population has gone from a half million inmates at the start of the Reagan administration to 2.5 million inmates today. While we have roughly 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's prison population. The problem is the law and we, as a society need to pressure legislators to change our drug laws.

Until 1914, there were no drug laws in this country. At that time, estimates were that 0.25 to 1 percent of the population was addicted to morphine. Most were middle-age Midwestern and Southern housewives. Around the time of congressional hearings on drugs, stories of "drug-crazed Negroes" raping white women were in every newspaper. Many commentators think that the Harrison Act, which outlawed most drugs except marijuana, was passed because of racial fears.

Michele Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," makes the point that an astounding percentage of the African-American community is warehoused in prisons and/or trapped in a permanent second class citizen status because of the War on Drugs. At any given time, the author of their piece who has been a public defender has a caseload that is one-third or one-half drug related. All of her clients are poor and most are minorities.

Undercover drug police go into poor, minority neighborhoods and ask someone on the street where they can get drugs. Often, they offer the person money or some of the drugs to show them. Once the person comes back with drugs, he or she is charged with sales of controlled substances. For this "B" felony, a person can get five to 15 years in prison. When you see statistics of how many "drug dealers" were arrested, be aware that many are addicts who are selling drugs to support their habits. In a recent case, the defendant had prior convictions and was stopped for traffic violations. He had a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, less than 35 grams, but because it was in two Baggies, the prosecutor claimed he was going to sell the drug and charged him with the "B" felony of sales, rather than the misdemeanor.

In a criminal matter, the best outcome is to be found "not guilty." The next best outcome is an SIS, suspended imposition of sentence, and probation. Defendants are told that an SIS is not a conviction on your record for the purposes of employment. That is correct if you apply for nearly any blue color job or sales job. However, it stays on your record for law enforcement, government agencies and more.

Anytime you apply for any job that requires a professional license you have to disclose it. It can't be expunged; it is on your record for life. Is that really what we want to do to our young people? Isn't it hard enough to get a job?

Drug convictions can even be accessed by the public on Casenet, a free public website. And a non-governmental employer can find out about a conviction by asking the applicant to get his own police report and the SIS will show up. An SIS isn't what it's purported to be.

If you are a student receiving financial aid, a drug related conviction could trigger mandatory repayment of the loan. In some states, criminal felony convictions, bar a person from voting permanently. Felony convictions result in a lifetime bar from jury service.

Drug-related felony convictions come with a lifetime bar on food stamps and on eligibility for public housing. And drug convictions can result in forfeiture of your home, car, all your assets, custody of your children and even termination of parental rights.

There are three ways to receive a sentence of life without parole in Missouri: rape of a child, deliberate (first degree) murder and persistent drug convictions.

Beyond all these, incarceration has consequences for families including the inmate's spouses, parents and children.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has made a number of common-sense recommendations:

  1. Stop vindictive prosecution of our young people and our poor citizens 
  2. Break the taboo on debate and reform
  3. Encourage governments to legally regulate drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens
  4. Offer a variety of health and treatment services and abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment
  5. Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures
  6. Invest in serious drug education programs (not slogans like "just Say No") to prevent young people from taking drugs and to prevent drug users from developing more serious problems, like AIDS and other infections
  7. Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, not on individuals
  8. Focus law enforcement on reducing drug harm to individuals, communities and national security
  9. Replace ideology-driven drug policies with policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights. Adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation.

The government has given us many myths about what would happen if we legalized drugs. We have some real data on what happens when drugs are decriminalized that show that the myths are false. Here is what happened in a real country.

Portugal had the worst drug problem in Europe in the 1990s and recognized that its "War on Drugs" was a failure. It decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs by individuals in 2001. Most of the recommendations above were put into place. Portugal did not turn into a charnel house of drug deaths. Its economy did not collapse because people could use drugs without penalty. The data are exactly the opposite of what we have been led to believe by the anti-drug crusaders in this country.

  1. Drug deaths are down 40 percent
  2. Crime is down
  3. HIV/AIDS incidence is down 17 percent
  4. Drug treatment rates have doubled because people are voluntarily getting treatment
  5. Marijuana use among teens fell 33 percent because it is no longer forbidden and glamorous
  6. Drug use remained stable and only increased at the same rate as the rest of the world.

Dennis Owsley holds a PhD in organic chemistry and has lectured on structure and activity relationships between mind-affecting drugs since the early 1980s. Sara Serot is a criminal defense attorney who has worked as a Missouri Public Defender for 18 years.