Friday, February 15, 2013

The War on Drugs has been a catastrophe

Daniel Horwitz

Daniel Horwitz
As a longtime proponent of the legalization and regulation of all drugs, I’ve never quite understood how there can be near-universal consensus among Americans that prohibition of alcohol was a disastrous public policy, while the fact that the very same social ills have resulted from the prohibition of narcotics goes largely unrecognized.  Sitting in attendance last Saturday afternoon during a panel discussion of the documentary “The House I Live In,” however, I was pleasantly surprised by the panelists’ unanimous agreement that the War on Drugs, too, has been a catastrophe.  

“The War on Drugs has been a diabolical, tragic failure,” said David Baker, a Federal Public Defender here in Nashville.  “It has failed the American people in a big way,” added Mike Carpenter, Correctional Chief of Security at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.  “Have we responded to the problem effectively?  No.  In that sense it’s absolutely a failure,” noted Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Little.  “It’s clearly not working, and if that’s your definition of failure, then it is one,” offered Kevin Sharp, District Court Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee.

With a price tag of more than a trillion dollars, millions incarcerated, hundreds of thousands killed and countless families torn apart, one might reasonably expect that the staggering costs of America’s War on Drugs would at least have brought about comparable social benefits by this point in time, given that it now continues into its fifth decade.  If any such benefits have been realized, though, they certainly aren't readily identifiable.  As Correctional Chief Carpenter correctly observed, both access to drugs and overall rates of drug abuse have either increased or remained unchanged since PresidentNixon’s 1971 declaration of war, as have the pharmacological purity of illegal narcotics and the harm that results from their use.  Indeed, “if anything, we've made the problem worse by making the drug trade so profitable that we can't stop it,” he noted.  And all this despite the fact that opening up the drug market to legitimate businesses remains the single most powerful weapon that we can deploy to stem the tide of violence and put drug cartels and inner city gangs out of business for good.  (Why this wasn’t included among President Obama’s list of 23executive actions on gun violence reduction is completely beyond me.)  Stated differently: there is only one reason why Jack Daniel's is thriving today while the Al Capones of the world have ceased to exist, and that reason is called legalization. 
Beyond agreeing that the War on Drugs itself has failed, the panelists were also of the same mind in believing that politicians across the board deserve the lion’s share of the blame for perpetuating the problem.  Given the widespread appeal of the so-called “tough on crime” mantra, of course, there clearly must be something to this view.  It’s hard to ignore, for example, the fact that our last three Presidents – all of whom have acknowledged using illegal drugs themselves at one point or another – each ratcheted up the drug war in various respects during their administrations, and that even Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (a longtime supporter of ending the War on Drugs) noticeably tamped down his anti-Drug War message during his own recent run for President.  At the local level, too, the message is largely the same.  The District Attorney who campaigns for lighter sentences for drug dealers has yet to be elected anywhere, I suspect, and even Nashville Mayor Karl Dean – himself a former Public Defender who knows better – has hardly lifted a finger to stop the bleeding caused by our city’s localized Drug War.  If John Bourque, a Police Sergeant in Nashville’s central precinct who also attended the screening, is tuned in to the fact that Nashville’s judges “see drug addicts with 100, 200, sometimes 300 drug charges on their rap sheet” rotating in and out of our city’s criminal justice system, you can be certain that Mayor Dean is aware of the problem as well. 

Despite the panelists’ unanimous belief that politicians represent the primary threat to drug reform, however, I just can’t help but feel as though the right anti-Drug War message presents a perfect opportunity for enterprising challengers on either side of the aisle.The ovation that Ron Paul received from an ultra-conservative South Carolina audience after advocating for the legalization of heroin (and all other drugs) in June of 2011 should have been instructive on this point, but portraying the drug war as an infringement upon individual liberty definitely isn’t the only option available.  Given the devastating effects that the War on Drugs has had on minority and low income communities, for example, an anti-Drug War message should theoretically be very popular among social liberals.  Indeed, with a full half a million people – most of them poor minorities – currently behind bars for non-violent drug offenses, ending the War on Drugs should properly be considered the most pressing civil rights issue of our time, and it can’t be long before Democratic primary challengers begin standing up and saying it.  Similarly, given both the staggering monetary costs of the drug war ($30,000 per inmate per year) and the ever-increasing degree to which this war has expanded government agencies from the DEA to the ATF to the Coast Guard and so on down the line to every municipal police department in the country, in theory advocates of fiscal conservatism and limited-government should be sympathetic to the cause as well.  And for those who shy away from any political ideology, at some point a variation of this one simple message should begin to carry great weight: “The War on Drugs isn't working, and it’s costing you a huge amount of money.  The next time a politician professes his or her belief in being ‘tough on crime,’ then, you would do well to remember that this really means being tough on your paycheck, without providing you any benefits in return.”

What voters don’t know about the War on Drugs, of course, continues to be a huge problem as well, and it too represents a major obstacle to reform.  That far more harm is caused by the prohibition of drugs than by drug use itself is well documented, for example, but for some reason the disconnect between the empirical data and the electorate still has yet to be bridged.  Most Tennesseans are also presumably unaware that our state arrests more than 18,000 people each year for simple possession of marijuana alone, and that increasing access to drug treatment would be an excellent way to conserve our resources.  (The rampant police abuse that drug laws have engendered in Tennessee and elsewhere is a separate problem.)  Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that sooner or later an informed electorate will dramatically shift the dialogue.  Fortunately, a particularly good illustration of this point came from the final conversation of Saturday’s panel:
“I don't know whether or not it costs more to rehabilitate someone than to lock them in prison.  I just don't,” said Sergeant Bourque, who also mentioned that he most closely identified with the Tea Party. 

“We do,” responded the moderator.  “All the empirical evidence indicates that it’s cheaper to treat someone than to incarcerate them.”  
“Then we need to convince someone to spend our money in the right place,” Sergeant Bourque responded, followed immediately by a loud chorus of applause. 


Daniel Horwitz is a third year law student at Vanderbilt University Law School, where he is the Vice President of Law Students for Social Justice. He can be contacted at

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1 comment:

  1. The below was a Facebook comment from Stephen L. Hale. He is an attorney living in Memphis: Now listen to me.... I've been a criminal defense lawyer for nearly a quarter of a century...I've represented hundreds (if not thousands) of people charged with a drug offense.... the war on drugs has failed... the number of clients had NEVER dropped... incarceration is astronomically expensive and it does NOTHING to stem the availability of dope.... We are wasting BILLIONS on this.... the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results..... I'm not some liberal when it comes to crime.... but understand... this war exist for one reason... to make money for law enforcement and private prisons.... I know what I'm talking about....

    The state needs to develop drug courts and serious inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facilities .... these steps will save megbucks and will be more effective than the failed policies promulgated by rhetorical politicians that have no idea how to address addiction..... so.... they do the popular thing and pass more laws.... and collect campaign funds from companies that make Millions by operating private prisons.... It is ALL about the money.

    and for every drug dealer the cops put in jail.... 3 more are jumping up to take his place.... as long as people will pay money for long as people suffer from addiction...there will be dealers ready to take their money.... you come back ad talk to me when your child gets addicted... tell me how successful this war on drugs has been.