Friday, May 14, 2010

40 Years of the "War on Drugs"

President Nixon started it forty years ago with $100 million in federal funds, when hippies were passing bongs around and soliders were coming home from Nam hooked on heroin.

It's escalated ever since, to gargantuan proportions. According to a recent AP analysis, the tab now stands at $15.1 billion per year, with a cumulative total of approximately $1 trillion spent.

$1 trillion! A few billion here, a few billion there . . . and pretty soon we're talking about real money. (For example, the AP estimates that about $33 million went to "just say no" educational messages of the type closely associated with Nancy Reagan.)

The Obama administration proposes to treat drug problems with a more holistic strategy, as matter of public health as much as criminal justice. Drug policy coordinator (aka "czar") Gil Kerlikowske argues that busting drug dealers and cutting off drugs at the border only take you only so far, if you don't tackle the underlying addiction that drives the demand.

This makes sense to me, and I'm hoping we can finally turn the drug policy Titanic around. We hit the metaphorical iceberg a full generation ago, after the drug overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias and political opportunism occasioned draconian increases in federal drug sentences. They've never really been rolled back, and the AP estimates there have been 37 million nonviolent drug offenders arrested since the war began. Ten million of those were for marijuana possession.

And of course it usually doesn't stop with arrest; many are jailed or imprisoned. In 2009, half of the inmates in federal prisons were there for drug offenses, and it's cost $450 billion over the last forty years to house this population. That's almost half of the $1 trillion right there.

Yet somehow the national crackdown has staggered on, a self-perpetuating, somnambulist exercise in counter-productivity. (Some will say, "Ah, but the problem would have been so much worse without the War on Drugs." To me, that is a preposterous argument, akin to saying, in 1975, during the helicopter evacutation of the embassy in Saigon, "Ah, but we would have won in Vietnam, if we'd just sent in more troops." Some wars are misconceived from the very beginning, and their failure should not surprise us.

So to the crowded reform agenda: health care, immigration, financial services, add one more: criminal justice reform. And it starts with casting a cold eye on the War on Drugs and its deeply problematic consequences.

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