The USA Cannot Continue to Ignore the Failure of its Drug Policy.

Posted: August 27, 2011 in Political and Social Issues, Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , ,

As this ‘war’ drags on, the US refuses to acknowledge the failure of its policy in the face of a staggering prison population, a crumbling Mexico, and global criticism. As the debt problem develops into a debt crisis, US law enforcement continues to squander enormous resources on an unconstitutional and counterproductive fight against various recreational drugs. Despite the harm caused by the War on Drugs (WoD), the nation’s leaders remain fairly unanimous in their efforts to uphold current policy and ignore the glaring evidence of its failure. (In the current general election season the only viable candidate acknowledging the need to repeal the entirety of this misguided legislation is Dr Ron Paul, whose reward is often to be slandered as a proponent of drug abuse by opponents who rely on defamatory soundbites rather than reasoned arguments). Of those who question current policy, many stop at the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. Their opponents criticize them on the grounds that legalization of marijuana would erode the WoD as a whole, that the legalization of one drug is a slippery slope leading to legalization of all. In fact, it is critical that reform of current drug policy not stop at marijuana. It is critical that the entire War on Drugs come to an end.

The WoD began with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, implemented by the Nixon Administration. The legislation divides all controlled substances into five schedules based on potential for abuse, medical potential, and safety. Title 2 of the act goes on to regulate or restrict the production, sale, and use of various drugs as well as the materials required to produce them.  50 years before, the US had enacted a prohibition of alcohol with disastrous consequences. As organized crime syndicates grew from the black market created by the ban, they clashed with authorities and with one another, leading to a decade of violence and bloodshed. 13 years later the ban finally ended, as former proponents across the nation acknowledged its utter failure. It was a lesson hard learned, yet it was soon forgotten.

Within a few years, wealthy and powerful men such as Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of Treasury, and Randolph Hearst, a democratic congressman, began to feel threatened by the production of hemp. A government report had been released concluding that a new technique made it possible to produce paper from the fiber more cheaply and easily than from wood, which threatened Hearst’s vast timber holdings. Mellon had invested heavily in nylon, and for the emerging industry to get a foothold it had to compete with traditional hemp fiber. Such economic interests created a political environment hostile not only to the strain of cannabis used to produce hemp, but all strains of cannabis by association. In 1937 a new tax was created by the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act to discourage the sale of the drug, with severe penalties for violation, and the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics began a campaign against marijuana use. The Boggs Act of 1951 created minimum sentencing for possession of marijuana and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 made the penalties harsher yet. The various anti-hemp/marijuana legislation was rationalized with absurd claims of widespread addiction and users driven to madness. As the drug was more popular among the hispanic and African-American populations, campaigns were often laced with racist rhetoric to generate public disapproval. (This racist element is still strong today).

Fast forward to the Nixon administration and the WoD begins in earnest. As a global initiative, the WoD wasn’t merely a matter of US domestic policy, but also became part of the USA’s imperialist agenda of using economic sanctions/aid and military force to defend its interests and push its policy across the world rather than leading by example and allowing other nations to manage their own affairs as friends and equals. (For example, in 1989 the US invaded Panama to remove then general-dictator Noriega, a known drug trafficker who had formerly worked with the George H. W. Bush administration and the CIA to resist the spread of Communism in South America).

Since then, the efficacy of the WoD has all too often been measured by the arrests made and the product destroyed. These numbers are high and rising, and proponents point to this as proof of the ban’s success, but remember that the goal of the WoD is not (ostensibly) to arrest people or burn things, but to stop the use of ‘dangerous’ recreational drugs and improve public health. These measures, then, indicate not success but collateral damage. They demonstrate that there is a struggle, and that lives are being ruined, but do not indicate what effect this has on society. Meanwhile drug use continues to rise internationally and at home.

The WoD, like alcohol prohibition before it, has also created a booming black market, and as a result a powerful criminal element at home and abroad. Rather than taxing and regulating the drug market as a profitable and relatively safe industry, the US government has turned it over completely to gangs and criminal cartels with no oversight. Many of the claims levied against illegal drugs, that their purchase strengthens criminal elements, that the industry is unregulated and so the consumer is often at risk of purchasing products produced in unsafe conditions or cut with other, unknown products, etc are results not of the drug industry itself, but of our turning that entire industry into a criminal market. I have even heard the high costs of the WoD itself, the money spent and lives ruined, touted as proof that drugs are harmful to society, rather than as serious consequences of our policy.

Speaking of high costs, the federal government spent around 15 billion dollars fighting the WoD in 2010. State and local governments that year are estimated to have spent an additional 25 billion dollars. In 2009, around 858,000 Americans were incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses alone, and of those citizens approximately 89% were charged with possession only. And what of those arrests? Who is arrested and are they reformed? Non-violent drug offenders are placed in hostile and dangerous prison environments for years before being released again into society, with a severely compromised ability to seek education or employment. Do we truly believe that this sort of treatment will make them more willing and able to function as law-abiding citizens? Our nation’s leaders, more interested in currying political favor than enacting sound policy and afraid of being labeled ‘weak on crime’, pass mandatory-sentence legislation which cripples the power of the judge to decide what punishment is appropriate on a case-by-case basis and leads to legally enforced racism. (For example, mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine is much harsher than for powder. Crack cocaine is much cheaper than powder cocaine, and so much more prevalent among poorer minorities than their white counterparts.)

I have discussed the pragmatic aspect of the WoD, but there is a considerable ethical element as well. In favor of the WoD, there are those who believe, for personal or religious reasons, that the use of drugs to adjust one’s state of mind is immoral, though strangely enough this belief often does not extend to such drugs as alcohol, tobacco, anti-depressants, ADD medications, etc. That is all well and good, but it is also fairly arbitrary. I, personally, do not believe it is immoral, and as an American I am guaranteed protection of my personal human rights against the whims of others. Ethically opposed to the WoD is the US Constitution itself. The government is no more entitled to tell me which drugs I can put in my body than it is entitled to regulate my diet and exercise, because it is not the government’s role to oversee my personal health. That is my role alone. The role of government is to protect my rights as a citizen and as an individual. One may argue that there is no protection in the Constitution specifically for the use of drugs. In fact, one could go on infinitely listing individual rights which are not specifically protected. Many of the founders were, on these grounds, opposed to an inclusion of a Bill of Rights entirely, believing it impossible to list all rights and that the exclusion of a right from any list could be used as grounds to empower the government. That is why the founders included the 9th amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This means that a right being left out of the Constitution is not grounds for denying that right. In the case of Roe v Wade, this amendment was even interpreted such that federal protection was given to abortion. This means that if the State wishes to deny the citizen of a right, then the State must demonstrate that the citizen’s exercise of that right is sufficiently damaging to society as a whole to justify its being stripped. In the case of the WoD it has often been demonstrated that the stripping of the right to do what one will with one’s body is itself harmful to society, (see paragraphs above), and not the use of drugs at all.

I also find it interesting that, in discussion of values, personal responsibility is generally left out. The US was once a nation which prided the strength of the individual to take care of itself without government intrusion, as evidenced by the uniquely American transcendentalist movement. The poor came here and made something of themselves, and the self-made man was an all-American image. In the days of Emerson, the individual was expected to be strong and independent. Now we have become a welfare state, and the government is expected to care for us. Unfortunately, hand in hand with this expectation of government care has come government managing of the citizen’s life. This resembles much more the Confucian idea of the parent-child relationship between the State and the citizen than the traditional, American ideas of personal responsibility and freedom from government interference. It has gotten to the point now, with the WoD, that the government is mandating to the citizen what substances the citizen can and cannot put in its body, and the people have accepted this as natural and necessary. Even assuming that the government is actually carrying out this interference in the interests of public health, this creates a truly dangerous precedent. If the individual is not responsible for his/her own health, then it falls eventually to the State to regulate such facets of the citizen’s lifestyle as diet, exercise, medical care, and pastimes. Riding a motorcycle, for instance, even with a helmet, is much more dangerous than driving a car. Health care costs related to transportation could probably be reduced by outlawing the use of motorcycles, and the citizens who no longer enjoyed the right to choose whether or not to use such a device would be kept safer for it.

The WoD has not only proven entirely ineffective and impractical, but as legislation establishing a dangerous precedent for government managing of the individual’s habits is also unsound on Constitutional grounds. You needn’t take me at my word, though. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, comprised of several former presidents, prime ministers, international human rights activists, US statesmen, and even the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, released a damning report concerning the global WoD and the failure of US drug policy. They aren’t the first to do so, and unfortunately they are unlikely to be the last.

  1. The Dude in Scrubs says:

    The premise of the “War on Drugs” is offensive and harmful to the citizen on so many levels, and I appreciate how you tie it into the larger societal paradigm shift from self-determination to delegation to authority. I love listening to the morbidly obese rant about the evils and destructive power of drugs while they Twinkie their faces into diabetes… also interesting that you mention pharmaceuticals. The substances implicated in the most American deaths BY FAR are tobacco and alcohol, followed by PRESCRIPTION opioids (like Lortab) and benzodiazepines (like Xanax). I can’t wait to see our “War on Prescription Drugs” where we raid corporate offices and frog-walk white businessmen to jail for pushing “drugs”.
    Unfortunately, it is similar to our other “War on an Abstraction” in that the people profiting most from the system (supplying materials and support to combat a never-ending disproportionately-hyped problem in a cost-plus arrangement) have more political pull to propagate the system than the mostly uninformed and apathetic tax-payer. It’s big business stalking, beating-up, shooting-up, and incarcerating those who seldom vote… and while the taxpayer foots the bill, private corporations have guaranteed profit.
    The one caveat I have about legalization is that drugs must be recognized as a LUXURY item… I see patients every day with sob stories about the hardship of buying their $4 Walmart drugs who readily admit to smoking at least a pack a day ($4-5 PER DAY) and whip out their smart-phones with data plans during the interview. More on that later…

  2. Trevor Smith says:

    To be fair, it was Dr Paul who first pointed out that it was part of the general shift away from independence and self-determination. I just stole it from him. Well, someone may have done it before him, but that’s where I got it. Although, I also started thinking about this right after I read ‘Walden’, so it may have occurred to me anyway. I know my constant Paul-plugging is a bit much, but there’s a pretty funny video of him making the same point you did.

    It always shocks me to see him get so worked up so quickly when he was younger. Age has certainly cooled his tongue.

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