It’s time that we, the American people, take a long hard look at our drug policy over the last 50 years. What has been the outcome of our War on Drugs? Has drug use declined as a result? No. Has drug related violent crime decreased? No. Have minorities been disproportionately targeted? Yes. Did corporate America have something to gain from the Drug War? Yes. So why, after 50 years, are we still wasting money and resources to fight an unwinnable war?
Nobody today disputes that, looking back, the 18th Amendment was a bad idea. A prohibition on alcohol was not only impractical, and nearly impossible to enforce, but it also shifted the balance of power from the government, as a taxed and regulated substance, to violent and organized crime, where they had a monopoly on the alcohol market, which led to a massive spike in the violent crime rate. Today, almost 100 years later, we have a similar issue in regards to drugs. The balance of power is in the favor of violent crime organizations, such as the Mexican Cartel, and not in the favor of the United States Government, where drugs could be taxed, regulated, and, essentially, eliminate violent crime organizations from their current position of power. In examining this policy, do the costs, allowing violent crime to control Latin America, outweigh the benefits, a “drug free” society? No, the Drug War fails on every level, in fact, drug use is actually increasing. In a period from 2002-2013 9.4%, or 24.6 million people, admitted to using an illicit drug within the past month, an increase from 8.3% in 2002 according to the Nation Institute on Drug Abuse.
The War on Drugs is not only a failure through historical precedent, it is also directly responsible for the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, especially young black males. Don’t take my word for it, however, here is what John Ehrlichman, Chief Domestic Advisor to Richard Nixon, had to say to journalist Dan Baum about Nixon’s intentions at the Drug War’s inception,”The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing them both heavily we could disrupt those communities.” Those words, truely, speak for themselves. Since launching the campaign, Nixon got exactly what he was hoping for: 20% of Whites, compared to 10% of Blacks, say to have tried Cocaine, a 46% to 40% ratio for marijuana use, yet Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for crimes relating to those drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Additionally, besides having their chances of being arrested for drug related crimes quadrupled, Blacks, on average, serve sentences 20% longer than their White counterparts. Most of this is to due to mandatory minimums, which, again, target Black communities. (See a theme here?) With the current mandatory minimum placed on crack cocaine, which plagues predominantly Black communities, an individual would need 18 times the amount of powdered cocaine in order to equal the corresponding sentence for crack cocaine.
Who benefits from these disparities, though? Richard Nixon left office long ago, so who still stands to benefit from this policy? The usual suspects of course: corporations, special interests, lobbyists, big money donors, and the legislators who are funded by these respective groups. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the private prison industry, the largest and most infamous of these being GEO Group and Correction Corporation of America, who have spent a combined $35 million on campaigns and lobbying efforts. Despite the crime rate between 1983, the founding year of CCA, and 2014 being decreased significantly, the incarceration rate has increased by 500%. This is what happens when you inject a profit motive into the criminal justice system, you erase any incentive to lower the retention rate, provide rehabilitation programs, and legalize or decriminalize any type of substance because it would cut out a large portion of “customers”, thus greatly reducing profits. CCA has already thought of this, however, in a quote from their annual report in 2014:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
Private prisons aren’t the only ones who benefit from prohibition, however, big pharma also has much to gain through our drug policy. If you take away alternative forms of medication, leaving only the medications that your company provides or making legal forms of alternate drug treatment ludicrously expensive, then you effectively have zero competition and a monopoly on the market. What exactly does big pharma have to gain from more people turning to medicinal Marijuana during chemotherapy than pain killers, or from people using, more effective, Ketamine treatments instead of antidepressants, or a single Ibogaine treatment to cure Heroin addiction? Legalizing these drugs and adapting them for use in the field of medicine poses a great threat to these companies profits, which is why they spent $230,000,000 in lobbying efforts in 2015.
Now, say by some miracle legislators can look through their green paper blinders and all drugs in this country do become decriminalized or legal, what could the outcome be? Though we can’t see into the future, other countries have already implemented these policies and based on their results we can estimate the impact it would have on our country. A perfect example is Portugal, who decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and saw an overall drop in overall drug use amongst its citizens within the first ten years. Within the European Union, Portugal had the lowest usage of marijuana in people over 15, 10%, lifetime Heroin use in people 16-18, from 2.5% to 1.8%, overall lifetime usage in seventh through ninth graders, from 14.01% to 10.6%, and overall HIV rates, which fell by 17%. The studies author, Glenn Greenwald, had this to say about the results, “By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment.”
With policy that mirrors that of Portugal’s, people in the United States could seek treatment without fear of reprisal, needle exchange programs could be opened, and we could begin having sensible and intelligent conversation about drugs in this country and end the stigma of “all drugs are all bad all the time.”