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Why the War on Drugs Weakens America

September 19, 2011
Cmon.  It made me giggle.

Uncle Sam Battling the Many Headed Monster of Addiction

The Anecdote

The power steering and the brakes failed at the exact same time; a design flaw in the truck. We were going 30 miles per hour down a one lane highway. I spared a quick glance into the back of the truck and saw my two brothers, two cousins, and a brother’s girlfriend all giggling behind me. Great, if I crashed, I’d manage to kill all of the next generations of my family. Fighting incipient panic, I managed to get the van off of the main road and onto a dark side road. It was around midnight, and the woods pressed in around us. With bruises on my hands from attempting to wrestle the steering wheel, I succeeded in turning the van around and stopping it. I let out a shaky exhalation. And tried to call my uncle, the owner of the unsafe truck. He had no reception. My aunt. Straight to voicemail. My father…

Suddenly, my brother’s face was awash in oscillating blue and white light. A police car had already managed to find us. An officer got out of the car just as another police officer came from the other side of the small off road; we were surrounded.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” I exclaimed. I began to explain what had happened and asked if there was anything they could do to help. The cops said very little, they shone their flashlights in the van and then at my cousins’ faces.

Rounding on us again, one asked abruptly, “How old are all of you?” The relevance of this question to the situation at hand seemed hardly important, but I tersely answered him, pointing at the child in question and telling him their ages. I finished with my own: 22 years old and counting. His partner came up next to him.

“Did any of you throw something in the woods? Do you have anything you shouldn’t in the truck?”

Now I was indignant. I had just survived a terrifying failure of technology, we needed help, we had done nothing wrong (okay, besides having six people in a van with only two seat-belted seats…) and here the police officer was, treating us as guilty of drug use. For no reason besides that we were young and on a side road at night.

“No!” I snapped, and then rest of the kids chorused after me.

“Why is there a beer bottle in here? Are you intoxicated?”

My jaw twitched. “I drank half a bottle of beer at the drive in movie theater we went to tonight while the car was parked. Please feel free to breathalyze me or make me walk a straight line because I am in no way under the influence. We are here because the truck’s brakes stopped working.”

“We are just doing the cop thing, ma’am. No need to get upset.”

Just then, my uncle and aunt arrived. One of my cousins had succeeded in getting through the poor reception when I had not. With their arrival, the police officer’s aggression levels seemed to deflate. When my uncle got into the truck and pronounced the steering and brakes dead, the cops completely believed him and dissipated into the night like fog.

They did nothing that night besides harass us. They didn’t call a tow truck, offer to try to reach my uncle or aunt on their better reception-ed special cop phones, offer to drive us home, call a cab to pick us up or do anything useful what so ever. They decided that the best way for them to protect and serve the American population was to treat us as guilty-until-proven-innocent substance abusers.

The Resultant Thesis

The police, saving society from thugs like me.

This example merely serves as one of myriad cases of the breakdown between the police and the citizenry they ostensibly protect. Ask around a dinner table almost anywhere in America and you will hear almost universally negative stories about interactions with the police force. And if you are driving a car, and see a police car on the side of the road, don’t you slow down instinctively even if already driving the speed limit? Police officers are not generally viewed as protector, benevolent figures. They are seen as obstacles to living, an unpleasant reality to existing in a society, and they are to be avoided at all costs.

My theory is that the war on drugs is directly responsible for this disconnect, and that drug legalization polices should be pursued even as zero tolerance and the notorious “three strikes you’re out!” policies are revoked. (Okay, okay, this is hardly just my theory, The Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report in June 2011 with similar views, stated more eloquently. Also, the commission was endorsed by Jimmy Carter for whatever that is worth.)

“No, Mr. Gruff, I won't take Advil ever again!  Don't hurt me, please."

This mutt haunted my sixth grade nightmares.

It wasn’t until recently I came to this viewpoint; I had always viewed the pro-Marijuana folks as druggies who just wanted to make their habit that much easier. (The puritanical DARE dog spirit has never been fully expunged from grade school).

The libertarian argument of “this is my body, this is my choice, let me do what the hell I want” never was that persuasive to me. But now I realize that the war on drugs is so detrimental to America not just because of the drug users that this policy directly effects, but because of the mentality it develops of cops pursuing victimless crimes over violent ones, of ‘Average Joe’ citizens being punished instead of protected. In addition, the war on drugs has been the number one reason for an increase in costs in the prison system and also results in America jailing the largest numbers of its own citizens in the entire world, proportional to population.

So with that, let’s attack this issue, starting with regulation arguments, moving to penalties and incarceration rates, touching on certain economic and political realities in the process.

The Impacts of Regulation: All Drugs are Not Created Equal

So, first what does it mean to support the legalization and regulation of currently illegal drugs? It wouldn’t be just that suddenly the dealing and taking of cocaine, PCP and heroin is decriminalized and sold in CVSs near you. There would need to be a system of drug classification, as well as a method of monitoring and administrating drugs that was highly specialized, determined by factors such as the drug’s addictiveness, side effects, ease of overdose, tolerance buildup and other similar issues. Hence, the laws surrounding drugs such as cannabis would be very different than the regulation of more ‘serious’ drugs such as a the aforementioned opiates.

Currently, there are many drugs that are addictive and can have devastating effects on the human body that are perfectly legal: they are regulated as prescription medicine, requiring a doctor’s oversight, instead of being over the counter. Thus, legalizing and then regulating currently illegal drugs wouldn’t necessarily require a totally new system of regulation, which I feel is a misconception that many have. Rather, regulation of these drugs would be in accordance with current systems of substance bureaucracy, with the more ‘dangerous’ drugs requiring prescriptions from medical professionals.

Oh, but it is classified the same.

Since 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, all substances deemed drugs are classified in a system of “schedules” 1 through 5, with Schedule 1 Controlled Substances as the most dangerous and Schedule 5 Controlled Substances as the least. In this system, there are three factors that are considered in the classification of the substance:

(A) Whether the drug has a high potential for abuse

(B) Whether the drug has a currently accepted medical use in treatment

(C) Whether abuse of the drug may lead to physical or psychological dependence

Under this system, cannabis and heroin are both, somewhat paradoxically, listed as Schedule 1 substances, but for very different reasons. Heroin has a high abuse factor, and quickly leads to physical and psychological addiction, but it also has some medical uses, especially abroad, and is used as a painkiller. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 for a very different reason: it is deemed to have no medical use whatsoever, despite there being no known THC overdoses and low physical dependance. But because factor B has historically proven to be the most salient factor in drug classification (See how morphine is listed as a Schedule 2 drug, despite being four times more potent than heroin.  The reason? Its 150 years of use as a painkiller prescribed in hospitals).

 Side Note

The most recent political move by cannabis supporters is to try to legalize marijuana on medical grounds- since 2002, 16 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. This is bizarre. It seems completely illogical that marijuana (despite some recent claims to an ‘anti-nausea’ effect) would actually be used in any medicinal capacity- like smoking tobacco or drinking, pot smoking is done for the substance high. Let’s be honest, people. It seems a dangerous precedent to me to lie about the motivation behind legalizing a substance, especially since it will be much harder to prove legislatively that marijuana has medical use (cause it doesn’t) than that it doesn’t do much harm as substances go and therefore should be treated like tobacco or alcohol.

These M&Ms must be advertising marijuana's long scientifically proven medical uses, especially for children!

Side Note Over: Back to Regulation

What I support, therefore, is a careful reevaluation on several currently completely illegal Schedule 1 and 2 substances on their biological merits, with less emphasis on historical and societal influences. With this logic, cannabis would probably be legalized and regulated like alcohol or tobacco with a high luxury tax. And substances such as heroin would probably stay illegal (or at least highly regulated) Schedule 1 drugs.

With this regulation and integration of commonly used ‘illegal’ drugs, several good things would begin to occur. Government regulation would increase consumer protection, as the standards for drugs would have to be safe (i.e. no lacing of drugs with other substances, no sharing of previously used and possibly HIV dirty needles). Consumers would also be protected in terms of the government being present to deal with the consequences of drug use: there would be an increase of clinics and a decrease of stigma of attending those clinics where drug consumers could wean off of addictions of get doses of drugs with clean needles instead of off the street.  And best of all, the money to pay for these kind of addiction clinics would come from the taxes on the substances and from the money saved not having the incarcerate so many drug users. What more, police officers (Remember the beginning of this post?) would not have to become victimless crime crusaders on nearly the same level. This, my friends, is what you call a win-win-win situation.

Why Incarcerating Drug Abusers Isn’t Smart

I think this is Buster Keaton.

I’ve addressed why certain substances should be re-classified, and how new determinations can be made. Legalizing certain substances (and decreasing penalties and incarceration times for even the worst substance abuse) also makes sense on the economic and societal level, especially in regards to incarceration rates in America.

“Substance-involved people have come to compose a large portion of the prison population. Substance use may play a role in the commission of certain crimes: approximately 16 percent of people in state prison and 18 percent of people in federal prison reported committing their crimes to obtain money for drugs… The United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities. There are currently more than 2 million people in American prisons or jails. Approximately one-quarter of those people held in U.S. prisons or jails have been convicted of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country. With an estimated 6.8 million Americans struggling with drug abuse or dependence, the growth of the prison population continues to be driven largely by incarceration for drug offenses.” – Justice Policy

Number of sentenced prisoners in federal prison by most serious offense
Offense 2000 2008 2009 Share 2009 % Chg 2000-2009
TOTAL 131,739 182,333 187,886 100.0% +42.6%
Violent 13,740 15,483 14,773 7.9% +7.5%
Property 10,135 11,080 10,913 5.8% +7.7%
Drug 74,276 95,079 95,205 50.7% +28.2%
Public-order 32,325 59,298 65,678 35.0% +103.2%
Other/unspecified 1,263 1,394 1,317 0.7% +4.3%

To summarize, incarceration rates due to drug related offenses have risen dramatically since 1970. Harsh penalties on drug users and other non-violent offenders has the effect of creating a perpetual system of the lower class (permanent records are used as an easy system of weeding out new employees, which in turn leads to an inability to find jobs, turning to crime which leads to more on permanent record, etc.) and perpetuates a mentality of punishment over rehabilitation, which does little to lessen incidents of drug related crimes. The famous ‘jail acts as a deterrent’ logic doesn’t pan out with drug users, especially once addiction, whether mental or physical, is involved. This fact is reinforced by the large numbers of ‘repeat’ drug offenders, as well as the aforementioned numbers concerning incarceration rates as a whole.

In addition, substance abuse offenses are disproportionally punished when compared to other non-violent crimes. In 2000, the average federal sentence for drug felonies was 75.6 months in jail, with a median sentence of 55 months. This was easily the longest time period of incarceration of all non-violent crimes offenders. The next highest federal sentences were for non-regulatory public-order felonies (immigration and weapon dealing for instance) and these offenders spent on average 46.5 months in prison (median of 30 months). That is a disparity of almost 2.5 years, on average, between drug offenders sentences and the second most harshly judged type of non-violent crime.

Besides being an inefficient method of deterrence for the common drug user, discriminatory, and a poor system of rehabilitation, enforcing drug laws and imprisoning its offenders is a huge financial drain on the United States government. Not only does the government lose on potential revenue from regulation, but there are costs associated with time and money lost by police focusing on non-violent crimes, and the costs associated per prisoner incarcerated.

For instance, a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime.In comparison, prisons only yield $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent. To put this in a larger context, in 2000 alone, the government spent nearly $40 billion on prisons, with almost $24 billion of that sum devoted to incarcerating 1.2 million nonviolent offenders, a majority of which were substance users.

Considering how strapped for cash the United States government currently is, it seems staggering that this draconian and expensive policy of incarceration still exists for the non-violent offender. The ‘war on drugs’ proves also to be a war on economic sensibility and common sense.

Conclusions: Linking Back to the Police

If the United States did not have an active history of puritanical policies against drugs, would my encounter with those police officers on that night have been any different? Impossible to say for certain. But it is likely that the mentality towards victimless crimes would be very different, and with that, the methods of interrogating and dealing with innocent citizens with car troubles gentler and a bit more constructive. It seems to me that the war on drugs doesn’t really make sense on any level, not from protecting people from themselves, not financially, not in terms of rehabilitation. Lawmakers need to reevaluate current substance policies critically, and not just accept blindly that a policy codified in 1970 is necessarily best for the new millennium. Will this happen anytime soon? Of course not.

But still, I’ll leave you with this image……

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bryan permalink
    September 20, 2011 3:42 AM

    Nice. 🙂

  2. September 25, 2011 2:51 AM

    We are under a “government of laws”, not a “government of men”. But if someone can plant drugs among your belongings, and if you are then required to prove that the drugs are not yours (which you can’t), then you are under a government of men, namely of those who are willing to plant evidence. Therefore the reverse onus of proof cannot be valid in any jurisdiction.

    More: .

  3. Anonymous permalink
    October 16, 2011 5:19 PM

    in response to:

    “The most recent political move by cannabis supporters is to try to legalize marijuana on medical grounds- since 2002, 16 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. This is bizarre. It seems completely illogical that marijuana (despite some recent claims to an ‘anti-nausea’ effect) would actually be used in any medicinal capacity- like smoking tobacco or drinking, pot smoking is done for the substance high. Let’s be honest, people. It seems a dangerous precedent to me to lie about the motivation behind legalizing a substance, especially since it will be much harder to prove legislatively that marijuana has medical use (cause it doesn’t) than that it doesn’t do much harm as substances go and therefore should be treated like tobacco or alcohol.”

    No medical use whatsoever? a flat ’cause it doesn’t’? Only done for the substance high? I’m going to have to disagree… for a significant number of people who don’t do it for the high, who use it legitimately… for anxiety attacks, focus problems, recurring aches and pains, anti-nausea, and insomnia relief… the relieving reports alone for people going through chemotherapy.

    Jonathan even said ‘of course it does’ [have medical uses] in his facebook post in response to the beginning of this topic…it surprises me that you disregard his opinion so easily.

    “This in turn brings us to marijuana and hashish, which unlike opiates, coca, amphetamines and sedatives are deemed to have “no medicinal uses.” My own view of that is that they are in the wrong category — of course they have medicinal uses, as anti-nausea drugs, for instance — and unlike the other drugs discussed, they are not as addictive, not especially lethal, and do not rapidly develop tolerance. So I would separate out those drugs from the remainder. (I do not buy the “gateway drug’ argument myself.)”

    I’m not saying that it’s not done for the high, I’m not saying it’s not a party drug often, and I’m especially not defending the percentage of medical marijuana card holders that are simply exaggerating or falsifying symptoms in order the get the prescription… but I know from the people I’ve met, talked to and work with that not everyone is like that… many people are legitimate and measured in their use, most aren’t ‘high’ as the world sees it, but consistently smoke small amounts and reach a level that calms or relieves their anxiety, lack of focus, nausea or pain. Some people are some of both factions, using it to help with pain on occasion (back trouble, menstrual cramps, other possible recurring situations) and also as a fun or party drug. There is a whole other denomination, or set thereof, of those who smoke for creativity, or to help shape or channel it.

    I don’t have a specific plan to suggest to differentiate these groups of people or suggest anything to do with post-legalization tax, luxury tax, prescription specifics… etc. That’s not something I’ve looked enough into or thought about yet, nor am I educated enough to really say anything or recognize all or even most possibilities. But… I found your easy dismissal without having really talked to a lot of people or done research outside of a few claims surprising too.

    I’m just googling stuff now… because I haven’t. one of the first results is about it helping with Chron’s disease which I now remember I have a friend with that and he medicates with marijuana.

    Here’s the chron’s report:

    Here’s something interesting with a quick background to long standing medical use:

    Here’s some recent uses/treatments for patients:

    Here’s a feature in the LA times about various medical uses::,0,3084928.story

    Here’s an opposing article that really pushes the ‘addiction’ factor, which I think is written misleadingly and overblown:

    …BUT even it says:
    “There is no doubt that Marijuana has properties of alleviating certain symptoms such as nausea, pressure, pain, while stimulating appetite;….”

    I’m too tired to find much more now… but all this is super interesting. But anyways… before I forget! I don’t know how I’d get through my cramps without weed… they absolutely destroy me, I curl up in misery for about 3 days straight. I can’t work, I can’t do damn near anything but be in misery and marijuana helps. It’s actually amazing. And yeah, I smoke for fun, this is established… but it is a savior in a way ibuprofen and such have never been.

    anyways… just surprised to see you so dismissive of something you don’t seem to have talked to a lot of people about. can we talk about it more? I’m still learning a lot and meeting a lot of different people with specific backgrounds and medical needs, so it’s very interesting and I want to help the drug with it’s bad stigma, because I think it’s harsh and undeserved in a lot of ways.


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