Abandoning the 'Drug-Free America' Myth

Rush Limbaugh is addicted to OxyContin. Arnold Schwarzenegger smoked pot and consumed anabolic steroids. Most Americans enjoy a daily cup of coffee. The fact is, this country is filled with drugs -- prescription, over-the-counter, illegal and otherwise. The drug warriors have been promising for decades to make America drug-free. Billions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of people are locked up. Yet drugs are as prevalent and easy-to-get as ever.

It's time for a new approach. First off, let's abandon the "drug-free" myth. Clinging to this impossible goal clouds our common sense and perverts our policy priorities. Instead, we should focus on implementing new drug policies that are fiscally responsible and have the goal of keeping Americans safe and healthy.

Drug treatment, for example, works better than prison in helping to stop the cycle of addiction. Just ask Rush. Or Noelle Bush. Or Cindy McCain (John's wife). Unfortunately, half of Americans who need treatment cannot get it. Instead they are taken away from their families and locked in a jail cell for crimes committed primarily against themselves. Those who struggle every day with addiction need help, not a drug charge on their record that could ruin their future chances for jobs, school loans, or public housing.

Federal and state governments flush about $40 billion a year trying to win the war on drugs. The lion's share goes toward busting, trying, and incarcerating nonviolent drug users and petty dealers. The federal prison bill for housing over 78,000 drug offenders exceeds $1.8 billion every year. Most of the men and women in federal prisons for drug offenses are first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Although the feds have the option of running up deficits, states do not. Burdened with massive prison bureaucracies, states are now forced to slash funds for everything else, including schools, healthcare, job creation, and even law enforcement. Yes, that's right. There are fewer cops on the street because states are employing guards, cooks, builders, accountants, and doctors (among others) to provide 24-hour services to petty drug offenders.

In order to save money on prisons, we should roll back the draconian sentencing regimes for nonviolent drug crimes. For instance, in California, possession of less than one ounce of heroin or selling a $10 bag of marijuana can send any adult on an all-expenses-paid trip to the gray bar hotel for three years or more. Three years of prison time costs California taxpayers around $84,000 per prisoner, not including the expenses related to enforcement and legal proceedings.

By abandoning the impossible goal of becoming a "drug-free" society, we can begin to focus our drug education programs on keeping people, especially young people, safe. Instead of programs being evaluated solely on whether they increase or decrease non-problematic, occasional drug use, we can look at how our policies affect rates of death, disease, crime, suffering and their cost to the hard-working taxpayer.

We all live with drugs all around us, whether it's cigarettes or Prozac or pot. We know we can't get rid of them, so let's try instead to reduce the risks associated with them. We can support designated driver campaigns for alcohol drinkers, for example, or syringe exchange programs to help heroin users prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS to each other and their families. We can support drug treatment as an inexpensive and effective way of deterring drug abuse, rather than continuing to try and arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.

Lawmakers should reduce or even eliminate the jail time for nonviolent drug crimes, and earmark the savings from prisons for community policing, drug treatment, and healthcare. Or give it back to us in the form of tax rebates. But for the sake of reason, health, and ultimately justice, we should stop pursuing the hopeless ideal of a "drug-free America".

Glenn Backes, MSW, MPH, is Director of the California Capital Office of Drug Policy Alliance, a national membership organization dedicated to developing alternatives to the war on drugs.

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