An Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs
Is it time to forge an "exit strategy" for our prolonged "war on drugs"?
That question -- normally considered a "no-no" in legal circles, especially among prosecutors and police -- has been raised by the prestigious King County (Wash.) Bar Association since 2000. And the results have been impressive. King County is sending minor street drug users and sellers through drug courts instead of incarcerating them; its average daily jail count is down from 2,800 to 2,000. The Washington Legislature was persuaded to cut back drastically on mandatory drug possession sentences, apportioning funds to adult and juvenile drug courts, and family "dependency" courts. Tens of millions of dollars have been saved.
"This project isn't for fringy ponytailed pot smokers," insists Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project. "We did it for the courts. We can't get civil cases heard for three years. And the drug cases are mostly so petty."
The uncomfortable truth is that despite decades of aggressive government crackdowns, U.S. drug use and drug-related crime are as high as ever. Made profitable by prohibition, violent criminal enterprises that purvey drugs are flourishing. Harsh criminal sanctions, even for minor drug possession, have packed jails and prisons. Public coffers have been drained of funds for critical preventive social services. Internationally, we're discovering that the U.S.' heavy-handed campaign of illegal drug eradication in countries such as Colombia is about as successful as we've found our parallel military adventure into Iraq.
Despite the stunning $4.7 billion we've spent since 2000 on planes fumigating Colombia's coca crop, farmers there are producing just as much cocaine as before our aerial assault.
Back home, street prices for cocaine have dropped and purity remains high. Prohibition has failed equally to stamp out markets and quality, or increase street prices for heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The drug war kicked off by President Nixon in the 1970s, and copied by state and local governments nationally, costs $40 billion or more a year. It is a massive, embarrassing, destructive failure.
But politicians are normally afraid to question the system for fear of being called illegal drug apologists. So how did the King County Bar get the ball rolling? "It's the messenger, not the message" -- the credibility of the bar association, says Goodman. The King County Bar in fact assembled a nationally unprecedented coalition of supporters, ranging from the Washington State Bar Association to the King County and Washington state medical associations, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the League of Women Voters of Seattle and Washington.
And the first-stated goals weren't scuttling drug laws. Instead, the bar association announced its platform as (1) reductions in crime and disorder -- "to undercut the violent, illegal markets that spawn disease, crime, corruption, mayhem and death," (2) improving public health by stemming the spread of blood-borne diseases, (3) better protection of children from the harm of drugs, and (4) wiser use of scarce public resources.
Now the bar association and its allies are asking the Washington Legislature to establish a commission of experts to design how the state can switch from punitive approaches to a focus on treatment, shutting down the criminal gangs that now control the drug trade.
As controversial as it sounds, programs for victims (most likely adults) of such dangerously addictive drugs as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine may be easiest to fashion. Rather than leaving them to the streets and black market exploitation, there may -- as some European models suggest -- be ways to register addicts, provide controlled amounts of drugs in medical settings, and try to guide them into treatment.
For marijuana, control by cartels that now provide huge quantities might be broken by state licensing of home production (like brewing) and non-commercial exchanges. Or a state distribution system like state liquor stores, demonstrably effective in denying sales to youth, could be established.
The toughest issues may surround protection of children. Today, it's noted, they get contradictory messages -- "Take a pill to feel better," and "Just say no, except when you're 21 and then you can drink." Youth see commercial advertising pushing a wide variety of mind-altering, pleasure-inducing substances, even while society leaves control of so-called "illicit" drugs to criminal gangs. Plus, kids do like to experiment.
A realistic program could start with respecting young people, providing them honest information, on uses -- and the demonstrable dangers -- of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Goodman notes that in the 13 states where medical use of marijuana is authorized, teen use is down. "It's not as cool when grandma uses marijuana for cancer pain," he says.
There's surely no risk-free "exit" from today's terribly destructive drug war. But we have to try -- and should thank communities and states with the courage to lead.