(Yet Another) Call for the End of the War on Drugs
Mar. 30, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Washington Post published an article on Monday by Rick Noack profiling yet another commission calling for the decriminalization of drugs. The commission, headed by Johns Hopkins University and The Lancet, made its recommendations prior to a United Nations summit, scheduled to be held next week.
“The global war on drugs has harmed public health, human rights and development,” said commissioner Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkin’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.”
“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” Beyrer said.
Calls for these types of changes are nothing particularly new, nor is the expectation that the calls will be summarily ignored. Although the good people of Johns Hopkins and The Lancet certainly have the scientific and sociological data to back up all of their recommendations, there is no reasonable belief that any country will be abandoning their War on Drugs any time soon. Certainly not the United States.
Ever since President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and war was henceforth declared on drugs, the wisdom of the war has been questioned. Last week, a story in Harper’s Magazine surfaced which claimed that Nixon advisor, John Ehrlichman, admitted that the motivation for the War on Drugs had merely been a tool to target blacks and anti-war protestors in the 1970s.
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 both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Although Scott Greenfield rightfully questions the authenticity of Ehrlichman’s admissions to Harper’s, it certainly does seem to be consistent with the Nixonian mentality that the country came to know and love. All of this raises the questions, if scientists and world leaders around the globe all oppose the War on Drugs, and now there is (at least some) evidence that the origins for it began in racial oppression, why is it still such a firmly entrenched policy?
By the time a prosecutor has a few years of experience under his belt, cases involving low level drug possession or delivery should have long lost their luster. Only the truly zealous prosecutor gets excited about delivery charges that don’t have the word “kilogram” in them. Those prosecutors who still view drugs as “evil” are few and far between. Again, this raises the question of why are prosecutorial policies not more in tune with changing attitudes toward the War on Drugs?
Over the past ten years or so, most District Attorney’s Offices around the country have tried to implement some form of rehabilitation program on low level drug cases. However, these programs often are little more than lip service. While prosecutors may say that their interest in helping an addict with recovery supersedes their interest in putting them in jail, the requirements of many of these programs often show otherwise.
In some jurisdictions, priors for violent crimes or burglaries may disqualify a defendant for entry into a drug program on even minor possession cases. Even if a defendant is granted entry into a rehabilitative program, he or she still faces lockdown programs (often held at a jail or prison facility) that sure seem a lot like incarceration.
In other words, prosecutors may tout their innovative rehabilitation programs for drug offenders, but nobody is really easing up on drug prosecution by any stretch of the imagination. The question is “why not?” As noted in an article in The Economist, several former world leaders recently wrote a collection of essays opposing the War on Drugs.
“Ending the War on Drugs” is a collection of essays by former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria and Switzerland, as well as a former deputy prime minister of Britain and assorted scientific folk. George Soros, a financier who has bankrolled many pro-legalisation pressure groups, provides a chapter; the book carries an introduction by Richard Branson a business mogul whose company, Virgin, is its publisher. All condemn what they see as a political, economic and public-health failure.
Why are all of these well-rationed arguments routinely ignored by prosecutors and politicians alike?
First and foremost, the fuel that runs the criminal justice system is the idea that drugs are the seeds of evil. Drugs are at the root of so many street level crimes, from shoplifting to murder, that the idea of giving up prosecuting drug cases is the equivalent of giving license to commit all those other horrible acts. Prosecutors believe that locking up people on drug cases prevents worse crimes further on down the road.
Second, in most cases, prosecutors work for an elected official, the District Attorney. The District Attorney who runs for re-election based on a platform of being more lenient on crime is going to have an extremely uphill battle when it comes to winning votes. Any aspiring District Attorney (or any politician, for that matter) that is progressive enough to talk about the idea of decriminalizing drugs is going to get pounced on by an opponent faster than a lion on a one-legged antelope. It would truly be considered political suicide.
Finally, the reason the idea of just stopping the prosecution of drugs violates the old adage of “we’ve always done it this way.” Prosecutors and those who legislate literally would not know what to do with themselves if it was no longer possible to prosecute drug cases. Drugs are the bread and butter of the criminal justice system. They have become so used to them being wrong, that it is virtually impossible to imagine a world where they aren’t illegal.
It is hard to imagine any new arguments that can be made against the War on Drugs that haven’t already been made. It is a war that may have been born for the purpose of racial discrimination, fought long past the point of thinking it was winnable, denounced by world leaders and scientists across the globe, and not supported by the majority of Americans.
But, then again, why let logic stand in the way of a few thousand more potential convictions?