Mimesis Law
6 March 2021

(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?

12 Comments on this post.

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  • Chris
    30 March 2016 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Prosecutors aren’t legislators. They aren’t in a position to just decide they are going to stop enforcing drug laws because feelz. Believe it or not, the public still expects law enforcement to do something about the crack house or meth lab down the street.

    • Ben
      30 March 2016 at 11:29 am - Reply

      And yet if drugs were legalized, there wouldn’t be crack houses or meth labs down they street. The drugs would be made and sold at professional places of business with safety regulations and purity checks.

    • Murray Newman
      30 March 2016 at 11:40 am - Reply

      Chris, of course you are correct about prosecutors having an obligation to enforce drug laws just as the police do. The point I was trying to make was that their attitude toward it isn’t really softening regardless of the rehabilitative programs that they create. Additionally, major offices in bigger cities also play a large role in lobbying their legislature on criminal justice issues. I’ve yet to see the ones that showed up to a State capital saying “Hey, how about we just take all this stuff about illegal drugs.”

  • Jill McMahon
    30 March 2016 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    And the money and jobs related to The War. Sort of like the pushback against closing prisons.

  • Leonard
    30 March 2016 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    I agree with the premise of the article except one. I believe the fuel that runs the system of prosecution is money. There is a wholesale industry built around criminalization. Police are rewarded with Federal grants for drug arrests, private prisons expect their beds to be full and press communities to keep it that ways, health and communications companies that provide services to prisons push for lower quality and higher profit margins. Civil asset forfeiture encourages departments to seize funds because a convictions isn’t even needed. Money is the beast that drives all.

  • Tharon
    30 March 2016 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Although If we dont start asking everyone of our elected officials for the war to end. Than it never will and I have hope that someday I can live in a City in a State that is not at war with its people. I hope to live in a place of peace where I have the choice of what I put into my body. So I am glad to see others fight for one day this war on drugs to end. Until that day all we can do is keep asking and talking about the end of the drug wars and its people. The people like you and like me.

  • John Neff
    30 March 2016 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    There is a substantial amount of money involved in fines, surcharges and court costs so I can understand why people think that is a factor for drug misdemeanor charges. I live in Iowa where almost all of that money goes into the Iowa general fund so that would be a factor at the legislative level but not at the county level.

    The police and the county attorneys keep asking the legislature for new drug laws and penalty enhancements for old drug laws and they oppose all attempts to reduce drug penalties. Attempts to reduce penalties die in committee and the penalty enhancements pass with unanimous votes. Nobody ever asks if the penalty enhancements work because they know they don’t work. It is a matter of doing the same thing over and over expecting the same result.

  • Miranda Griffin
    4 April 2016 at 5:32 am - Reply

    I think people miss something about the war on drugs.

    As most everyone in the Criminal Justice field knows, drug offenders are not just drug offenders, they commit other crimes as well.

    Locking up people for drugs keeps them from committing other crimes.

    I care about the guy whose store won’t get robbed for dope money. I care about the wife and kid that won’t have to be attacked because the the father/husband is wiggin his brains out on drugs.

    Those are the people who we should shape our system for.

    Most, not all, these offenders don’t want rehabilitation anyway.

    • Murray Newman
      4 April 2016 at 8:20 am - Reply

      “First and foremost is 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.”

      • Miranda E Griffin
        5 April 2016 at 9:49 am - Reply

        Whoops. I guess my reading comprehension wasn’t very good the other day!

        Thanks for the great article Mr. Newman. I read your whole blog on the Harris County Prosecutor’s Office. I really enjoyed it. It provided some insight as to what goes on behind the scenes and gave me things to think about.

        I am considering a career as an attorney but have to finish my Bachelor’s degree still (almost finished!).

  • Tharon
    4 April 2016 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Murray what do we do to stop adding fuel to the fire? Maybe its time to take a LEAP of faith. Because what we are doing no doesn’t work and makes no sense what so ever.

    Go ahead take Leap and maybe things can change.

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    6 April 2016 at 9:14 am - Reply

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