Columns / Discourse / October 5, 2011

Voice of Reason: An end to the war on drugs

Do any of my readers remember Officer Friendly coming to their elementary schools to talk to them about drugs in the ever-popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program? Since the program has been around since the 1980s and reaches some 80 percent of American public school students, it’s very likely the answer is yes (these and other DARE stats are from Dr. David Hanson at DARE is a highly visible component of the decades-long War on Drugs, but like the greater struggle it is a part of, it is an abject failure.

As early as 1996, a report from Dr. Richard Clayton had found that the program had no statistically significant effect on drug usage. This conclusion was also reached by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, the Surgeon General and a whole host of academic studies. In Houston, it was even found that the program was linked to 30 percent increase in drug usage. In response, DARE has done nothing better than make ad hominem attacks on those who dare publish anti-DARE results and tout the irrelevant results of classroom surveys that the program is “effective.”

I spend so much time on DARE because it encapsulates so well the functioning of the War on Drugs. Thousands die and billions of dollars are wasted every year, yet serious discussion of its failings are never voiced, and when they are, ugly personal attacks are made, as if asking questions meant you wanted America’s youth to all end up in the streets clutching their crack pipes.

Since the Nixon administration first used the phrase “war on drugs,” the only lasting accomplishment of the conflict has been the creation of the world’s largest prison system. America is nowhere near ending drug usage, but most of us seem to think that we’re somehow close, such people obviously having slept through the part of high school where Prohibition was covered.

Let’s look at the prison problem a little closer. Tom Feiling, in his book Cocaine Nation, points out that about half of our current prison populations are there on drug offenses, to the extent that there are more drug offenders in American prisons than the entire prison population of the European Union. Of these prisoners, three-quarters are of color, according to data from the Sentencing Project, thanks to drug laws that practically encourage racial profiling, even though whites use drugs at higher rates than minorities. One could theoretically make a case that all this is a necessary price to pay to stop drug use, but that is in no way the case. If you are serious about getting someone clean, putting him in a confined space with other drug users for years and then releasing him with outdated job skills is among with worst ideas you could possibly come up with. Naturally, it is the foundation of our anti-drug efforts. Relapse rates, unsurprisingly, are extraordinarily high for ex-convicts.

Sadly, most Americans could care less about how many poor minorities we imprison, so I would like to turn to somewhere they might care more about: their wallets. The drug war is costing a startling amount, yet when ideas for cutting budgets are being thrown around, it is never on the cutting block. A study by Harvard economist Jeffery Miron found that we could turn around state and federal budgets by a grand total of $83 billion between cutting spending on anti-drug efforts and reasonable taxation on legal drugs. That is a huge sum of money that is being left on the table and it’s time we started talking about claiming it for more productive uses than imprisoning minorities.

There is a solution to these problems, one that very few people are brave enough to say out loud, but more and more will in the years to come when it becomes clear the status quo is unacceptable. It is not more prison sentences, tougher laws, or spraying more pesticides in Columbia. The answer is legalization. Look in this space next week for a greater analysis of what exactly that means for America and the world.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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