BY MATT HUTCHINS
For almost forty years, America has been engaged in a war which has cost us trillions of dollars and ruined the lives of millions of our citizens. We have been fighting against drugs in a street war across the country. The definition enemy combatant has changed through the course of this conflict, first encompassing only the smugglers and distributors, then growing to include users, and now reaching beyond our borders to the farmers in the developing world who produce the source crops. Today we are told that all these parties are contributing to the forces of Terror, and that the whole chain of enemy forces is complicit in a conspiracy against us. If this were true, though, wouldn’t we disarm our enemies by taking control of the economic forces that are the source of their power?
Last Thursday, Jack Cole, retired detective lieutenant and former undercover agent for the New Jersey State Police was present on campus to share his perspective on the War on Drugs. Today he represents the anti-prohibition group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. In his new role he seeks to expose the self-reinforcing and self-destructive nature of the drug war by sharing his experience as a police officer and informing others with statistics. Cole argues that the billions spent on the drug war have only resulted in bloated police staffing, media scare tactics to justify and expand spending, and distorted market prices for drugs that actually encourage rather than discourage production.
According to DEA statistics, the wholesale cost of hard drugs has consistently fallen over the course of the last 40 years while the quality produced has risen. The result is a market flooded with drugs that pose a high risk of causing overdose for users. Meanwhile the rate of addiction in the United States has remained constant at 1.3% of the population.
The ever greater commitment of resources to fighting drugs has forced police and legislators to expand the frontiers of the drug war to produce ever higher arrest statistics, but the result has been the creation of a police state which primarily incarcerates non-violent offenders. Detective Cole argues that the original motivation for the drug war was racism and that the system today carries a terrible legacy of quiet, systematic discrimination. Just over one percent of all Americans are imprisoned today. The per capita rate among white males is over 700 per 100,000, but among Hispanics it is more than double that and in the black male population it is nearly seven times as high. It is shocking to consider, as Detective Cole points out, that five percent of the black male population of the country is incarcerated right now and that a black male born today has a one in three chance of being convicted of a crime in his lifetime. He argues that such statistics would not be tolerated in the white population, and that the result is the disenfranchisement of a large percentage of the minority population, over 30% in Texas.
The social and personal cost of the drug war is one of the central themes of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, which depicts criminal activity in the city of Baltimore. The creator of the series, David Simon, spoke at the Kennedy School last Friday to a large crowd about the social problems which inspired the series. Simon says he attempted to adapt the real experiences he heard while working as a journalist and talking to citizens of Baltimore into a realistic portrayal of the divided state of American society. He sees the drug trade as interwoven with problems of social stratification, failed education systems, unemployment, and economic distress. Simon says The Wire tells the story of ‘the other America’ and insists that the characters’ lives reflect the rational decisions real people are pressured to make by social and economic circumstances. Simon says, “The America we’ve built doesn’t need 15% of its population. We’ve rendered them irrelevant, and by the way we’ve created this huge industry in your neighborhood called the drug trade. See if you can get a job.”
Detective Cole argues that the only solution to the drug problem is the legalization of all drugs. The $69 billion spent each year fighting the drug war could then be reallocated to regulation of the industry and treatment for addiction. He argues that instead of taxing the drug trade the government should offer free maintenance doses for addicts in an environment where professional help for addiction is available. He points to the successes of similar programs in Switzerland and the Netherlands as a model for a treatment system which can succeed in eliminating overdose deaths, reducing the crime rate, and achieving dramatically higher recovery rates for addicts.
Neither Cole nor Simon believes that political change will come soon. Cole argues though that the lobbying he has engaged in is creating a new dialogue among police officers and policy makers. He says that 80% of the police officers who see his presentation agree afterwards that legalization appears to be the only rational policy decision, and yet they almost universally say that they have never heard another police officer speak against the War on Drugs. Cole believes that communication about the failure of current policy can open new viable political options. Simon, on the other hand, belives that jury nullification is the only way for people who believe the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders is unjust to express their refusal to support the drug war.
I believe that the emergence of systematic attacks on the drug war in popular media and law enforcement that are based on a cost-benefit analysis of the drug war signals the beginning of an anti-prohibition movement which will only gain strength so long as it remains ignored by legislators. I am convinced by Detective Cole’s arguments, and I will not support the War on Drugs by my participation in the enforcement or prosecution of non-violent drug offenders.
I challenge you to consider the efficacy of a set of policies which requires us to build 450 prison beds and hire 75 guards each week to lock away hundreds of thousands of drug users each year, a war which creates the market conditions in which its enemy is guaranteed to succeed, and the grossly disproportionate number of casualties in minority communities. If you agree that the War on Drugs is a failed policy, be honest with others about it and avoid contributing to the perpetuation of the status quo.
Matt Hutchens is a 1L.