Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Michael: Reframing Drug Policy

UPDATE: If you aren't convinced that the 'drug war' remains a primary and immediate threat to our freedoms, then you haven't heard of Rep. Sensenbrenner's (the same extremist who brought us the REAL ID Act) "Defending America's Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005" (H.R. 1528). This law would make it a crime to fail to inform on drug users and create even more outrageous mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

Too often, Progressives allow Conservatives to successfully frame drug policy in terms that are all too familiar: street crime, more police, more jails, sacrificing freedom for safety, in short, the ‘war on drugs’. Is it any wonder the same formula has been used to frame policy on terrorism? Drug policy needs to be recast as 'drug peacekeeping'.

After decades of funding modern police forces, with billions sunk into prisons and their maintenance, and passing ever more draconian drug laws, what have we to show for all this war?

Less crime? No. Crime rates remain constant, shifting only with demographic changes.

Less harm to citizens from crime? No. If anything, more harm and less help from government.

Less drugs on the street? No. More drugs of higher grade, greater lethality and addictive power are on the streets than ever before.

A decrease in drug-related violence, or even a significant reduction in drug usage? Hardly. The opposite, in fact. Organized criminal activity is ever more profitable, ever more profitable, and ever more violent, with the public caught in the crossfire.

It is as if Prohibition and its lessons never happened. Criminal enterprises are now richer and more powerful than many governments, and international in scope. The multi-billion dollar illicit drug industry churns on unchecked, unregulated, and untaxed, killing thousands annually, and ruining the lives of countless thousands more. But the best the ‘law and order’ folks can do is stick their fingers the dike. The cost of this brain-dead approach is to let a public health disaster continue unabated, spreading disease, misery, and death while giving only an illusion of progress or control.

We call it a victory each time a shipment in interdicted, but we should call it a failure because each seizure represents 10, or 50, or 100 shipments that got through. Our police forces, already bloated beyond all need, will never be large enough to stop drug trafficking. All they accomplish is a grotesque political pantomime, and the cost is the lives of many first responders, and financial and human resources that could better used elsewhere.

We call it a victory every time a county or district attorney wins a case against a dealer, possessor, or trafficker of illicit drugs. But every dollar spent on enforcement of drug laws represents a plea bargain with a rapist or a wife-beater, or an economic fraud gone uninvestigated due to a lack of resources. A political decision is being made about the quality of life in your community, and it is regrettably easy to simply ‘get tough on drugs’ instead of making our communities more livable and equitable. Resources that could be used in diversion programs, and restorative and therapeutic models of justice are siphoned off into the ever-growing backlog of drug crimes.

We have the highest incarceration rate of any nation, save only China. The burdens of the mindless rush to incarcerate more and more people, for longer sentences, falls heaviest on minority citizens, who can least afford it. And it is not just the ‘criminals’ who pay, it is the families and kids and communities they leave behind on the outside who are also harmed. It is a net loss to society that once a person is branded a felon due to involvement with black market drugs, their potential is forever limited by prejudice and institutional discrimination. We can't afford to lose millions of our citizens in the increasingly competitive race for prosperity.

The landscape left by the 'war on drugs' is a vista of unmitigated failure. How can we do better and reverse failed policies that have entrenched themselves in our law, our economy, and our culture? We need to stop using the wrong tools to deal with drug use. Drug use is a public health problem, a regulatory problem, an import substitution and trade balance problem, a problem of poverty, a problem of education and the lack thereof, a problem of taxation. It is all these things, and we have all these tools and more to deal with it. But what it is not, and must not be, is a criminal justice problem, in all but a small sub-set of cases.

This is the reframing challenge: moving this nation’s drug problem out of the shadowy realm of criminal justice where it is conveniently tucked into the category of moral turpitude, and into the light of creative public policy solutions, where it can be seen more clearly as a challenge for all of society. Scheduled substances should be grouped with alcohol and tobacco as lifestyle drugs, which present a public health hazard if improperly used, or in some circumstances, if used at all.

Reframing drug policy is a challenge at every level of government, not just federal offices. The drug war permeates the entire criminal justice system. Office-holders from elected county and states' attorneys to sheriffs have a direct impact on how drug policy is implemented. Prosecutors and police officials have enormous institutional discretion in how the law in enforced, and could use it, given political support. County supervisors, city council persons, mayors, state legislators, and governors can all play critical political and legal roles, too. Much that needs to be done to end the ‘drug war’ and turn it into ‘drug peace-keeping’ must be done on the state and local level. For as more and more states and localities pull their troops out of the ‘drug war’ the federal government would find itself without the resources or support to continue the war. Actually withdrawing local resources from the 'war on drugs' is the only way to break the political deadlock that has trapped us in a failed policy for decades.

Of course, such a model of policy change has implications for other wars, too...


At 6:53 AM, Anonymous gailonline said...

Excellent article.



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