The 40-Year War on Drugs: It’s Not Fair, and It’s Not Working

war_drugsby Vanita Gupta,
Center For Justice
Special to the Vanguard

June 2011 has the unfortunate distinction of marking the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” – a war which has cost $1 trillion but produced little to no effect on the supply of demand for drugs.

The war on drugs has been a war on communities of color. The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.
In 2001, I represented dozens of African-Americans who were charged and convicted of bogus, very low-level cocaine offenses in a small Texas town called Tulia. The only evidence against them was the uncorroborated testimony of one corrupt law enforcement officer, Tom Coleman. That didn’t stop my clients from receiving sentences of 20, 40, 60 and even 90 years. While the ending was ultimately a happy one, my clients spent four years in prison for crimes they did not commit while we worked to clear their names against a stubborn backdrop of entrenched racial bias and fear-driven crime and drug war policies that fueled the drug sweep and ensuing convictions.

The war on drugs has sent millions of people to prison for low-level offenses, and seriously eroded our civil liberties and civil rights while costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year, with nothing to show for it except our status as the world’s largest incarcerator. There are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country – that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 – and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. A far more sensible way to deal with a public health problem like drug addiction is to provide treatment, which study after study has shown is more effective than incarceration. Texas, for example, has implemented a number of reforms in recent years that prioritize drug treatment over incarceration, and its crime rate has dropped to its lowest rate since 1973 as a result.

Through advocacy and litigation, the ACLU has been seeking an end to this failed war on drugs and our costly addiction to incarceration for decades. For example, in the last legislative session, the ACLU of Maryland testified in favor of two bills that would work toward minimizing the practice of incarcerating individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, offering treatment as an alternative.

Today we are increasingly joined by state lawmakers, judges, advocates, conservative and liberals alike, in recognizing that something is seriously wrong with our criminal justice system. Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske admits the drug war strategy hasn’t worked, telling the AP: “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful … Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problem is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

Most recently, in Brown v. Plata, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that our policies of overincarceration have produced a crisis in California prisons, where extreme overcrowding has resulted in unconstitutional conditions. California is not alone in having a bloated prison system, but thankfully states around the country have already recognized what California now must: that it is “possible to reduce the prison population ‘in a manner that preserves public safety and the operation of the criminal justice system'” and also preserves the Constitution.

To reflect on the dubious occasion of the 40th anniversary of the drug war, and underscore the wide-reaching and devastating impact of drug policies over the last four decades, the ACLU is launching a month-long blog series dedicated to the need to end the war on drugs. Check back daily throughout June for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. biddlin

    At least Tricky Dick’s war on drugs made the fight more pan-racial !
    Prior to his inane declaration the persecution was largely limited to Blacks and Hispanics . The ridiculous expense is considered cheap by politicians, as long as it keeps the public distracted from real, solvable issues, like corruption and malfeasance !

  2. E Roberts Musser

    What drug treatment programs? They have been all but decimated by budget cuts. And where are the “just say no to drugs” programs in our schools? Are they still alive and well, or have they also fallen by the wayside? Bottom line is we need to reach kids at as early an age as possible, and discourage them from using drugs. But how is that possible, when adults are advocating for the legalization of drugs, yet telling kids they should not use? Sigh…

  3. medwoman

    ERM

    Advocating for the legalization of drugs is not the same as promoting their use. I do not believe in promoting smoking, but do not believe it should be criminalized. It is entirely possible to raise children who do not use drugs while maintaining that those who do should not be incarcerated.

  4. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Advocating for the legalization of drugs is not the same as promoting their use.[/quote]

    I respectfully disagree. If you advocate for the legalization of drugs, how can you argue drugs are healthy for adults but not healthy for kids? You cannot have it both ways… and kids generally follow by example. If mom and dad use drugs, junior is much more likely to…

  5. biddlin

    ERM-Since when is healthfulness a standard of legality ? Automobiles are demonstrably unhealthful and dangerous, a much larger and more present threat to our kids than heroin and cocaine, but not only legal, ubiquitous ! “The War on Drugs” is a scam, concocted by the most cynical, unwholesome scalawags I’ve seen in my lifetime , to oppress minorities and distract Joe Sixpack from the fact that the huge amount of money flowing through the alphabet soup of agencies is largely unaccounted for, making it possible for agents to build their own little fiefdoms. Just the “on-the-books” funding for enforcement, extradition, rendition, prosecution and incarceration would save many social programs . These gluttons, at the public trough, rely on and promote blind fear to keep them and the other drug profiteers in business !

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: So do you believe cigarettes and alcohol ought to be illegal? I think that some use of alcohol has been proven to even be somewhat beneficial. Frankly from what I have seen marijuana is less harmful in most ways than alcohol.

    On the other hand, I don’t think substance like meth has much in the way of redeeming qualities, but our current laws are expensive and don’t work. You always talk about the fact that programs and rehab have been slashed in budget crises but rarely if ever have you acknowledged that current law enforcement practices use up those resources that could go to things like residential treatment or job training, which are cheaper alternatives to prison.

  7. medwoman

    EMR

    Advocating for legalization says nothing about my opinion health risks of drug use. Also I said nothing about differentiating the risks for adults vs the risks for children and adolescents. And finally, I said nothing at all that could be construed as saying that I approve of parents using drugs and hoping their children will not use them.

    So let me be clear about my position.
    There are a number of substances whose use is dangerous, and legal. Cigarettes and alcohol have already been mentioned. To these, I would add sodas, candy, refined sugar bakery goods, salty foods of almost all types which while not as dangerous in terms of short term use, over the course of a lifetime probably do far more harm in terms of our overall health given that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of American adults. Do I think these should be outlawed because their use causes health risks. Absolutely not. There is that pesky issue of autonomy and individual rights. But I it see it as inconsistent to single out certain drugs for illegality, and prison terms, while allowing others,
    Equally harmful to remain legal. To say nothing of the demonstrable fact that our efforts to stop drug use through criminalization have proven
    Expensive, discriminatory, and highly ineffective.
    So in the interests of equal treatment under the law,

  8. medwoman

    Oops. Was a little trigger happy there.

    So, in the interests of equal treatment under the law, my preference for reinstating treatment programs over imprisonment, and my interest in abolishing our current expensive and ineffective penalization of drug users, I advocate for drug legalization.

    At the same time, I would divert money currently going to support “the war on drugs” including law enforcement, all aspects of the judicial system involved in drug cases, and the custodial staff to drug treatment programs for those who are addicted, and to prevention programs for children and adolescents.

  9. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]“The War on Drugs” is a scam, concocted by the most cynical, unwholesome scalawags I’ve seen in my lifetime , to oppress minorities and distract Joe Sixpack from the fact that the huge amount of money flowing through the alphabet soup of agencies is largely unaccounted for, making it possible for agents to build their own little fiefdoms[/quote]

    You can say this in regard to just about every gov’t agency. For instance, the SEC is supposed to regulate investments, but does a remarkably poor job. Why? Because they hire the very scalawags from the institutions they are supposed to be regulating.

    [quote]Just the “on-the-books” funding for enforcement, extradition, rendition, prosecution and incarceration would save many social programs . These gluttons, at the public trough, rely on and promote blind fear to keep them and the other drug profiteers in business ![/quote]

    The entire prison system in CA is less than 10% of the state budget.

    [quote]You always talk about the fact that programs and rehab have been slashed in budget crises but rarely if ever have you acknowledged that current law enforcement practices use up those resources that could go to things like residential treatment or job training, which are cheaper alternatives to prison.[/quote]

    If you don’t have rehab programs/youth programs/job training in place first and foremost, there is only one place to put the criminals, and that is in jail. What other choice is there, other than to just let them go scot free? Or is that what you are advocating? Just let criminals go free?

    Rarely if ever have you acknowledged that spending on schools uses up half the state’s resources – much more so than prisons in fact, which only take up less than 10% of the budget – and contributes to the lack of such offender programs even more than the prisons do. Think about that…

  10. E Roberts Musser

    To medwoman: You didn’t really answer my question…

    [quote]If you advocate for the legalization of drugs, how can you argue drugs are healthy for adults but not healthy for kids? You cannot have it both ways… and kids generally follow by example. If mom and dad use drugs, junior is much more likely to…[/quote]

  11. E Roberts Musser

    From DEA: “Furthermore, drug abuse has increased in the Netherlands. From 1984 to 1996, marijuana use among 18-25 year olds in Holland increased twofold. Since legalization of marijuana, heroin addiction levels in Holland have tripled and perhaps even quadrupled by some estimates.

    The increasing use of marijuana is responsible for more than increased crime. It has widespread social implications as well. The head of Holland’s best-known drug abuse rehabilitation center has described what the new drug culture has created: The strong form of marijuana that most of the young people smoke, he says, produces “a chronically passive individual—someone who is lazy, who doesn’t want to take initiatives, doesn’t want to be active—the kid who’d prefer to lie in bed with a joint in the morning rather than getting up and doing something.”

    Marijuana is not the only illegal drug to find a home in the Netherlands. The club drug commonly referred to as Ecstasy (3, 4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine or MDMA) also has strong roots in the Netherlands. The majority of the world’s Ecstasy is produced in clandestine laboratories in the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Belgium.

    The growing Ecstasy problem in Europe, and the Netherlands’ pivotal role in Ecstasy production, has led the Dutch government to look once again to law enforcement. In May 2001, the government announced a “Five Year Offensive against the Production, Trade, and Consumption of Synthetic Drugs.” The offensive focuses on more cooperation among the enforcement agencies with the Unit Synthetic Drugs playing a pivotal role.

    Recognizing that the government needs to take firm action to deal with the increasing levels of addiction, in April 2001, the Dutch government established the Penal Care Facility for Addicts. Like American Drug Treatment Courts, this facility is designed to detain and treat addicts (of any drug) who repeatedly commit crimes and have failed voluntary treatment facilities. Offenders may be held in this facility for up to two years, during which time they will go through a three-phase program. The first phase focuses on detoxification, while the second and third phases focus on training for social reintegration.”

    And the list of cons goes on and on…

  12. medwoman

    EMR

    This statement by you is a classic straw man argument. I have never argued “that drugs are healthy for adults but not for kids”. These are your words, not mine. And reiterating iit does not make it any closer to my position. I do not believe that drugs are healthy for anyone, as I think I made clear. I have spent much of my career counseling against the use of drugs, and alcohol, and cigarettes, and junk food, and a host of other behavior that I do not believe are healthy. Again, being for legalization does not mean I advocate the behavior.

    My point is that incarceration for an arbitrary group of drugs is inequitable, unjust since it does not apply equally to all dangerous drugs, unenforceable, expensive and ineffective. If you can show me how you feel incarcerating nonviolent individuals for their own personal use of the drug of their choice while others walk free using their drug of choice has benefitted anyone, I will listen with an open mind.

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