Forty years. One trillion dollars. Hundreds of thousands of lives. That’s the cost of the U.S. war on drugs. And the tab continues to rise.
This week, President Obama announced that he will send 1,200 National Guard troops to boost security along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also will request $500 million for border protection and law enforcement. That’s a lot of Benjamins for a failed policy.
Like President Bush before him, Mr. Obama is sending in the troops to secure the border against illegal immigration. And, like Mr. Bush, he’s trying to steer cautiously through the election-year minefield that is immigration reform. He’s not likely to get comprehensive reform done this year. The troops are the backup plan. He has to show that he’s doing something about the problem. In 2006, Mr. Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border. He, too, wanted comprehensive immigration reform. But it was an election year.
Beyond the immigration issue, however, is the drug issue. As in 2006, a major role of the National Guard is to support efforts to block drug trafficking. In fact, the Mexican government issued a statement saying it hoped the troops would be used to fight drug cartels and not enforce immigration laws. The troops sent under President Bush, however, didn’t quell the drug-trafficking violence. There’s no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different under President Obama.
Mexican drug cartels wouldn’t exist if the U.S. decriminalized drugs. There would be no drug wars. And far less drug violence. Sure, it sounds radical. But isn’t it insane to keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results?
Consider that in the 1920s, prohibition of alcohol simply created a huge illegal market for alcohol. Drug prohibition has created the same illegal market for marijuana, heroin and cocaine, the majority of which comes from Mexico. By the end of the 1920s, there were more alcoholics and illegal juke joints than before Prohibition. There also was more crime.
Prohibition was repealed because the paradise envisioned by a country without alcohol didn’t materialize. And during the Great Depression, the government realized that it needed the money from taxing alcohol.
The war on drugs also has not produced a crime-free society. The U.S. has the highest rate of marijuana and cocaine use in the world. And as history repeats itself, the Great Recession has states such as California eyeing the money it could get from taxing marijuana.
In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, replacing jail time with the offer of therapy. In the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens declined; rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing dirty needles dropped; the number of people seeking treatment more than doubled.
President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new policy that, like Portugal’s, treats drug use more as a public health issue than a criminal justice one. It’s also been a stated priority of Gil Kerlikowske, a former Port St. Lucie police chief who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to get the country to focus more on treatment than incarceration.
“We must be smarter about our nation’s drug problem,” Mr. Kerlikowske said at last year’s conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s time to recognize drug abuse and addiction for what it is – not just a law enforcement and criminal justice issue but also a complex and dynamic public health challenge.”
The Obama administration, however, has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels – $10 billion of the $15.5 billion drug-control budget. Where is the change Mr. Obama promised? I don’t expect him to call for the decriminalization of drugs. That would be too bold and politically risky. I do expect him to put our money where his mouth is.
– Article from the Palm Beach Post on May 27, 2010.