If Ron Paul’s foreign policy is viewed by some as out of the mainstream, and if his views on the gold standard are misunderstood, it seems his views on decriminalizing drugs and putting an end to the so-called “War on Drugs” are simply opposed. I think much of this opposition is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on drugs itself and an unwillingness or inability to admit that said war has not been as successful as we had hoped. By most non-governmental accounts it is a failure.
In times past my view was to decriminalize drugs was an implicit admission that it was okay to do drugs. If drugs were made legal there would be stoners on every corner. The solution was more money, more agents, more enforcement–more, more, more. We had to win. “Just say no!” “This is your brain on drugs.”
A little history: not only have I never smoked or inhaled pot, to my knowledge I have never held a joint. I have never taken a pill that was not over the counter or prescribed by a doctor and filled by a pharmacist. I do not smoke cigarettes and have never tried. I do not drink alcohol of any kind, though I really like those Jack Daniels Steaks at TGIFriday’s and Southern Comfort Vanilla Spice Eggnog is the best. (Yeah, yeah, it is non-alcoholic.)
Drugs were popular when I was in high-school, so predating them is not an issue for me though I was not around when Dr. Pemberton was slipping coke into Coke. I knew kids who came into school most every day stoned. There was one kid who overdosed before school, but it did not reach full effect until after we were in gym class. His overdose became obvious when we saw two of his drug user buddies carrying him as they ran to the office for help.
When I was a junior, a senior girl did a skit for a pep-rally in which she played the role of Gilda Radner’s SNL character, Rosanne Rosanna Danna. Her “cheer” went this way:
Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar,
All for a 714 stand up and holler!!
Much to the surprise of everyone in the gym, all the drug users stood up (slowly and unsteadily, but up they went) and cheered lustily, laughing the entire time. The fact they never moved during pep-rallies and that no one else got it made it all the more weird.
It was only later I discovered that “Lemmon 714” was the production name of the popular sedative Quaalude and “714” was shorthand for it.
In Ron Paul’s previous and current campaigns for the White House, he has been very clear that he opposes the “War on Drugs.” This is not a unique position, even for a mainstream politician. In 1996 William F. Buckley, the “preeminent voice of American conservatism” (George Nash) said this to the New York Bar Association about the problem of illicit drug use:
We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen — yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.
Little has changed in the ensuing 15 years. Here are a few reasons I think Paul is right about our government’s attempt to curb the drug trade being a failure.
1. The war on drugs is bad strategy.
I have become convinced the negative reaction by many people against the decriminalization of drugs is a knee-jerk reaction resulting from too little information. The way some people carry on about it, you’d think Ron Paul was going to appoint Cheech and Chong to his cabinet. This is the height of low thinking. Here are a view stats on the cost and success of the war:
Amount spent annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs: More than $51,000,000,000
Number of people arrested in 2009 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges: 1,663,582
Number of people arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2009: 858,408
(Number of people in history who have died from smoking marijuana: 0)
Number of Americans incarcerated in 2009 in federal, state and local prisons and jails: 2,424,279 or 1 in every 99.1 adults, the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Estimated annual revenue that California would raise if it taxed and regulated the sale of marijuana: $1,400,000,000
Number of murders in 2009 in Juarez, Mexico, the epicenter of that country’s drug war: 2,635+, the highest murder rate of any city in the world. (See source.)
2. The war on drugs is racially unjust.
From the Palm Beach Post had this to say following the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in June 2011:
[The Commission found] “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.”
The commission noted that current policies have generated massive violence and undermined political stability in drug-producing and distributing countries. At the same time, such countries as Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands, which have replaced repression with harm-reduction, have seen significant public health benefits and, in the case of heroin, reductions in use and addiction.
Of particular concern, the War on Drugs has led to widespread violations of constitutional and human rights, racially skewed enforcement, and an explosion in the U.S. prison population, by far the world’s largest. In 2008, four out of five arrests were for mere possession of drugs, one-half of those for marijuana. Due to selective enforcement, those imprisoned are primarily minorities.
While there is no evidence to support that African-Americans use drugs at a higher rate than white Americans, and although they make up only 12.6 percent of the general population, African-Americans account for 37 percent of total drug arrests annually and 56 percent of incarcerations. As Georgetown University law Professor David Cole put it, were whites being arrested at the same rate as blacks, “We would almost certainly see this as an urgent national calamity, and demand a collective investment of public resources to forestall so many going to prison.”
Christians all over America are speaking about about justice issues. Here is a justice issue that has been going on longer than abortion on demand yet from most Christians there is nary a peep.
3. Year in and year out the abuse of legal drugs kills larger numbers of people than illegal drugs.
Who has not seen those commercials for various prescriptions drugs imploring us to “ask your doctor about Quadaludiquiacil” followed by the world’s fastest talker warning of the possibility of contracting everything from hives to cancer. The fact is that drugs–all drugs–kill people if used in excess. In the United States, however, the abuse of legal drugs kills more people each year than the abuse of illegal drugs. A September 2011 L. A. Times article notes:
Public health experts have used the comparison to draw attention to the nation’s growing prescription drug problem, which they characterize as an epidemic. This is the first time that drugs have accounted for more fatalities than traffic accidents since the government started tracking drug-induced deaths in 1979.
Fueling the surge in deaths are prescription pain and anxiety drugs that are potent, highly addictive and especially dangerous when combined with one another or with other drugs or alcohol. Among the most commonly abused are OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma. One relative newcomer to the scene is Fentanyl, a painkiller that comes in the form of patches and lollipops and is 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Such drugs now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
4. Treatment is more effective and substantially cheaper than incarceration
What are the relative costs, on the one hand, of medical and psychological treatment for addicts and, on the other, incarceration for drug offenses? It transpires that treatment is seven times more cost-effective. By this is meant that one dollar spent on the treatment of an addict reduces the probability of continued addiction seven times more than one dollar spent on incarceration. Looked at another way: Treatment is not now available for almost half of those who would benefit from it. Yet we are willing to build more and more jails in which to isolate drug users even though at one-seventh the cost of building and maintaining jail space and pursuing, detaining, and prosecuting the drug user, we could subsidize commensurately effective medical care and psychological treatment. (Wm. F. Buckley, sourced above)
In addition to Buckley’s assertions, numerous countries with more lax drug use laws have found this to be the case.
5. The war on drugs is manipulated by the for-profit corporate prison system (sometimes called “the prison industrial complex”) in the United States. According to a report from the Justice Policy Institute (Gaming The System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies, pdf)
[T]he private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO [Group] spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.
While drug arrests certainly are not the only means of the increasing prison population, the four decades since Nixon’s declaration of war has witnessed a 5-fold increase in the prison population. From CBS News:
From the 1920s through the 1960s, the proportion of the population that was incarcerated remained remarkably stable at about 100 inmates per 100,000 people, researcher Robert Brame, PhD, of the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, tells WebMD. Today, Brame says, that figure has soared to 500 inmates per 100,000 people.
The vast majority of drug convictions are for non-violent offenders.
7. The war on drugs increases income for and violence by drug cartels.
The reason drugs continue to be smuggled is because it is profitable for the growers and sellers. Extreme violence is the normative behavior used to protect this income.
“The cross-border flow of money and guns into Mexico from the United States has enabled well-armed and well-funded cartels to engage in violent activities. They employ advanced military tactics and utilize sophisticated weaponry such as sniper rifles, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and even mortars in attacks on security personnel. DTOs have openly challenged the GOM through conflict and intimidation and have fought amongst themselves to control drug distribution routes. The results led to unprecedented violence and a general sense of insecurity in certain areas of the country, particularly near the U.S. border. (Source: United States Department of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume I, Drug and Chemical Control,” U.S. Department of State: March 2010, pdf)
An aside here is that the Operation Fast and Furious fiasco multiple guns into the hands of a drug cartel. These were among seventy firearms used in an attack on a Mexican military helicopter in May 2011.
During the 2008 election cycle I had occasion to speak with a state law enforcement agent in Georgia about this subject. I asked him, “What would happen to the price of illegal drugs if they were suddenly made legal?” He responded, “The bottom would fall out of the price and the market overnight.” That means the cartels would go out of business because few people want to sell a product that has no profit margin.
I am not for using drugs, but in the same way that Prohibition gave rise to crime bosses like Al Capone the drug war has given rise to gangland violence, cartel warfare and unnecessary expansions of government to prop up a failed strategy. The murders in Juarez, Mexico alone should be enough to give pause to people who believe murder to be a sinful tragedy making us ask, “Is this the best way?” I agree with Ron Paul that it is time for a different strategy. My next post will consider his position of decriminalizing drugs.
For other parts in this series: Part 1, How one Christ follower decided to vote for Ron Paul, Part 2, How one Christ follower decided to vote for Ron Paul: Foreign Policy, Part 3, How one Christ follower decided to vote for Ron Paul: Abortion.