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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - US

Current issues and debates

The costs of incarceration, the unequal impact of drug laws on racial minorities and police corruption resulting from the war on drugs are issues that have garnered increased attention in this ongoing debate. For example, the Republican Governor of New Mexico has called for the decriminalization of all drugs "Control it, regulate it, tax it" he has been quoted as saying[1][238] citing the mounting cost of addressing drug abuse problems with prison rather than treatment. At our hearings, the Governor told us:

I happen to believe that the war on drugs is an absolute miserable failure. () When I witness that half of what we spend on law enforcement, half of what we spend on the courts and half of what we spend on the prisons is drug related, I know that there is no bigger issue facing us today. In the United States we are spending $50 billion each year on drug-related crime. () Two-thirds of all prisoners in the United States are incarcerated on drug charges. Nearly 500,000 incarcerations, one-quarter of the prison population, are directly related to drugs. It costs over $8.6 billion each year just to keep drug offenders locked up in the United States. Even with all of those expenditures, illegal drugs are now cheaper, more available and more potent than they were 20 years ago.

() In the United States, which one of these substances gets people arrested? We are arresting 1.6 million people every year. New Mexico has a population of 1.8 million. I live and I drive in New Mexico, a giant state, and I cannot help but think the equivalent of the population of New Mexico is getting arrested in the United States every single year. It's absolutely shocking. Out of those 1.6 million arrests, there are 800,000 for marijuana, and half of those arrests involve Hispanics. Are half the users of marijuana in the United States Hispanic? No, yet half the arrest disproportionally fall on the Hispanic communities.

Given that situation, what do we need to do? First, we need to legalize marijuana. Second, we need to adopt harm reduction strategies with regard to all the other drugs. Third, we need to move away from a criminal model to a medical model. [2][239]


Others criticize current policy on the basis that black Americans are disproportionately targeted in drug law enforcement. The group Human Rights Watch notes in a 2000 study that Blacks comprise 62.7% and whites 36.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons, even though data confirms that this racial disparity "bears scant relation to racial differences in drug offending."[3][240] Various experts also pointed out the harmful effect of drugs on law enforcement, in particular Mr. Joseph McNamara, former chief of police of San Jose, California, now retired, who noted that the corruption of civil servants will be a serious problem as long as the current anti-drug policy remains in effect.[4][241]



[1][238]  "New Mexico Governor Calls for Legalizing Drugs", CNN.com, October 6, 1999, available online at www5.cnn.com/US/9910/06/legalizing.drugs.01/.

[2][239]  Testimony of Mr. Gary E. Johnson, Governor of New Mexico, before the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, first session of the thirty-seventh Parliament, November 5, 2001, Issue 9, page 36 to 38.

[3][240]  Jamie Fellner, Human Rights Watch Associate Counsel, "United States: Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs", Human Rights Watch, May 2000, paragraph 2 of "Summary and Recommendations", available online at www.hrw.org/reports/2000/usa.

[4][241]  Joseph D. McNamara, "When Cops Become the Gangsters", Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1999, available online at www.nakedgov.com/mcnamara.htm.

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