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The Drug Legalization Debate


A Century Of Prohibition Has Not Worked

 Sunday,July 24,1999  Orange County Register (CA) Copyright: 1999 The Orange County Register

Author: Joseph D.McNamara 

Note: Mr. McNamara, retired police chief of San Jose, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His forthcoming book is "Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs."

The federal budget for the drug war in the first year of the new millennium is $17 billion.In 1972 when President Richard Nixon first called for a "war against drugs," the federal drug-law enforcement budget was about $101 million.

It is difficult for most of us to comprehend what these numbers mean. But the true magnitude of cost can be understood if we consider that in 1972, the average monthly Social Security retirement check was $177. If Social Security benefits had increased at the same rate as drug-war spending, the monthly benefits would now be $30,444 a month. Similarly, the average 1972 salary of $114 per week would have soared to $19,608 a week.

What have we got for our money?

President Clinton assures us we are winning, as did his predecessors. Yet, for good reason, people in law enforcement and local communities are unconvinced. Although it appears that casual illegal drug use has declined in recent years, regular use has not. And young people are increasingly using drugs and at an earlier age.

Furthermore, the decline in casual drug use may be unrelated to the war on drugs. Cigarette smoking, and consumption of hard liquor and high cholesterol food, all as dangerous as illegal drug use, declined because of greater awareness of health dangers, not because consumers were jailed or because the government reduced the supply of these substances.

During the past decade, opium production has more than doubled in Southeast Asia and cocaine production also increased. Eighty to 90 percent of illegal drugs shipped to this country arrive undetected. Illegal drugs are cheaper and more potent. The United States, indeed the world, is awash in illegal drugs.

The vast profits resulting from prohibition a mark-up as great as 17,000 percent - have led to worldwide corruption of public officials and widespread violence among drug traffickers and dealers that endangers whole communities, cities, and nations. The United Nations reports that there is a $500 billion international black market in drugs. In our own country, drug-related overdose deaths and drug emergency room visits have increased. Half of seniors in high school report using an illegal drug and 85 percent of them say illegal drugs are easier to obtain than beer.

As we approach the year 2000, we should be mindful that the drug war started about 100 years ago.Protestant missionaries in China and other religious groups joined with temperance organizations in convincing Congress that drugs were evil, and that drug users were dangerous, immoral people.

On Dec. 17, 1914, the religious groups got their version of sin outlawed in the Harrison Act. Until this federal law, the nation had viewed drug use as a social and medical dilemma. Making possession of drugs a federal crime was a radical change in policy. It certainly did not solve the drug problem, but it did give birth to unanticipated social damage.

I was a policeman for 35 years of this century. As a beat officer in New York's Harlem, and as police chief in Kansas City and San Jose, I caused many drug users to be locked up. I have come to believe that jailing people simply because they put certain chemicals into their bloodstream is a gross misuse of police and criminal law. Jailing drug users does not lessen drug use, and incarceration usually destroys the person's life and does immense harm to that person's family and neighborhood.

Non-whites have borne the brunt of the punishment even though most drug use is by whites. Alfred Blumstein, former president of the American Society of Criminologists, described the drug war as "...an assault on the Africa-American community." The current protests over racial profiling by the police are a reflection of the damage that an ill-chosen law enforcement war against drugs has on the ability of the police to win the cooperation that they need to do their job.

Because drug transactions are consensual, the police do not have a victim, witnesses and physical evidence that helps them solve crimes like murder, assault, robbery, rape and burglary. And under the Fourth Amendment, the police, with few exceptions, are not allowed to search people or their homes without a warrant. Yet, last year, state and local police in the United States made approximately 1,400,000 arrests for illegal possession of drugs. Overwhelmingly, these were minor arrests and rarely did they involve a court approved warrant.

The inescapable conclusion is that in hundreds of thousands of cases police officers violated their oath to uphold the Constitution and often committed perjury so that the evidence would be admitted. The practice is so prevalent that the term "testilying" is frequently substituted in police jargon for "testifying." The injury that unlawful searches and perjury by the police does to the credibility of our justice system is immeasurable.

Just as damaging is the destruction of trust that follows exposure of gangster cops who have robbed drug dealers, sold drugs and framed people in the communities that they were sworn to protect.

The nation has been unable to face the failure of our drug policies and to examine alternatives that would lessen dangerous drug use because we are still captives of the false stereotypes of drugs and drug users created a century ago by religious zealots.

The new millennium provides the opportunity for reflection and change. Marijuana should be decriminalized. There is no record of anyone dying from marijuana or committing a murder under its effects. Any number of scientific studies have indicated that in some cases it may be an effective medicine and it is certainly a less dangerous drug than alcohol. We would eliminate almost 700,000 arrests a year which would not only save money but also avoid ruining the lives of those arrested.

In addition, our country should revert to the pre-Harrison Act principle that no one should be arrested if his/her only crime is putting certain chemicals into their bloodstream. Treatment should be substituted for arrests. As to the "harder" drugs, we should reject the inane demagogic slogan of a "drug free America" and recognize that drugs are here and they need to be dealt with on a humane and just basis.

Once we are beyond the emotional straight-jacket imposed by the Harrison Act lobbyists, we can study how other countries minimize the harm of drugs. The Swiss, for example, found during a five-year experiment that providing heroin to addicts actually reduced heroin use and significantly reduced the crime committed by the addicts. The Netherlands regulates and controls the distribution of small amounts of hashish and marijuana and has a lower per capita use of drugs and lower crime rates than the United States.

As long ago as 1936, August Vollmer, former police chief of Berkeley and later professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley, and the leading police expert of his time wrote: "Repression has driven this vice underground and produced the narcotic smugglers and supply agents who have grown wealthy. Drug addiction is not a police problem; it never has and never can be solved by policemen. It is first and last a medical problem ... ."

There is no panacea, but it is clear that continuing to do more of what has not worked in the past century is not the way to start a new millennium. We have paid a heavy price in wasted lives and money for not listening to August Vollmer 63 years ago.

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