End of Year Drug War Update


Well, it’s the end of another year and time for what has become for me an annual end of the year update on our glorious “war on drugs.”  Before I begin my usual summary of the amount of money spent and the number of people arrested and other “hard data, ”I thought I would first give the reader a few headlines that I have been collecting and posting on my web site (“in the news”).

            One headline, dated November 12, was “Austin, Texas, Cop Killed Enforcing Marijuana Possession Law.”  This one is from the web site www.stopthedrugwar.org. This group began to keep tabs on the number of police officers killed each year while enforcing the drug laws.  They found that last year an average of just over one per month were dying.  This particular story took place in Austin where a cop was killed while attempting to bust someone for pot.

            Then there was a November 13 story about a vote in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where 74% approved “an amendment decriminalizing the use of marijuana for medical reasons.”  However, the local police chief said that his department would ignore the new law and continue to enforce all marijuana laws as they always had.

          Meanwhile, another kind of drug “trafficker,” Merck, was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning Vioxx, a painkiller, which was withdrawn from the market this past March because it increased the risk of heart attacks in long-term users. A story in the New York Times (“Justice Dept. and S.E.C. Investigating Merck Drug,” November 9, 2004) said the company had received a subpoena from the Justice Department “requesting information related to the company's research, marketing and selling activities with respect to Vioxx.” It said the request was related to a “federal health care investigation under criminal statutes.”

            We know a lot about drug companies and the dangerous drugs they produce, doing far greater harm to people than the so-called “narcotics” that have been targeted by the war on drugs.  However, our “drug warriors” continue to engage in all sorts of pre-dawn raids, busting down doors and searching for drugs, in an obsessive manner not unlike Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  All of this is underscored by rampant racism. A story out of Texas is illustrative.

The headline reads “The Usual Suspects” (Texas Observer, November 5), with the sub-headline of “Were there really 72 crack dealers in rural Anderson County?”  I’ll quote directly from the story: “It began, as many drug stings do, with a lucky break. In November 2002, a traffic cop pulled over a driver ferrying crack cocaine on U.S. Highway 79 into the small East Texas town of Palestine [population of 17,000]. Police believed they had caught a glimpse into a drug ring that was smuggling crack from Houston and Dallas into rural Anderson County, 40 miles southwest of Tyler. The Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force, a regional alliance of local, state, and federal law enforcement, promptly launched an investigation.”  It just so happens that all 72 are black. While it is true that there were a few dealers (four were among those arrested), but all the rest were merely in possession of small amounts and yet charged as being “dealers.” A third of the defendants had no priors and were “charged with delivering crack to a single confidential informant. None of the deliveries exceeded four grams. In some instances, it was less than a gram. That’s about the size of a Sweet-N-Low packet. Many of the suspects appear to be poor crack addicts swept up in the drug sting. Charged as dealers, they now face sentences of 20 years to life in state prison.” The ACLU has discovered wrongdoing all over the state by the “Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force,” which was involved in this bust.  According to a study by the ACLU, while blacks are 12 percent of Texas’ population and are no more likely than whites to use drugs, 70 percent of drug offenders in Texas state prisons are black.

And speaking of prisons, several reports during the year have noted that the incarceration rate keeps going up.  In November the Justice Department released the latest figures showing almost 1.5 million in prison, with the largest growth coming from women. In California it was recently noted that more than 1,000 are serving life sentences for drug offenses because of the notorious “three-strikes” laws (a reform of this law went down to defeat last month).  This should come as no surprise, as the most recent FBI figures show that the number of arrests for violations of the marijuana laws reached an all-time high of 755,186 in 2003. In fact, the number arrested on marijuana charges last year also exceeds the number arrested for violent crimes by more than 150,000.  Meanwhile, ignorance continues to run amok concerning medical marijuana, as Oregon became the latest state to strike down an initiative that would have increased access to medical marijuana by increasing the amounts patients and caregivers could possess and by creating a system of state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries where patients could purchase marijuana. It would also have directed counties to make free medical marijuana available to indigent patients.

Finally we come to the end of the year statistics on the drug war.  The latest figures show that we spent just over $50 billion on this “war,” while more than 1.5 million were arrested for drugs (more than 726,000 for pot, almost all for mere possession) and more than 10,000 were sent to prison on a drug conviction. For all this money and effort we find that illegal drugs are about as easy to get as ever and the percentage of those experimenting with drugs remains about the same, while the illegal drug market remains a world-wide bonanza for profits; and this includes the money flowing into the coffers of the criminal justice system, as total expenditures for the system as a whole approach the $200 billion mark and career opportunities grow.