Randall G. Shelden



Drug War Update: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure


We are presently in the third decade of what has come to be called the "war on drugs." It continues to dominate the headlines everywhere, as millions of individuals are consistently rounded up, convicted and incarcerated in the nation's prison system on drug charges.  About half of the growth in the prison system during the past couple of decades can be directly attributed to drug convictions.  Most of those arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison are blacks and Latinos.  It is time for an update and assessment on this “war.”

First, let's take a look at the money spent.  During 2003 a little over $39 billion was spent. (In contrast, in1980 about $1 billion was spent.) Last year, more than 1.5 million were arrested, with almost half (around 736,000) arrested for marijuana (88% for possession alone).  A total of 237,000 were sent to prison on drug charges (multiply this number by $20,000 - the low estimate is the cost to house one prisoner for one year- and you get some idea of the additional costs to taxpayers – about $4.7 billion).  In contrast, in 1980 there were 580,900 drug arrests (401,982 for marijuana).  Has this war been a deterrence to illegal drug use?  Hardly, since more than 83 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once. Use of illicit drugs in general continues unabated, with an estimated 28.4 million Americans aged 12 and over using some illegal drug in 2001 (21 million used marijuana that year). More importantly, however, is that, according to annual surveys of high school seniors, 36% admitted to using marijuana in 2002, compared to 27% in 1990.  Use of other illegal substances has shown increases as well. 

The drug war continues to target racial minorities, especially African-Americans.  Of all state prisoners serving time for drug offenses in 2001 (latest figures available), over half (57%) were black, 19% were Hispanic and 23% were white (the majority of those in prison on any offense are minorities and the incarceration rates for blacks are about eight times that of whites). This is despite the fact that, according to the latest drug use survey, 72% of all users of illegal drugs are white, with blacks constituting only 15% and Hispanics accounting for 10%.  For all offenses, the incarceration rate for African-American males is almost 8 times greater than for white males and an estimated one-third of black males will serve time in prison, compared to about 6% of white males.

Women are often overlooked in the drug war commentary, yet drugs are the most serious offense for 72% of them in federal prison and 30% in state prison.  Women's rate of incarceration has increased faster than the rate for men and black females are five times more likely than white females to be incarcerated. (More women's prisons have been built in the past twenty years than in the previous 80 years!)

The effects on children have been dramatic, especially for blacks, as black children are about nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than a white child.  The drug war is the main culprit here.  Add the expense of taking care of these children to your tax bill, not to mention a well-known fact that one of the best predictors of serious delinquency is having at least one parent in prison.  This is one of the many “collateral damages” of the drug war, according to a recent book edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, New Press, 2002).  Indeed, the “war” metaphor certainly fits well here, with many other “collateral damages” not well publicized, such as a lifetime ban on eligibility for TANF assistance and food stamps on those convicted for drugs.  Another consequence is the exclusion of drug offenders from eligibility for public housing.  Many residents have been evicted simply because a relative or even a house guest had a drug conviction.  One of the ironies of the “end welfare as we know it” is that the US prison system has, in effect, become a form of what used to be called “indoor” relief for the poor, dating back to 17th century poorhouses.  One final example of collateral damage is the fact that about 13% of all African-American males have been disenfranchised.  In Florida alone, this percentage is around 30%, no doubt contributing to the election (or should I say “appointment”) of the George W. Bush as president.

The human side to the drug war as it relates to women was recently displayed in a story appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle.  This was about a 51-year-old woman sentenced to six years for possession of 6.3 grams of cocaine, who has only 20 months left on her sentence.  She is dying of liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, caused by hepatitis C.  She has been denied a liver transplant by the Department of Corrections (no female prisoner has ever been allowed to get an organ transplant in the history of California prisons) and without this transplant she is given six months to live.  Her case is being reconsidered under the state's "compassionate release law" (allowing the release of prisoners who have less than six months to live and who pose no threat to society).

This woman is one more victim of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, which has decreed some of the most punitive sentences in the world (the average sentence for a drug offender is now longer than for murder).  Since the enactment of these laws, the budget of the federal prison system went from $220 million in 1986 to $3.19 billion in 1997 (latest figures), an increase of 1,350%.  A curious category of expenditures is that of “drug-related prison construction,” which for the federal system included an extra $420 million in fiscal year 2001 and an added $316 million in 2003. Remember, these are mostly drug users going to prison.

Two prevailing views about the drug war have become dominant in recent years; actually, there are two variations of one view, and that one view is that the war on drugs has been a monumental failure. The first variation is that since we have "lost" the war, the only course of action is to declare a "cease fire" if not totally "withdraw our troops" and seek a "peaceful settlement," to use the war metaphor.  The other variation is that we should not totally abandon the war efforts, but rather we should try different tactics or even (again using the war metaphor) go in with "guns blazing" and "get this over with." 

In short, the view among most critics of the drug war is that it is not working. However, in order to determine the success of a program you have to first define what you mean by "success." If the "war on drugs" was aimed at reducing the use of certain harmful drugs, then few would argue that it has been a success. But what if this was not the goal of this war?   Suppose you argue that the goal was not to reduce drug use?  What if you were to argue that the aim of the drug war was to further marginalize and suppress the minority population (many having become part of the "surplus population" in recent years), while expanding an already large crime control industry?  Add to this the recent growth in right-wing conservatism, which continues to impose its own view of morality, while attempting to punish those who engage in what they consider "immoral" behavior.  After all, many of the “drug warriors” (like Bill Bennett, the first “drug czar”) have argued that the mere use of prohibited substances is immoral and must therefore be punished. Is the drug war part of this strategy too?  From this point of view, the drug war has been a huge success. 

Contrary to popular belief, several studies have shown that those who were the leading instigators for this war were well aware of the overwhelming evidence from the scientific community that the way to reduce drug addiction is through education and treatment, not punitive legislation.  This they ignored as they proceeded to spend billions of dollars on police and military hardware, plus jail and prison expenditures, over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s.  Dan Baum, in his excellent book Smoke and Mirrors, reports an interview he had with John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon's domestic policy advisor.  Ehrlichman stated quite bluntly that at that time that the "silent majority" (the term Nixon used to describe the average white middle class American) feared and hated "hippies" and urban blacks, as did most in the Nixon administration.  Since they could not come right out and directly use the legal system to control these two groups, they instead used the "war on drugs" to control them by specifically targeting marijuana use (code word for "hippies") and heroin (code word for blacks; in time it was “crack” that became a code word for blacks).  Therefore, recalled Ehrlichman, we were able to send the "storm troops" onto the campuses and black ghettos.

So the main targets would be the poor, especially racial minorities, along with "hippies."  It soon became obvious that this "war" was declared only on a few drugs, the drugs used by the "outcasts" members of society - "hippies," blacks, Latinos, the poor in general.  No such war was declared on alcohol and tobacco, which account for around 500,000 deaths each year (in a recent Supreme Court ruling that the FDA cannot regulate tobacco, Justice Breyer, in his dissent, stated quite frankly that "tobacco products kill more people in this country every year than AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, homicides, illegal drugs, suicides and fires combined."  No such "war" was declared on the more privileged segments of the population (like upper income whites who use powdered cocaine).  In fact, when too many middle class white youths were arrested on marijuana charges in the 1970s, this part of the "war" was called off.  The parents of these youth (many of whom were politicians and law enforcement officials) said (sometimes openly, sometimes not) that "this is not what we had in mind" or "we didn't mean to arrest our own kids," the nice, clean-cut white kids in the suburbs!

The results have been unmistakable, as noted above. Thus, from this point of view, the "war on drugs" has been a resounding success, because the intent was to control and/or lock up the poor and racial minorities.

The law of intent maintains that if a person knows the likely negative consequences of some action and the negative result occurs, then he can be charged with committing a willful act (like drinking and then driving and killing someone in an accident, or driving the getaway car in a robbery where someone is killed and be charged with murder). 

One could argue that most proponents of the drug war were sincere in their desire to end drug abuse.  However, the fact that the negative results have accumulated for such a long period of time (spanning more than two decades now) and the drug warriors have been advised of these negative consequences over and over again (including hundreds of scientific reports from reputable researchers), and they continue along the same path, lends support to the contention that they are not really interested in reducing drug abuse and instead merely want to contain the “surplus population.” What is occurring, in my view, is the creation of a new form of apartheid.

This was posted on March 19, 2004 on the web site of Z Magazine.  Go to: http://www.zmag.org. and click on Znet.


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