The Shadow Convention, Los Angeles, CA, 8-15-2000

We Are All Casualties of Friendly Fire in the War on Drugs

by Rocky Anderson

As the rage to punish has overcome rationality, as political opportunism has led us down an utterly destructive path, as opportunities to take a more effective, humane course are repeatedly lost, our nation is engaged in a war. It is a war where those who insist on “staying the course” know their strategy has already failed, and that it will continue to fail; where we – and our fellow citizens – are constant casualties of our nation?s disastrous tactics; and where there can be no “peace with honor” – or even just honor – until we honestly face up to the ineffectiveness and injustice of the manner in which we have pursued the war.

It is the war on drugs – a war that was manufactured for political gain; a war that has backfired on the American people, viciously and relentlessly; a war that history will forever condemn as poorly conceived and pathetically, yet brutally, executed.

  • Alvin Barksdale had never before been arrested. An acquaintance of Alvin’s offered him one hundred dollars to drop off an envelope to a woman in a hotel room. Alvin was told the envelope contained $250 for her hotel bill. This acquaintance also asked Alvin to retrieve a bag from the woman. Not until he entered the room did Alvin realize that it was a drug deal. When Alvin arrived at the hotel room to give the woman the money, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute the entire amount of the drug. The judge acknowledged that Alvin was just a “mule,” but was still compelled by minimum mandatory sentencing requirements to sentence Alvin, then 34 years of age, to 10 years in prison. In the federal system, there is no parole. During the proceedings, Alvin’s wife had a nervous breakdown, divorced him, and moved from New York to Sacramento with his daughter. Alvin is currently incarcerated in New York and cannot see his family.

The Republican and the Democratic parties will not honestly address the absolute insanity of our approach to preventing and fighting drug abuse and addiction, so we must insist on a better course. We must insist on a course that is honest, a course that is effective, and a course that is just.

When our country’s leaders declare war, we expect that they do it for our good and for the good of our nation – not simply to provide themselves with personal political advantage. We expect they will conduct the war with clear objectives in mind – and that they will pursue those objectives effectively and with integrity.

Disastrously, our nation’s so-called war on drugs has violated all of those principles. To make matters worse, this war on drugs has destroyed the families and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Yet the war drags on, and will continue to drag on until the people lead out – because our elected officials apparently do not have the courage or the integrity to lead, as we have elected them to do. Therefore, let us raise our voices, loudly and clearly, in protest today. And let us demand that we pursue a better, more humane, more effective way.

We must insist that those who ask for our votes reject the phony, ineffective, feel-good elements of the war on drugs. To truly lead in this area means to reject the politically convenient, yet ineffective, measures upon which this country has relied for far too long, and to implement the best, most effective measures to significantly reduce the terrible effects of dangerous drug abuse and addiction.

Certainly, there is good reason to take aggressive, effective action to reduce dangerous drug abuse and addiction. Heroin, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine are all addictive, toxic substances, which can lead to horrendously destructive behaviors, as well as death by overdose. In Salt Lake County, drug overdose is the number one killer of males aged 15-45.

Ironically, those tough-on-crime politicians and posturing school administrators who advocate ineffective, politically opportunistic measures to combat drug abuse and addiction are not part of the solution; rather, they are part of the growing problem. We demand they become part of the solution – or that they move aside.

The measures of success or failure in our current approach to the war on drugs are really quite simple. If the billions of dollars our nation has spent on source-control and interdiction efforts were a good investment, we would have fewer drugs available, with less purity, at higher cost. And if the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in bumper-sticker- and tee-shirt-driven “drug prevention” programs like DARE were effective, we would have fewer kids taking drugs.

Instead, the approach taken by our nation’s leaders, since Richard Nixon and continuing with Bill Clinton, has resulted in just the opposite. And, in the process, we have increased the tax burden on the American people; we have destroyed families, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic; we have ripped apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of our citizens; and we have filled our jails and prisons to the point that the United States competes with Russia for the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. The “war on drugs,” as it has been carried out, has not been a war against drugs. It has been a war against the people of this nation – and against our fundamental freedoms.

The approach we have taken in the war on drugs has actually increased the availability of drugs, which now cost less to purchase. From 1985 to 1995, during which time the federal drug control budget increased almost five-fold, more 12th grade students reported marijuana as “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. Nearly 50% of high school seniors interviewed in 1999 reported that cocaine was “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain and 32% said the same about heroin.

In 1998, 350,000 hits of Ecstasy were seized by law enforcement throughout all of America. During the next year, the number jumped tenfold. So far this year, more than 4.4 million tablets of Ecstasy have been seized, yet Ecstasy is still readily accessible. The war on drugs has not made it any less likely the people in our communities will be able to buy it if they desire. It only ensures that more of the drugs will be manufactured.

Between 1981 and 1998, while we were spending billions on source-control and interdiction efforts, the cost of cocaine on the street actually declined from $190 per gram to $44 per gram, and the purity increased. The cost of heroin also declined, from $1200 per gram to $318 per gram, and its purity more than doubled.

Along with greater availability and lower price has come increased use of illegal drugs. From 1988 to 1998, the percentage of college students who reported daily use of marijuana within the prior month more than doubled. Between 1991 and 1998, past-month use of marijuana increased from 3% to 10% among 8th graders. In 1993, 24% of students in grades 9 through 12 reported that someone had offered, sold, or given them an illegal drug on school property. By 1997, the number of students reporting actual or attempted drug transactions on school property increased to 32%. And in the four year period between 1994 and 1998, drug-related emergency room episodes across the country increased by more than 24,000.

Clearly, we are taking a wasteful, ineffective, deceptive approach to our battle against drug abuse and addiction. Drugs are more plentiful and less expensive, yet our nation’s leaders have spent billions of taxpayer dollars on a strategy focused on the supply side, rather than on the demand side, simply because Republicans and Democrats alike are terrified of appearing to be soft on crime. It is unfortunate they are not as terrified of appearing to be completely ineffective, wasteful and inhumane.

During George Bush’s tenure, local, state, and federal governments spent more than $120 billion on the war on drugs. During the Clinton Administration, the war on drugs has consumed more federal dollars than the Commerce, Interior, and State Departments combined.

Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, members of the Reform Party, people of every political stripe: We must join together and stop the fiscal recklessness of the failed war on drugs.

In 1980, the number of Americans in prison for drug offenses was 41,000; today that number has increased more than tenfold, to 458,000. The annual cost of incarcerating them is $9 billion. When mandatory sentencing laws were passed in 1986, drug defendants comprised 38 % of the federal prison population; today they comprise almost 60%.

We must stop this insanity.

We must stop this inhumanity.

America’s war on drugs began under the Nixon Administration by federalizing drug trafficking under the pretense of regulating interstate commerce, and since that time has proceeded to expand the government?s authority to wiretap, issue broad search warrants, seize personal property, with little, if any, due process, and incarcerate offenders for enormous periods of time.

Among the significant incursions on our freedoms that have accompanied the war on drugs have been civil forfeiture laws. These laws turn our system of justice on its head, presuming guilt until the property owner proves his or her innocence. Because there is no court-appointed counsel for those who cannot afford an attorney, innocent citizens are often left without any protection against the confiscation and they can lose their cars or their homes without due process of law. Law enforcement agencies have huge incentives to take people’s property because the bulk of forfeited items go to the law enforcement agency making the seizure.

  • Billy Munnerly ran an air charter business. When he unknowingly flew a passenger who was carrying millions in drug money, the DEA arrested him and seized his plane. Although charges against him were finally dropped for lack of evidence, he spent two years and $85,000 to get his plane out of a federal warehouse.

There is much that can be done to accomplish our common goals – without the waste, without the destruction of our freedoms, and without filling our jails and prisons with non-violent drug offenders.

Elected officials can evaluate the effectiveness of all government drug-related programs and strategies, and discontinue those that are shown to be ineffective, regardless of their popularity. Then, they can substitute those programs and strategies that are effective in reducing harm. And we can let them know that is exactly what we demand.

After I was elected Mayor, I examined Salt Lake City’s participation in DARE, a substance-abuse prevention program with great popular appeal, but which has been demonstrated by study after study as being completely ineffective in reducing drug abuse over the long-term. Once my intent to terminate the DARE program in Salt Lake City became known, I was besieged by police officers, parents, and school officials who demanded that I retain DARE in our schools. Notwithstanding all the parents who have yelled at me during parades, I know it is my obligation to honestly and conscientiously examine the data and insist that our School Board put in place drug-prevention programs that have proven to be effective.

Also, we are working to establish a comprehensive network of after-school, summer and youth employment programs that will be available to young people from all parts of the city and from all income backgrounds. A huge part of substance abuse prevention relies on giving young people healthy, fun, interesting alternatives to destructive behavior. It is not enough to constantly tell our children what they cannot do.

In response to a drug overdose epidemic in our area, we are working with State agencies and the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition to develop a comprehensive overdose prevention and education strategy. This will include development and implementation of overdose prevention and education curricula for drug users and service providers.

We all share the same goals. We want to reduce dangerous drug abuse, we want to remove the social factors that lead people to use and sell drugs, we want our streets and schools to be safe for our children, and we want our tax dollars to be spent in the most effective way possible. Our current policies accomplish none of these goals. Our nation and our people deserve so much more!

Positive change lies in focusing on people, not on drugs – on the demand side, not the supply side. If we provide effective drug-prevention and education programs, if we provide safe, nurturing, interesting alternatives for our kids after school and during the summers, if we provide job-training and employment opportunities for our teens, and if we provide sufficient drug-treatment programs, we will make a huge, positive difference in battling the abuse of dangerous drugs. As a 1994 RAND study found, treatment is “seven times more cost-effective than law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction and twenty-three times more effective than attacking drugs at their source.” We have the information; now we must act on it.

This conference is an essential beginning to the process of examining a different, more humane, rational approach to drug abuse and addiction. We must make it clear to all political leaders, and to their political parties: They cannot ignore these issues any longer. And they must provide the leadership to develop solutions that work. That’s not just what we want; it’s what the people throughout our nation are seeking: Real leadership; courageous leadership; leadership with integrity. With that sort of leadership, we can solve these difficult problems and provide better lives, and better communities, for all.

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