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July 1, 2008

Will any Prez candidate promise to get us out of a failed war ... on drugs?

Though many remain eager to use gun debates as a political talking point in the election season, I would like the talk to be about a failed war that has lasted far too long, has cost lots of money and time, and seems to be of little efficacy.  Of course, the war I am talking about is the never-ending "war on drugs."  As detailed in this new Science Daily entry, headlined "United States Has Highest Level Of Illegal Cocaine And Cannabis Use," the so-called "war on drugs" has failed to reduce illegal drug use in the United States:

A survey of 17 countries has found that despite its punitive drug policies the United States has the highest levels of illegal cocaine and cannabis use. The study, by Louisa Degenhardt (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia) and colleagues, is based on the World Health Organization's Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI).

The full article can be accessed at this link.

Of course, even though the so-called "war on drugs" apparently has not be effective at driving down illegal drug use, it does appear to have effectively increased our prison populations and the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on a wide array of criminal justice institutions in federal and systems.  Too bad that a lot of this money is taken away from education and other government services intended to help, rather than hurt, citizens in need.

As regular readers know, Senator Jim Webb is paying attention to these issues and understands that a new approach is needed.  Do any other national politicians?  Will anyone besides Senator Webb have the courage to ask hard questions about what has been won and lost in the war on drugs?

Some recent related posts:

July 1, 2008 at 09:42 AM | Permalink

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By the logic of these studies, we should also abandon the war on poverty, since it too has lasted forever, has cost a ton of money (far more than the war on drugs) and we still have lots and lots of people living in poverty.

Yet I have never heard those most vocal in the push to end the war on drugs say we should end the war on poverty as well.

Now why is that?

I believe it's because they understand that poverty makes life difficult and stunts a person's opportunity to reach his full potential. It's also because they understand that, simply because a worthwhile public enterprise is expensive and intractable, that doesn't mean you give up. It means you fight harder.

All this is true of the effort to stem drug abuse. The effort is expensive and long-term, and it will never fully succeed (just as the war on crime generally will never fully succeed). But it is a worthwhile struggle, because drugs range from unhealthy to lethal. To start someone off with the idea that drugs are OK -- the idea that taking a step or three back now is certain to convey -- is to subvert him in a way that is insidious and cruel.

I have occasionally invited commenters to describe the virtues of meth, LSD and heroin. I have had no takers, and with good reason.

Finally, to say that what everyone knows is a long-term battle has not yet been won is simply a truism. The relevant question is not whether there is still drug abuse -- of course there is -- but how much more there will be if we surrender and tell the next generation, "Hey, don't worry, be happy, and don't fret about the meth -- you won't be an addict until next week."

As is usual with these one-sided, results-pre-determined "studies," the costs of the drug war grab all the headlines, while the costs of surrender, by whatever slippery name it will be called, get tucked in a dismissive footnote if they get mentioned at all.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 10:38:37 AM

Bill the obvious difference between the "war on poverty" and the "war on drugs" is that the latter war actually involves putting considerable numbers of people in prison, as well as eroding the Fourth Amendment, exacerbating gang violence and creating a vast black market in illegal drugs. The two "wars," in other words, are not remotely comparable in terms of the way they are carried out.

Posted by: Alex Coolman | Jul 1, 2008 10:54:32 AM

Doug quoted: "A survey of 17 countries has found that despite its punitive drug policies the United States has the highest levels of illegal cocaine and cannabis use."

I'm continually amazed at what can only be the willful ignorance of policymakers and pundits. Put all the socioeconomic statistics together and they tell you all you need to know. Our country has a severe shortage of serious people in positions of power.

Bill Otis wrote: "By the logic of these studies, we should also abandon the war on poverty, since it too has lasted forever, has cost a ton of money (far more than the war on drugs) and we still have lots and lots of people living in poverty.

Yet I have never heard those most vocal in the push to end the war on drugs say we should end the war on poverty as well.

Now why is that?"

We have not made any serious efforts to redress poverty and wealth/income inequities in this country because of people like you, Bill. Please spare us your feigned confusion.

Bill Otis wrote: "Finally, to say that what everyone knows is a long-term battle has not yet been won is simply a truism. The relevant question is not whether there is still drug abuse -- of course there is -- but how much more there will be if we surrender and tell the next generation, 'Hey, don't worry, be happy, and don't fret about the meth -- you won't be an addict until next week.'"

Once the money that goes to law enforcement--including the building and maintaining of prisons--and the money that goes to needless wars and military expenditures (trillions of dollars) is diverted to the well being of American citizens instead, the answer to your question is: much, much less. Obviously. When people's health and security needs are met such that they no longer need to self-medicate, they will be much less likely to do so. It is a fact that countries with more liberal drug policies (and more rigorous social welfare policies) have less drug use than the U.S.

Posted by: DK | Jul 1, 2008 11:18:58 AM

I do not think so. Politicians are risk-adverse and the risk is too great here. Additionally, you cannot turn this into a thirtysecond soundbite (while one could paint a candidate poorly on the issue in thirty seconds).

Posted by: nathan | Jul 1, 2008 11:39:34 AM

Making matters worse are the three strikes laws which can send individuals away for life for smoking three joints. The drug laws favor law enforcement officials who can put people behind bars and justify their payrolls, however it in no way serves justice or the people.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 1, 2008 11:50:58 AM

I agree with Bill Otis that the corollary to the war on drugs is much more insidious and dishonest. The costs of surrender(legalization) are untenable in that it will make drug use more widespread and there will be little impact on the violence associated with drug trafficking. The reality is there will continue to be a "black market" in drugs as addicts will not be satiated with their daily government-sponsored dosage.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 1, 2008 11:53:19 AM

Poll: Most Americans Oppose Mandatory Sentencing, See Criminal Justice System as Broken

New York, NY - The results of new national research commissioned by the Open Society Institute, part of the Soros foundations network, say that most Americans believe the country's criminal justice system comprises an ineffective, purely punitive approach to crime.

Three major findings are: Americans want to attack the underlying causes of crime rather than the symptoms; prevention is the nation's premiere criminal justice goal; harsh prison sentences are being reconsidered as a primary crime-fighting tool, especially for non-violent offenders.

Posted by: George | Jul 1, 2008 11:54:28 AM

George:

If you take seriously the results of a George Soros-funded poll, then you should take seriously the idea that I'll be playing in the NBA next year.

Actually, you should take the latter idea MORE seriously, since there was a time, admittedly long ago, when at least I could shoot the ball.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 12:12:00 PM

What I hear from Bill seems to be that basically, the only thing keeping us all from being degenrate junkie criminals who'd do anything for a fix is the fact that the laws are illegal. Is that your position?

Given that there are two very popular recreational drugs and a whole slew of easy to get "psychiatric" drugs that do the same thing, it seems that the onus should be on those who want to criminalize, not the other way around.

As for the alleged failures of anyone to sing the praises of crystal meth, LSD, etc. to you - it's not surprising that no one want to tell a prosecutor about their positive experiences with drugs. Practically every "successful" drug user remains anonymous; one would expect them to be even less visible to you.

Finally, there is no "war on drug abuse." It's the "war on drugs." We do not use a public health model to deal with the problem of addiction; we use a criminal model to deal with the problem of access. In our system, use = abuse.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Jul 1, 2008 12:18:14 PM

Mr. Coolman:

"Bill the obvious difference between the 'war on poverty' and the 'war on drugs' is that the latter war actually involves putting considerable numbers of people in prison..."

Then people would be well advised to obey the law even when they disagree with it. You can work for democratic change, sure; have at it. But until there is change, prison is a risk for those who knowingly violate the law to make a fast buck.

"...as well as eroding the Fourth Amendment..."

File a motion to suppress and win it. If the court rules that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment, which in my experience is almost always what happens, then the claim of a depleted Fourth Amendment stands on shaky footing.

"...exacerbating gang violence..."

The people who exacerbate gang violence are the people who commit it. The notion that they have a "right" to sell drugs, and to shoot competing dealers who interfere with that "right" (plus any random person who happens to get in the way) is absurd.

The remedy for gang violence is not to change the law. The remedy is to change the culture so that children learn that you do not unlawfully use violence simply because it will advance your interests in life.

"...and creating a vast black market in illegal drugs."

Unless you propose total legalization, including unlimited sales of any drug, no matter how dangerous, to those under 21, there will continue to be a black market, just as there is a huge black market for liquor now among the college-age population. Indeed there is even a black market for cigarettes, driven by the desire to avoid high taxes in the northeastern states.

"The two 'wars,' in other words, are not remotely comparable in terms of the way they are carried out."

They are comparable, indeed close to identical, in the ways most legalizers emphasize: they cost a lot of money, they have gone on for decades, they have not yet succeeded, and for all their problems, they target things that are unhealthy and that limit human potential.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 12:40:20 PM

"We have not made any serious efforts to redress poverty and wealth/income inequities in this country because of people like you, Bill." Because of people like Bill? A guy who enforced the laws passed by a representative legislature is the source of all evil in this country? Should he have chosen not to prosecute anyone who was living below the poverty level or lacked a high school education? Or should he have prosecuted every successful law abiding citizen for not doing enough to equalize wealth in this country?

Posted by: NewFedClerk | Jul 1, 2008 12:52:24 PM

"have occasionally invited commenters to describe the virtues of meth, LSD and heroin. I have had no takers, and with good reason."

Here's a taker. The virtues of LSD are many. You should try some, Bill.

Posted by: anon | Jul 1, 2008 12:55:04 PM

Odd to compare the "war on drugs" with the "war on poverty" when one considers that for many poor areas (e.g. southwest Virginia, the area along the Virginia-North Carolina border in both states), prisons are among the largest employer. Thus, one could make a case that the "war on drugs" functions in such a way to make it an employment program and that any reforms in the "war on drugs" will run against the political interests in keeping people at work (and in some states, the powerful prison guard unions who lobby against any sort of sentencing reduction).

While the "war on drugs" is often rightly considered a "war on poor people," one wonders if it may also be considered given the prison employment aspects in certain areas that it is also part of the "war on [rural] poverty."

Posted by: Zack | Jul 1, 2008 12:58:57 PM

Gary Proctor:

"What I hear from Bill seems to be that basically, the only thing keeping us all from being degenrate junkie criminals who'd do anything for a fix is the fact that the laws are illegal. Is that your position?"

The "laws are illegal"?? How's that?

Still, the remainder of this paragrapsh is clear enough to understand. It is a tacit admission that you can't pin this burlesque of a position on me by quoting me, which you conspicuoulsy avoid doing. Instead you make up a position, saying that it's what you "hear" from me, and then demand that I address the made-up position.

Nice try. No dice.

I'll say this though. What keeps people from taking drugs is mainly the knowledge that they're dangerous. The public is not as easily fooled as you seem to believe.

I'm not a prosecutor, incidentally. I have no official power whatever. If you're going to talk about me instead of the issue, please at least get your facts straight.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 1:02:01 PM

Jul 1, 2008 12:55:04 PM:

I said that I had "occasionally invited commenters to describe the virtues of meth, LSD and heroin. I have had no takers, and with good reason."

You respond: "Here's a taker. The virtues of LSD are many. You should try some, Bill."

Thanks for your honesty. Thirty seven minutes before your post, Gary Proctor said that answering my question was too dangerous for anyone to risk it. I guess his statement is now "inoperative."

As for the "virtues" of LSD, I think I'll pass. This is not primarily because it's illegal, although that would be sufficient. It's because I don't want to walk through a glass door thinking it's the pathway to Nirvana.

I also appreciate your statement for its candor in showing that a segment of the legalization lobby is less into arguing libertarian theory and over-incarceration than just into getting high.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 1:19:50 PM

NewFedClerk:

You have to understand what's going on with DK.

He has taken the position that Abraham Lincoln was a racist pig. Indeed he has called this an undeniable truth that cannot be debated by intelligent people.

He has taken the position that people who support the death penalty are ipso facto murderers (meaning that his murderers list includes people from FDR to Sandra Day O'Connor). Since more than two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment, I guess it also means that there are 200,000,000-plus murderers out there. Yikes! The streets are more dangerous than I thought!

In today's post, he takes the position that drugs like meth are medication. I'm not making this up. This is the exact quotation: "When people's health and security needs are met such that they no longer need to self-medicate [with meth and other illegal drugs], they will be much less likely to do so."

Best to run off to your doctor and tell him you've got the flu, so could he please prescribe some of that ever helpful "medication," meth.

Lastly, he also says, as you note, that, "We have not made any serious efforts to redress poverty and wealth/income inequities in this country because of people like" me.

You have to wonder where DK has been for the last 40 years or so. The country has laid out billions upon billions in social spending. The tax code is now such that the bottom half of earners pay virtually no income taxes. Almost the entire cost of government is borne by the top half. Spending on government welfare and quasi-welfare programs is huge and getting bigger every day. Indeed, over roughly the past four decades, the gargantuan increase in social spending has driven the national debt up to the moon. And both parties do it.

The deal with DK is that every ill in the country is due to those who oppose an even bigger welfare state, and that if you are one of them, your sins start with being a murderer and go up from there.

Meth is medicine. Good grief. The guy really has lost touch.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 2:07:19 PM

Bill said:

"...as well as eroding the Fourth Amendment..."

File a motion to suppress and win it. If the court rules that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment, which in my experience is almost always what happens, then the claim of a depleted Fourth Amendment stands on shaky footing.

---

Pretty result-based analysis. If a judge denies a suppression motion, then ipso facto there has been no erronsion of the Fourth Amendment's protections? What if the judge denies the motion on some new, novel basis? What if the appellate court overrules prior precedent and denies the motion? That's errosion, don't you think?

Posted by: Anon | Jul 1, 2008 2:14:44 PM

NewFedClerk wrote: "Because of people like Bill? A guy who enforced the laws passed by a representative legislature is the source of all evil in this country? Should he have chosen not to prosecute anyone who was living below the poverty level or lacked a high school education? Or should he have prosecuted every successful law abiding citizen for not doing enough to equalize wealth in this country?"

Bill Otis, a person with significant privilege and influence in our society, strenuously opposes and actively advocates against social welfare programs and universal, single-payer health insurance. Thus, "We have not made any serious efforts to redress poverty and wealth/income inequities in this country because of people like [] Bill."

Bill is also well-schooled in the conservative fine art of the smear campaign, so it would be wise to take his characterization of anything I have said with a grain of salt. It certainly isn't worthy of further response from me.

Posted by: DK | Jul 1, 2008 3:23:30 PM

Report on the Wars Against Nouns

1) War Against Poverty: Used in 1964 Sate of the Union Address by President Johnson
This was in response to a 19% poverty rate and was a package of programs aimed at reducing the rate.
Some of those programs still exist in altered and diminished form. The poverty rate was reduced but the folks that argue that economic growth was more important than the WOP have the stronger case in my opinion. This was a socioeconomic problem that was address using socioeconomic programs.

2) War Against Cancer: Used by President Nixon in a 1971 SOU speech.
This war is ongoing and the results so far have been a major reduction in the casualty rate. This was a medical problem that was address using medical research and new treatments.

3) War Against Drugs: Used by President Nixon in a 1971 SOU speech.
The stated goals were to reduce illegal drug supplies and reduce the rate of addiction to illegal drugs.
At the moment good quality illegal drugs are available at reasonable prices and I don't know if there has been any change in the addiction rate since 1971. This was socioeconomic and public health problem that was addressed as a criminal justice problem. To be fair to President Nixon there was a public health component in the original proposed set of remedies. The war on drugs is continuing with little hope that it will achieve either goal.

It is a good idea to review the history of the non-medical use of drugs in the US. The 1919 drug tax bill did help reduce the addiction to morphine because patent medicines (about 50% morphine) were taken off the market. People that did not pay the drug tax were prosecuted for tax evasion and the criminal justice system was not involved.

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 1, 2008 3:30:48 PM

Bill, why would I bother to look you up and 'catch' you when I can just ask you what your position is? Oh wait, that's what I did. You seem to thrive on the fiction that you're being persecuted. You do draw a lot of flack here, but it's clear you wouldn't have it any other way.

This isn't O'Reilly factor, you know. We're not sitting around playing "gotcha." (Well, you seem to be). Speaking of O'Reilly, do you deny being the Bill Otis who WAS a prosecutor, and did the O'Reilly Show?

Are you going to tell me that you personally know a lot of people who smoke grass or otherwise consume illegal drugs? Because that would surprise me greatly.

Are you actually going to claim that one anonymous poster who recommends you try drugs makes my statement "inoperative" without addressing your own now-incorrect post?

This is silly call-in show land. I'm done with you, Mr. Otis.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Jul 1, 2008 3:40:59 PM

"It's because I don't want to walk through a glass door thinking it's the pathway to Nirvana."

Neither do I. It is unclear why you think taking LSD results in "walk[ing] through a glass door thinking it's the pathway to Nirvana." This is not so for many, which is why I encouraged you to try that about which you comment. LSD is not meth.

"I also appreciate your statement for its candor in showing that a segment of the legalization lobby is less into arguing libertarian theory and over-incarceration than just into getting high."

Arguing the merits of "getting high" does not preclude arguing "libertarian theory."


Posted by: anon | Jul 1, 2008 3:41:28 PM

Gosh - hardly know where to start. Yes we should also look at the "war on poverty" there has been considerable demagoguing of that war as well as the war on terror. Perhaps War is not the best metaphor for public policy.

I watched David Murray from the White House Drug Control Policy Office on C-Span this morning. It was a weak performance. If we don't want to use statistics and studies from Lindsmith Center to make public policy, we should not use statistics and studies from partisan prohibitions organizations. Many people depend on the war on drugs for their pay check and these government expenditures give many politicians power and influence.

It's a fact that if you do not know the total protocol of a study, you cannot depend on the results being evidence based. Unfortunately evidence based science has been losing ground in our public policy decisions.

Lets just start a new dialog and be honest about what works.

Alcohol prohibition did not work. Alcohol is in fact the gateway drug, but it will not be added to our list of prohibited substances. We've been sold a bill of goods. Lets start over.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jul 1, 2008 3:57:29 PM

DK:

"Bill Otis, a person with significant privilege and influence in our society, strenuously opposes and actively advocates against social welfare programs and universal, single-payer health insurance."

You will of course back this up with a quotation from me that says anything at all about "universal, single-payer health insurance."

I'll wait.

While I'm waiting, maybe I should run out to get some some of the meth you tout for self "medication."

Medicinal meth. I must admit I never thought I'd hear that one, not even from you.

You really have lost touch, DK. Perhaps I shouldn't hold it against you that you breezily brand as racists and murderers people you don't know and have never met -- not to mention people who have contributed more to this country than you have or ever will. At this point, there is considerable doubt that you can help yourself.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 4:00:33 PM

Gary Proctor:

"This is silly call-in show land. I'm done with you, Mr. Otis."

Then it would be pointless for me to answer your post.

'Bye.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 4:10:06 PM

anon | Jul 1, 2008 3:41:28 PM:

"It is unclear why you think taking LSD results in 'walk[ing] through a glass door thinking it's the pathway to Nirvana.' This is not so for many, which is why I encouraged you to try that about which you comment."

To say that it's not that way for many is to say that it IS that way for some. I aim to stay out of the group of "some" the only way I'm certain will work, i.e., abstention.

Plus there is the fact that it's illegal. I have said that other people should obey the law, and that applies to me too.

"LSD is not meth."

That's the best thing I ever heard about LSD.

"Arguing the merits of 'getting high' does not preclude arguing 'libertarian theory.'"

That's certainly correct, and I didn't say otherwise. At the same time, arguing the merits of getting high is arguing the merits of getting high. I thought your post was noteworthy for being the only one here to my knowledge that was sufficiently honest to do so.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 1, 2008 4:25:59 PM

On the merits of LSD:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080701/ap_on_sc/sci_psychedelic_study

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Jul 1, 2008 4:49:15 PM

"To say that it's not that way for many is to say that it IS that way for some."

From a purely logic standpoint, this is not so. Rather, to say that it's not the way for many is only to comment on the fact that it is not the way for many. I do not know all, so I cannot comment on all.
Also, alcohol similarly has bad consequences for some; I'll assume you do not abstain from alcohol.

"Plus there is the fact that it's illegal. I have said that other people should obey the law, and that applies to me too."

Fair enough, but the law is an inefficient (though admittedly probably the most efficient possible) means of organizing society. Not all acts that are unlawful are immoral or harmful, unless you believe that disobeying the law in and of itself is an immoral or harmful act.

Posted by: anon | Jul 1, 2008 5:05:04 PM

I agree that the war on drugs is a failure, especially with regard to cannabis. We have never had scientific consensus that moderate use of the substance is deleterious. On the contrary, scientific information indicates it is less addictive than alcohol, pain killers, sleeping pills, caffeine, and a host of other legal substances. I have heard (but have not confirmed) that cannabis is the U.S.'s largest cash crop. Legalization would be a boon to our economy. Why is the war on cannabis such a zealous riot, overtaking even our blind love affair with capitalism? The social costs of imprisoning small-time drug users is extreme, and the foreign policy costs of poisoning other countries to eradicate certain crops is also not good.

Posted by: Speedracer | Jul 2, 2008 10:22:20 AM

For what it is worth I am one who also feels that the so called drug war especially Marijuana = failure in every aspect. It is time to change directions and debate about de-criminalizing marijuana.

Posted by: USMC | Jul 2, 2008 4:43:46 PM

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