On June 17, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon declared drug abuse America’s “Public Enemy No. 1” and launched the War on Drugs. Forty years later, America has not won the war, but it has incarcerated massive numbers of nonviolent offenders and spent many billions in the process.
Now, forward-thinking lawmakers and prosecutors are rejecting Nixon’s strategy and adopting reforms to save money, reduce fruitless incarceration and apply public resources in more effective ways.
The need for such reform is great. The Federal Drug Control budget is at $15 billion a year, up from $155 million in 1971. With such expenditures, the United States made itself the No. 1 jailer in the world, but to no effect. Drug abuse has, in fact, gone up slightly.
No wonder the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of international politicians and business leaders, called America’s War on Drugs “a failure.”
Illegal drug abuse is a problem, as is prescription drug abuse. Both require medical attention, and both cost our nation in human and monetary capital.
In recent years, lawmakers in some states shifted to lesser penalties for the possession of marijuana and corrected the imbalance in sentencing for crack versus cocaine. These new sentencing laws are part of a progressive move to more intelligent, more effective drug punishment.
That’s a healthy start. We can do more. From New York to Los Angeles, American cities are recognizing the need to reform their approach to drug possession punishment.
For example, in Philadelphia, the new district attorney, Seth Williams, instituted the Small Amount of Marijuana Program. Those found to have less than 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce) in their possession are charged with a summary offense, rather than a misdemeanor. This frees up prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes.
By contrast, the previous district attorney, Lynne Abraham, took a more Nixonian approach. Abraham, who at 70 years in age was senior for a prosecutor, believed pot smokers to be violent deviants roaming Philadelphia’s streets with deadly weapons, killing citizens and committing crimes to support their habit. She called them the enemy.
Though Abraham did not couple her reasoning with historical misrepresentations of African Americans and illegal drug use, her references did conjure up a time when protecting white purity from African American blues and jazz musicians and the speakeasy clubs was a top priority of law enforcement.
Clearly, America must revaluate the tactics and tools of the War on Drugs. Taking a few million people to jail has not deterred drug activity, just as it did not deter alcohol use for the Prohibition generation.
The progressive reforms can make a difference, but only if all politicians are held accountable for their abuse of scarce resources on old law-and-order drug strategies that are proven failures.
For that to happen, Americans need to end their applause of get-tough election slogans and, instead, place every dollar wasted on the War on Drugs in a column of remembrance as they go to the polls on Election Day.