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Make War on the War on Drugs

Posted on July 26, 2000

The Justice Department has just issued another indicator of the damage being done by the war on drugs: An all-time high of 6.3 million people were under correctional supervision in 1999 — 1.86 million men and women behind bars and 4.5 million on parole or probation, 24 percent of them for drug offenses.

The criminal justice system reached 1 percent of the adult population in 1980. Its reach now exceeds 3 percent — about one of every 32 people. Our $40 billion-a-year war on drugs has created more prisons, more criminals, more drug abuse and more disease. An estimated 60 percent of AIDS cases in women are attributed to dirty needles and syringes.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision probably will spur more litigation in the drug war, as prisoners use the ruling to appeal unusually harsh sentences.

The court ruled that any factual determination used to increase a sentence will have to be made by a jury, not a judge. While a judge can use a standard of the preponderance of the evidence in sentencing, a jury must decide beyond a reasonable doubt, says Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Policy Litigation Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “If the government wants to impose draconian sentences for drug crimes, they should have at the very least to prove their case to a jury by a criminal standard, and that hasn’t happened in the past — amazingly.”

That’s just one example of the civil rights casualties of a war in which paramilitary police raid people’s homes and authorities seize their assets without due process, flying in the face of the Fourth and Fifth amendments.

A few politicians are brave enough to declare the obvious: The war on drugs hasn’t worked. New Mexico’s Gary E. Johnson (R) was the first governor to call for marijuana legalization and other major drug policy reforms. Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is the first major-party politician to run statewide with a platform that includes prescription access to heroin. They will speak at the “shadow conventions” to be held at the same time as the Republican and Democratic conventions to address three issues of critical importance that organizers say are being given short shrift by the two major parties: the drug war, campaign finance reform and the growing gulf between rich and poor.

Drug policies affect millions of people who have family members behind bars. Some of them will be at the shadow conventions. They will put names and faces on this whole failed drug war effort. Many of them are likely to be black. While African Americans constitute 13 percent of the illegal drug users, they account for 74 percent of those sentenced for drug offenses. Convicted felons lose their right to vote, a backdoor way of reinstituting Jim Crow laws.

Pressure to change drug laws is mounting, and it is coming from unlikely places, including farmers, who are forbidden to grow hemp, the plant from which marijuana comes but which has other, non-drug uses. The Lindesmith Center, which advocates drug policy reform, did a survey several years ago that found more than 50 percent of farmers in five midwestern and western states favored legalizing hemp. Only 35 percent were opposed.

“This was the first indication we had that the public, in fairly conservative agricultural states, were supporting this,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the center.

More recently, Hawaii and North Dakota passed legislation legalizing hemp’s cultivation, and similar measures are “in play” in more than 10 other states, Nadelmann says. From 30 to 40 countries, including Canada, have made it legal. “This is quite galling for farmers on the northern border who can look across the border and see people growing this stuff,” he says.

Nadelmann believes that both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, would be well served if they did some research on hemp. “It may be an issue that a number of people care about, and it would be sending a message they are willing to think rationally about the economic and agricultural interests of farmers even when the product has a relationship to marijuana.”

The Lindesmith Center is one of more than 35 public policy, health, religious and racial advocacy organizations that sent a list of 10 tough questions to the presidential candidates during the primaries, pointing out where the drug policies have failed and asking what they would do to change them.

None of the candidates have answered, according to Kevin B. Zeese, co-chair of the National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies, although the groups will try to pursue the issue during the general election campaign. “Unless the drug issue is forced on them, they prefer to avoid it rather than confront it,” Zeese says. “Our basic point is the drug war is bankrupt and our policymakers aren’t facing up to it. We tried to construct those questions in a way that showed the drug war methods are causing more problems than they solve, and we got a range of groups to show a breadth of concern about this.”

Highly visible people, including Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I), are now calling for a genuine debate on how to deal with drugs. Approaches gaining support include legalizing marijuana (except for sale to minors), prescription access to heroine, needle exchanges, taxing drugs and redirecting most of the drug war funding into public health and education.

We are a nation of intelligent and thoughtful people who deserve better than overheated rhetoric and a drug policy dictated by crazy hard-liners and pandering politicians. At the very least, in the face of the well-documented harm the war on drugs has caused, we deserve a debate on how to control the drug market in a way that works. This lackluster presidential campaign would be a good place to start.

Copyright © 2000, The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.