The other war we can’t win

Neal Peirce, of the Washington Post Writers Group, weighs in on the war on drugs:

Pick your week or month, the evidence keeps rolling in to show this country’s vaunted “war on drugs” is as destructively misguided as our cataclysmic error in invading Iraq.

There are 2.2 million Americans behind bars, another 5 million on probation or parole, the Justice Department reported on Nov. 30. We exceed Russia and Cuba in incarcerations per 100,000 people; in fact no other nation comes close. The biggest single reason for the expanding numbers? Our war on drugs — a quarter of all sentences are for drug offenses, mostly nonviolent.

So has the “war” worked? Has drug use or addiction declined? Clearly not. Hard street drugs are reportedly cheaper and purer, and as easy to get, as when President Richard Nixon declared substance abuse a “national emergency.”

…We’d be incredibly better off if we had treated drugs as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue — as the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, in fact advised us. Friedman, who died last month at 94, witnessed America’s misadventure into alcohol prohibition in his youth. “We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, the gang wars,” wrote Friedman. He decried turning users into criminals: “Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse — for both the addict and the rest of us.”

…Race remains a disturbing factor: The federal penalty for crack cocaine, favored in poor black neighborhoods, remains 10 times that for regular cocaine, more popular among whites.

…The United States professes values of freedom, tolerance and love for peace. Yet now, in its drug laws, its wholesale incarceration practices and increasingly in its international drug practices, the country lurches in a polar opposite direction.

Consensus appears to be growing that the war on drugs has failed and that explosive growth in incarceration is unacceptable. That seems to be an easy point to make these days. The difficult question is what our policy should look like. There are a lot of options and models–all come with their own advantages and problems. Sweden and the Netherlands have both been pointed to as models and they have radically different approaches to drug policy. Neither is problem-free and neither would satisfy everyone. The question becomes which problems do we want to live with?