Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests.
According to the FBI 2012 Crime Report, of all drug arrests, an overwhelming 82.2 percent were for possession and not distribution. For marijuana alone, 88 percent of arrests were for possession. And as spokesmen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition point out, more people were arrested for marijuana offenses alone last year than for all violent crimes combined. Increasingly in recent times, the futility and utter failure of the “war on drugs” has become all too apparent to the general public, but the shift might be sweeping through the policy-making community as well, where for far too long being anti-prohibition was nearly tantamount to political suicide and equated with being “soft on crime.”
On October 9th, at the National Press Club, Richard Branson of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island hosted a screening of Sundog Pictures’ Breaking The Taboo, followed by a discussion that also included A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, and Naya Arbiter, of the Amity Foundation. “Breaking The Taboo”, akin to the documentary The House I Live In, also puts forth that the “war on drugs” has essentially been a very expensive (in human and economic costs) failure with a lot of unpredictable consequences worldwide. Where The House I Live In focused on the United States and examined what role industrialization, classism, and racism play in the entire picture, Breaking The Taboo takes a more global look at how the illicit drug trade has had a lot of collateral damage, with rampant corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, endangering democracy and civil society (for example, Afghanistan is now dangerously close to being a narco-state), stunting development, and threatening human rights. Both films argue that a move away from prohibition to control is desperately needed. Criminalizing users instead of helping them has been deleterious to communities.
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance spoke about what he perceives to be a shifting tide not only in public opinion but also in political will. “At DPA, we seek to 1. reduce the harm of drugs on communities and 2. reduce the harm of government policies (corruption, etc.). In a nutshell, we seek to reduce the role of criminalization as much as possible while still protecting public safety.” He is convinced that we are definitely at a “major tipping point” when it comes to legally regulating marijuana, for one. Not just past Presidents are now speaking out against the drug war (Bill Clinton, for example), but also current ones—like the Presidents of Uruguay and Guatemala. Nadelman continued: “We have spent 40 years and trillions of dollars and the new focus is coming up with pragmatic alternatives. Rand Paul recently called the drug war the new Jim Crow, so this sort of injustice is becoming a real rallying call.”
And while we are not at a tipping point, we are definitely at a turning point of public opinion on mass incarceration. “We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, with 2.3 million people in jail. The public is finally understanding what this really means. My only big fear is we are so accustomed to such massive rates of incarceration that we would be happy even with a 10% decrease.”
When asked to comment on the state of affairs from the correctional point of view, A.T. Wall was optimistic in his assessment: “In my state, prosecuting people for simple possession is now almost relatively unheard of; the focus has shifted to other types of crime. And it has definitely been bipartisan. We have people coming forward from both sides of the political spectrum saying the same things.” He also commented on the fact that “we have to work very hard to keep drugs out of prison,” which is why the focus on the demand side makes it imperative that prisons provide treatment and support and not just punishment.
Which brings us to another huge piece of this quagmire—in a sense, the arrest record that follows is the most dangerous thing about drug use and not the drug use itself, many would argue. The record prevents people from reintegrating into society (for example, affecting a multitude of economic aspects of a person’s life, such as voting, securing housing loans, and jobs), and thus hugely increases recidivism rates. Naya Arbiter, who works on the frontlines of support for former drug users, commented, “instead of criminalizing people and dismissing them as ‘bad apples,’ we should really see how we are building bad barrels all the time. We need to address issues of inequality, racism, lack of opportunity, and the social conditions that lead to drug use simultaneously with addressing the issues of the war on drugs.” Ms. Arbiter is convinced that foster care is almost exclusively driven by the war on drugs. For every 200 incarcerated men, there are 700 children that are affected as a result. “We need to focus on a drug policy that has collateral benefits for a lot of people and not just the white middle class. We need to make the transition from corrections to human services.” Richard Branson brought up the example of Portugal, which has stopped prosecuting drug users, as having registered major drops in heroin use as well as Hepatitis C and HIV infection rates.
The ultimate question is when will the actual policies and laws on the books change to reflect the growing discontent with the war on drugs? Undoubtedly, this question has been gaining some political attention as well—at the most recent Summit Of The Americas, it was firmly on the agenda. The “war on drugs” no longer carries the political cache it did during the “Just Say No” days. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse commented, “Currently, there is an incarceration reduction bill that is making its way through the Judiciary Committee, which will deal with pre-sentencing, sentencing, and treatment in prison. We are also working on a recovery bill that will provide support and recovery assistance.” While the tide is undoubtedly shifting in public attitude toward drug use, the crux of the issue remains decriminalization versus legalization. While legalization seems to require the kind of open-mindedness that seems not present at the moment, a consensus now holds that criminalizing simple drug possession and feeding the prison-industrial complex is untenable. As “Breaking the Taboo” points out, “you can’t wage a war on drugs without waging a war on people.”