America’s Domestic Quagmire
by Paul Armentano
by Paul Armentano
number of political pundits are questioning America’s military
efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some are beginning to draw
parallels to lawmakers’ much longer domestic war effort: the
so-called war on drugs. The comparison is apropos.
For nearly 100
years, starting with the passage of America’s first federal
anti-drug law in 1914, lawmakers have relied on the mantra “Do
drugs, do time.” As in the Middle East, the human and fiscal
consequences of this inflexible policy have been steadily mounting.
spends nearly $50 billion dollars per year targeting, prosecuting,
and incarcerating illicit-drug users. As a result, the population of
illicit-drug offenders now behind bars is greater than the entire
U.S. prison population in 1980. Since the mid-1990s, drug offenders
have accounted for nearly 50 percent of the total federal prison
population growth and some 40 percent of all state prison population
growth. For marijuana alone, law enforcement currently spends
between $7 billion and $10 billion dollars annually targeting users
– primarily low-level offenders – and taxpayers spend more than $1
billion annually to incarcerate them.
unprecedented punitive efforts, illicit drugs remain cheaper and
more plentiful than ever. (Who ever heard of crack, ice, Ecstasy,
GHB, or Special K 30 years ago?) Among children, the percentage
using illicit drugs is little different than it was in 1975, when
the government first began monitoring teen drug use (though,
comparatively, adolescents’ use of cigarettes has fallen
dramatically during this time). Illicit-drug use among adults has
also remained virtually unchanged; however, far more users are
overdosing and dying from substance abuse than ever before.
also dying in greater numbers as a result of drug-war enforcement.
For example, members of Georgia’s narcotics task force shot and
killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in November 2006 during a
no-knock drug raid of her home. Two officers in the raid eventually
pled guilty to manslaughter and admitted that they planted drugs in
Ms. Johnston’s house as a cover story for their actions.
A similar fate
befell 44-year-old housewife Cheryl Noel of Baltimore, who was shot
and killed by police in 2005 during a 5 o’clock a.m. “flash-bang”
raid of her home. Noel’s husband and 19-year-old son were later
charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
despite the drug war’s growing expense and civilian casualties,
lawmakers continue to offer few, if any, strategies other than to
stay the course. Such a mindset is epitomized by the outgoing House
Drug Policy Subcommittee chairman, Mark Souder (R–Ind.), who
authored federal legislation to withhold financial aid from
convicted drug offenders, recently pushed for the use of
mycoherbicides as biological agents to kill drug crops overseas, and
continues to publicly lambaste drug czar John Walters for employing
an oversoft (in Souder’s opinion) drug-war battle-plan. The families
of Kathryn Johnston and Cheryl Noel would most likely beg to differ.
contrast to politicians who call for a review of the U.S. military’s
Middle East policies, few lawmakers are demanding a timetable to
bring about a cease-fire to the war on drugs – or are even calling
for a reduction in the number of “troops” (i.e., narcotics
detectives, DEA agents, et cetera) serving on the front lines. They
ought to. If American lawmakers want to take a serious look at the
United States’s war strategies, let them begin by reassessing – and
ending – their failed war here at home.
March 10, 2008
Paul Armentano [send him
mail] is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML
Foundation in Washington, DC. He is the author of "Emerging
Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids: A Review of the
Scientific Literature" (2007, NORML Foundation).
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