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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2001 / 21 Teves, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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The drug war problem -- WITH THE WITHDRAWAL of Linda Chavez, John Ashcroft becomes the obvious lightning rod for critics of President-elect George W. Bush. In their view, the former senator is too pro-life, too anti-gun control and too critical of activist judges to be attorney general.

Leave it to the left to get it wrong. Ashcroft is right on all of these issues. Where he is wrong is drug policy. Alas, his liberal assailants are often no better.

Two decades into an increasingly draconian war on drugs failure surround us. There is actor Robert Downey Jr., now facing another set of drug charges. There is Cameron Reagan, grandson of President Ronald Reagan, who was recently caught with marijuana and ordered into a drug management program.

Drug use by these and many others often has tragic consequences. But, jailing users creates even more disastrous results.

Indeed, President Clinton now says minor pot smokers shouldn't go to jail. And his drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, opines that most nonviolent addicts don't belong in prison.

But, President Clinton and company spent eight years jailing drug users. His administration did nothing to change federal drug policy.

To the contrary, the Clinton crowd presided over the arrest and imprisonment of millions of Americans, managed a steady assault on the civil liberties of all citizens, innocent as well as guilty, and fought every reform attempt, such as state medical marijuana initiatives. The president and his minions give hypocrisy a bad name.

It should be obvious to all that the drug war is a failure. Consumption has long varied irrespective of enforcement practices. More than 80 million people have tried drugs, 15 million of them last year.

Most, like the outgoing and incoming presidents, are casual consumers who can and do quit. Three-quarters of current drug users are employed, filling corporate boardrooms and legislative chambers.

The threat of prosecution may discourage some occasional use, but that's not the problem. The drug war obviously does much less to stop addicts, the 3.6 million people, like Downey, estimated to be dependent on drugs.

Nor do endless arrests and imprisonments protect children. Teen demand for marijuana has dropped some, but demand for ecstasy has doubled over the last five years. Half of teens have tried illicit substances and most say drugs are readily available.

Indeed, it is drug prohibition that has created the sort of black market that targets kids. No teens wear beepers selling Scotch whiskey in high school.

So little effect, but at such high cost: the government spent $75 billion on the drug war over the last five years, which is 25 times the inflation-adjusted spending on Prohibition in the 1920s. Alas, the expense goes well beyond money.

Two million people now fill federal and state prisons. One-fourth of state and 60 percent of federal prisoners are serving drug-related charges; most had no prior convictions for violent crimes.

Then there's pervasive corruption, warrantless searches, endless wiretaps, abusive property seizures, and hideous mandatory minimums, which put minor drug sellers in prison for longer than murderers. Americans are losing their precious freedom birthright.

Instead of making us more secure, such police state tactics create more crime. As with Prohibition, most drug-related violence is actually drug law-related violence: in illegal businesses, disputes cannot be resolved peacefully. For instance, in early January, the trial began of a Washington, D.C., drug gang thought to have murdered at least 18 people.

In short, drug prohibition fails any rational, practical cost/benefit analysis. It also fails in moral terms.

Drug abuse is not only a health but also a spiritual issue, an attack on the inherent dignity of the human person, something which John Ashcroft, with strong religious convictions, surely understands. But, that does not justify the government jailing someone to prevent him from hurting himself.

Government must punish thieves and murderers, who threaten others. It should not similarly punish those who hurt only themselves, especially since many drug users are actually as responsible as the average drinker. Businesses, churches, families and other community institutions, not government, should take the lead in combating all forms of substance abuse.

If Ashcroft is out of step on anything, it is not abortion - the majority of Americans reject hideous procedures like partial-birth abortion. Rather, it is his support for the drug war. But, many of his left-wing critics are no better.

In November, voters passed measures decriminalizing personal use of marijuana, allowing use of pot by the ill, emphasizing treatment over punishment and restricting property forfeitures. Most Americans understand that there is no easy solution for drug abuse, but that current policy is not working. It is time to treat drug abuse as a health, moral, and spiritual rather than criminal problem.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


01/10/01: Politics and trade
01/03/01: Hope for liberty?
12/27/00: The debris of war
12/19/00: What's the rule of law for?
12/15/00: Ending silicone breast implant saga
12/05/00: Election may yield victor, but there are no winners
11/21/00: A Bush presidential mandate?
11/07/00: Exprienced Gore? Yeah, right
11/01/00: Interventionist follies
10/17/00: America's brightening prospects in Ukraine
10/11/00: GOP budget scandals
10/03/00: How a pharmaceutical 'crisis' was created
09/27/00: Clinton's empathy has helped nobody
09/13/00: AlGore's risky budget policies
09/05/00: Military readiness and Korean commitments
08/29/00: Let sleeping hypocrites lie
08/21/00: Targeting a journalistic pariah
08/15/00: European garrison for Kosovo?
08/08/00: Journalistic cleansing at the Boston Globe
08/04/00: Junk science on trial
06/22/00: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
06/15/00: The end of U.N. peacekeeping
06/07/00: The Clinton regulatory miasma
06/01/00: Administration stupidity, congressional cowardice
05/25/00: The silence of the international community
05/18/00: Protecting the next generation

05/11/00: Freer trade with China will advance human rights

05/04/00: How not to save the Constitution

04/28/00: American tripwire in Korea long ago disappeared: Why are we still involved?

04/18/00: Clinton administration believes the IRS is too gentle, wants more auditors

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