Are we there yet?

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the February 4,  2009 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6.

Serious problems require serious minds. – Baltimore City Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a politician who advocates rethinking drug prohibition

If you have a sick child, who you gonna call— the doctor or the police? Over here, as it is with most of the world, drug addicts are jailed instead of hospitalized, punished instead of treated.

The question, phrased differently, was raised by Ethan A Nedelman, director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy research institute in New York City, at a symposium on drug policy sponsored by the conservative magazine National Review:

“Prohibition is no way to run a drug policy. We learned that with alcohol during the first third of this century and we’re probably wise enough as a society not to try to repeat the mistake with nicotine. Prohibitions for kids make sense. It’s reasonable to prohibit drug-related misbehavior that endangers others, such as driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, or smoking in enclosed spaces. But whatever its benefits in deterring some Americans from becoming drug abusers, America’s indiscriminate drug prohibition is responsible for too much crime, disease, and death to qualify as sensible policy.”

William F. Buckley Jr., an irredeemable conservative, called for a utilitarian approach to the problem of drugs:

“the cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with intensive education of non-users and intensive education designed to warn those who experiment with drugs. We have seen a substantial reduction in the use of tobacco over the last thirty years, and this is not because tobacco became illegal but because a sentient community began, in substantial numbers, to apprehend the high cost of tobacco to human health…”

In the 1920s, America thought it would cure its alcohol problem with a Constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, the cure created a monster:

“The effects of Prohibition were largely unanticipated. Production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages—once the province of legitimate business—were taken over by criminal gangs, which fought each other for market control in violent confrontations, including mass murder. Top gangsters became rich and were admired locally, such as Omaha’s Tom Dennison, and nationally, such as Chicago’s Al Capone. This effectively made murderers into national celebrities. Enforcement was difficult because the gangs became so rich that they were often able to bribe underpaid and understaffed law-enforcement personnel and hire top lawyers. Many citizens were sympathetic to bootleggers and respectable citizens were lured to the romance of illegal speakeasies, also called “blind pigs”. The loosening of social mores during the 1920s included popularizing the cocktail and the cocktail party among higher socio-economic groups. Those inclined to assist authorities were often intimidated, even murdered. In several major cities—notably those which served as major points of liquor importation, including Chicago and Detroit—gangs wielded effective political power. A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit’s Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman.” (The Volstead Act, Wikipedia)

Today we see the same thing happening with the war on drugs.

The United Nations’ 2008 World Drug Report pointed out the “unintended consequences” of the criminalization of drugs:

“The first and most significant of these is the creation of a lucrative and violent black market. Secondly, the focus on law enforcement may have drawn away resources from health approaches to what, ultimately, is a public health problem. Thirdly, enforcement efforts in one geographic area have often resulted in diversion of the problem into other areas. Fourthly, pressure on the market for one particular substance has, on occasion, inadvertently promoted the use of an alternate drug. Finally, use of criminal justice system against drug consumers, who often come from marginal groups, has in many instances increased their marginalization, diminishing capacity to offer treatment to those who need it most.”

If drugs are ultimately a public health problem, then why are we looking to policemen instead of health workers?

Joseph D. McNamara, former police chief of Kansas City, Missouri and San Jose, California, points to the absurdity of policing a public health problem:

“It’s the money, stupid. After 35 years as a police officer in three of the country’s largest cities, that is my message to the righteous politicians who obstinately proclaim that a war on drugs will lead to a drug-free America. About $500 worth of heroin or cocaine in a source country will bring in as much as $100,000 on the streets of an American city. All the cops, armies, prisons, and executions in the world cannot impede a market with that kind of tax-free profit margin. It is the illegality that permits the obscene markup, enriching drug traffickers, distributors, dealers, crooked cops, lawyers, judges, politicians, bankers, businessmen.”

So there

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