Monday, September 29, 2003 - The Seattle Times

The Case for Fresh Ideas on Waging the Drug War

by Neal Peirce

Has the time come for the federal government to cede the "war on drugs" to America's state and local governments?

A powerful case for devolving critical drug policy choices of which substances to forbid, whether to focus police on drug cases, imprisoning versus treating offenders has been made by two Florida State University economists, David Rasmussen and Bruce Benson.

Of course, it's hard to imagine rational debate about drug policy as long as President Bush and his ideologically driven attorney general, John Ashcroft, are in office. Even the never-inhaling Clinton administration sat quietly as both federal and state incarcerations for drug offenses skyrocketed.

But the common-sense case for fresh thinking has become overwhelming. Largely because of drug cases, the United States, with 2,071,686 people behind bars, had the world's highest incarceration rate in 2000. It cost the country $26 billion that year to imprison 1.3 million nonviolent offenders - including hundreds of thousands of drug offenders.

Rigid prohibition remains federal policy even as substantial experiments in decoupling hard and soft drugs, especially de-criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, are spreading in Europe and Canada. Ashcroft is even cracking down hard on California co-ops that administer marijuana to relieve the acute pain of terminally ill persons - a policy specifically approved by California voters in a 1996 referendum.

But it's not just authoritarian or moralistic ideology that drives harsh drug policy. Our political system continues to condone stiff penalties, long sentences - even though there's ample evidence that treatment of addiction, dollar for dollar, is far more effective. Indeed, a much-cited RAND study that focused on cocaine use concluded that an added dollar on drug treatment is seven times more cost-effective than a dollar more for drug enforcement.

From 1968 to 1998, drug arrests per capita rose from 26 per 100,000 population to 615 per 100,000. Yet, illicit drug use is still flourishing. Why aren't we objecting?

Most blame is usually thrown at politically opportunistic legislators. But legislators, argue Rasmussen and Benson in a law review article, respond largely to interest groups. And there's a massive lobby out there pushing the drug war - the police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and their allies in federal enforcement bureaus.

Indeed, goes this argument, bureaucrats instinctively fight to expand their funds and turf, using direct lobbying, policy manipulation and selective release of information and misinformation. Back in 1937, enforcement agencies pushed for the Marijuana Tax Act, which proved pivotal in the subsequent criminalization of marijuana. The federal Bureau of Narcotics fed the "reefer madness" of the time, claiming - contrary to scientific fact - that marijuana causes insanity, incites rape, causes delirious rages and violent crimes.

More recently, police departments have tended to blame most local crime on drug use, thus expanding their budgets as well as encouraging legislators to pass increasingly strict sentencing for drug offenders. Which of course keeps the prosecutors busy and pleases yet another lobby - contractors who build prisons.

On top of that, police and sheriffs' groups lobbied successfully to let their departments retain proceeds from the sale of assets confiscated in drug raids. Result: They profit directly from drug busts, a practice raising serious ethical and constitutional questions.

The net result, argue Rasmussen and Benson, is "a tragedy in the criminal justice commons," as drug enforcement dominates budgets, making funds scarce for such unfolding needs as community policing and homeland security.

So how do we introduce new ideas, innovate, experiment, think afresh about the drug issue? Only, the Florida State authors argue, by decentralizing drug policy. They would leave the federal government to deal with such issues as interstate drug shipments but revoke national rules (like blanket prohibition of marijuana) and hold state legislatures, agencies and bureaucrats more directly responsible for the costs and results - positive or negative - of their policies.

Would such a move lead to wholesale liberalization of drug laws? Probably no time soon, in most states. The same law-enforcement bureaucracies would almost surely fight change.

Yet, we're not a uniform nation regarding drugs - only marijuana and cocaine are said to be used throughout the country, with other drug usage varying dramatically, even within states. Different places may need quite different approaches.

Plus, with a loosening of the federal hand, at least we could have debate about new research in physiological effects of various drugs, consequences of less regulation and dramatic treatment alternatives. Reform - where the public is willing - would have a fighting chance. States could compare notes, be "laboratories of democracy." Less Washington dictation plus more local autonomy equals federalism at work. What's not to like about that?

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