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July 30, 2006 - Des Moines Register (IA)

OPED: Rethink Tactics of Drug War? (1 of 2)

Target Big Cartels; Step Up Treatment

By Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Iowa's two U.S. senators -- Republican Charles Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin - this spring called on President Bush to fire his drug czar, John Walters, they spoke for many people frustrated with the lack of success in the war on drugs. But Walters' performance is mixed, and firing bureaucrats won't make our failed drug policies work any better. Systematic change is needed.

Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars and arresting millions of Americans, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available in every community. Meanwhile, the harms associated with drug abuse -- addiction, overdose, the spread of AIDS/HIV and hepatitis -- continue to mount. Add to this record of failure the collateral damage of the war on drugs - broken families, racial disparities, wasted tax dollars and the erosion of civil liberties -- and it's easy to see why so many Americans want major change.

The war on drugs has many defects, including lack of prioritization. Federal agencies are over-extended and waste too many resources duplicating state efforts. Policymakers need to shrink the drug war down to something that is manageable.

First, reprioritize federal law-enforcement resources toward drug cartels.

Most federal drug prisoners are low-level offenders. A 2002 report to Congress, for instance, found that only 7 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions are against high-level traffickers. Federal drug enforcement should focus on large cases that cross international and state boundaries, with a priority toward violent traffickers and major crime syndicates.

All other cases should be left to the states. Federal laws not consistent with prioritization and federalism, such as laws targeting possession for personal use, should be eliminated and the threshold amount of drugs it takes to trigger federal involvement should be increased. Congress should set clear statutory goals for the disruption of major crime syndicates, and federal agencies should be required to report on their progress toward these goals, including resources wasted on low-level drug offenses.

Second, stop wasting resources on marijuana.

Of America's 1.7 million drug arrests every year, almost half are for marijuana, and nearly 90 percent of those are for possession for personal use. Resources spent arresting and prosecuting people for marijuana possession are resources not spent dealing with drug cartels and violent crime. Congress should reform federal law to allow states to tax, regulate and control marijuana through a legal, regulated market like alcohol.

That would eliminate the violence associated with underground markets; allow law enforcement to focus more resources on violent crime and terrorism; generate tax revenue to pay for substance-abuse treatment and education; and allow policymakers to regulate marijuana's potency, establish age controls and regulate marijuana's use and availability.

Third, eliminate law enforcement block grants to the states and shift the money to uniquely federal functions

States should pay their own way, and the federal government should concentrate on things only it can do, such as border control and homeland security. The Office of Management and Budget has found that these grants have done nothing to reduce crime. But they have perpetuated racial disparities, police corruption and civil-rights abuses across the country.

Fourth, establish a comprehensive treatment system that ensures that every American who needs substance-abuse treatment can get it.

Study after study has shown that increased funding for treatment is the best way to undermine drug markets and reduce drug abuse. Treatment should include mental-health services, as well as services designed to prevent sexual abuse, domestic abuse and child abuse, to deal with the underlying roots of addictive behavior.

Burdensome federal regulations that limit access to treatment, such as restrictions that prevent doctors from prescribing methadone, should be eliminated. Policymakers should also ensure that programs are meeting the needs of populations that have faced unique hurdles to accessing treatment, such as women, minorities, youth and rural populations.

A good national drug policy should reduce the negative consequences of both drug use and drug laws. It should reduce both drug addiction and racial disparities. Keep our streets safe and families together. Reduce drug overdoses and wasteful government spending. Protect our kids and the Bill of Rights.

The war on drugs has failed on all counts. The federal government should concentrate on what only it can do -- protecting our borders, taking down major crime syndicates and providing treatment to all who need it -- and leave everything else to the states, faith-based groups and families.

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