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April 20, 2004 - The Daily Aztec, The (CA Edu)

War On Drugs Is Not A Deterrent

By Simon Samano

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

April 20 - known simply as 4/20 to the marijuana smoking community - is currently being celebrated by millions of people in this country. With this widespread celebration, it's certainly an appropriate time to examine the effects of the war on drugs in America.

This war on drugs is now in its third decade. It began during the presidency of Richard Nixon and has dragged into the current administration of President Bush.

During these three decades, many innocent citizens have been incarcerated because of mindless drug-related legislation. Innocent because any drug user who has become a victim to the government's drug war simply for possession or use has been unjustly incarcerated. These people deserve empathy and help - not a zero-tolerance policy.

About half of the growth of the prison population during the past two decades can be directly attributed to drug convictions, with most of those convicted being blacks and Latinos. According to, an NBC news affiliate, the increase is because of "get tough" policies for drug offenses and three-strike laws such as the one enacted in California.

According to, the Z Communications Web site, of all state prisoners serving time for drug offenses in 2002, 57 percent were black, 19 percent were Latino and 23 percent were white.

This is an alarming statistic when, according to the latest drug-use survey, 72 percent of all users of illegal drugs are white, while blacks constitute only 15 percent and Latinos 10 percent.

To say there is a major discrepancy between those who use illicit drugs and those who serve time behind bars for doing so is an understatement - it's downright racist. If the goal of the war on drugs was to continue the repression of minorities, it certainly has succeeded.

The money spent on the drug war has dramatically increased over the years. According to, the U.S. government spent about $39 billion in 2003. On the flip side, about $1 billion were spent in 1980.

Last year, more than 1.5 million people were arrested in this country, with almost half ( about 736,000 ) arrested for marijuana. Eighty-eight percent of those marijuana arrests were for possession alone.

Altogether, a total of 237,000 people were sent to prison on drug charges. When you multiply that by $20,000 ( the low estimate to house one inmate for a year ) you get an idea of what it costs taxpayers - about $4.7 billion.

Has all this spending been a deterrent? Not at all. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 22 million Americans suffered from substance dependence or abuse because of drugs, alcohol or both in 2002.

More than 83 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once. Drug use in general continues unaltered, as an estimated 28.4 million Americans 12 years of age and older used some illegal drug in 2001 ( 21 million used marijuana the same year ).

If the goal of the drug war was to decrease the number of drug users - as I'm sure some of the originators sincerely thought they could do when they declared it - then it has sorely failed. In fact, it's a complete waste of money when the number of drug users continues to increase.

Let's also not forget this war on drugs continues to hurt the sick and dying. In California, where Prop. 215 passed in 1996, allowing the use of medical marijuana, cannabis clinics continue to be monitored and raided because the law of Californians conflicts with federal law. Not even geriatric patients can catch a break.

In the end, victory in this war is unattainable. Americans will undoubtedly continue to get high. It's time the government takes a different route with drugs in America. Demonizing drug users is not the answer.

Rather than waste billions of dollars by incarcerating drug users and forgetting about them, the time has come to manage these people by decriminalizing drug use and giving them treatment. This could possibly be the start of a just policy and a just America.

Simon Samano is a journalism senior and a senior staff writer for The Daily Aztec.

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