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November 1, 2004 - The Brown Daily Herald (RI Edu)

Taking Their Eyes Off The Ball

The Candidates Ignore The "War On Drugs."

By Katherine Cummings

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Perhaps mine is a problem of faith. By which I mean to say that I had faith - too much, to be sure - that the important questions would be raised this election season, that the next leader of the free world would have to address my specific concerns with regard to our future foreign and domestic policies.

But as Bob Schieffer wished America goodnight from Tempe and as I watched Laura and Teresa enter stage right and left respectively, I knew the opportunity had passed.

I want to talk about drugs. I want to know why we pour billions of dollars into a "war on drugs" that has no clear end, a "war" built upon the illusion that we can create a drug-free America without policies that seriously address or even acknowledge the problems of abuse and addiction.

I suppose I can understand that some of my points are not entirely palatable. No one wants to hear that at the end of 2002, one in every 143 U.S. residents was incarcerated in a federal, state or local prison, or that the current non-violent prisoner population in this country is larger than the combined populations of Alaska and Wyoming. No one wants to take the time to consider how it is possible for the United States to represent 4.6 percent of the world's total population, when our prisoners constitute 25 percent of the world's prison population.

But even if they leave a sour taste, there are a few questions that should have been asked of our presidential candidates. In 2003, the U.S. federal government spent $19.179 billion dollars on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $600 per second. Is it worth the cost? What have we achieved?

In 1998, at the UN's Special Session on the World Drug Problem, Secretary General Kofi Annan declared that the international community's mission was "to create the momentum for a drug-free world in the 21st century." Five years later, a UN report on Global Illicit Drug Trends found that of the 92 countries reporting, 85 percent had experienced either an increase or no significant change in drug abuse.

The total number of drug users worldwide is estimated at 200 million people, equivalent to 3.4 percent of the world population. What accounts for the failure of Annan's noble global mission? Maybe we should lock everybody up, or maybe, just maybe, we should shift our methods, focusing on harm reduction rather than punishment.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 2.8 percent of all American children under age 18 - a total of 1,941,796 kids - have at least one parent in a local jail or in state or federal prison, a considerable number of whom were convicted for drug offenses. A majority of parents in both state and federal prisons are held more than 100 miles from their last place of residence.

In 1998, an amendment was added to the Higher Education Act that denies federal financial aid to anyone convicted of a drug offense. To date, the "drug provision" has obstructed the path to higher education for more than 150,000 students. Last week in Florida, three third-graders were suspended from Pine Hills Elementary School and now face felony charges for possession of two nickel bags of marijuana.

In a recent study of high tech industries, researchers found that "drug testing programs do not succeed in improving productivity. Surprisingly, companies adopting drug testing programs are found to exhibit lower levels of productivity than their counterparts that do not."

Most employee drug testing in American industry happens because of government requirements, not because it is deemed necessary by employers. Why do we continue to enforce a policy of distrust in the workplace that mandates tests that provide no information relevant to job performance?

In order to preserve my faith in our leadership, I'm going to continue believing that if the questions are posed, the answers may just follow. Unfortunately, our politicians only spout rhetoric about how we are in an "all-out war" in response to our drug problem.

But if it is indeed a "war on drugs" we are fighting, then the drugs seem to be winning. We must accept that although we may never live in a world free of drugs, we can certainly conceive of policies that reduce the harms associated with production, trafficking and consumption. We need some new answers.

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