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October 12, 2005 - National Post (Canada)

The War On Drugs Cannot Be Won

By James P. Gray, former Orange County, CA Judge and author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Based on my experience as a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, as a criminal defence attorney for the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, and as a trial judge in Orange County, Calif. since 1983, I've concluded that the U.S. government policy of drug prohibition has not only failed, but that it is hopeless.

The problem is not that our law enforcement officers aren't doing a good job. In truth is they have a dangerous and difficult task, and are doing better than we have a right to expect. They are no more to blame for the failure of drug prohibition than was Elliott Ness for the failure of alcohol prohibition. The problem, rather, is that our prohibitionist laws make the trafficking in illegal drugs so obscenely profitable that we will never exhaust the supply to criminals willing to take the risk of imprisonment in order to produce and sell them.

In fact, our present system is giving us the worst of all worlds. As a direct result of our policy of drug prohibition, crime, violence, corruption, taxes and -- in many cases -- even drug usage have increased, while the health and civil liberties of citizens have suffered. America's "prison-industrial complex" has gotten so fat and powerful from the money our governments have budgeted for the War on Drugs that it has become politically dangerous for elected officials to speak out against the current policy. Under these circumstances, it is up to ordinary people -- as citizens, taxpayers and voters -- to call a halt to these failed policies.

We should begin by asking the following questions:

- - What is a "drug"? If the answer is that a drug is a "mind-altering, sometimes addictive substance," why are substances such as nicotine, alcohol and even caffeine not also addressed by the same policy?

- - Why do we not make distinctions between drug use, drug misuse, drug abuse and drug addiction? I agree that marijuana, for example, can have harmful effects upon the user if taken to excess on a regular basis. But obviously, so can alcohol. I drink a glass of wine almost every night with dinner. Does that mean that I am in need of an alcohol treatment program?

- - Why is it appropriate to send gifted actor Robert Downey Jr. to jail for his problems with cocaine, but send Betty Ford to treatment for her problems with alcohol? Aren't these really medical issues that should be addressed by medical professionals? Shouldn't we use the criminal justice system to address people's conduct, and leave the medical community and social mores to address what people put into their bodies?

- - Given that there has never been a society in human history that has not embraced some form of mind-altering drug to use and abuse, should we not put our focus on harm reduction, rather than fighting human nature through prohibitionist mechanism?

- - On a related note, why do our policies not take into account the problems caused by the War on Drugs itself? For example, I have never heard anyone say that it is a good thing to be a heroin addict. But if some people become heroin addicts, why should they also get AIDS from dirty needles? That is a separate problem that is caused by prohibiting the distribution and possession of hypodermic needles and syringes, as well as turning the drug-addicted people into criminals, thus pushing them farther away from medical facilities where they can get help. Moreover, why should the people of Colombia see their military, police, judiciary, safety and way of life corrupted by our drug money? The people of Colombia do not have a drug problem: No one is dying from coca plants. What they have is a devastating drug money problem.

History is instructive. Consider that when alcohol prohibition was repealed in the United States, homicides went down by 60% after only one year, and they continued to decline each year thereafter until the beginning of the Second World War. There is no question in my mind that we will experience similar results when we finally repeal drug prohibition.

In June of 1994, the RAND Corporation released a study that found we get seven times more value for our tax money by drug treatment programs than by the incarceration of drug addicts. So let's make drug treatment available upon demand, and get the non-problem users of drugs out of the criminal justice system. This will enable us to focus our scarce resources upon the problem users -- men and women who are driven by drugs to commit violent crimes.

Further, let's do what we can to take the profit motive out of the sale of drugs. Programs of decriminalization and medicalization are working effectively in countries like Holland and Switzerland. They can work in the United States and Canada as well.

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