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February 14, 2007 - Philadelphia City Paper (PA)

OpEd: The Cost Of Dying

The Drug War Claims More Lives Than Drugs Themselves

By David Faris, Slant contributor

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Now that we have the official 2006 Philadelphia murder tally -- 406 killings -- we can start talking about ways to lower it. But wringing our hands and singing songs of solidarity isn't going to cut it. And it's unlikely that anyone will seriously propose changing the ruinously expensive and counterproductive drug policies that make Philadelphia one of the most violent cities in the country.

By the end of January, the U.S. had already spent well over $4 billion just this year trying to prevent people from putting controlled substances up their noses and into their veins. The War on Drugs -- what is it with Americans and declaring war on indefinite nouns? -- creates a predictable netherworld of nefarious suppliers and dealers who turn to violence to settle scores and turf wars. No matter how hard the police may work to disrupt these networks, they end up plowing the sea. And all that drug money leads inevitably to corruption.

The problems don't stop there. The long reach of America's coke-starved nostrils wreaks havoc on producing countries, as well. In places like Colombia and Afghanistan, drug production funds terrorist organizations and fuels debilitating civil wars. If drug farmers could sell their wares legally, central governments would benefit from a tax bonanza, and the global price of prescription narcotics would come down.

Locally, the drug war destroys more lives than Eagles playoff games and turns peaceful neighborhoods into killing fields. Addicts who could be getting treatment from state-controlled clinics end up on the streets, committing crimes to get their hands on their drug of choice. People who might otherwise pursue above-the-board careers take the easy road of drug-dealing (although as economist Stephen Levitt has shown, most low-level drug dealers make less than minimum wage).

Not only does drug prohibition send violent crime through the roof, it also sends millions of people into the criminal justice system, many of them young minorities who will never find the straight path again. And of course, it is the beleaguered U.S. taxpayer who gets the bill for this system of mass incarceration. And America that ends up with a higher percentage of its citizens in prison than the Khrushchev-era U.S.S.R.

No one should pretend that decriminalizing drugs will instantly solve Philadelphia's crime and killing problems. Instant solutions to intractable problems exist only in the minds of ninth-graders and Heritage Foundation scholars. But neither should we pretend that there is no correlation between violent crime and drug prohibition.

Philadelphia can't change drug laws on its own. Even if City Council were to pass a drug-legalization law that established a pot brownie factory at 20th and Christian streets, state and federal officials would swoop in and shut down the whole operation. There simply aren't any politicians with stature and capital who think there should be any basic changes to America's drug laws.

And anyone who argues publicly that the drug war is a budget-draining fiasco is quickly shown the door to political oblivion. Just ask former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who retired more popular than Clinton yet was treated like a pariah by his own party for supporting the legalization of drugs.

Predictably, it is distant elites who benefit from the largesse of the War on Drugs, and denizens of forgotten big cities who suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, people like U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey can make the easy choice to maintain the status quo because they probably aren't touched by drug crime and because there are so many entrenched interests that lead them to support prohibition, from prison guards to Drug Enforcement Administration agents to state governments who love raking in the cash to fight a war they all know they can't win.

While we wait for the politicians to figure it out, or for social libertarians to forge a political coalition, cities like Philadelphia will continue to suffer. And hundreds of lives seems like an awfully high price to pay for someone else's failed "war."

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