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September 23, 2007 - The Tennessean (TN)

Column: 21-Year 'War On Drugs' Spirals Into Web Of Injustice

By Dwight Lewis

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

They marched by the thousands Thursday in Jena, La., to protest a terrible injustice against six teenagers there, and rightfully so. As the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous April 16, 1963, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Now that the injustice toward those six young African-American teenagers in Louisiana has been brought to the nation's attention, it's time for those of us in Tennessee and elsewhere around the United States to move toward protesting another gross injustice that's been hanging around for far too long.

That's the war on drugs, which officially was started under President Reagan's administration in 1986.

"Our goal in this crusade is nothing less than a drug-free generation," Reagan was quoted as saying in October 1988 as he signed a $1.7 billion bill, which at the time doubled the federal government's budget for chasing drug dealers and smugglers and stiffened penalties for traffickers. At the time, it was the most sweeping anti-drug program ever passed by Congress.

"Today marks a major victory in our crusade against drugs," Reagan said that day in Washington before signing the new legislation. "The American people want their government to get tough and go on the offensive."

But a newly released report says that "war on drugs" has been mostly a failure:

Drug arrests triple since 1980: 82 percent of arrests are for possession offenses.

Prison treatment programs lagging: Drug abusers are less than half as likely to be in treatment as in 1991.

Racial disparities: African-Americans are 14 percent of drug users, but 37 percent of those arrested and 56 percent of those imprisoned for drugs.

"The number of people in the nation's prisons and jails for drug offenses has swelled by 1,100 percent since 1980 to a record half-million people," a report released Thursday by the Washington-based Sentencing Project says. The analysis, done by the national nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy, found that the "war on drugs" has increasingly targeted low-level offenders for arrest and incarceration and is largely failing to provide adequate treatment in prison.

Now, isn't this an injustice that merits our undivided attention?

"This report opens up the discussion in a more significant way than has taken place in the last 20 years," said Marc Mauer, who along with Ryan S. King authored the new report titled, "A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society."

"We're seeing bipartisan interest in reform, and we're also seeing criticism of the war on drugs coming from a broad-based spectrum of constituencies," Mauer said. "We've also got some good models in place for more cost-effect measures to deal with substance abuse."

The report coming from The Sentencing Project is based on an analysis of 25 years of government data regarding drugs and the criminal justice system. Mauer and King, along with others from their organization, found that the tripling of drug arrests since 1980, to a record 1.8 million by 2005, largely bypassed the "kingpins" of the drug trade. The report said in 2005, four of five (81.7 percent) drug arrests were for possession offenses and 42.6 percent were for marijuana charges.

During the 1990s, the report added, fully 79 percent of the total growth in drug arrests was attributable to marijuana possession.

The report recommends:

* Shifting funding priorities toward prevention and treatment.

* Repealing mandatory sentencing laws and granting appropriate discretion to judges.

* Increasing treatment options within the criminal justice system through drug courts and other measures.

* Utilizing public health approaches that emphasize prevention and treatment.

Again, thousands and thousands of people came from all over the nation Thursday to march in protest of an injustice in Jena, La., and it was merited. Now, we need to contact our lawmakers, both locally and nationally, to urge them to take a new look at our drug policy. Some are already doing just that because the old "war on drugs" is failing us.

What good does it do to lock up a low-level drug offender and the trafficker goes free? What good does it do to lock up a drug addict and he comes back on the street without having been treated?

I think you know the answer, but we must act on it just as we have done in Nashville with our Drug Court.

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