On the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs this weekend, groups from coast to coast marked the anniversary with vigils and demonstrations. No matter where the events were held, common threads connected those speaking out on the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s 1971 announcement to devote “more money and manpower” to the anti-drug effort. The commonalities shared from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles included statistics that reflected massive amounts of waste, few positive results and a public that is using drugs as much now as it did when Nixon made his announcement.
In Inglewood, Calif., dozens of advocacy groups made themselves heard outside the Chuco Justice Center. “What better time than now to get the community together and discuss the failures of the drug policies?" Rodrigo 'Froggy' Vazquez told an L.A. Times reporter. Vazquez, a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, pointed out that anti-drug policies have harmed low-income communities and led to overcrowding in state prisons.
In Chicago, Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, blasted America’s drug policy, pointing to the economics behind Nixon’s idea. “Rather than invest in detaining people in the Cook County jail at almost $150 a day, we need to invest in treatment, education and job-skills training. That's the only way we are going to reduce crime and stabilize our communities," Preckwinkle said.
Law enforcement wants change
Opposition to the 40-year-old drug policy isn’t just shared by advocacy groups. Several members of the law enforcement community also want to reexamine the war on drugs. In New Hampshire, Cheshire County Department of Corrections Superintendent Richard Van Wickler, says sending non-violent addicts to prison is a “colossal” waste of money and human life. “62 percent of our prison population receives prescription medication. 32 percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Here in New Hampshire, if you’re an addict and you’re trying to get help, it’s almost impossible, so the only place left for you to go is jail, which is the most expensive option.”
In Maryland, it’s Neill Franklin, a retired state police major and leader of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who says the war on drugs simply doesn’t make sense. One problem, according to Franklin, is that prohibition of drugs has created an underground economy that traps a disproportionate number of minorities in a violent, unregulated and underground economy. Franklin said he asked kids in Baltimore what would happen to their neighborhoods if drugs were legal. “The number one answer was, ‘We would have no money’ – because that’s what they see as employment,” he says.
The irony that Franklin points to is not lost on Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. He agrees that prohibition has created a new economy for drugs and McCarthy finds many other illogical ramifications stemming from the 40-year-old war on drugs. “It's been so twisted up that law enforcement looks at narcotics as the crime, when it's not," McCarthy said. "It's the cause of the crime. So, we've had this wrong for a long time in law enforcement."
Those taking to the streets over the weekend weren’t just student groups and local activists. The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) also used the anniversary to make itself heard. The group is made up of 19 members including the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The group has pushed for governments to “experiment with drug legalization as a way to undermine organized crime, expand treatment programs, educate youth to discourage drug use and focus on reducing violence from criminal organizations that harm individuals.”
In a statement released by the organization over the weekend, the GCDP not only offered a few suggestions for approaching drug use but also hammered home the point that the current approach has produced few results. “End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others,” the statement read.
Failure by the numbers
No matter how you look at Nixon’s war on drugs, it’s hard to say that his big government approach to the problem produced the intended results. According to an investigation by author Michelle Alexander, more than 400,000 individuals are in U.S. prisons for drug offenses. This number is a 10-fold increase since 1980. Four out of five arrests in this country are reported to be for possession of small quantities of drugs with no intent to sell, according to drugwarfacts.com. Last year, the total expenditure on prisons in the U.S. was $68 billion. In 1971 Nixon allocated $100 million a year to fighting his war on drugs. After adjusting for inflation, that number has multiplied 50 times. President Obama recently asked Congress for $26.2 billion to fight the same battle that Nixon outlined 40 years ago with almost the exact same approach.
More stunning than the economic numbers surrounding the war on drugs are the facts surrounding the numbers of incarcerations in the America. The prisons hold around 2.3 million people, meaning that a country with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of its prisoners. The Department of Justice recently reported that half the prisoners released this year are expected to be back inside by 2014. Perhaps the most disturbing fact is that this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons are so overcrowded that the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated. The high court ordered the state to release or transfer 32,000 people. This ruling is based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
These are the results after 40 years of funding and fighting Nixon’s war on drugs. The policies have been extended and exhausted by members of both political parties, particularly those who have worked in the White House. But no matter how much money is invested in the four-decade-long approach, it's impossible to say the United States is getting its money’s worth — especially when money is such sort supply.