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Thursday, July 15, 2004
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Local View: Ineffective, expensive drug war rages on

By Randall G. Shelden

We just passed the halfway point of 2004 and it is time for an update on the "war on drugs." Sad to say, it is still going strong. According to the website, we have spent more than $20 billion so far this year on this "war," putting us on a pace to surpass last's year's expenditure of $39 billion.

More than 800,000 people have been arrested for drug offenses so far (377,780 for marijuana), and if this pace continues, more than 1.5 million will have been arrested by the end of the year. Thus far, more than 120,000 people have been sent to prison for drug law violations, and if the trend continues, we will have sent 236,800 to prison for this "crime" by year's end.

The drug czar's "anti-drug" media campaign continues, especially with regard to marijuana. Apparently John Walters and company still adhere to the "reefer madness" nonsense that started back in the 1930s. In 2003, Walters' office wrote: "Marijuana is not a benign drug. Use impairs learning and judgment, and may lead to the development of mental health problems. Smoking marijuana can injure or destroy lung tissue. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more of some cancer-causing chemicals than does tobacco smoke."

Both of these statements are either outright lies or gross distortions. There is no scientific evidence that marijuana leads to serious mental health problems, although there are people with mental health problems who may use drugs (and drug use is merely a symptom rather than a cause). Besides, alcohol is far worse and there is no prohibition against it. As for injuring lung tissue, to begin with, "moderate use" is defined as 15 to 24 grams of tobacco per day, and very few pot smokers use more than a gram or two; hence smoking cigarettes is far more damaging. In fact, while no one has recently died from too much pot smoking, about 450,000 die each year from illnesses caused by tobacco. Too bad marijuana growers don't have a lobby to give money to politicians like the tobacco and liquor industries do.

Walters and company also claim that marijuana can be addictive, citing as evidence the fact that "more teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined." This is extremely misleading, for most kids ordered into treatment by juvenile court judges have accepted this as a plea bargain to avoid harsher punishments. Few, if any, are "addicted" to pot. If anything, they are more likely to have problems with alcohol dependence.

A study at Johns Hopkins University found that of 1,318 subjects covering a 15-year period, there were "no significant differences in cognitive decline between heavy users, light users and nonusers of cannabis." The report concludes that: "These results...seem to provide strong evidence of the absence of a long-term residual effect of cannabis use on cognition."

The problems associated with illegal drug use stem more from the fact that they are illegal than from the harmful properties of the drugs themselves. Take police corruption, for instance. According to a 1998 GAO report on this issue, many police officers in several cities (e.g., Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C) have engaged in serious criminal activities, such as 1) conducting unconstitutional searches and seizures, 2) stealing money and/or drugs from drug dealers, 3) selling stolen drugs, 4) protecting drug operations, 5) providing false testimony and 6) submitting false crime reports.

The federal government continues to spend the bulk of drug war money on "supply reduction." Of about $18.8 billion spent in 2002, two-thirds was directed to supply reduction (law enforcement), with the remainder going toward treatment, prevention and education. Despite these efforts, the trade in illegal drugs continues to be one of the most profitable ventures in the world--an estimated $400 billion industry, according to a United Nations report. A study by Abt Associates in 2001 found that the cost of heroin at the retail level has been declining, dropping from about $3,295 per gram in 1981 to $2,088 per gram in 2000; at the wholesale level, these figures went from $865 to $112. Another U.N. report noted that during the past decade inflation-adjusted prices in Western Europe fell by 45 percent for cocaine and 60 percent for heroin; in the U.S. there was a 50 percent drop in cocaine prices and a 70 percent drop in heroin prices.

Nothing succeeds like failure. The main beneficiaries of the drug war are the "drug warriors" themselves. In addition to good salaries and benefits, there are several million dollars in forfeitures going into the deep pockets of the law enforcement industry.

Randall G. Shelden is a criminal justice professor at UNLV. A longer version of this commentary can be found on his website:

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