We need an armistice in the War on Drugs

Body Politic

Here’s a war

We’ll never win;

Cops aren’t good

At ending sin.

Repealing Prohibition was easy by comparison. Pressure from “nice” people who wanted to drink legally again was overwhelming. Plus the liquor racketeers were just getting too involved in everyday life. The moral revolution that had originally fueled the crusade against alcohol flagged, and life returned to normal.

The Drug War is different. It was cooked up by cynical politicians whosaid it was necessary to protect us. For those who wanted to revive Jim Crow it was also a godsend. Discriminatory enforcement put poor African-Americans in jail and kept that community on the defensive.

In time, as arrests mounted, another new constituency materialized: the prison lobby.

Profitable private prisons grew powerful. The swelling ranks of prison guards became the beneficiaries of lobbyists’ entreaties to legislatures to ensure that ever-tougher laws kept those drug arrests coming. As it happened, we turned out to be clever little devils and soon found drugs anyway, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes to ill effect, just as with alcohol. Some Americans, like so many from the rest of the world, still end up struggling with addiction. People are just people.

The difference is that Americans also have to support a Drug War. One analysis puts the cost at $52 billion a year. Plus we must care for millions of damaged citizens, not so much damaged by addiction as damaged by criminal records.

In 2009, for example, there were 800,000 arrests for simple marijuana possession. Then there are those other nations we have devastated with collateral damage, like Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan.

Identifying the accurate message is trickier. At the moment the front-runner seems to be that “prohibiting drugs is useful for harassing minorities and securing profits for the prison-industrial complex.”

If the media were to describe the Drug War in those terms there would be greater public understanding, but the press is too fearful, like politicians, of offending accepted conventional values.

Luckily, the national trend — slow as it is — seems to be shifting. For the moment at least, we’re headed toward softening the penalties on marijuana and letting patients use it, while also reducing the obscene punishments for possessing crack cocaine. Unfortunately, elections can alter that trend in a twinkling, either nationally or state by state.

Finally there’s that worst drug of all, heroin, which has no known political constituency. But its ravages can be treated and the risks of contracting AIDS and hepatitis reduced. Other nations and some localities in the United States have found success with clean needle exchanges. They can help reduce the crime rate and increase the chances that addicts will enroll in drug treatment programs. The Obama administration smartly ended a decades-long ban on using federal funds for these programs.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk.