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August 25, 2008 -- The Gazette (CO)

Editorial: Losing Endless War On Drugs

Decades Of Effort Yield Few Results

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In this campaign season, critics often hammer Sen. John McCain for his comment that he could see U.S. troops in Iraq for another 100 years. Although the senator meant the U.S. role in Iraq would be similar to our role in Germany and South Korea, not actively fighting insurgents, as the critics would have voters believe, the criticism scores points because the average American doesn't have much interest in fighting a seemingly endless war. Yet this country and others have been fighting a war for four decades with limited or no success, and there is no end in sight.

No less deadly than uniformed troops trading volleys with one another, the war on drugs has cost this country more than a trillion dollars so far, according to the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Web site, and that figure increases more than $65 billion each year. (LEAP is an organization of former and current law enforcement officers who have recognized the futility of the drug war.) And the government's attempt to curtail human nature is costing more than money. Every year, innocent people are killed, wounded or traumatized because of the war on drugs.

The problem is drug prohibition, not drugs. Those who support the drug war seem to fall into two main camps: those who believe drugs are bad (no argument here) and must be banned, and those who support the war simply because drugs are illegal. The latter concern can be solved by removing prohibition. Then drugs wouldn't be illegal. The former must be addressed with an appeal to freedom, if not economics.

Although in many people's minds the jury is still out on long-term harmful effects of marijuana, most people and the scientific evidence agree that hard drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine do a lot of damage to human bodies. But so does alcohol, and the nation learned decades ago that banning it didn't keep people from buying it; they simply changed suppliers, from the corner liquor store to Al Capone's organization. Government's proper role is to protect its citizens from each other, not the harmful effects of their own poor choices.

Bans do little to change people's desire for a substance, but bans do create black markets to meet that desire. Because of the risks involved in black markets, prices are higher to cover the overhead, such as increased security necessary to protect the operation and specialized equipment needed to smuggle contraband across borders. The prices result in higher profits as suppliers rake in the cash to offset the risks they take. High profits attract criminal elements, people who like high payoffs for little hard work. The violence that is part and parcel of the drug trade has little to do with drugs and everything to do with prohibition. And that's the problem from a public safety standpoint.

In an effort to curtail drug trafficking and corruption, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has stepped up efforts south of the border. More than 36,000 troops have been assigned to drug-war efforts in recent years. Predictably, that has led to violent clashes as drug traffickers fight to protect their profits.

In Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, drug violence has killed about 800 people this year. Ciudad Juarez has about four times the population of Colorado Springs. We've had 19 killings so far this year. At a similar rate, Colorado Springs would have seen roughly 80 homicides so far this year. It's difficult to believe that if drug war violence killed 80 of our friends and neighbors, Springs residents wouldn't be howling for change.

Not that all drug war violence takes place elsewhere. Drug raids in this country have had disastrous results for many innocent people. Acting on tips from often anonymous sources, anti-drug police teams have kicked in the doors of innocent homeowners, sometimes drawing gunfire from residents who believe their homes are being invaded. Some police officers and homeowners have been wounded in the ensuing gun battles. All for a mistake in an address.

The mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., had a SWAT team kick down his front door and shoot his two dogs when the team served a war-rant in an investigation of a drug ring that mailed packages of drugs to unsuspecting victims, then picked up the packages later. The raid was last month; he's still waiting for an apology for the way the raid was carried out.

Some drug prohibitionists argue that to end prohibition would be to admit defeat, would be throwing up our hands and giving our kids to the drug lords. Although the second point is simply overwrought, maybe it is time to admit that the drug war isn't working. After decades of trying to eradicate drugs from our society, they're still here, easier to buy and more powerful than ever. Prohibition has spawned drug cartels in other nations, undermining their governments, adding to corruption, and financing terrorism. In the U.S., inner-city gangs have grown more powerful, to the point where there are some areas police are hesitant to patrol.

There's likely not a community in this country that doesn't face problems associated with the drug war. After 40 years of expense and effort, the drug war has resulted in packed prisons, broken families and a loss of respect for police agencies. And still, many high-schoolers can tell you where to go to buy illegal drugs. Have we made any real headway toward solving the problem? It's time to rethink the policy of prohibition.

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