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June 24, 2008 -- Battle Creek Enquirer (MI)

OpEd: Drug War Needs Practical Approach

By Joseph Hepp

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The war against the sale and use of illegal drugs has received very little media attention during our current political campaigns -- probably because both parties feel that it is politically correct to oppose any form of legalization. It should be an issue because, in spite of the valiant efforts on the part of our law enforcement people, we are not winning this war! Besides not winning, it is costing taxpayers billions and billions of dollars for enforcement, not to mention increased crime.

The high demand for illegal drugs remains strong in America and since it is a highly profitable business, the drug dealers will continue to find ways to meet the demand. We read about big drug busts and about the confiscation of large amounts of illegal drugs but very little about the overall success of the war on drugs. In some ways the prohibition of illegal drugs has created an appeal -- you know the reaction of some people when a movie is banned.

There are similarities between the drug war and the prohibition of alcohol (1920-33) which was an action taken to reduce crime and corruption. Unfortunately, conditions actually got worse, more crime and corruption, along with lost tax revenue. Also many drinkers switched to drugs. I remember traveling to Oklahoma and Texas in the 1950s when you could easily buy alcohol "under the counter" but not legally, with some exceptions in Texas. Oklahoma voters repealed total prohibition in 1959 but there were still many restrictions and the situation differed county by county -- some were "dry" counties. The bootleggers opposed the repeal of prohibition for obvious reasons.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1998 estimated the cost of drug abuse to society to be $143.4 billion and the projected cost for the year 2000 at $160.7 billion. So you can guess at what current cost levels are. Drug abuse was defined as the consequences of using illicit drugs, as well as societal costs pertaining to the enforcement of drug laws (not including costs related to dependence upon alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications).

The estimated direct cost of the war on drugs is between $40 billion and $50 billion -- federal government $19 billion, state and local law enforcement $10 billion and $10-$20 billion to keep drug users in prison, with indirect costs being considerably higher.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimated the number of drug related arrests in 2004 as follows:

* For sales/manufacture of illegal drugs: 319,500.

* For possession of illegal drugs: 1,426,200

* Total: 1,745,700

Another source had an arrest figure for 2006 at 1,889,810 so it's probably safe to assume that the arrests were even greater in 2007.

Also, according to the Justice Department, in 2006, there were 7,211,400 people in the U.S. corrections system as follows:

a) 4,237,023 on probation

b) 798,202 on parole

c) 766,010 in local jails

d) 1,492,973 in state and federal prison

Over 93,000 inmates in federal prison were incarcerated for drug offenses while the state prisons held 249,400 inmates for drug offenses. In 2006, it was estimated that it cost state prisons $67.55 per day for each prisoner or a whopping $6,149,144,050 per year to support the 249,400 inmates incarcerated just for drug offenses.

The Mexican drug cartels are the main drug traffickers in the U.S. Since illegal drugs are a very profitable business, these cartels have become extremely vicious, powerful and dangerous -- so much so that the Mexican government is unable to put them out of business. More than 2,000 Mexicans died in drug-related gangland style killings in 2006. Due to the high profitability of illicit drugs many street gangs, prison gangs and outlaw motorcycle gangs have evolved into well-organized, profit-driven criminal organizations. Even the Islamic terrorists get much of their financial support from illegal drug dealing.

It is quite apparent that the only real solution to our drug problem is to eliminate the profitability of illegal drug dealing (or at least drastically reduce it) to make dealers disappear, and crime and corruption will quickly decline. It will require a new nonpolitical drug policy based upon facts and common sense.

Here are some ideas that have been put fourth (Think about them in view of the above):

* Transfer a large portion of funds used for interdiction to education and treatment programs and facilities, including a more effective program to discourage young people from using marijuana and other mind-altering drugs.

* Provide incentives for young people and adults to not use mind-altering drugs. (I believe nonsmokers receive better insurance rates.)

* Free up more drug enforcement people to concentrate on illegal immigration and terrorist threats.

* Legalize marijuana (drug of choice in the U.S.) on a limited basis -- - keep in mind that it is a mind-altering drug, as is alcohol.

* Release incarcerated, nonviolent drug users. Work them back into the mainstream of our society.

* Subject marijuana users to the same penalties applied to people under the influence of alcohol.

* Tax any authorized sale of marijuana.

The above represents a more practical approach for substantially improving the effectiveness of our drug war efforts!

Joseph T. Hepp of Battle Creek is a retired executive.

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