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November 20, 2008 -- Santa Ynez Valley Journal (CA)

OpEd: It's Time To Revisit War On Drugs

By Harris Sherline, Contributing Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Albert Einstein is credited with making the observation that "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

That's what the government appears to be doing with the War on Drugs as the nation's drug problem worsens. The war was launched by U.S. President Nixon in 1971, and after 37 years of increasingly draconian punishment and confiscatory laws, we don't seem to be any closer to winning. If anything, the problem has gotten worse, much worse.

The Drug War Clock ( notes the following facts:

The U.S. federal government spent more than $19 billion dollars in 2003 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $600 per second . State and local governments spent at least another $30 billion.

Arrests for drug violations in 2008 are expected to exceed the 1,889,810 arrests of 2006. Law enforcement made more arrests for drug law violations in 2006 (13.1 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense.

Police arrested an estimated 829,625 persons for cannabis violations in 2006, the highest annual total ever recorded in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of those charged with cannabis violations, approximately 89 percent, 738,915 Americans were charged with possession only. An American is now arrested for violating cannabis laws every 38 seconds.

Since Dec. 31, 1995, the U.S. prison population has grown an average of 43,266 inmates per year. About 25 percent are sentenced for drug law violations.

Nearly 4,000 new HIV infections can be prevented before the year 2009 if the federal ban on needle exchange funding is lifted this year.

Property has often been confiscated and sold even though the owner was not involved in any way. They did not even have to be accused or charged with a crime. The police have been able to go to court and, without a trial, obtain a court order to confiscate and sell the property of someone who was suspected of a drug crime. The mere fact that the property was allegedly involved in some way has been sufficient.

The theory that makes forfeiture possible is based on a technicality in the law that allows the government to claim that it is suing only the item of property, not the property's owner.

Congressman Henry Hyde noted in June 1993 that "eighty percent of the people whose property (was) seized by the federal government under drug laws (were) never formally charged with any crime." Research literature on the subject is replete with examples of American citizens whose property has been confiscated and sold by law enforcement officials at every level of government, federal, state and local, often without having been convicted of any crime, and between 1980 and 1985, incarceration for drug-law violations in the U.S. grew tenfold.

Dealing with America's drug problem is complicated, involving such considerations as mandatory sentencing laws that incarcerate people for many years for nothing more than "possession" to dealing with those who abuse destructive drugs, such as cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, methamphetamines or morphine.

After the British relaxed the penalties for the possession of cannabis in January 2004, within three years the use of marijuana dropped to a 10-year low.

One of the consequences of keeping drugs illegal has been an increase in illegal production and distribution around the world, from the opium growers and processors in Afghanistan to the drug warlords in Mexico and Latin America, who corrupt governments and authorities, as happened in Columbia.

Perhaps it's time to recognize that what we have been doing hasn't worked and consider a new approach. People go ballistic when the idea of making drugs legal and taxing the products is broached, but it may have merit.

I know there are arguments that drug use is a slippery slope and opening the door will lead to using the really bad stuff, but why not give it a try?

At least the tax dollars generated could be used to treat users and pay the cost of policing, to say nothing of huge savings in the costs of incarcerating thousands of people whose only crime was simple possession.

Furthermore, we could change the U.S. farming industry in a major way by allowing farmers to grow and sell hemp, which our drug laws currently prevent because of the mistaken belief that it contains an ingredient that can be readily used as cannabis.

Alcohol use remains legal, in spite of the fact that abusing it often results in injury or death. It's generally recognized as a health problem and treated accordingly. So, why not do the same with drugs?

But, that's just my opinion.

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