Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker that there are over six million citizens under judicial supervision in the United States. He notes that this is more people than were incarcerated in the Gulags at the height of Stalin’s reign in Russia. This means approximately 8 out of every 1000 Americans are either in jail or some other adjudicated living situation. Drug-ridden Mexico has only around 2 out of each 1000 citizens incarcerated. Evangelist Pat Robertson notes that in America we have 5% of the world’s population, but that of all the people jailed in the world, 25% of them are in US jails. We have 1/20 of the world’s overall population, but 1/4 of the world’s prisoners. Fareed Zakaria, of Time magazine, cites drug laws and the war on drugs as the cause of this dichotomy noting that approximately 50% of the prisoners in US prisons are there on drug related charges.
We can nearly all agree that the “War on Drugs” has failed, failed to the tune of around one trillion dollars since the “War on Drugs” began. It is failing, even as this is written, as new synthetic drugs are manufactured and sold to our teenagers by unscrupulous businesses that are changing the formulas constantly to stay ahead of drug laws. Everyone loves to be seen as “tough on drugs.” Politicians of all stripes do not touch the third rail of drug legalization or at least partial de-criminalization and hence we have what Cool Hand Luke would tell us is a “failure to communicate.” The results of this failure will be roughly the same as they were for Luke. New ideas are not tried primarily because we are too comfortable with the failure paradigm of “appearing to do something” or we are just plain fearful of any change. Significantly we must also realize that as mis-used or illegal drugs cause problems they also create jobs in almost all areas of our troubled economy in the government, private business and medicine.
Mr. Zafaria in Time writes that in California, in 2011, the financially troubled state spent 9.6 billion dollars on prisons vs. 5.7 billion on the UC university system. Each student cost the state $8,677 per year. Each prisoner cost the state $45,000 dollars a year. Perhaps in a true paradigm shift California should start sending at least some criminals to college instead of Folsom.
I have been a hard liner on drugs for many years. As a teacher in a high poverty school, I have seen firsthand the effects of drug use on students and families both directly and indirectly, but I am also a realist. What we are currently doing is not working and drug use is damaging almost all segments of our government and society. First it damages our society by requiring the unproductive ongoing expense of the war on drugs and the incarcerations that it produces. Second, nothing is gained by the war on drugs as it is not working. Third, it takes a class of people with either an addiction or incipient weakness, criminalizes that weakness or addiction and turns them into an underclass of criminals. There are also potential class and racial issues that are made evident when Hollywood stars advertise and proudly proclaim their drug use with impunity, while minority teenagers are suspended from school or charged with a felony for having traces of drugs anywhere in their possessions.
I don’t like the idea of legalization of marijuana or any other non-prescription drugs because, in fact, it truly is a dangerous path. It is dangerous not because of what the kids will do, but because of what the failures of their parents will allow them to do. I haven’t gone entirely over to the legalization side yet, but If Pat Robertson, whom I normally never agree with, can advocate legalization of marijuana then I have to think about it. There are possible benefits to decriminalization and control with little current downside. Right now, marijuana is in the same place that alcohol was at the end of prohibition, illegal but readily available almost everywhere from people who illicitly profit simply because of its illegality. I agree that marijuana may be a gateway drug to addiction, but in contrast to “may”, it is currently most certainly and unalterably a pathway to creating more criminals.
Somewhere in the political valley there is a middle ground where the legalization tribe and the war on drugs tribe can actually at least see each other. This time around, let’s try to elect someone who can find that valley of compromise and reconciliation instead of standing on the media mountaintop in a frozen posture, never looking each other in the eye, and finding time only for shouting at each other, not only on this issue but on others as well.